I REMEMBER these kind of walls from an early age and always wondered why the curiously burnt coping stones were different to the rest of the wall. Recently I found out that these burnt stones are a link to Sheffield’s steel making past.
They were the clay fill used to seal the access of bottle kilns while the blister steel process was in operation. There is a complete bottle kiln in Doncaster Street, the only one of its type to survive intact in the UK. It was built in 1848 and was still working in 1951.
To make blister steel, layers of iron and charcoal were packed into the kiln then it was fired. The process lasted up to 10 days plus several more for it to cool.
Several such kilns were dotted around Sheffield and clay that sealed them was tossed aside as a by-product. Someone had the bright idea to use the burnt clay as a topping for walls which can be seen throughout the city. On a stone in Charlotte Road you can see the imprint of a man’s hands in what was originally soft clay.
There are two derelict kilns on Bower Spring, just off West Bar but these are in a sad state. I will never understand why Sheffield ignores its historic sites, yet other cities treat them as hallowed ground and make sure they are restored.
The Doncaster Street kiln was owned by Daniel Doncaster, hence the street’s name. When the kiln was being fired, flames shot out and because of the duration of the process you couldn’t just stop it in five minutes so, during World War 2, a steel cover was fitted which could be lowered and hide the glow from German bombers. It must have been an impressive sight to see these massive furnaces.
It’s time a plaque was erected commemorating the men, women and children who worked in dire conditions to make this city what it is today. They’re the real heroes of Steel City.