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Nerves of Steel: A brief history of some of Sheffield's most challenging times

How our resilient city has endured.

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At the beginning of May, the coronavirus death toll in South Yorkshire hit 500. This is a grim milestone for the region, but it's really important to remember that hard times like these do pass.

This isn't the first time the Steel City and its surrounding areas have faced difficult times, so it seems now might be a great opportunity to remind ourselves of what this resilient city has already endured and overcome.

The Cholera Outbreak

This isn't the first time Sheffield has faced the threat of disease.

In 1832, the second international cholera pandemic reached British shores. Echoing the situation we find ourselves in now, the pandemic had been making its way across Europe for some time. Some people chose to ignore this for economic reasons, not wanting trade to be interrupted unless absolutely necessary, and as a result cholera claimed 55,000 lives across the country and over 400 in Sheffield.

A memorial was erected in 1835 to remember those who died and it still stands on the hillside near Clay Wood, above the train station.

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The Great Sheffield Flood

While Sheffield's hills are great for our calves, they're not so great to live on during bad weather. Over the last ecade, we've become accustomed to the city's tendency to flood and for most of us heavy rain in June 2007 brought the city's worst flooding in living memory.

But Sheffield's Great Flood of 1864 was far more devastating, killing 244 people and damaging or destroying over 600 homes. Unlike more recent floods, this one was caused not by heavy rain, but by a crack in the embankment of the Dale Dyke Dam.

Construction of the dam had begun in 1859 to supply water to the industrialising city's ever-growing population. On completion in 1864, its reservoir was being filled for the first time when the dam broke, causing a flash flood which devastated large parts of the city, including Hillsborough, Attercliffe and the densely populated Wicker.

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The Sheffield Outrages

A lesser-known but equally dark chapter in Sheffield's history came at the height of its industrial expansion.

As the steel industry expanded, trade unions began to form and lobby for improved pay and working conditions. The Chartist Movement existed between 1838 and 1857 and had primarily sought suffrage and parliamentary representation for working men, but they also advocated for economic causes such as opposition to wage cuts and unemployment. Following the failure of the Chartists, and with working conditions showing little sign of improving, a group of radical trade unionists began taking militant action against their employers and workers who refused to join trade unions.

Examples of militant action can be seen throughout the 1840s and 1850s. The violence peaked in 1866-67, leading to events which became known collectively as the Sheffield Outrages. The Outrages resulted in a number of fatalities as some people were assaulted, some murdered and others caught up in a number of gunpowder explosions. With the threat of further revolts across the country, the Reform Act was introduced in 1867, doubling the number of men eligible to vote overnight.

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The Smallpox Epidemic

Between 1887 and 1888, the north of England faced a severe Smallpox outbreak, of which Sheffield became the epicentre.

Over the course of a year, despite 98% of the population claiming to have been vaccinated, 6,000 people caught smallpox and for 600 it proved fatal. News articles from the time show striking similarities between the smallpox epidemic and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with an emergency temporary hospital opening in Lodge Moor in February 1888 and measures taken to stop the spread of the infection with the closure of the Sheffield Free Library and four railway companies stopping excursions to Sheffield.

It also lead to the Infectious Diseases Notification Act, which was passed to allow a quicker and more effective response to future epidemics.

World War One

1916 brought the worst of the First World War for Sheffield.

The Battle of the Somme took place in July that year and was one of the longest and deadliest campaigns of the war, leading to many casualties for every regiment and battalion involved, including the Sheffield Pals.

Over the course of two days, nearly 600 men were killed or injured from the Sheffield Pals Batallion, with most dying on the first morning as wave after wave of men stepped out into No Man's Land.

Then, in September 1916, the city faced attack from a German zeppelin, which dropped 36 bombs in a line between Burngreave and Darnall, killing 28 people, injuring 19 and damaging nearly 300 homes. Following the raid, the city's defences against such attacks were criticised. While the bombing succeeded in spreading fear amongst the population, it failed to disrupt any of the city's key industries that were supporting the war effort.

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World War Two

The Sheffield Blitz was undoubtedly the most difficult part of a long five years for the city.

During the Second World War, Sheffield was vital in the manufacturing of armaments for the war effort, something the Nazis were well aware of. The Sheffield Blitz took place over four days in December 1940, during which over 600 people died, 1,500 were injured and 70,000 homes were either damaged or destroyed.

When the war ended, the intended targets for those attacks were revealed and included a variety of key manufacturers such as Tinsley Park Collieries, Atlas Steelworks and Meadowhall Iron Works.

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