Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

Registered UK Charity (No. 115342)

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Ambrose Shardlow and Co: by David Price

From Graces Guide

Note: This is a sub-section of Ambrose Shardlow and Co


As children we went to bed and awoke to the sound of Shardlow’s hammers, thump, thump, thump – pause – thump, thump, throughout the day and night. In fact there was some comfort in hearing the hammers, certainly during the war when the Luftwaffe were trying to bomb our industry to oblivion. They never really found the industrial heart of Sheffield although the City centre was badly hit in December 1940.

So, what were these hammers? Certainly not the things used for driving nails. These were industrial hammers used to forge billets of metal into components for engines and armaments. In particular, Ambrose Shardlow made one piece drop forged crankshafts for engines some of which were 12 feet long.

Industrial hammers have been around since the Middle Ages, first driven by water and then by steam power. The monster that John Henry was in charge of stood 40 feet tall and went 20 feet below the forge floor. It could forge a massive crank shaft in three blows. Capable of pounding down with 20,000 pounds of pressure. The red hot metal billet was placed in the dies, (the dies were the reversed finished shape of the product) the hammer then came up from the bottom and down from the top, crushing the billet of red hot steel between the dies to forge it to the required shape. The component was then removed from the dies and left to cool for three or four days before being sent for finishing.

Shardlow’s had 21 production hammers and a small one that was used by their own engineers. Until the war, superstition prevented there being a number 13. When we were fighting at Dunkirk there was a German hammer crated up on the dockside, its destination was unknown. The then Ministry of Supply ordered Shardlow’s to install it and it was in use as number 13 until they closed the forge in the 1980’s.

In 1965 John Henry took me to see his hammer, number 18, which I believe he called a Becky, the forge was dark and cavernous, there was a smell of burning oil and the heat was the like of opening a hot oven door. The working conditions were dire; the devils kitchen would be an apt description. We were met by the Forge Manager, a short muscular man in a bowler hat; quite strange at a time when the bowler had all but disappeared from every day life. We were greeted in a strong Yorkshire accent by “Aw do Jack, anuver one of thy lads looking for a job?” No thanks!

John Henry was a Drop Stamper all his working life, first with English Steel and then with Shardlow’s, 50 years in this environment had made him very deaf, at various times he had had nearly all his toes broken but at the age of 65 he was as strong as an ox. He was proud of his trade and always spoke well of Shardlow’s as an employer. Around 1970 we took a holiday together on The Channel Islands and we visited a museum. In the yard was part of an aero engine that had been dredged from the sea bed by local fisherman. A small notice said “Engine thought to be from a Dornier bomber”. Its crankshaft was exposed and John said “Rubbish, it’s got an N27A crank and it was made from EN 57J steel in 1939 and it came from a Rolls Royce Merlin engine, I stamped thousands of “em” I was so proud that I could not wait to find the Curator.

When John Henry retired it was a period of great industrial change, as a world class centre Sheffield was feeling the commercial pressure of Eastern Europe and Japan. Shardlow’s were first taken over by GKN who moved the foundry to Lincoln (and Jacks beloved Becky). In the late 90’s what was left was taken over by an Italian Company. I believe that Jacks “Becky” may still be in use in the USA. (Information from www.Sheffield Forum).

A brief history of Ambrose Shardlow

The data is taken from a National Archive historical document in the trust of The Kelham Island Industrial Museum Sheffield and produced under licence from them.

The original document was written in 1949 by the Sheffield Telegraph as part of a series of articles on “How Sheffield Built her Industries”

The early years, from the 1949 article.

Shardlow’s is a factory in a garden, set on the outskirts of industrial Sheffield it is surrounded by trees and even has a lily pond and lawns, it is such a striking contrast to other industrial companies that it is an example to follow. The bowling green with its seats is popular with its workers; its flower beds full of plants grown in our own greenhouses. However the story of the firm’s beginnings was very different. The original premises were in Bridge Street Attercliffe, opened by Ambrose Shardlow in 1869. Their work was general engineering and millwright and repairs to plant. Mr Shardlow was educated at Nottingham Academy and later served his time at James Oaks of Pye Bridge and afterwards with Manlove and Elliott of Nottingham. He was an inventive man and in 1885 developed a file cutting machine which was produced by the company in six sizes and manufactured by them and sold in the UK and abroad. He also manufactured a machine for producing saws. He produced a bright drawing machine which was thought to be the first of its kind and even ventured into the making of steam and gas engines. It should be remembered that at this time we lacked engineering standards, drawings were poor and much fell to the engineer to make things fit together through his skill rather than the design and quality control of a later era.

Mr. A. T. Shardlow, the present Chairman (1948) joined the Company in 1894 when there were 47 employees. About this time they purchased property in Washford Road Sheffield and this was to be the site of their Head Office for the next 40 years. The company continued to support local firms with plant repairs and general machining. They produced such things as railway crossings, valves and crankshafts for marine engines.

The methods used to produce crankshafts bears little relationship to today’s methods. They started as slabs of steel with the waste being turned and ground away before a final lapping to the finished dimensions.

Pre First World War

In 1905 an American Company, The Landis Machine Tool Company exported to the UK a crankpin grinding machine and one was purchased by Shardlow’s. In 1907 two more were bought. This was a turning point for the company and they decided to specialise in this field and started taking orders from the motor industry for crankshafts. However they still continued to produce gas engines until 1912. At this time the Government was demanding increased production of crankshafts.

In 1916 the demands were such that the company purchased more land for a new factory in Grange Mill Lane Meadowhall. (This was to be its main factory until the company’s break up) Three heavy drop stamp hammers were installed together with heat treatment and all the equipment necessary for forging.

By 1920 the firm had expanded and became a Public Limited Company but the depression was looming. Shardlow’s were fortunate in that they had won a contract to provide the whole of Ford UK’s requirements. Shardlow’s was expanding at a time when most were contracting. The following years saw a revival in the fortunes of the motor industry and Shardlow’s prospered.

In 1930 the drop forging and machining capabilities were doubled and doubled again in 1933. At this time the whole of the manufacturing was transferred from Washford Road to Meadowhall.

New Production Methods

During the period between the wars Shardlow’s were at the forefront of new production methods. Prior to this time crankshafts were case hardened by placing them in steel boxes packed with high carbon materials and heated in a furnace. This hardened the whole job not just the working surfaces. This new method of hardening was called “Tocco Induction Hardening” it was carried out under licence from the USA. A high frequency current is passed through the area to be hardened and the induced area is then rapidly cooled. With this method a 1/8th thick hardened skin was created and the process took minutes compared with days for the old case hardening method.

World War II

1939 saw another expansion of both the Forge and the Machine shop. A much larger hammer was installed [It went in as number 18 and was John Henry’s beloved Bechy]. This monster could forge with a pressure of 20,000 pounds. Prior to this the hammers were steam driven but this one was hydraulic. A new department was created for “nitriding” – the special hardening of crankshafts for the Rolls Royce Merlin and Napier Sabre engines. Throughout the war Shardlow’s were the only producer of crankshafts for airplanes and military vehicles. There were regular attempts by the Germans to find Shardlow’s, the nearest bomb coming down in Woolley Woods about a mile away. During this period the plant ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The employees working 12 hour on/off shifts]. The factory suffered no war damage although the old Washford Road premises were flattened.

Post War Shardlow’s

After the war Shardlow’s continued to develop the production machinery and maintained their position as the countries leading crank maker. They were proud of their industrial relations and health care. In 1949 Mr Arthur Thomas Shardlow had done 55 years service, a number of employees had completed more than 50 years unbroken service.

In the period 1950-1960 Shardlow’s continued to thrive and employed around 2,200 staff. They produced crankshafts for English Electric; Rolls Royce; Dorman: Napier and Paxman engines which were fitted to many military vehicles and ships.

At some point in the 1960’s Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds obtained a 49% share in the company. This together with their other forging interests led to the Monopolies Commission who was part of the Board of Trade (1967) to investigate whether such a vital part of British industry should be under singleton control. This was allowed and was the turning point in Shardlow’s fortunes. Different working practices were introduced, the influence of the Shardlow dynasty diminished. Industrial action by the workers, which was unheard of in Mr Ambrose’s days became commonplace.

The forge was closed in the late 1970’s and the heavy machinery moved to GKN at Lincoln.

What was left of the Shardlow’s Meadow Hall plant is now in the hands of an Italian Company, Bifrangi who employ around 200 people in the production of motor vehicle components.

Let’s get a bit more technical.

It was normal for the customer to define the material used for the cranks. Shardlow’s bought in billets of material direct from the rolling mills of Sheffield and Scunthorpe. In some cases specialist steels were imported from the USA and Japan. Some engines used cast iron, some low carbon steel cranks. The most common material was a vanadium alloyed high carbon steel. Most of the materials required some form of further heat treatment either on the whole shaft on specific bearing and wearing surfaces. Occasionally the specification was for non-magnetic steel (like the cranks used in minesweeper engines), these were a form of alloyed stainless steel and were very difficult to forge.

The Forge Lads c1932

The forge itself was what most peoples vision of Hell would be. A high roof; dark, hot and incredibly dirty and smelly. The hammers were arranged in groups each with their own access to the furnace for heating up the billets. They had pet names like “the circus” and “the carousel”

Shardlow’s manufactured its own dies in what was known as “The Die Shop” These were complex to set out and make and required very skilled engineers. The stresses on the dies were enormous and cracks frequently occurred in them. When this occurred they were drilled and milled and stitched back together using specialised welding process.

The hot drop stamping process started with the billets being brought to heat in the furnace (the workers referred to it as the fire) the billets were then dragged from the fire and “slung” into the dies. This was a very skilled job; a wrongly positioned billet was a “waster” because once its basic shape was established it could not be changed. The Stamper then initiated the stamp, on the bigger hammers the bottom bed rose up and the top die crashed down. While this was happening the “second man” who was at the back of the hammer threw into the dies a handful of wet sawdust. As the dies came together the sawdust created an explosion which forced the metal into the inner corners of the dies. A sheet of flame came out of the back and front of the hammer.

At this point in the process the crankshaft still had a flat profile. The Stamper knew his materials and judged whether the blank needed to go back into the fire before the next “drop”. If so this job was put back into the fire and another billet brought out and the process repeated. If the blank was still hot enough the next process was to clip off the scrap using special tools in the hammer. Once the shaft was forged to the basic shape it was re-heated and forced into a set of dies that put on the twists and then a further process to straighten it. The cooling process could take up to two days before the cranks were moved to the machine shop.

Mention was made earlier of some special non-magnetic cranks for minesweepers. These posed a particular problem because the material could be overheated in the fire, it also cooled quickly, but if it was cooled too fast it filled with cracks. They were stamped on number 18 the biggest hammer at Shardlow’s because they were more than 10 feet long. Beside the hammers, coffers were built in fire brick and filled with vermiculite. As soon as the job came out of the hammer it was quickly placed in the coffer and the vermiculite was shovelled over the top of it. These turned out to be and expensive job because every one had to be heated three of four times, waste was high and if that wasn’t enough the pressure needed to form them caused a misalignment of the guides on the hammer and it had to be stripped and re-built.

Given the complex shape of a crankshaft it is easy to realise the complexity of the machining. Shardlow’s had invested heavily in the latest machinery since they moved into mass production around 1905. This continued throughout the history of the Company. They designed and made much of their own specialist equipment. Training of its engineers was fundamental to the Company ethos under the Shardlow banner. The machine shop was well organised and the operation traded on its quality. They were turned and then ground to precise dimension. Oil ways were drilled using long “gun barrel” drills.

The final process was to harden, heat treat, then to polish the bearing surfaces. The treatment depended upon the material. During the war Shardlow’s built a nitriding shop to support the requirements of the War Office. The cranks were heated and placed in a chamber which was filled with Ammonia gas; the nitrogen from the gas is absorbed into the steel and forms an iron nitrate skin which is extremely hard.

Induction hardening is an electronic process where the surface is rapidly heated and then cooled. This causes a change in the composition of the molecular structure in particular to steels with carbon content. Induction hardening must be carefully controlled as it can lead to distortion of the product. Finally the journals and bearing surfaces were polished.

Summary Shardlows was a highly specialised Company that traded on the quality of its products, it never compromised on its ideals. The late 1960’s and 70’s were a period of industrial change. Big was beautiful, the family run company found it hard to survive the pressures of the conglomerates. Government did not help, public inquiries were a charade: accountants who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing drove the thinking. The result was the start of the dismantling process of British industry, It would take another 30 years but here we are in 2009 a nation of Malls and shop keepers.

D. R. Price – March 2009


  • Board of Trade Report – 1967
  • National Archives – Sheffield Industrial Museum – Kelham Island

See Also


Sources of Information