Through December and January I was lucky enough to participate in the excavation of steel works and 18th century housing at Bailey Lane, Sheffield. The project has encompassed all of our excavation methods (evaluation trenching, watching brief and mitigation; there was even a UAV survey for good measure). The excavation was prior to development by Watkin Jones Group.

Bailey Lane runs off Broad Lane in the north of Sheffield city centre. This area, just south of the Furnace Hill conservation area, is renowned for its role in Sheffield’s steel-making past. The site itself is within view of Hollis Croft where Wessex Archaeology (including myself) found several cementation furnaces for the same client.

We identified two distinct phases of development of the site. Firstly we found 19th century steel working buildings including a large crucible furnace. Secondly we found several terraced houses built on the site during the 18th century.

Within the 19th century phase, the crucible furnaces were certainly our star find. Crucible furnaces used intense heat to quickly transform ‘blister steel’ (the product of cementation furnaces, a low quality steel) into a steel we would recognize today. The furnace we located had spaces for 12 crucibles, and included remains of a deep air cellar, and ‘teeming pits’ (the pits where steel was poured into ingots and allowed to set).

A crucible furnace at the Bailey Lane site, Sheffield A crucible melting hole in the crucible furnace at the Bailey Lane site, Sheffield

The furnace was a type known as a ‘huntsman’ furnace after its inventor Benjamin Huntsman. Huntsman was a clockmaker based in Attercliffe barely a mile from our site. He was frustrated by the poor quality of blister steel, so invented a process to purify it. This process of melting blister steel soon took off and many competitors, such as our works, sprung up in Sheffield.

Alongside the furnace several flues, bases for large machines, and basements were located. These are starting to give us an idea of how the works operated. One cellar within the south end of our mitigation area had reused a spiral staircase of the earlier 18th century buildings.

This earlier phase was seen across the site, with boundary walls seen under pavements to both the west and east of the site, as well as underneath the 19th century archaeology in our mitigation area. Luckily in the south of our mitigation area a small part of the basements was preserved, revealing beautiful staircases and stone walls, under a later flagstone surface. On top of one of these staircases, a clay pipe bowl with a masonic compass and square and all-seeing eye was recovered, perhaps suggesting freemasonry of the owners or those who demolished the house.

A clay pip featuring masonic designs of the compass and square and the all-seeing eye excavated at Bailey Lane

Another intriguing discovery was the extent of terracing on site. The site lies on a steep natural hill, facing north toward the River Don and Hollis Croft. We discovered through a stepped excavation in the south west corner that the natural geology was a staggering 3.5 meters below modern ground level, and over 5 meters deep in excavations in the north of the site.  This demonstrates the amazing effort the peoples of the past went to, to make the land buildable.

By Otis Gilbert, Fieldwork Archaeologist