The Life and Times of Mark Firth

There have been many prominent Sheffield folk over the past few centuries who have grafted their way from the murky factory floors of the city’s east end and the Little Mesters workshops of Kelham Island and the Sheaf Valley, to earn a small fortune and a handsome Victorian mansion on Sheffield’s west side. Mark Firth, in that regard, wasn’t significantly different from others before or after him. He built his wealth through hard work, family ties and a collective acquired knowledge of the booming Sheffield steel industry. True, he would build a company that surpassed most in terms of wealth but what set Firth apart was his philanthropy and his desire to improve the city that gave him his success.

Mark Firth was born in Sheffield in 1819 to Thomas Firth and Mary Loxley. The eldest of ten children, he was born in to a steel family. His father was head smelter at Sanderson Brothers & Co., the company that gave Mark his first job as a clerk fresh out of school, and he was shortly followed in to the trade by Thomas and John, his two younger brothers. In 1842, after amassing nine years of engineering expertise at Sanderson’s, Mark and Thomas started their own smelting workshop at the Portobello Works on Charlotte Street; they were swiftly joined by their father and Thomas Firth & Sons was born. Mark’s chief role was that of sales, tasked in filling the family company’s order book. They soon outgrew their humble beginnings on Charlotte Street and leased 15 acres of land on Saville Street from the Duke of Norfolk, the city’s largest land owner, upon which they built the Norfolk Works. Although this was a joyous occasion for the family as it marked the start of what was to become one of the largest, most prestigious steel works in the world at the time, they were also struck by personal tragedy as their father died less than a year later. As eldest son, Mark stepped up to the plate. The Norfolk Works were complemented by further factory openings, one on Clay Wheels Lane in Wadsley Bridge, and two further afield; one in Whittington, Derbyshire, and one in Birmingham. They honed in on the armaments industry, specializing in the casting of shot and heavy forgings. They focused on gun blocks and were employed by the British Government to equip the navy’s fleet with the like. At up to 81 tons, these were the largest ever to be produced in a single casting. Visitors to the Woolwich Arsenal in London can still see the immense guns, stamped ‘Firth’. They also supplied steel for shells and rifles, produced large marine castings and engines and from their Birmingham base and dealt in small arms. Mark Firth had become a world renowned gun maker and was said to have furnished the entire British Navy with gun tubes during the mid-nineteenth century, along with a significant proportion of the French too. The Firth family business kept Mark occupied until his death in 1880 when he suffered a stroke whilst at the Norfolk Works. The company would eventually merge with John Brown & Co. in 1930 to form Firth Browns, a predecessor to what is now Sheffield Forgemasters International Limited.

Mark Firth may already appear to be a little extraordinary based on his accomplishments as a man of steel, especially considering that he lived in a city where everyone was striving to succeed in the same trade. He rose above the rest, supplied the country’s government with armaments and basically fortified our sea borders. But away from the grime and smog of Attercliffe, Mark Firth also proved to be a man of Sheffield and its people and gave to the city more than probably any other businessman before or since. He was also a family man and was married twice, first to Sarah Taylor in 1841, and secondly to Caroline Bradley in 1857, two years after Sarah had passed away. He fathered five sons and four daughters, the eldest son being John Bradley Firth, who inherited the majority of his company upon his death. His personal achievements are also noteworthy. Firth became Master Cutler, a position endowed by the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire, in 1867, 1868 and 1869, a prestigious accolade that was given to the city’s leading engineering mind. This was shortly followed by the official mayoral post for Sheffield which he held in 1874 as a Liberal. Although he was never the president, he was also one of the founding members of the Iron & Steel Institute, a British organization that propelled the modernization of engineering processes.

Mark Firth does not receive the same kudos as that which Henry Bessemer or Harry Brearley, the inventor of stainless steel, purveys. If you knew little to nothing about him prior to reading this then you could be forgiven, although you will unknowingly have come across his name many times. If you take a walk around the city you begin to realize the lasting legacy that Mark Firth has left. His modest (by his standards) home on Wilkinson Street was vacated in 1855 when he purchased 26 acres of land in Ranmoor and built Oakbrook House. This mansion, built in the Italianate style and incorporating a bell tower, is now grade II listed. When Caroline died in 1894 it was auctioned and bought by William Samuel Laycock, another Sheffielder who went in to business with his father, who lived there until his passing in 1916. It was then used as a military hospital during The Great War before becoming part of Notre Dame High School. He was also a devout Methodist and gave grants to many of the city’s churches, as well as funding the building of Hangingwater almshouses on Nethergreen Road. Although the original homes are long gone they have been replaced by newer homes for the elderly and still carry his family name. His wealth allowed him to purchase land on the hills north of the Don Valley, above his Norfolk Works and the chimneys that perforated the low lying smoke that clogged the river’s flood plain. This estate, a whole 36 acre plot, was subsequently gifted to the city in 1875 and would become known as Firth Park. Today, not only the park but the entire area bears his name. If you take a wander down in to Attercliffe you will still be able to see the remnants of his mighty Norfolk Works empire, now occupied by Gripple and their huge metallic spider. The West Gun Shop where the gun blocks were produced flanks Savile Street East and Carwood Road, and the archway to their Siemens department stands just down the road. A must see in the Mark Firth tour of Sheffield has to be his grave in Sheffield General Cemetery, the final resting place of many of the city’s prominent figures. It was laid out in 1836 and until its closure in 1979 had seen more than 77,000 burials. Mark Firth’s grave takes a prominent position on a small plot at the confluence of two paths and is made of sandstone and granite. His obituary indicates that his funeral was the largest ever seen in Sheffield and attracted the attention of all in the city. All his associates were present and representatives of the associations in the city attended. Shops closed, people lined the streets as his procession traveled past and 700 of his employees were present amongst the mourners to pay their respects. His grave, his very own monument, is grade II listed. 

Perhaps his most significant gift to the contemporary township of Sheffield was Firth College on the junction of West Street and Leopold Street. He had be inspired not just by his workers but the city’s know-how and engineering excellence, its ability to forge and cast bigger and better products and overcome boundaries. He wanted to inspire the future generation of steel makers. Not only this, he wanted to give both men and women of the city equal opportunities at a higher education, not solely in the engineering sector but in any subject offered by various educational establishments across the country. Mark Firth built Firth College using his own fortune, creating an establishment with a lecture hall and classrooms. The red ribbon was cut in 1879 by Prince Leopold, the youngest son of Queen Victoria. Within 25 years Firth College would merge with the Technical School and Medical School and under a Royal Charter, would become the University of Sheffield which was opened by King Edward VII in 1905, and to this day, continues to lead the way in engineering. As a fitting tribute, the main university building on Western Bank, clad in ivy with a crenelated, fortified persona, is named after the man himself, Firth Court.

Mark Firth continues to live on in the buildings that bear his name, in Firth Park, in the employees of Gripple and Forgemasters, and the students of the University of Sheffield. He built his own manufacturing empire but also gave back to city that made him, leaving a legacy that still inspires more than 140 years later.  

Rich (Heritage Sheffield)

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