After ‘The Arsenal of the World’: the Sheffield Armaments Industry 1930-1945

From the mid-1890s to the end of the Great War, the small group of companies which comprised the Sheffield Armaments Industry developed a reputation the world over for their technological prowess and productive capacity in both armour plate and armour piercing projectiles. The five companies involved boasted customers as far East as Japan, and the US Army and Navy in the West with many others in between, including principally supplying the British Navy. This profile had by 1918 earned Sheffield the title of ‘Arsenal of the World’ in contemporary publications. As the 1920s progressed, technological advancements slowed and both home and overseas markets disappeared for the Sheffield Armaments Industry. By 1930, merger movements reduced the companies in the Industry to just three: English Steel, Firth-Brown and Hadfields, all of which continued armaments production in some form, the first two sharing British armour plate capacity with Beardmore of Glasgow, the latter two comprising the entire productive capacity for armour-piercing projectiles in the country from the 1920s. Through a series of agreements with the British Government, these companies received subsidies for the maintenance of plant throughout the 1930s, along with low orders. Nevertheless, they struggled to cope with demands from 1936 with rearmament and 1939 with the onset of War, while also expanding production for newer armaments products in tank and aircraft semi-finished goods. The core of the analysis takes Edgerton’s notion of Britain as a ‘First-class warfare state’ from 1920 to 1970 and considers the extent to which this can be substantiated in the Sheffield Armaments Industry, with its focus on heavy steel production aligned with the demands of the Royal Navy since the 1890s. It also considers the extent to which the notion of a warfare state from the 1920s is more aligned with emerging, rather than aging, military technologies.