Davy Brothers of Sheffield
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Born in Keighley, David, Dennis and Joseph Davy began as millwrights. They set up a business at Lady’s Bridge in Sheffield in 1830. The dream was to make steam engines and in 1840 they built the first railway locomotive in Sheffield – the first train service from Sheffield to London was pulled by a Davy locomotive.
In 1851, they bought the Park Iron Works at Norfolk Bridge, Sheffield’s biggest iron foundry. This decision was financial on the basis that a steady income in iron-founding would give provide the means to progress further in the steam engine business. However, within twenty years, half of Europe’s steel was being made in Sheffield and the demand for progressively larger plant was growing. The city’s steel barons were soon seeking a local supplier of huge steel processing machinery and as the owners of the biggest foundry, the Davy Brothers were obliged to fill this role.
Davy Brothers records first mention the building of rolling mills around 1854 although they were just an occasional side-line for the company. Most of the mills built were small scale rotary forges. In addition to steam engines, their mainstream business was heavy foundry work - the frames of large forging presses and housings and rolls for plate mills were a worthwhile venture for the firm.
David Davy was killed in a works accident in 1865 and it was with the second generation of the Davy family that really grew the plate mill side of the business. They designed and built rolling mills and forging plants and the huge static engines needed to drive the rolling mills. The company bought nearby boiler makers, Wood Brothers, in 1872. David Davy Junior first designed a plate mill because he needed one himself and it’s typical of the company that this mill was as big as any ever built, at 12 feet wide.
Between 1904 and 1905, Davy Brothers built four huge engines. One was made to drive Charles Cammell’s armour plate rolling mill located at his Grimesthorpe Works. Cammell’s supplied the ship building industry with tough armour plate steel. At a weight of 400 tons and 12,000 horsepower, it enabled the huge mill to roll steel plate up to 40cm thick and 50 tons in weight. This engine was then transferred to what was formerly known as the British Steel Corporation’s River Don Works, becoming known as the River Don Engine. Now housed in Kelham Island Museum, visitors can still see it ‘in steam’ as the most powerful working steam engine in Europe.
Another of the engines went to John Brown’s Atlas Works in Sheffield, one to the Japanese government and the fourth to William Beardmore & Co in Glasgow. The engines were truly pioneering, designed and built in an age when most people had never seen a domestic light bulb.
By this time, Davy Brothers had been long renowned as the engineering firm of choice to the great steel companies of Sheffield with a four hundred strong workforce. In 1921 they opened a new large works at Darnall and in 1937 the company became Davy and United Engineering Co following a merger with its US licence partner.
Image of River Don Engine by Joe Horner