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Great British Railway Journeys meets the River Don Engine

Posted on by Website Administrator

We’re excited that BBC2’s ‘Great Railway Journeys’ aired on Wednesday 17 January 2018 6.30pm features the mighty River Don engine in steam!

This journey, from Hull to Caernarfon, visited Kelham Island Museum to tell the story of the steel industry in Sheffield and its part in the building of the Dreadnought ship.

Here, Michael Portillo met with local Naval Historian David Boursnell to learn how the engine powered the rollers which made 2,000 tons of armour plates to protect the sides side of HMS Dreadnought, as well as armour for many of the other British battleships that fought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Nearly half of the side armour for the Dreadnought was 12 inches thick.

See the Sheffield to Nantwich  episode. 


Forging the Fleet - Naval Armour and the Armour Makers, 1860 to 1916

A 2016 publication by David Boursnell commissioned by SIMT as part of our centenary HLF funded project Sheffield 1916: Steel, Steam and Power. Forging the Fleet tells the story of the armour makers from the first wrought-iron plates of 1860 to the complex cemented steel which protected the British fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

It is a story central to Sheffield's industrial history and to our understanding of the beginnings of the relationship between industry and the military - a relationship that continues to this day.

For centuries, Britain commanded the seas and protected her Empire with a formidable fleet of wooden warships, the fundamental design of which changed only gradually over the years. But by the mid-nineteenth century, rapid technological advances and shifting political alliances had forced the Royal Navy to abandon the wooden walls that had served it so well in the past and begin to experiment with new armour-plated ships.

In this quickly changing landscape, new players emerged and rivalry for Admiralty contracts was fierce. The Sheffield steel-making firms of John Brown and Charles Cammell soon dominated the growing armour-plate industry and by the end of the century they had been joined by Armstrong's in Manchester, Beardmore's in Glasgow and another Sheffield firm, Vickers. These five companies controlled the market, and new research presented here demonstrates how they shared the benefits between them.

Forging the Fleet is available to purchase at Kelham Island Museum and Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet priced at just £9.99.

It also available online at Amazon and


David's love of history, and in particular naval history, was ignited when Kelham Island Museum discovered a set of ledgers in their collection which showed a record of orders received by the five British armour plate companies from 1903 to 1920. There was also a record of the invoices they had submitted and a mysterious additional column, which showed 20 per cent of their income had been paid into a pool. Although the ledgers were important and the references to an armour plate 'pool' were intriguing they clearly needed exploring further. After discussing the discovery with the Chief Executive of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, John Hamshere, David recognised this as his ideal project, combining as it did historical research, naval history and the industrial heritage of Sheffield, a city he has enjoyed living in for thirty five years.

Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust commissioned David to write the book as part of its Heritage Lottery Funded Project Sheffield 1916: Steel, Steam and Power. Inspired by the River Don Engine, the project's new displays and exhibitions explain the major role Sheffield played in shipbuilding and tells the fascinating story of steam power.



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