Robert Abbott Hadfield was born on 28th November 1858 in the district of Attercliffe (Sheffield). His parents were Robert and Marrianne (maiden name Abbott), Robert Hadfield (senior) was a second cousin of the famous steel manufacturer Sir John Brown.
When Robert was born his father’s occupation was described as a vestry clerk, later he worked as a rate-collector. As a teenager Robert Hadfield (senior) had spent some time in the warehouse of a local edge tool manufacturer, Sorby and Sons. Using this experience he gave up his local government work in 1872 and set up his own small scale steel casting business in Attercliffe. He recruited a steel moulder, John Mallaband from the firm of Vickers. Pouring crucible steel into special moulds was technically demanding work and many people felt this was a rash decision. The firm succeeded and produced weapons, which had previously only been manufactured in France.
Robert (junior) was educated in Sheffield and was taught chemistry by the famous chemist William Baker. He refused to go to either Oxford or Cambridge, preferring to serve his apprenticeship with the local steelmakers, Jonas and Colver. His interest in chemistry continued under the guidance of Mr. A. H. Allen, a leading analyst. He persuaded his father to allow him to set up his own melting furnace in the cellar of their family home.
In 1878, Robert (junior) visited the Paris Exhibition where he was introduced to the researches of the Terre Noire Company. Robert translated the company’s pamphlet and discovered the benefits of their experiments with adding small quantities of manganese to steel. Robert set up his own experiments when he returned to Sheffield using both manganese and silicon.
Robert was sent to America, by his father, in 1882. He toured the American steelworks in Pittsburg, Chicago and Philadelphia. He was impressed by the high production targets that these works were able to achieve. He asked:
why don’t our English works set to work and equal or beat this, surely we are not going to be left behindhand?
This visit appeared to redirect his own research and work into the study of special steel alloys.
Robert Hadfield (senior) died in 1888 and Robert Hadfield (junior) immediately made the firm a limited company, Hadfield’s Steel Foundry Co. Ltd. He removed half of his father’s workforce, replaced them with his own men and took over the position of chairman.
In 1882 Robert discovered Manganese steel which was hardened by quenching it in water from a temperature of a thousand degrees centigrade. The hard steel was to be used in the manufacture of tram wheels. He patented his work in 1883-4 but continued to carry out further experiments before publicising his findings in 1888, which were supported by a lecture tour.
Due to the considerable costs involved in the production of manganese steel it was not until 1892 that any other firm became involved in it’s production. By then the tough qualities of the steel were recognised for railway crossings and digging machinery. The expansion of the railways helped the expansion of Hadfields, between 1894 and 1914 the capital grew from £135750 to £700000 and the workforce from 520 to 5980. In 1897 new premises were opened at Tinsley, the East Hecla Works.
The first World War provided new markets for manganese steel, spur armour plate and shells, tank treads and soldier’s helmets. By 1919 Hadfields were Sheffield’s biggest employers, 15000 and was probably the largest special alloy steel manufacturer in the country. A new market had opened up for silicon steel in the manufacturer of electrical transformers.
Although a hard task master Robert Hadfield was one of the first employers to introduce the eight hour day in 1891 and co- wrote a book on the subject The Shorter Working day .
From 1909-11 he went on a world tour and on his return he made his home Carlton House Terrace, London, wintering in the South of France. He kept his house, Parkhead, in Sheffield.
In 1921 Robert Hadfield suffered a serious illness which required extensive surgery, from this point on his co-directors took over the main running if the firm. He still attended the annual board meetings and kept in touch by telegrams and telephone. The 1920’s brought problems for Hadfield’s, there was a slump in orders, especially for weapons, there were strikes amongst the workforce and the American based firm in Ohio, purchased by Robert Hadfield, went bankrupt in 1927. The firm bought Harper Bean, a Dudley based car firm in 1926, which also failed to bring the expected profits and this was sold in 1936.
During this time Robert Hadfield’s personal reputation as a leading metallurgist grew. He published over 200 papers and embarked on an extensive lecture tour both at home and abroad. Robert Hadfield always took the opportunity to highlight both the unique place that Sheffield occupied in relation to world steelmaking and his own personal contribution to the modern age of alloy steels.
The following is a list of some of Robert Hadfields honours and achievements:
1899 Robert Hadfield was made Master Cutler
1908 Robert Hadfield was knighted.
1908 Appointed President of the Faraday Society and the Iron and Steel Institute.
1909 Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
1917 Sir Robert Hadfield was made a baronet and given the freedom of the city of London.
1925 Sir Robert Hadfield was made an Officer of the Legion d’Honneur.
1938 Became the benefactor of the Sir Robert Hadfield Metallurgical Laboratories.
1939 Received the Freedom of the City of Sheffield.
Robert Hadfield had married Frances Belt (maiden name Wickersham) in 1894. Frances was the daughter of a wealthy American family, whom he met in Philadelphia. They had no children, his wife remained in France from 1937. Robert Hadfield died in Surrey on 30th September 1940 and was buried in Surrey.