Where Kelham Island started

The first two questions that anyone will usually ask about Kelham Island are, is it really an island and why is it called Kelham? Well in brief. Yes it really is an island, albeit less than it once was. And Kelham is actually the corruption of the first name of one of its earliest industrialists Kellam Homer.

Kelham Island is around 800 years old and is entirely man made. In around 1180, nine years before Richard the Lionheart would be crowned king and 10 years after the assassination of Thomas à Becket, a millrace was dug to take water from the River Don to turn the water wheel that powered Sheffield Town Mill which stood roughly where Irwin Mitchell’s HQ is now on Millsands. The water at that time rejoined the river just by Lady’s Bridge. Apart from the odd cottage, all the surrounding area at that time was fields and market gardens. It is said by some that the mill race, or the goit as it’s known in northern English, is one of the few Norman mill races in the country and therefore amongst the oldest in the whole of England.

In 1604, the year after James VI of Scotland united the crowns of England and Scotland becoming James I of England, and the year before the Gunpowder Plot, Sheffield had a town armourer called Kellam Homer. His job was to keep Sheffield supplied with the armour needed to protect its inhabitants from potential hostile forces. By this time though Sheffield’s reputation as an important centre of cutlery [1] manufacturing had long been sealed. As early as the late 14th century, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales mentions Sheffield made knives, and by 1604 the town was already the biggest producer of of cutlery outside of London. Kellam Homer took advantage of this and leased a mill which was built straddling the goit upstream of the Town Mill, and by 1664 its tenant was Kellam’s son Kenhelm Homer. By 1674 maps show that this mill had become known as Kellam Wheel.

When exactly Kellam or Kelham was applied to the island as well as the mill is unknown, but by the early 19th century the name was in use on maps in the current spelling. This was also a time when Kelham Island was beginning to change completely as between 1820 and 1840 it went from being open countryside to a densely packed area of mills, factories and houses.

Kelham Island in 1850-51

Kelham Island in 1850/51. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

With the area becoming increasingly crowded, Sheffield’s population trebling in just 60 years, and small works turning in to major factories, the Sheffield Corporation (the predecessor of Sheffield City Council) decided to build two brand new roads – Corporation Street and Alma Street. In 1853 these two new roads were complete. Corporation Street proved the first road bridge over the goit, and Alma Street led to the culverting of the goit. From 1853 onwards the water continued to flow but this time underground from what is now the Kelham Island Brewery Shop, underneath Alma Street, before rejoining the river. Eventually Kelham Wheel itself became subsumed within the Britannia Mills, a corn mill built on the same site.

Kelham Island in 1888-91

Kelham Island in 1888-91. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

Although Kelham Island remains an island, of sorts, its name has, since the property boom of the early 2000s, been applied to an area that extends well beyond its origins [2]. Kelham Island area is now generally considered to be bounded by the River Don, Corporation Steeet, Shalesmoor, Penistone Road and Rutland Road. But its name can also be found in Neepsend across the river and along Gibraltar Street, neither of which are Kelham Island as it’s considered to be by local residents.

But despite all these changes the location of Kellam Homer’s mill can still be identified from the stones that supported Britannia Mills in the goit behind the Kelham Island Brewery. And if you stand on the bank of the River Don on the riverside walkway recently named Estelí Parade, just opposite the Harlequin Pub, you’ll see and hear below you a trickle of running water. This running water is the waters of the goit rejoining the River Don, albeit now making the island smaller than it was when it was first created.

Kelham Goit

Kelham Goit, with the stones that supported the Britannia Mill (successor to Kelham Wheel) in the foreground. Photo credit: © M J Richardson (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Notes

[1] The word ‘cutlery’ is used here (and throughout this website) in its original meaning referring to anything that can be used to cut something. So not only is it knives, forks and spoons used for eating, but any form of knife as well as scythes, sickles, scissors and razors, for example.

[2] See this Google Map for an explanation of the various boundaries of Kelham Island.

Useful sources

Ball, Christine, Crossley, David and Flavell, Neville. Water Power on the Sheffield Rivers. South Yorkshire Industrial Heritage Society 2006

Kelham Island History and Buildings, Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust. Retrieved 26 Feburary 2019

Smithurst, Peter G. Sheffield Industrial Museum Kelham Island, A Guide to Sheffield’s Industrial History, Sheffield City Museum 1983

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