Our University, our birthday, our story


31 May 1905 was a very special day for our University. This was the day that our Royal Charter was sealed and a new university was born. A few days later on 3 June 1905, a procession of decorated carriages led the Charter through the city, followed by excited crowds who had campaigned and raised funds to make it happen.

Over 112 years we have grown in every possible way – the first buildings and halls of residence have become a varied estate, our original intake of 114 students has become 26,000 and from 40 staff there are now over 8,000. So, to celebrate our birthday, we did some time travel through the archives to discover who shaped the University we are today.

Images: Steel City Scholars compiled and authored by Helen Mathers (James & James 2005)

Words: Kate Mitchell, Internal Communications, referencing Steel City Scholars. First published 31 May 2016.

Firth College

The Technical School

A new University College

The birth of The University of Sheffield

Firth College

In 1871 Sheffield’s manufacturing and steel industry was booming and the population had doubled over the previous 30 years to around 240,000. Although Mark Firth made his fortune as head of one of the earliest steel firms, his great gift to our city was Firth College. Firth had been inspired by a new vision of higher education and decided to bring it to Sheffield.

The Extension movement came to Sheffield, a group of Oxford and Cambridge lecturers who travelled from town to town giving lectures and spreading the word about the benefits of a university education. So Firth and Revd. Samuel Earnshaw set about organising Extension courses in English literature and political economy. Firth College was open to men and women on equal terms and women were encouraged to attend.

The courses had wide public appeal so owing to their popularity in 1877 Firth bought a city centre site on the corner of what is now Leopold Street and West Street to build new premises for the classes. Firth College was born, and it has come to be considered the forerunner to our University’s faculties of arts and pure science.

Firth college Firth college firth

The Technical School

The Technical School was the next institution to emerge in a new educational landscape for Sheffield. It paved the way for what is now our Faculty of Engineering and was founded by Frederick Thorpe Mappin, along with type founder Henry Stephenson and Sheffield scientist H.C.Sorby. In 1883 a grant was secured to fund a professor of metallurgy and mechanical engineering and the school continued to grow.

tech college mettalurgy

Our remarkable people

The Ripper lab in our Department of Mechanical Engineering is named after William Ripper, head of Mechanical Engineering at Firth College from 1889. Ripper was an active researcher who developed links with local manufacturers – an inspiration to us today as we continue his legacy with our Advanced Manufacturing Park. He invented a type of pressure indicator used on ocean-going vessels.

Lysbeth Henry was the first female member of staff at the technical college. She trained students who intended to teach at elementary school but she had always wanted to study medicine. When she applied, there was a lack of places for women to train but her daughter Lydia Henry went on to be the first female graduate in Medicine in 1916.

The Medical School predates both these early institutions in Sheffield, dating to at least 1828. Hall Overend, a Sheffield surgeon apothecary, began training medical students and is regarded as the father of medical education in Sheffield. By the late 1800s the medical school had gone through many phases of success and regeneration, and opened a new premises designed by the same architect who created the Children’s Hospital and the Jessop Hospital. Preliminary sciences were taught at Firth College, so the two institutions became closely intertwined.

A new University College

By the end of the nineteenth century, William Mitchinson Hicks’s ambition was to transform the college into a true university College. He got his wish in 1897 and the University College was granted its charter. It united Firth College, the Technical School and the Medical School.

hicks college song Lysbeth Henry

The establishment of a University College was just the beginning of the formation of our University as we know it today. Civic pride and a shift in the educational landscape in the north of England drove the University College to pursue independent university status rather than be swayed by plans to join a Yorkshire university with Leeds. The aim was to bring higher education within reach of the children of the people working in the great industries of Sheffield, to give support to those industries and to serve as a centre for the study of diseases.

Our remarkable people

William Mitchinson Hicks was an early advocate of the benefits of attracting talented staff. He argued that the power of awarding independent degrees would attract good staff.

The birth of The University of Sheffield

The evening of 18 May 1903 was a turning point for our University. At a College Council, the resolution to apply for a Charter was passed – Sheffield was about to seize a big opportunity. In a bid to raise funds, Sir Frederick Mappin successfully sought financial backing from the City Council and also appealed for public donations. The appeal received huge amount of local support from people across the city including many generous donations, showing our University was truly a creation of the city it served. The fund grew steadily and eventually there was the promise of enough for a charter to be granted.

On 31 May 1905, our charter was sealed. The University of Sheffield was born.

A Royal visit

On 12 July 1905, the University was honoured by a visit from King Edward VII who opened the Western Bank building we now know as Firth Court. The opening ceremony was held in its new quadrangle. Over 3,000 guests attended the party and were entertained before the domed dais in Firth Court quadrangle. This exotic touch was in keeping with trends of the time.

Souvenir programmes and postcards were produced to mark the special occasion and every school child in Sheffield was given a commemorative medal to mark the event.

The King said: “I have great pleasure in declaring these beautiful buildings open and in expressing my fervent hope and desire for the long continued prosperity of The University of Sheffield.”

programme quad

Finding our time capsule

As a fledgling university, even before the charter was signed, the University College was exploring its options for developing its estate. As luck would have it, Western House on Western Bank came up for sale, in an idyllic setting bordered on two sides by Weston Park. The site was relatively small but the College bought it to demolish and start developing new University property. Plans were made for a new building with a traditional collegiate quadrangle – Firth Court.

On 30 June 1903 the foundation stone was laid and a garden party of 2,000 guests descended on Weston Park to celebrate. A time capsule was buried under the foundation stone, including plans of the future building, lists of those who attended and details of the arrangements that were made for the ceremony in June 1903. The documents were originally folded into a glass jar.

The documents were discovered nearly 100 years later on 30 May 2003 during building work on Western Bank, and unfolded to reveal these little pieces of our history - plans that reveal the thought and care that went into designing a University that would see us through a century and beyond.

foundation stone mappin plans time capsule