Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Firth, Mark

FIRTH, MARK (1819–1880), founder of Firth College, Sheffield, was born at Sheffield25 April 1819 and left school in 1833. His father, Thomas Firth, was for several years the chief melter of steel to the firm of Sanderson Brothers & Co., Sheffield, receiving 70s. a week; here his two sons, Mark and Thomas, on leaving school, joined him, and each had 20s. a week. Their demand for an increase of wages being refused, they commenced a business of their own with a six-hole furnace in Charlotte Street (1843). At first they manufactured steel exclusively for home consumption, and then gradually extended their business to Birmingham. By perseverance and energy they at last acquired an immense American connection, and in 1849 erected the Norfolk Works at Sheffield, which cover thirteen acres of ground. In 1848 Thomas Firth, senior, died, and Mark became the head of the firm, which soon acquired other works at Whittington in Derbyshire which occupy twenty-two acres, and several forges at Clay Wheels, near Wadsley. A speciality of the business was casting steel blocks for ordnance, and shot both spherical and elongated, in addition to all kinds of heavy forgings for engineering purposes. From gun-blocks of seven inches diameter they went up to sixteen inches for the 81-ton gun, the heaviest single casting made. The whole of the steel employed in the manufacture of guns for the British government was Firth's steel. When the government found it necessary to have a steel core for their great guns, the Firths laid down machinery which cost them 100,000l., it being understood that they should be compensated for their outlay by receiving the government work. The principal feature of their business was the refining and manufacture of steel, in which they were unrivalled. They supplied foreign iron, which they imported in immense quantities from Swedish mines, of which they had concessions. After supplying the Italians with a 100-ton gun, they cast a dozen similar ingots for massive ordnance. The British government obtained four of these, but they were never used in the armament of any war ship. The Firths furnished nearly all the steel gun tubes afloat in the British navy, and a large proportion of those used by the French. Three younger brothers, John, Edward, and Henry, became members of the firm of T. Firth & Sons. Mark Firth was one of the original members of the Iron and Steel Institute on its establishment in 1869, and remained connected with it to his decease. Having gained a large fortune, he made many donations to his native place. His first gift of any magnitude was 1,000l., which he added to a legacy of 5,000l. left by his brother Thomas (d. 1858) for the erection of a Methodist New Connexion training college and the education of young men about to enter the ministry. In 1869 he erected and endowed Mark Firth's Almshouses at Ranmoor, near his own residence, at a cost of 30,000l.; in this building are thirty-six houses, which are left to the poor of Sheffield for ever. For three successive years he held the office of master cutler, and in his third year entertained Henry, duke of Norfolk, 2 Sept. 1869, on the occasion of his taking possession of his estates as lord of Hallamshire. His next gift was a freehold park of thirty-six acres for a recreation ground. The Prince and Princess of Wales opened this park on 16 Aug. 1875, and were for two days Firth's guests at Sheffield. Perhaps the most useful act of his life was the erection and fitting up of Firth College at a cost of 20,000, its endowment with 5,000l., and the foundation of a chair of chemistry with 150l. a year. This building was opened by Prince Leopold 20 Oct. 1879, and a great educational work has since been carried on in the institution. Firth, who was mayor of Sheffield in 1875, died of apoplexy and paralysis at his seat, Oakbrook, 28 Nov. 1880, and was buried in Sheffield general cemetery on 2 Dec., when a public procession nearly two miles in length followed his remains to the grave. His personalty was sworn under 600,000l. in January 1881. He married first, 15 Sept. 1841, Sarah Bingham, who died in 1855, and secondly Caroline Bradley, in September 1857, and left nine children.

[Practical Magazine (1876), vi. 289-91, with portrait; Gratty's Sheffield Past and Present (1873), pp. 305, 312, 332-4, with view of Firth's Almshouses; Hunter's Hallamshire (Gatty's ed. 1869), p. 215; Times, 29 Nov. 1880, p. 9, and 3 Dec., p. 3; Illustrated London News, 21 Aug. 1875, pp. 185-90, and 28 Aug., pp. 193, 196, 208, with portrait; Engineer, 3 Dec. 1880, p. 417; Journal of Iron and Steel Institute, 1880, No. 2, pp. 687-8.]

G. C. B.