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John Curr (c.1756 - 1823)

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We already have a thread on the tramway that John Curr may have been associated with in the transport forum here. But I think that he qualifies as a Sheffield celebrity of sorts.

Born in about 1756 in County Durham he moved to Sheffield some time before 1776. Eventually he became the manager of the Duke of Norfolk's Sheffield collieries.

He married Hannah Wilson (18 May 1759 - 10 June 1851) in about 1785 and they had at least eight children:

  • Elizabeth Curr (1782 - 1812)
  • John Curr (1783 - 1860), emigrated to New South Wales. Author of Railway locomotion and steam navigation: their principles and practice
  • Mary Ann Curr (1786 - 1868) - married Louis Armand Beauvoisin In 1822 (info from Beauvoisin)
  • Teresa Curr (1790 - ?)
  • Rev. Joseph Richard Curr, baptized at Sheffield 14 April 1793. Died at Leeds 30 June 1847
  • Harriet (Gertrude) Curr, born in Sheffield 2 Sept. 1795 and baptized four days later at the Catholic Chapel there. Died 30 May 1868. Nun of the Institute of Mary at York
  • Edward Charles Curr (1 July 1798 - 16 November 1850), also emigrated to New South Wales, Secretary of the Van Diemen's Land Company 1824 - 1841. Married Elizabeth Micklethwaite at Sheffield and had 11 children. Author of Account of the Colony of Van Diemen's Land (factlet: the town of Sheffield in Tasmania was named by Edward Curr after his hometown)
  • Juliana Curr (1800 - ?), married Thomas Ellison at Winwick parish church on 13 October 1828; may have also married a Beauvoisin (info from Beauvoisin)

He made a number of innovations in coal mining/railway technology whilst at Sheffield, some of which are described in his 1797 book The Coal Viewer, and Engine Builder's Practical Companion.

He died at Belle Vue in Sheffield on 27 January 1823. He was catholic and was buried at the catholic chapel which preceded St. Marie's church on Norfolk Row.

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Directory entries:

John CURR, proprietor of coal works, Universal 1791

John CURR, superintendant of the coal works of his Grace the Duke of Norfolk, Park, Robinson's 1797

John CURR, iron founder, Park, Robinson's 1797

John CURR, Manufacturer and patentee of flat ropes, Bellevue, Holden's 1811

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  • 2 weeks later...

I'm not sure if this adds much more information on Curr's life over that in the excellent article by Ian R. Medlicott from the Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society posted by Bayleaf; but it does put Curr's innovations into a wider context.

From The Coal Industry of the Eighteenth Century, by T. S. Ashton & J. Sykes, 1929:

...in the working out of the many problems to which this new form of transport gave rise, many engineers played their part, but among them the outstanding figure was John Curr, who for many years occupied the post of viewer to the Duke of Norfolk's collieries in Sheffield. Curr was born, and spent his early years, on the coalfield of Durham, but removed to Sheffield probably in the early seventeen-seventies. At this period Sheffield Park Colliery was let by the Earl of Surrey to Messrs. Townsend and Furniss, who disposed of the coal, according to the usual practice, by sale to the dealers and carters at the pit head. In 1774, however, as the result of an outcry against the high price of fuel, a plan was prepared to convey the coal from the pits to the town by "the Newcastle method", i.e. by a railroad; and this was laid down at a cost of £3280. Whether or not the project emanated from Curr is uncertain, but a few years later, when the colliery was taken over by the Earl of Surrey, Curr was acting as the manager of this and of all the other mining concerns of the Howard family. The most important of his innovations was the substitution for the baskets in which the coal was carried of small four-wheeled corves, which were pushed by boys along tramways in the underground passages. It has been questioned whether Curr actually made use of cast-iron rails below ground before 1790; but a report[1] made by John BuddIe in March 1787 puts the matter beyond doubt; for a comparison of the costs of "the new scheme of hurrying the coals" with those of hurrying with horses includes "Expenses of Cast Iron Plates and Barrow-way". The cost of the old mode was put at 10½d., a waggon-load, that of the new at 6¾d., and it was estimated that the saving at this colliery amounted to £312:10s. a year.

There was nothing new in the use of four-wheeled vehicles underground: they had been employed at least a generation earlier in the Newcastle area to carry the wicker corves to the pit-bottom. Curr's innovation was the combination of waggon and corf, the making of a vessel that would run on wheels and could also be raised up the shaft. In Northumberland and Durham baskets were necessary because the bulk of the output was coal in relatively small pieces;[2] and though in the pits about Radstock, in Somerset, the coal was loaded directly into sledges with wicker or wooden sides, it was unloaded into baskets before winding.[3] The new wheeled corf obviated this second handling of the coal, and much bigger loads could be drawn by a horse than when the coal was contained in baskets.

To prevent collision between the ascending and descending corves, guides or conductors were devised and patented by Curr in 1788. Two pairs of wooden rails were set vertically upon opposite sides of the shaft, and the ends of a crossbar, to which the corf was attached, ran in the channel between them and so prevented oscillation. The laden corf was raised a little way above the surface, so that a wooden platform could be slid beneath it from which the corf could be run off to the coal stack.

A little later further improvements were made by Curr: the rails, which had previously consisted of cast-iron plates fixed on wooden rails, came to be made entirely of cast iron, and instead of the corf being held to the line by a flanged wheel the rails themselves were flanged. Moreover, self-acting inclined planes were introduced both above and below ground, so that the full corves in descending "hurried up" the ascending empties; and a scheme of underground canals was worked out so that the coal could be carried, as at the Duke of Bridgewater's Worsley Colliery, in long, narrow barges from the working face to the pit bottom.[4] Finally, in 1805, Curr applied the steam-engine, for the first time, it is believed, to the purpose of underground haulage. So many innovations soon brought the inventor into repute throughout the country: his wheeled corves came into use at many of the larger collieries; and he was consulted by several important concerns, including the Coalbrookdale Company.[5] Nevertheless, he did not wholly escape the traditional lot of the pioneer. Affairs at Sheffield were not flourishing during the last fifteen years of the century; and in 1787, and again in 1789, John BuddIe was called in to report to Curr's employer on the state of the collieries. The report of 1787 was entirely favourable; and though two years later John BuddIe and John Stephenson felt obliged to recommend the closing of Attercliffe Colliery, they added, "When we think of the Ingenuity and Judicious Application of several late Inventions there adopted ... we feel ourselves hurt as Colliers, in giving a decision so very unfavourable".[6] During the 'nineties irregularities in the seams of coal gave great trouble; about 1795 water from two abandoned collieries found its way into some of the Duke of Norfolk's pits; and severe competition was encountered from a colliery set up in 1793 by a number of sick-clubs of Sheffield.[7] In 1801 John Curr was suddenly dismissed the service of the Duke, without any reason being offered him. In a long letter of protest he set forth the category of improvements which he had effected, and asserted that his own gains had been small. "Now sixteen out of twenty collieries have introduced this mode of conveying coals [he wrote of his tramways] in the Countys of York, Lancaster, Salop, Derby, Staffs., Warwick and a great part of Wales, and is now adopting near London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and those who live 10 or I5 Years will probably see my Rail Roads introduced all over this Kingdom, notwithstanding 12 years passed over before they were much imitated". His wheeled corves, his flat-rope winding, and his other contrivances, it was claimed, had been of considerable value to the Duke; and failure to make larger profits was the result of the inroads of water and the price-war with the opposition colliery—"Here my Ingenuity has been buried".[8]

Fortunately for Curr, he had other sources of income than the £190 a year which constituted the salary of the viewer. He had royalties from his patents and profits from a foundry which he had set up in 1792 to make the cast-iron rails and boilers and other parts of the new rotative winding engines. An Account Book of 1805 shows that the Duke of Norfolk continued to buy castings and flat ropes of him, and his son seems to have found service at the Duke's collieries. Whether or not Curr prospered, he and his predecessors in the development of the railway certainly deserved well of their fellows; for they did more than any philanthropist of their day to lighten the lot of the most heavily pressed grades of underground labour, the youthful putters and drivers.[9] Not only was the individual relieved, but the proportion of workers engaged in this onerous branch of mining was substantially reduced. At the beginning of the eighteenth century far more labour was employed in moving, than in getting, the coal. At Bo'ness, in 1681, there were 37 bearers to 13 hewers, and at Dunmore, in 1769, 74 bearers to 28 hewers.[10] Even in Northumberland and Durham, where the crude system of bearing had long been given up, there were at Charlaw, in 1769, 10 barrowmen to 10 hewers; and at Stanley Kiphill Colliery the coal hewn by 70 pitmen required the services of 50 putters and 27 drivers to move it to the pit bottom.[11] But, as the direct result of the improvements in underground carriage, by the early years of the nineteenth century the hewers almost always outnumbered the drawers of coal: at Heaton Colliery, in 1806, there were 143 hewers to 84 putters; at Middleton (Yorks), in 1808, 90 hewers to 60 putters; at Washington, in 1813, 67 hewers to 40 putters; and at Gatherick, in 1823, 12 hewers to 6 putters.[12] Such was the immediate result of the work of John Curr. The final result of his invention, like that of Sir Humphry Davy's, was unfortunately less satisfactory. For the wheeled corves could be moved by young children, and though at most places horses were retained to draw a train of corves along the main gates, in some Scottish pits boys were substituted for horses.[13] Moreover, in most of the coalfields the boys and girls who dragged or pushed the wheeled corves from the working places to the underground railways in the main roads were of more tender years than their predecessors who dragged the sledges.

[1] Norfolk MSS.

[2] Curr, The Coal Viewer (1797), 8.

[3] Greenwell and M'Murtrie, The Radstock Portion of the Somerset Coalfield, 6.

[4] Report of John Buddie to the Duke of Norfolk, April 7, 1787. Norfolk MSS.

[5] Letter of Curr to R. Dearman, May 25, 1793. Horsehay MSS.

[6] Report of John Buddie and John Stephenson to Vincent Eyre, Esq., on Attercliffe Common Colliery, April 24, 1789. Norfolk MSS.

[7] Letter of John Curr to the Duke of Norfolk, October 23, 1801. Norfolk MSS. The industrial activities of friendly societies are exhibited also in the purchase, in November 1795, of a corn-mill. Sheffield Register (1830).

[8] Norfolk MSS., Report of Inventions by John Curr, October 23, 1801.

[9] The gratitude of a later generation broke out in verse:

God bless the man wi' peace and plenty,

That furst invented metal plates;

Draw out his years to five times twenty,

Then slide him throughout the heevenly gates.

For if the human frame to spare

Frae toil an' pain ayont conceevin',

Ha'e aught te de wi' gettin' there,

Aw think he mun gan striate et heeven

From THOMAS WILSON, The Pitman's Pay.

[10] Barrowman, loc cit. 274–5.

[11] Charles Bond in App. B; Bulman and Redmayne, Colliery Working and Management, 40.

[12] MSS. in Bell and Watson Collections, Newcastle; Kenneth Vickers, History of Northumberland, xi. 426.

[13] "It was when the iron railways came in that they were putting away the horses and brought boys in to draw", Rept. of Child. Empl. Comm. (1842), 363, eve. Geo Lindsay.

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Thanks Steve,

So, still there in 1953--does anyone know when it was demolished? Also, does anything of the original buildings survives? From the satellite photos I'd say probably not, but it doesn't look like too much landscaping was done when the present buildings were built.


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Thanks Steve,

So, still there in 1953--does anyone know when it was demolished? Also, does anything of the original buildings survives? From the satellite photos I'd say probably not, but it doesn't look like too much landscaping was done when the present buildings were built.


No idea when it went Jeremy.

use to go sledging on Norfolk Park Road in the mid 60's,

and don't remember seeing the house at that time,

but then again there were a lot of trees between it and the road.

PS; You missed this picturesheffield view looking down from Norfolk Park

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John Bernard Furniss, Esquire, Merchant Belle Vue (1822 & 1833)

big gap ...

Major Alfred John Gainsford, R.A. 1911, 1919; in 1925 R.A.; J.P. Belle Vue, Norfolk Park Road

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  • 4 weeks later...

John Bernard Furniss, Esquire, Merchant Belle Vue (1822 & 1833)

big gap ...

Major Alfred John Gainsford, R.A. 1911, 1919; in 1925 R.A.; J.P. Belle Vue, Norfolk Park Road


Eldest son of Alderman T.R. Gainsford. Born at Belle Vue, Sheffield, October 27th 1870


(thanks to Dean)

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  • 6 months later...

I'm very pleased to find someone recognises the significance of John Curr & his family: my gggg-grandmother was his niece. John seems to have come to Sheffield, along with his brothers George (my ancestor & a merchant) and William, of whom very little is known. Their father, also John (ca1712-77) was a coal viewer at Ryton & then Kyo, and is buried at Lanchester, Co Durham. John Jr was responsible for buying land adjacent to the Catholic Chapel (from the Duke of Norfolk), eventually enabling St Marie's to be built.


Geoffrey White,

Rector of Norton.

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