|John Brown was born on 6th December 1816. His father, Samuel was a builder who lived with his family in Fargate in the centre of Sheffield.
John decided at an early age, that he wanted to become a merchant and do business with the whole world. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to a firm of traders, Earl, Horton and Co., in Orchard Place.
In 1836, Earl Horton opened a file and cutlery making business, and John Brown was offered a share in this business. John's role was to travel around, marketing the firm's wares, a job which he carried out with considerable success.
In 1844, John set up his own steel business in Orchard Street which quickly expanded with new premises in Furnival Street.
John's expertise in selling, and his eye for a market, meant that he was ideally placed to take advantage of the rapid expansion of railways. In 1846, he developed a conical steel spring buffer which cornered the market in the United Kingdom.
Brown's business expanded rapidly and premises were opened in Holly Street and at several other locations in Sheffield. On the 1st January, 1856, he combined all these works into one location at the Atlas Works in Savile Street in the Don Valley.
In 1857, he decided to make use of the steel puddling process which had been developed in Germany. This process produced steel which although not of such high quality as crucible steel, was ideal for making railway springs and buffers. It was considerably cheaper to produce than crucible steel. The firm expanded rapidly with the success of the new materials.
By this time, Henry Bessemer was developing the Steel Convertor. Bessemer set up a works in Carlisle Street, next door to Brown's Atlas Works. John Brown quickly recognised the importance of Bessemer's process and obtained a licence to use it for the production of steel rails.
In 1860, John Brown turned his attention to the production of armour plate by rolling instead of a forging process which was used elsewhere. He set up a rolling mill and started to produce the material which, by 1867 was used in three quarters of the British Navy's armour plated ships.
A Sheffield newspaper published the following account of the rolling at the Atlas Works of a six-ton armour plate, twenty feet long, over four feet wide, and nearly five inches thick :-
The foremen of the forge comes upon the scene, strips off his coat, and sees that everything is right for the momentous operation. The foreman of the rolling department is also at his post. Seventy men gather under his orders. A strong chain is passed round the rolls, which are about 20 yards in front of the furnace, to aid in drawing the great heated mass from the fire...the forge [then] opens, and the loose fire-bricks on which the front of the plate has rested are pushed away, that it may be grasped on its fore-edge by enormous toothed tongs, which it requires three men to lift. Now all is ready. The great door of the furnace, about six feet-wide, rises. The tongs grasp the plate. The rolls turn, the men pull, and out shoots in an instant the great mass of iron. And here comes into play a minor, but very necessary piece of ingenuity. The moment the whole length of the plate rests upon its carriage, a mechanical contrivance releases the chain, and it is drawn no further. As quick as thought the chain is detached from rhe rolls, and the men, seizing each side of the carriage as if they were salamanders, run it rapidly up to the rolls. It passes through, and at once its ten inches of thickness are reduced to eight. The rolls are reversed and back comes the plate, this time losing only half an inch of its thickness...In all it passes eight times through the rolls. Though this is done in five minutes, there is no hurry, but the utmost precision and care. At each side, when the hot plate emerges, its surface is swept with brooms dipped in water, and sometimes buckets of water are dashed over it, to remove the sacles, and give it a fair surface. It is curious to see how important is the water upon the mass of glowing iron. Great drops of water run hissing over its surface, and it does not appear to lose anything of its heat. [It is then moved by crane] and two immense rollers of nine tons each pass over it, to ensure its being perfectly straight as it cools. The cooling process occupies about 12 hours, and another crane then lifts the plate to the planing tables, where the edges are cut, squared and afterwards grooved.
John Brown became the first Sheffield steelmaker to be knighted in 1867.
By 1871, ill health and disagreements with his fellow directors resulted in Sir John Brown leaving the company he had founded. He took part in a number of other businesses, but without much success. His wife Mary, whom he had met at school, died in 1881. Sir John's health was not good and he usually spent the winter months in the south of England, returning to Endcliffe Hall in Sheffield for the summer.
In 1892, Sir John Brown left Sheffield for the last time. He died on 28th December 1896 in Bromley, Kent. His body was brought back to Sheffield for burial in All Saints Church, Ecclesall.