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Introduction - Sheffield industry
The images above and to the right
Cultivating the soil
Catherine Bailey's 'Black Diamonds'

Introduction - Sheffield industry

The industrial past of Sheffield has never lost its hold upon me, and I've a very great interest in its industrial present. My interest in these things has steadily increased, and with it, an interest in the preservation of Sheffield's industrial past. I'm a member of South Yorkshire Industrial History Society. My grandfather worked in a very large steel works, a member of the team which moved the massive machines around the steel works. My step-father was a pattern-maker. The 'patterns' were used for making the moulds into which the molten steel would be poured. For a short time, I worked as a labourer at Firth Browns, one of the great names in Sheffield steel, its factories long gone.

The places in the list below are all open to the public. After visiting all but one of the places in the list below, all but one either in Sheffield or very near to Sheffield, I'd recommend a visit to them wholeheartedly. They're all concerned with manufacturing or extraction in the past rather than the present but the historical dimension is essential. In no particular order:

(1) Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet

Not too far from the centre of Sheffield (about 7km south-west) and near to the busy main road which goes from Sheffield to Bakewell, but for all that, with an air of seclusion, set amongst trees, a very large dam alongside it, idyllic, but used to provide power, using massive waterwheels. A centre for scythe making.

(2) Top Forge, Wortley

Not far from Stocksbridge, a suburb of North Sheffield, on the banks of the River Don. The setting is quiet and leafy. The industrial buildings are like the the cottages and today picturesque, not at all grim. When they were the site of manufacturing, it would have been very different. Like Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, full of equipment, tools, things used in everyday life, as well as machinery and other equipment in the open, some of it massive. Wrought iron was manufactured here, including wrought iron railway axles. The oldest heavy iron forge in the world.

(3) Kelham Island Industrial Museum

On the banks of the River Don, a few km from the city centre. The museum was heavily damaged by flooding in 2007. It's now open to the public again, giving essential insight into the stupendous achievements of Sheffield industry.

(4) The Magna Centre
(A very slow Web-site, as it uses Flash.)

Probably worth a visit just to see the vast building (the former Templeborough steel works) but this is full of push-button gadgets.

(5) National Coal Mining Museum

Further away from Sheffield (about 30km) and south of Wakefield. Admission free. Remarkable displays of equipment and machinery and articles to do with the life of mining families, as well as visits underground - an altogether memorable and humbling experience.



The images above and to the right

I took the photograph during a visit to this Sheffield factory organized by South Yorkshire Industrial History Society. The  interior of the factory is very large, although many factories are much bigger. The very large image has greater scale and greater adequacy than the much smaller image below it - it's more likely to produce a subjective response (as a matter of fact the larger image, like the smaller image, wasn't subjected to any processing by computer program.) The inner, subjective response has been emphasized in the history of expressionism, as when Mallarmé, 'remarked that an artist should be less concerned with the object to be depicted than with 'the effect it produces'. (quoted in George Heard Hamilton, 'Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880 - 1940.)

I'd emphasize inscape, to use Gerard Manley Hopkins' term:  the inner nature of a person or thing, in this case the inner nature of the steel works, its overwhelmingly impressive but baffling tremendousness. The scale of the larger image is needed to ensure greater adequacy for inscape too, as is the nature of the larger image, the distortions which realize the inner with greater adequacy. The more 'realistic' smaller image gives an impression of straightforwardness which has far less adequacy in conveying inscape. It does, though, convey better the rationality of the processes taking place in the steel works, the high degree of control. This factor may well be given greater weighting. There are now far less workers than in the past. At the time the photograph was taken the works was facing extreme difficulties which were likely to lead to redundancies. Since then, ownership of the steel works has changed, from Corus to Tata. Now, Tata is facing extreme difficulties.

Both images are without people but the smaller image seems to show a place of work which is temporarily unattended, as at night. The larger image shows a world which seems separate from any human activity, operating under its own unfathomable laws: technology as apparently unstoppable, irreversible, autonomous. But technology is subject to all the difficulties of human life, amongst them very unjust problems. A factory which has required so much human effort to erect and maintain and operate, including the effort of its current owners, Tata, is facing severe difficulties.

Cultivating the soil

There's an increasing awareness of food and its linkages with the earth, with good and poor uses of the earth, an awareness which is essential for understanding the contemporary difficulties and dilemmas of food production. At the same time, there's surely a limited awareness of the linkages between the articles we use and the earth - the iron ore and the other metals in the earth, the minerals in the earth, the oil deep beneath the earth, the earth and all the other raw materials of industry, which include the air. A limited understanding of the manufacturing processes themselves, of their difficulty and complexity, of the ingenuity and resourcefulness which have been needed to devise the processes. A limited knowledge of manufacturing's past as well as its present. Coal, a polluting fuel, and steam power - unimportant! How inimportant the canals, the viaducts which took the canals over valleys, the tunnels which took them through hills, the locks which took them over hills!

The tools essential for cultivating the soil, unlike the soil itself, are taken for granted, yet the manufacture of tools such as scythes using water power required a vast degree of effort, ingenuity and resourcefulness to make the massive water wheels, hammers and grindstones - before steam power, a development of incalculable importance, made it possible to site works almost anywhere, away from running water.

Sheffield's industrial past and present -

A past which has included these things but so much more: precision engineering and engineering on a massive scale and the combination of the two: the extremely fine tolerances for massive parts which had begun as molten metal poured from massive ladles, the  control over great masses of metal which seems effortless  (The one shown in the image above, weighing many tonnes, was flipped over and compressed with a flick of the operator's hand on the control lever and slight pressure on foot pedals. This control is the culmination of very long and very arduous development, development which was never in the least effortless.) The extreme sophistication and complexity of the manufacturing processes. Ingots of steel weighing 200 tonnes each. Giant crankshafts for ships and other marine forgings. Special steels for innumerable different purposes, such as heat resistant steels for jet engines.


A simple example of compassion, giving water to the thirsty. (See the simple-minded Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 25: 35, where the righteous who go away into 'life eternal' are praised: '...I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink.') Water, although not an element, is elemental, a basic requirement of life, but providing this basic requirement isn't at all simple. Water illustrates the complexity of reality. It can carry disease organisms, such as those that cause cholera. The separation of water for drinking and water for disposal of faeces poses immense practical problems. If gratitude should be shown to the compassionate, it should be shown too for those who by their practical achievements made the compassionate act possible: for the engineers who designed dams, for those who built the dams and made the bricks and the other materials for the pipes which led the water from the dams, for the foundries and other factories which manufactured the taps, the pumps. For the mathematical and scientific innovators who developed the techniques in calculus, fluid mechanics and the other techniques needed for supplying water.

Religious people are often very fond of simplicities, such as compassionate feelings and compassionate acts. Compassion, like love, is thought to be in a sphere beyond complexities. Taking fruit from trees, taking vegetables from the earth - perhaps to feed the hungry (Matthew 25: 35 again) without the need to bother about diseases or pests and the best ways of controlling them, without any thought given to the manufacture of the tools and equipment needed for cultivation.

Vegans are an instructive example of mindless compassion. The section on 'vegan compassion' is here. Since vegans reject leather and wool (and fur, which I would also reject), for clothing in cold climates and for many other purposes, they're dependent upon synthetic substitutes. The processes by which these are made from the raw material, most often crude oil, are almost unimaginably complex. The lack in vegan writing of any appreciation for these, any gratitude for these, is striking.

Generally, the compassionate are given a far higher status than any scientists, engineers or manual workers - giving to fine feeling or the appearance of fine feeling a much higher status than to human activities which make vast demands on intellectual achievement, complex planning and effort or vast demands on strenuous or superhuman effort and stamina.

George Orwell, in 'Marrakech:' 'All people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more important the work they do, the less visible they are.'

Unless the sick are to be looked after in simple shelters or in the open, the work of roofers and scaffolders and other manual workers in building hospitals is so important that they deserve heartfelt appreciation - and proper pay and working conditions - but the work of roofers and scaffolders is almost invisible, their work taken for granted. The average roofer or scaffolder probably lacks refinements and many would fail any tests for political correctness, but few people in possession of those advantages would choose to do physically demanding work at a height in almost all weathers.

When transport - and travel - was very slow and often hazardous, then how was coal to be transported in bulk? To get through a winter without the ability to heat homes and workplaces effectively, to heat food and heat water - as an exercise in compassionate and realistic imagination, it's useful for people who take for granted the simplicity of turning on central heating, turning on an electric kettle, having a hot shower, to enter into the harshness of the pre-industrial age. The industrial revolution was as harsh or harsher, but a necessary prelude to this age of comfort and comfortable assumptions.

The harshness of the industrial age, like the comfort of this age, wasn't, of course, shared by everyone. The harshness was experienced by people who really are all but invisible today, such as the navvies.

'Men of Iron,' the superb book by Sally Dugan, is mainly concerned with the audacious work of the engineers Isaambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson (she also does justice to the genius of their fathers, Marc Brunel and George Stephenson).

Sally Dugan writes, 'Engineering history tends to be dominated by the men who put their signatures on the plans. Brunel, in his diaries, writes about his Chateax d' Espagne - castles in the air. They would have remained just that if it had not been for the army of individuals who not only made his dreams possible, but sometimes died for them. This was true of Brunel, as it was for every other railway engineer in the country.'

She writes of the navvies' work, 'Maiming or mutilation came with the job, and navvies were lucky if they escaped with nothing more than the loss of a limb. They worked using picks and shovels, crowbars and wheelbarrows, and their bare hands; the only other aid they had was the occasional blast of gunpowder. Some were blinded by explosions; others were buried in rock falls. All led a life of hard, grinding physical toil, tramping from one construction site to another in search of work. Their reputation for violence and drunkenness made them a frequent focus for missionaries and temperance society members, as well as turning them into the bogeymen of folk myth.' Elizabeth Garnett was the secretary of the Navvy Mission Society and might have been expected to give a harsh verdict on their uncouthness and worse. Far from it. 'Men of Iron' quotes her words: 'Certainly no men in all the world so improve their country as Navvies do England. Their work will last for ages, and if the world remains so long, people will come hundreds of years hence to look at it and wonder at what they have done.'

There are many people who like their reality smoothed out, comfortable, free of unsettling paradoxes and contradictions: in the terminology I use, with {adjustment} of reality, a sub-theme of {modifiction} of reality. How could such drunken, violent people (although they were not all drunken and violent) have done so much to reduce human suffering, and far more, in general, than the genteel? (The human suffering they reduced was not their own, but the suffering of the wider population, including the suffering of their critics.)


For those who question the morality of manufacturing bombers, such as the Lancasters manufactured at Manchester: during the Second World War, it was proposed that the rail links to the German extermination camps should be bombed. The proposal was never adopted. It would have been better if it had. If the bombing had been carried out - with what? This is not to condone the area offensive on German cities, but bombers were essential for resisting aggression, in effect for furthering compassion.

The resistance of Britain against German aggression when it stood alone in the early part of the war is morally neater, but of course relied just as much on the ability to kill and destroy with complete reliance upon manufacturing industry. Sheffield played a prominent part in this as in other aspects of the war. In the first 18 months of the war the only drop hammer in Britain capable of forging crankshafts for Spitfires and Hurricanes was the 200 tonne hammer at the Vickers works in Sheffield: a descendant of the hammers which forged scythe blades for peaceful use by means of water power.

Catherine Bailey's 'Black Diamonds: the Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty

The story she has to tell, and tells so very well is so remarkable that it deserves to be very widely known, and the book and its author too. Simplifying, the book portrays the Fitzwilliam dynasty and the mining communities who generated their wealth. The mines have now gone and the aristocratic dynasty is at an end. The tangible remains are a house, 'Wentworth House,' (or 'Wentworth Woodhouse'), which is the largest in the country (twice as wide as Buckingham Palace). It was bought by a recluse and is now derelict, apart, presumably, from a very few rooms. Even the stable block is huge, with a huge fountain, glimpsed behind an ornate gate. Even on a summer's day, to see the palace is a melancholy and eerie experience.

There are writers who could do justice to the aristocratic world portrayed in the book, ones who could do justice to the emotional world of the characters, ones who could do justice to the tragic deaths of some of the upper class people in the book, in war and in a plane crash, there are writers who could have done justice to the exotic aspects, such as travel through the Canadian wilderness, and ones who could do justice to a main strand of the book, the desperately harsh lives of miners and their families, the tragic deaths of so many of them. There are writers too who could do justice to the political background, the financial and the legislative background.

Catherine Bailey has an understanding of all of these strands -and others - and the empathy, compassion, knowledge and skill to bring them all to life. Although I concentrate here on the working class strands, the aristocratic strands which are necessarily prominent in the book are of the greatest interest too.

The miners employed by the Wentworths had, it was said, the most enlightened employers in the country. The miners who lived at Denaby Dale, not so far away, had employers who were amongst the least enlightened. Denaby Dale was 'the worst village in England.' In Chapter 9 of the book, the author tells us about the 'despotic powers' of the mine owners, the accidents and the mining disasters, the slums and the evictions in the slums. Of small evictions (At Denaby, 'it was company policy to evict the dead miner's family from their house within weeks of bereavement'). And of a mass eviction, 200 policemen putting on to the streets 3,500 miners and their families in bitterly cold weather in early January.

In the previous chapter of the book, there are accounts of working conditions in the previous century. 'Samuel Scriven saw women and girls 'chained, belted, harnessed like dogs in a go-cart, black, saturated with wet and more than half-naked, crawling upon their hands and knees and dragging heavy loads behind them.' After 1842, women and boys under the age of 10 no longer worked in the mines. The miner David Swallow is quoted: 'The roads are very wet in some of the pits. The boys are continually wet at their feet...With being continually wet on their feet and legs they have inflammations in those parts, on their legs and knees. Boils and rheumatism in all parts of the body, particularly in their lower parts...Where the road rises very fast, it is very heavy work indeed.' Catherine Bailey: 'For the majority, there was no safety net: no unemployment, sickness or injury' benefit.'

This is the fine closing passage of the book, describing the view from a structure erected to commemorate the English victory over the Scots at the Battle of Culloden:

'At night, the view over the surrounding country stretches for miles. To the south, the hills above Sheffield are coloured by a livid orange glare; to the south-west, Rotherham and Rawmarsh blaze, a sodium-lit sprawl; the M1 marches along its western edge. But like totality in a solar eclipse, in the midst of this, one of England's greatest urban conurbations, there is a vast expanse of black. Startling in its size and density, it conceals woodland, fields and parkland. It is the land once encompassed by the nine-mile perimeter wall that encircled Wentworth House.'



Photographs above and right taken by me at a steel works in Sheffield.