THE SHEFFIELD LIGHT TRADES AT THE ONSET OF THE AGE OF STEAM
The Divisions in the Sheffield Trades
The, traditional industries of Sheffield produced a large variety of articies, and in the course of time a high degree of specialisation had created minute subdivisions among the local trades,’ each with its own trade society, its own piece-rate list and its own traditions. Each narrow trade, in turn produced goods of innumerable patterns and qualities, few of which had a mass market. Sheffield articles thus did not lend themselves to standardisation, and in 1850 machine production was still in its early stages and manual skill the main factor of production; technical progress consisted largely of an extended division of labour of the type of Adam Smith’s pinmaking.
The light trades may be divided into three groups: (i) those making goods of iron and steel, such as cutlery., joiners’ tools, files, engineers’ tools, saws, skates, pins and needles, agricultural implements and fenders; (2) the silver, silver-plate and allied trades; and (3) a varied group of ancillary trades, such as the making of handles and cabinet cases. Of these, the first group was much the most important.
The artisans making iron and steel articles included forgers, grinders and hafters or assemblers, but certain products required additional tasks. The forger still worked largely by eye and by manual skill alone; he required little in the way of capital equipment beyond a “hearth” (a small coke fire) and an anvil. After heating his steel rods or bars, he shaped them with skilful blows of his hammer into blades, file blanks or similar articles, drawing out the “tang” (the part of the blade projecting into the handle) in the process. Smaller articles were forged “single-handed”; larger articles were made by two men, forger and striker, the former attending to the form, while the latter “drew out” the blade from a rod of steel. Some articles were stamped or pressed, and others like saws were made from sheets of rolled steel.’
From the forger most articles passed to the grinder, to receive a smooth surface and a sharp edge or point. The grinders had been the last to leave the countryside, where they worked along the rivers whose water-power they used, “a law unto themselves”, with their own habits, customs and traditions. By 1850, treadle-driven stones had virtually gone out of use, and a water-wheel or a steam engine supplied the central motive force to a “wheel”, the local term for a building containing a number of workrooms, or “hulls”, each of which held a number of “trows” (troughs), in which the grindstones ran. Stones were supplied rough-hewn from local quarries and “hacked” and ground circular by the grinder. The grinder sat behind the stone astride the trough, pressing the article to be ground against the stone which revolved upwards away from him (except in scythe grinding). Behind him, and running in the same cast-iron “trow”, was generally also a “glazer”, a wooden wheel covered with leather “dressed with glue and emery and rubbed with emery cake, i.e. emery, suet and bees-wax”; there might also be a “lap”, a wooden tool faced with lead for rubbing the sides of razors, penknives and similar articles, and a “polisher”, a small wheel revolving very slowly, in order not to heat the metal. Heavy grinders were usually to be found on the ground floors, and light grinders on the upper floors of “wheels”, but the four or six grinders in any one hull might belong to as many different trades.’
Before being finished or fitted with handles, many articles had to undergo other processes. Files, for example, were “cut” by hand with hammer and chisel on a leaden block, a comparatively slow process requiring up to six cutters to deal with the output of one forger. After cutting, the files were hardened) scoured and washed.
Saws were toothed by means of a die cutter in a fly press before being re-ground, and sickles were “tedded” with a sharp chisel. Every article had to be softened or tempered (annealed) and hardened at least once, in some cases by separate trades, like the file hardeners.
Finally, there was the assembling or the fitting of handles. In the spring-knife and scissor sections, this was a most complex and highly skilled operation.’ There were also subsidiary tasks, such as the honing, greasing and packing of goods in warehouses, generally performed by unskilled or semi-skilled female workers.
The silver and related trades were comparative new-comers to Sheffield. Their local history began with Thomas Boulsover’s invention of a new method of fusing silver-plate to a copper base about 1743. A flourishing industry was built up in the following century on the basis of this “Old Sheffield Plate” largely with immigrant workmen drawn from Birmingham and other silverworking areas, but in the 1840’s Boulsover’s methods had given way to electro-plating, first patented in 1840.3 The local skill and experience in the working of silver-plate was later applied to Britannia metal or “white metal”, a compound of tin and some antimony and copper, first used about 1769, and “German silver”, of which copper, zinc and nickel were the main ingredients, introduced in 1830 and spreading rapidly in the 1840’s. Both Britannia metal and German silver have since been widely used as base for electro-plated ware, and Britannia metal, suitably strengthened, was also stamped into cheap “flatware”, i.e. spoons and forks. Lastly, working in sterling silver became a local industry, turning out silver articles or silver components for plated goods, such as feet, handles and ornaments. A separate Assay Office was opened in Sheffield in 1773.
In Boulsover’s process, the silver-plating was applied before the sheets were rolled; electroplating was applied to the finished article. Sheets of metal were cut to size and could be either shaped by a stamp, or they were “spun” on a chuck not unlike a potter’s wheel, or fashioned by hand by skilled smiths or “braziers”. Salvers and similar articles were hammered flat by hand, and various decorations were applied by engravers, chasers and silversmiths. Finally the goods were “burnished” with smooth steel tools and polished with leather and “crocus” or iron oxide. Before immersion in the silver solution, electro-plated articles were “buffed” with oil and sand. Die sinkers, silversmiths (or braziers), “spinners”, pierced workers, chasers and engravers were the most highly skilled and best-paid men in the trade; “buffing”, filing of cast articles, polishing and scouring in chemical solutions, necessary at various stages, became women’s work.’
Among the ancillary trades, the turning of wooden handles and the making of cabinet cases were undertaken by specialised woodworking trades. Horn was an important material for razor and pocket-knife “scales”, and “scale pressers” had become a separate trade by the middle of the century. Their waste products gave employment to the temporarily flourishing industries of button-making and comb-making. Other materials used in the manufacture of handles included mother of pearl, ivory and bone, cut and prepared by yet other specialist trades.
Techniques changed slowly. Before 1850, the only recent major technical change was the introduction of steam-power in place of water. The steam engine was first applied to a grinding “wheel” in 1786, and within two generations had virtually ousted the waterwheel (Table 5).
The change from water to steam had little effect on the techniques of grinding itself, though it changed the way of life of grinders, who became town-dwelling, full-time industrial workers instead of members of a part-time rural industry. The application of steam to cutting, glazing and drilling similarly drew cutlers, ivory cutters, hafters and others from their homes or the small leanto’s, in which work had previously been carried on, into the town workshops provided with power.’ By 1854, a “census” of steam engines in Sheffield revealed a fairly widespread use of power:’
Other recent innovations, besides the development of electroplating, were the rolling of iron and steel sections in place of tilting under a hammer, producing more accurate rods or bars for the forger from the 1820’s on, and the use of gas for lighting and for heating silversmiths’ work.
The Economic Structure of the Sheffield Staple Industries
Since the use of steam-power did not lead to advantages of scale, most Sheffield firms remained small. The few large organisations which had developed by 18So based themselves on advantages in marketing and the reputation of their trade-mark, rather than on superior technique (except, perhaps, in electro-plating). Though a few large firms preferred to employ the growing number of their workmen under their direct supervision in their own factories, most were content to order goods from a widening circle of independent or semi-independent workmen, on whose products the large firm’s mark was stamped; it was thus possible for firms to grow quickly without much outlay of capital.
The Sheaf Works of Messrs. Greaves, opened in 1823, is commonly stated to have been the first cutlery factory in the town, and by 185otherewere perhaps half a dozen firms which could count the number of their workmen by the hundred.’ Even the lame manufacturer, however, could not escape the local traditions if employment. Some of his men would undertake to devote most of their time, especially in busy periods, to the orders of their employer, working on his materials; but most were tenants who paid weekly rents and who, working by the piece, determined the length of their working day themselves; when the opportunity arose, they might take in work from outside masters. Side by side with them were men who merely rented room and power and worked entirely on their own materials or for outsiders. The large manufacturer, in turn, gave out a proportion of his work to “out-workers” or to factors, and sub-contracted for handle making or electro-plating with Specialist firms.$ The concept of a self-contained factory, where each operation was subject to the control of a single guiding hand, was alien to local light industry.
Besides the large works owned by manufacturers there were ,’public wheels” whose owners merely undertook to supply room and power to their artisan tenants in return for a weekly rent. In these public wheels and in smaller workshops and lean-to sheds the “outworkers” were to be found, and there were large and well-known firms which had all their work (other than wrapping and despatching) done “out”. The out-worker was not tied to any one master, and often worked for several at the same time. The more enterprising could buy his own raw material or semifinished article, and sell the completed commodity to factors or manufacturers. He could also rent more than one “trough” or “side” (work-bench) or “hearth”, and employ a number of apprentices or even skilled men, paying them either day wages or by the piece with a discount for rent and tools. He would then be on the first rung of the ladder to becoming a master, and would require some capital for the tools of men who the tools of men who worked for him. In the Soho Wheel, in the Midsummer Quarter of 1824, for example:
Employment conditions in Sheffield were thus varied and complex. The ascent from wage labour to manufacturer was gradual and fairly easy. A man could easily double his income by employing two or three apprentices or other journeymen; he could then invest his additional income in buying materials on his own account, and thus become a “little mester” and duly plough back sufficient sums into his business to rise to the position of a manufacturer, with his own trade-mark and his established market. The initial capital required was small, and importers of iron, local makers of steel and even wholesalers and exporters were in the habit of granting six month credits.
This small-scale industrial system had the advantage of flexibility in regard to new patterns, products, materials or fashions, without the loss of technical efficiency. Business ability was quickly rewarded, and lack of ability quickly penalised. There were, however, several drawbacks from the workman’s point of view.
In good years, the in-worker found it difficult to increase his earnings in the face of long-term contracts and rigid piece price “lists’. In depressions he did relatively well, since it was to the advantage of the manufacturer, who kept a proportion of the inworker’s wage as rent, to give him as much work as possible. At such times, however, the out-worker fared correspondingly badly: he bore the brunt of fluctuations, yet his rent outgoings remained the same. Where the manufacturer was also a wheel owner, it paid him to spread the available work over as many rentpaying out-workers as possible. The out-worker was then driven to find his rent by taking up work on his own account.
The men who thus became “little mesters” in despair generally could survive only by cutting prices, thus reducing their own income, and cutting wages, thus keeping only the worst workmen. They were a menace to the trade union, the respectable manufaturers and the good name of Sheffield-made goods alike.’
Their link with the market was the “factor”. Often without much capital himself and in some cases even without a business address, the factor battened on the helplessness of the “little mester”. He depressed his prices, and was often not above resorting to trickery, to marking shoddy goods with reputable brands, and to forcing the “little mester” into growing indebtedness by skilful giving and withholding of credit. Truck payments were a speciality of that type of entrepreneur, who frequently had his links with the “swagg” shops in the town.
Trade unions and manufacturers were united in opposition to the “little mester” and the factor. Trade-union rule-books abound in prohibitions of the employment of datal men, of “team work” and the sale of semi-finished goods by workmen, and many encourage the practice of one month’s notice.
The trade unions also sought to end the so-called “hiring” or “bounty” system, by which, in return for a “bounty” of anything from £5 to £12 down and a vague promise of full work at the “town’s wages”, the artisan agreed to work for one employer only for a lengthy period, usually five or seven years. The workman’s security under this contract was only nominal. While trade was brisk, the hired men were given the least remunerative articles to work on while outside free labour received articles on which high wages could be earned; in depressions the limits of “full work” were contracted and many employers sent their men on “roving commissions% trying to find work outside.’ Worse still was the “pawning” of workmen, the agreement by the artisan to work off a large debt incurred to his master, which often led to perpetual bondage to one firm.*
These contracts were a serious embarrassment to the trade unions. The men tied to their employers could not strike; they threw a disproportionate burden of unemployment on the shoulders of free labour, weakening its resistance to wage cuts in slack times; in good years, the raising of wages became more difficult in view of the deadweight of existing hiring contracts. Thus the file forgers attempted to end the “hiring” in 185o and the spring-knife cutlers in 1856 and again in 1873.3 It is doubtful whether the system was really to the advantage of the employer either. It led to slovenly work of dissatisfied workmen, and to constant bickering and litigation.
“Hired” men, however, formed a small minority only; most workmen valued their independence. It ensured that few of them were ever completely unemployed, but it placed a heavy burden of charges on their earnings in good times and bad.
The most important standing charge was rent, inclusive of power. It ranged, about 1 850, from is. 4d. to 7s. per week (17 gns. p.a.), the highest sums being paid by heavy grinders. Tools and wheelbands, where not owned by the men, were often subject to an additional charge. These rents were those of a single trough only; and “little mesters” might he liable for sums of £ioo p.a. or more. This liability was appreciable in slack times, and it was not unknown for workmen earning 20S. per week or less to be in arrears on rent payments for sums over £30.6 The levels of rents were settled by the “General Union of Proprietors of Steam Engines”, in existence since at least 1830, and Tenants Associations, Occasionally, as in 1854, only after bitter struggles.
In addition to the overheads of tools and rents, the workman also had to find some of the prime costs. He had to pay for candles (3d._ 5d. per week) or gas (is. per week); grinders bought their own stones, cutlers and hafters had to provide wire, oil, emery and glue, and file cutters had to provide lead, and these costs might amount to is. 6d. to 2s. 6d. per week per head. In some trades, total discounts amounted to 33 1/3 per cent. of earnings.*
Wages and Hours of Light-trade Workers
Wages in the Sheffield light trades are difficult to estimate. Most men were paid by the piece, at rates bearing differing discounts; in addition there were the complications of deductions, rent payments, sub-contracts, the earnings of apprentices, the fluctuating volume of work available and the fact that many men worked one master.
Wages were normally based on printed piece price lists drawn up by the trade society alone or by agreement with the employers. These price lists were exceedingly complex, covering a wide variety of patterns and sizes, and included additional stipulations on the provision of tools, deductions and the like; some lists ran to forty closely printed pages. Price lists were, therefore, not revised very often: few lists survived less than ten years, and some remained in force for a century; temporary changes could be made in the form of percentage additions or discounts on “list price?’ or by altering the number of articles to the “dozen”. Apart from reprints with perhaps minor adjustments, new lists would only be drawn up after major technical changes, or when a trade became strongly organised after a long period of weakness. Thus the price lists of the first half of the nineteenth century were generally issued in years of boom and labour shortage: 1810 or 1814, 1824-5, 1831, 1836 and 1844—6.
Most piece prices were given for separate goods; a few were drawn up in terms of “day work”, which stood for a certain quantity of articles, and changes in wages were made by changing the rates for more than day work.’ The weekly returns from working on different articles might vary widely, and the difference was particularly marked between well-paid high quality “country” work and poorly paid “foreign” work. This, and the erlier qualifications, should be borne in mind when drawing conclusions from Table 6, showing earnings
from a full week’s work in 1850. The majority of workmen in most trades were near the lower limits given, working on common quality goods. Only a small minority could ever reach the higher levels.
In most trades grinders formed the best-paid branch. A few groups of forgers also had high earnings, but some of these may include the strikers’ earnings. Hafters and file cutters, who had to bear heavy costs of materials, were paid the lowest wages.
The hours worked in the Sheffield trades were irregular. In depression years, they depended on the amount of work available; at other times the workman determined his own hours. In boom years, when wages were particularly high, hours were short, workmen apparently preferring leisure to income after reaching their normal earnings.’ Most men also preferred to do little work on Mondays and Tuesdays, making up their hours at the end of the week.
In large factories and steam-wheels hours were more regular. By the mid-century most wheels provided power from 8 a.m. to 5 P.m. at the beginning of the week, extending the period to 7 p.m. by Friday, and from 7 a.m. to 4.30 P.m. on Saturdays, a total of 581 hours, including the dinner period, but few grinders put in full hours during the first two days of the week. The large manufactories worked about 1 0 hours a day on the average. Country (water) wheel hours were very irregular.
In the villages, like Stannington, Eckington and Wadsley, where the common qualities of goods were made, hours were longer. The sweated domestic trades of cutlers and file cutters employing large numbers of women and children, worked 13 or 14 hours per day, and in others the actual working week was still above 60 hours per week and might approach 70.5 In the boom period 1844-6 these hours were reduced, but most of the gains were temporary.
The Saturday half-day was introduced in the 1840’s. By 185o work generally finished at 3 P.m. or 4 p.m., and some years later at dinner-time.’ The common holidays included 10 or 14 days after Christmas, one day each at Easter and Whitsun, and half a day on Shrove Tuesday and on 5th November. The Christmas holidays (used for stocktaking) were preceded by a few weeks of hectic work, “calf”, “cow” and “bull” weeks, to accumulate wages which would last into the new year.
Occupational Diseases of Grinders and Others
The high wages of the grinders included undoubtedly an element of compensation for their high mortality. The “grinders’ disease”, classified either under the generic term of “phthisis” or as one of a number of bronchial and lung diseases, was much the most dangerous occupational disease in Sheffield in the mid-century. The phenomenon was a comparatively recent one. In earlier centuries, grinding had not been a specialised trade, and even in the eighteenth century grinders worked in “country” wheels, driven by water, where work was often interrupted by drought or ice and grinders spent much of their time in healthy outdoor exercises or part-time farming or gardening. Only when the steam wheel drew the men into the town, crowded them into confined “hulls” and enabled them to work continuously over their stones, did the disease assume major proportions.
In present-day terminology, “phthisis” and “grinders’ asthma”, investigated in detail by two local doctors, G. C. Holland in the 1840’s and J. C. Hall in the 1850’s, were silicosis with a high incidence of tuberculosis. The progress of the disease has been described with terrifying clarity in petitions by fork grinders and razor grinders. It was frightening, not only by the number of the dead but also by the suffering of the living (see Table 7): “The transition from health to death is not a single step … the steps which lead to this end are numerous . . . and each inclination downward is accompanied with aggravated wretchedness.”‘ The worst affected were those who started in the trade at a tender age.
Some mortality statistics of Sheffield grinders are assembled in Table 1B, Appendix B. They illustrate the fact, well known to contemporaries, that the death-rates were highest in branches in which “dry grinding” was important, but dry grinding which took off more steel and allowed the blade to he constantly watched, was held to be indispensable in certain trades.
In earlier decades, needle grinding had been the most lethal, and the men coming in ‘from the plough”, at the ages of 18 to 24, were killed off within 12 years at most and few lived to be over 30; but the three firms which controlled the industry in Hathersage had installed an efficient system of ventilating fans, and mortality was reduced to a remarkable extent by the 1850’s. No such precautions had been taken in the other two main dry-grinding branches, fork grinding and razor grinding,’ whose members were not accepted by sick clubs and were, at times, even excluded by other grinders from their hulls. Scissor and fender grinders ground partly on dry stones, and table-blade bolsters Were dry-ground. The dry grinding of pen- and pocket-blades had been superseded by wet grinding about 1840.
Glazing, a necessary operation for most articles, also freed much silica and steel dust. It did not form a large part of a grinder’s work, but boys in the early stages of their apprenticeship were often put exclusively to glazing. The grinding and cutting of materials for handles, such as horn, ivory and bone, also created much noxious and harmful dust, and the cutlers, who had recently changed over from filing to glazing handles, were increasingly affected.
Wet grinding was less harmful to health. Grinders of saws, who stood at their work, developed a strong physique, and together with grinders of files, scythes and table knives were less affected by “phthisis”. Only in sheep-shear grinding, where a particularly soft stone was used, was the mortality rate exceptionally high.”
The most effective protection were a fan and a cover over the stone, such as had been installed at Hathersage and at joseph Rodgers’s; but these were costly to instal and interfered with the grinder’s work. A single grinder whose negligence caused the atmosphere of a hull to be polluted could render the efforts of the other nugatory. At the same time, the owners formed a “Millowners’ Association” to oppose structural alterations required for dust ventilation. The Factory Acts did not extend to grinding hulls. and the petition of the Town Council in 1853 to prohibit grinding and glazing by boys under 14 years of age and to enforce proper ventilation, was ignored.
Although grinders had recently begun to fix stones by the safer method of steel plates instead of wedges, the danger from breaking stones was still great in 1850. In 1843, G. C. Holland stated that of 42 saw grinders who had died since 182 1, 5 had been killed by stones and 13 Out Of 78 living grinders had suffered serious accidents from the same cause, while one grinder asserted that in 18 years’ working, 10 stones had broken under him.’ Risks could be reduced by regulating power so that stones did not race inadvertently, and by moving the fireplaces, where grinders congregated when not actually working, out of the line of broken fragments.’ Other occupational hazards of grinders were injuries to the eyes by red-hot particles of steel, and injury by moving belts, particularly to inexperienced boys.
Grinders shared with other local light trades the disadvantages of working in insanitary workshops. “There is scarcely a workshop in the town possessing as many comforts, and as good an appearance, as the House of Correction at Wakefield,” wrote the Independent on’ 21 st September 1850. Workshops were damp, ill-lit, ill-ventilated or draughty, and many were never cleaned or whitewashed.
Next to grinding, file cutting was the most dangerous Sheffield trade. Underpaid and illnourished, the file cutter sat hunched over his work in overcrowded rooms, and fell an easy victim to lead poisoning from the lead block on which the file rested. Deaths from plumbism were frequent, and were preceded by years of suffering. File hardening in lead baths was, apparently, less dangerous.