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The Capital of Metal

To mention in polite society that one’s occupation is metal merchanting tends to conjure up various images. If I had a penny for each time someone replied ‘You mean like Steptoe and Son’, I would be rich. In fact, I do not think the Steptoes were much into metal, it was more bric à brac, but the origins of one part of our trade in the collection of rag and bone lingers on. This brings me, today, to a discussion about England’s great capital of metal – Sheffield.

In 1844, Friedrich Engels in his analysis of industrial working life ‘The Conditions of the Working Class in England’ spoke of the cutlery industry in Sheffield thus – “By far the most unwholesome work is the grinding of knife-blades and forks, which, especially when done with a dry stone, entails certain death”. Quoting a report from a Dr Knight in Sheffield he goes on “…the hardest drinkers among the grinders are the longest lived among them, because they are longest and oftenest absent from their work.”

No one disputes that life in Victorian industrial Britain was savage, but it is still painful to read of the short life expectancy. ‘The dry grinders’ average life is hardly 35 years, the wet grinders’ average life rarely exceeds 45’ (which is, by the way, about the average life expectancy in Zambia in the 21st Century.)

Today, the river valleys running from the Peak District into Sheffield are still littered with the remains of grinding stones and other industrial artefacts, and the perception of those who neither live nor work in the metals industry is that Sheffield’s industry disappeared into the river too.

When I worked on the LME, rather than in the physical market, Sheffield was not a great feature of our lives – we were more focused on the Ruhrgebiet, Pittsburgh or the Urals. But Sheffield is very far from gone. Should you wish, you may still see sweaty muscular industrial workers, straight out of a socialist realist painting, getting bladdered of an evening down the Attercliffe Road, or frequenting the knocking-shops located in industrial buildings that were once cathedrals to metal. However, way more importantly, this is still a town where you can do almost anything with a bit of metal.

I was speaking recently to a scion of Sheffield, David Taylor, my own age, 60, who now lives in Somerset where I do. He told me that his grandfather worked in the cutlery trade as a ‘Little Mester’ (small craftsman) while his grandmother worked in a munitions factory during WWI.  The family would speak deprecatingly of the town as ‘a dirty picture in a golden frame’. (The frame being the beautiful countryside on all sides). And he recalls his dad, emerging from one of the Peak District’s many fine pubs, and looking out over the valleys and meadows towards Sheffield, prompted to make the following poetic judgment after a lunchtime pint – ‘It looks better from ‘ere lad’.

I would not like to diss Sheffield. The smoke stacks largely may have gone, the wide boulevards of the Attercliffe Road now girdle the Don Valley Stadium and bleed into Meadowhall.  The labour intensive work has been replaced by machinery, most of the poverty of Engels’ time has passed too, but if you want to work metal you are still in paradise. Behind the razor wire, which is the Sheffield equivalent of a privet hedge, industriousness takes so many forms and the cluster of activities built on the scrap heap of metal history is truly phenomenal.

Here is a list of just some of the activities and current services which I have had cause to use and which any metal merchant might find handy – shot-blasting, baling, shearing, crushing, cleaning, chipping, dipping, atomising, coating, lathing, band-sawing, sieving, sizing, water-jetting & plasma-cutting, sorting & specking, Fuessing and sampling, weighing and analysing, briquetting, re-packing and storing. And don’t think forging is gone either. If you happen to stay a night at the Travel Lodge near Sheffield Forgemasters you will enjoy the sound of the 10,000mt press throughout the night rising and falling, to literally rock you to sleep. Others are busy extruding, drawing, pattern-making, ceramic-core producing, alloying, casting, quenching, shot-making, trimming, tinning, coating, rolling, annealing, heat-treating, machining, die-casting, stress-testing, hot isostatic pressing, and now 3D printing.

At Sheffield Hallam University young people are benefitting from the coalition-inspired investment in links with Castings Technology International located in the new Advanced Manufacturing Park in Rotherham on the site of an old coking works. Here too, behind high walls, Rolls-Royce Plc are mechanising the process to produce single crystal turbine blades for the Trent XWB, the next generation of which will go into RRs futuristic Ultra-Fan engine.

Behind each set of double-gates, there is a world that is focused on one specific metal service. It has taken me over 25 years to get to know Sheffield a little, and I still get lost. But what I found everywhere is hard work and a sense of humour. On one occasion I was inspecting a pile of titanium scrap I had brought in from Russia. Stupidly, I asked a question about some material at the top that I couldn’t quite see. ‘Get in t’bucket lad’, the yardsman said, and so I was hydraulically transported in my suit and tie – together with clip-board – hanging on to the teeth of a front-loading JCB to gaze down on the job. I now tend to go to Sheffield in jeans and an anorak.

Finally, I cannot leave this hymn to Sheffield without mentioning that, after a hard day’s work, you can also get one of the best currys in England at Akbar’s in nearby Rotherham, where the naan bread is as large as a spade, and brought to the table, dripping with ghee, on a hanger that would be better fit for plating metal.

I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to do work in Sheffield and, far from it fading into the obscurities of the service industry, this is a place that will go from tensile strength to age-hardened strength in the modern era.

Published October 4th 2017 on www.lord-copper.com