Die Sinker (Trades and Crafts No.2), 1980.

A post about three sets of documentary films on industrial Sheffield follows. First from the late 1970s (Trades and Crafts), the next 1993 (Masters of Metalworking) and finally a series of shorts from the recently departed Shaun Bloodworth in 2013-15. All work united under their appreciation and documentation of the Little Mesters…

In the 70s and 80s, South Yorkshire County City Council (SYCC) sponsored a wave of films to be made about council services to help reposition Sheffield’s image and attract business to the region in the post-industrial economy. Broadly speaking, the first archetype of the council film in this period are the promotional corporate made with the aim of showing Sheffield in a positive light with the hope of building internal confidence; improving Sheffield’s outward image; attracting inward investment; and developing a long-term plan for the economic diversification of the city in a Blunkett-led administration attempting to transform and raise civic pride. [1] Typical early examples of these films include the infamous Sheffield: City on The Move (made global by its use on the Full Monty) imagining the city as a ‘smokeless city haven’, or the later Your Move Next (1981), by Sheffield Polytechnic graduates Martin John Harris and David Rea, which is a work of wonderfully awkward acting now available on the BFI Player.

Your Move Next (Martin Harris and Dave Rea, 1981)

The same two film-makers also made a beautiful short about the abundant range of Sheffield parklands and leisure spaces the city has to offer. No more do the factories clog up your breathing apparatus; swimming, cycling, outdoor brass-bands, the Botanical Gardens, Endcliffe and Hillsborough Park are where it’s at in the feel-good world of 70s South Yorkshire. Free For All glides along without narration amidst a gorgeous 16mm palette of greens and yellows, and a newly commissioned folk song in the 70s Pentangle-mould. It is a lovely film. Found here on my Vimeo:

TRADES AND CRAFTS

Another aspect of the SYCC sponsored films, arose from a realisation that traditional industries were crumbling, so the council commissioned the Sheffield Independent Film (SIF) membership and the City Polytechnic to document the aging proponents of steel crafts, or ‘little mester’ trades. The phrase Little Mester is a regional term used to describe Sheffield’s self-employed cutlers who rented space in factories and had their finished goods sold by the factory owner, [2] and in late 1970s the demand was beginning to erode as East Asian imports were allowed to flood the market thereby killing the small traditional industries. SYCC approached Paul Haywood and Barry Callaghan at Sheffield City Polytechnic to document these dying businesses and they made a series of films called Trades and Crafts of South Yorkshire. The council paid material costs for 16mm, and in an age when film was expensive and difficult to fund, here was a chance for students and SIF members to work on 16mm productions at little cost.[3]

Sheffield City Polytechnic Logo 1980

Until recently only a handful of titles had surfaced, but I was fortunate enough (thanks to Paul Haywood’s widow, Aileen) to have found a VHS tape with all the original Mesters film transfers and a series of follow up films from 1993 (‘Masters Of Metalworking’) sponsored by the Ruskin Gallery which make a fascinating counterpoint to the early works.

In the first Trades and Crafts batch of titles, put together by Haywood and Callaghan (with assistance from Sheffield City Polytechnic students), we meet characters in their workshops with names like Albert, Roland, Eric, Bill, Steve, Stan and Thomas as they show us the dark arts involved in Blade Forging, Die Sinking, Grinding, Dressing , Silver Casting and Silver Spinning.

Highlights include the perma-smoking Mr. Hukin – Fork Polisher (Trades and Crafts No.1), whose family name has been in the fork polishing industry for over 200 years, telling us that ‘at this moment in time that me and and my workmate, Bill Holmes, are the last two men working on their own account in this country’.

Albert Craven – Blade Forger (Trades and Crafts No.7) meanwhile is the last maker of hand-forged knives in the city who, after 72 years in the industry, has decided to retire and escape to the coastal town of Bridlington to see out his days away by the sea. This is one of the standout Trades… intercutting scenes of Albert by the Bridlington docks ruminating on his life and work, with the Blade Forger himself in situ hitting orange-hot-metal-on-metal as he carves blades. The film closes on the quietly heart-breaking epitaph from Albert, which serves as a motif for all these films: ‘It’s rather a pity it’s dying out, because it was a really good craft that had been going on for nearly 600 years, and we’ve got to the stage now where I don’t think the trade can do all that much for us anymore… there’s not going to be the same craftsmen at all…because everything now is done by machinery’.

To show that it’s not all Sheffield steel, Trades and Crafts ventures up the M1 to meet Thomas Devey – Millstone Dresser (Trades and Crafts No.4) at Worsbrough Mill near Barnsley to investigate the 900-year-old water powered mill and the engineer who works at the newly restored working museum that now sits onsite. Mr. Devey has spent all his employed life at Worsbrough (‘like his father before him’) and is now retired but the film shows him demonstrating the craft of millstone dressing which is ‘the act of cutting, then maintaining the pattern of furrows and flat lands between them which sit on the grinding faces on the millstones’. This process is integral to the end-quality of the ground-flour product. Mr. Devey expertly goes about his business, and it’s gently absorbing stuff.

Back in Sheffield, Barry Callaghan directs the wonderfully titled Last Teapot Handle Maker (Trades and Crafts No.8) and goes in search of Mr. Watts at the 19th Century Sellers Wheel Yard on Arundel Street (now the site of a hip coffee shop). In one of the workshops we find the eponymous Mr. Watts setting up on his last day of work before retiring from the teapot handle trade. Mr. Watts finishes the process by attaching the cast handle to a famous Sheffield plate teapot, and just like that his workshop and the family company of five generations, draws to a close. Like many of the Trades films there’s an innate sadness which permeates. These titles paradoxically celebrate Sheffield’s industrial heritage yet are made in socio-political circumstances set to derail that history. However, as snapshots of the fascinating network of skilled artisans which endorsed the ‘Made In Sheffield’ banner for centuries, the Trades and Crafts films by Callaghan and Haywood remain vital studies of regional and industrial heritage. The full series is collated here.

 

MASTERS OF METALWORKING

In 1993, the Ruskin Gallery set out to document those hardy souls who had somehow survived the post-industrial collapse foretold in the 70s Trades and Crafts films with a new body of documentaries entitled Masters of Metalworking. Guided by British tool specialist and industrial historian Ken Hawley, the series begins at the cutlers Joseph Elliot & Sons Ltd. (founded 1795) on Sylvester Street which was one of the last outliers in the city to continue in the the traditional methods of making cutlery. Now shot on videotape, producers Mark Parkin and Jo Spreckley interview Frank Carr of the firm as he and Hawley guide the viewer through various stages of making table knives, kitchen knives and handle preparation. Elliot & Sons closed down five years later in 1998.

Elsewhere, the Masters series explores the work of Pen Knife Cutler, Stan Shaw, there’s a film about Billy Hukin in 1966 making a razor blade, and then shows him using that same blade in 1993, finally the so-called ‘Jobbing Grinders’ Brian & Tom Alcock. The latter are a father and son team, who – rather poetically- sit astride their grinders in symmetrical unison, working the steels and stones: sparks’ fly, the noise is relentless, a lime-green coolant sparkles, and you can almost smell the smoke.

Perhaps the saddest tale belongs to the only women interviewed in both the Trades and Masters series’. Mirror Polishers – Ethel Grayson and Edna Stone sees production shift to Milton Works for a recording of ‘Sheffield’s two buffer girls’ (both are 80 years of age) in action at the polishing wheel. As Hawley narrates, this very production had a charmed existence as within a fortnight of filming, both ladies retired as ‘they had had so little work that they couldn’t afford to pay the rent or buy food’. On the day of the shoot they were hard at work, however. Some cook’s knives were sent in for buffing and, as described, the finer finish on cutlery was often required in the pharmaceuticals or catering industry. Getting to the final polish was dangerous, dirty, noisy work, as evidenced by the heavyweight uniform which Edna and Ethel are wearing (especially around their hands) surrounded by the constant whine and rumble which grates the soundtrack. The pair dance around the workshop in a perfect, practiced rhythm, and as the sunlight blasts through the cracked workshop window onto the shop floor, Hawley suggests, ‘I don’t think we’ll ever see their like again…’

SHAUN BLOODWORTH

The spirit of these Sheffield films -and the crafts they represent- did live on in a much later context, however, as captured by the much-missed photographer and artist, Shaun Bloodworth and sponsored by the Storying Sheffield project. In Stave we meet up with the same ‘Jobbing Grinder’, Brian Alcock, from 1993 to find he is still in motion, in that same hunched pose, scraping away metal on stone. Visceral sound design bring the Grinder right up to the 2000s. Incredible.

Elsewhere, Bloodworth takes his digital camera from the vast spaces of the Forgemasters floor at Firth Rixon, to the historic knife manufacturers Eggington who have been making blades since the 17th Century. His most famous film from this series is The Putter. This handsome, heart-warming, documentary about Ernest Wright & Sons of Sheffield, one of the last remaining hand manufacturers of scissors. Bloodworth’s close gaze watches ‘The Putter’ Cliff Denton at work in the steel: his hard-worn fingers, blackened and coarsened by decades of turning and tightening and tapping. It’s a beautiful piece, haunted by the original Trades and Crafts and while those characters may be long-gone, the Putter at Ernest Wright & Sons had a stirring afterlife. After being taken up as ‘Vimeo Staff Pick’ the film went viral (846k plays and counting) and helped generate significant new business for the company so that it survives to this day in 2018. As Bloodworth recounted, ‘previously, on a good day, they would receive three online orders; the day after the film went online, he received 300.’[4]

In fact, while some traditional light industry remains, many of the old disused spaces around the city have now been taken up by a new wave of artisans, artists and craftspeople making things with their hands for the next series of Little Mesters films to emerge in decades to come. More power to their digits.

This post is dedicated to Shaun Bloodworth who died in 2016, and who saw the light in great creative artists from the Little Mesters to the thriving UK underground music scene.

Peace.

NOTES

[1] P. Seyd, ‘The Political Management of Decline: 1973 -1993’ in L. Binford et. Al., A History of the City of Sheffield, Vol. 1. (Sheffield Academic Press Ltd., 1993), p. 151.

[2] ‘from https://web.archive.org/web/20080516070957/http://www.made-in-sheffield.com/people/littlemesters-pt1.htm (Accessed 12 October 2016)

[3] P. Haywood. Fine Art Lecturer, Sheffield Hallam University, Retired. Conversation with author, April 16 2016.

[4] http://www.storyingsheffield.com/2015/07/art-science-craft-how-a-video-saved-a-scissors-factory/