Musical Sheffield

April 17, 2018 | Filed under: 2018, May 2018

Tideswell Local History Club was entertained recently by Scott Russell giving us a musical snapshot of working life in old Sheffield. When we visited the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet in 2017, it was Scott who took us round – explaining to us all the processes of scythe making from smelting the steel to grinding the blades. He then surprised us by breaking into song and such was our appreciation of this tune – The Jolly Grinder, that we invited him to come to Tideswell and sing for us again.

Before singing, Scott explained to us the history of the edge tool manufacturers in the region. Sheffield was well blessed during the Industrial Revolution in having ample deposits of coal, gannister and clay together with sandstone quarries where they could fashion their grindstones. In the very early days their greatest asset was water, which was needed to power their grinding hulls. As we know from the huge floods of a few years ago, Sheffield has a very large catchment area, which feeds the five rivers running into the city. In 1770 there were the colossal number of 133 water-powered workshops in the region, which was all well and good until they had prolonged summer droughts, which led to the loss of orders, unemployment and hunger. By 1850 most of the factories were powered by steam using reliable stocks of coal. Sheffield then became a much more unhealthy place to live with a forest of tall chimneys belching out smoke, soots, and sulphur etc. The art critic John Ruskin described the city as the “Dirty picture in the Golden Frame” (referring to the surrounding glorious countryside).

Scott’s songs mostly related to the cutlery and edge tool workers who sat straddled across a short bench called a “Horsing” with the belt driven grindstone just in front of him. He bent forward and pressed his steel piece on to the revolving stone and as he sharpened the edge there would be fine particles of steel and stone flying up into his face – a very unhealthy job indeed. The average life expectancy for these operators was only about 33 years and for the fork grinders who ground dry it was only 29 years – possibly caused by “grinders’ asthma”. One operator whose chest measurement was 32 inches could only manage a chest expansion to 33 inches!

Scott also dealt with the lighter side of their lives by singing about their social habits and the celebrating of “Saint Monday” (when the carousing of the weekend stretched right over into a “holiday” on the first day of the working week). Scott’s excellent singing concluded our programme for this season. Do join us again on the second Thursday in November for a bit more local culture, and our thanks go to our speaker finders – June and Tony for an excellent season’s programme in 2017/18.

Brian Woodall