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The Basic Industries of Great Britain by Aberconway: Chapter III: Part 1

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CHAPTER III. SHEFFIELD STEEL

PART I

The position of Sheffield in the metallurgical and engineering world is a peculiar one. It is the centre of an immense steel industry, but not of the iron trade. Within a distance of 30 to 50 miles a greater quantity of pig iron is produced than in any part of the kingdom outside the Cleveland district, and yet very little enters into the manufacture of the steel on which the reputation of the city depends, although the iron of the district was the original source of supply. Sheffield produces more engineering tools and parts of engines, perhaps, than the rest of England together, yet built-up engines do not count for so much in its trade outside the district as the productions of towns of far less importance. The story of the steel industry of Sheffield is the whole story of the scientific manufacture of steel of the last thousand years.

To make steel like Sheffield steel is the dream of home and foreign competitors alike. To make tools or parts of engines like Sheffield, or a machine equal to the requirements of Sheffield, is an ideal to be aimed at, and also an advertisement worth almost any outlay. Situated at the junction of the rivers Sheaf and Don, the city has a double reputation. The world that buys its cutlery hears only of Sheffield on the Sheaf; but the store departments of the great railway companies and engineering firms, the British and Foreign Admiralties and War Departments, and the British shipbuilding centres know the Sheffield that is famous for railway material, armour plate, guns, shot, shell, colossal forgings and casting, tool steel, boiler drums, turbine shells, cranks and shafting. This is Sheffield on the Don. In the trade reports of the Press we read of the "light" and the "heavy" trades of the town; but it is with the latter only that we arc now concerned, though most people associate the name of Sheffield with the lighter trades, to which it first, so far hack as Chaucer's days, owed its name. The ground space on the Don is so far superior to that on the Sheaf that the "heavy" firms - viz. John Brown and Co; Vickers; Cammell, Laird and Co; Thomas Firth and Sons; Hadfields; W. Jessup and Sons; and Edgar Allen and Co, all limited companies, have either originally started in that region or have migrated there; while smaller firms of hardly less reputation, and of intermediate character, such as Messrs. Turtons; Henry Bessemer; Davy Brothers; Osborn; Arthur Balfour; Jonas and Colver; Doncaster; Ibbotson Brothers; Sanderson Brothers and Newbould; Brown, Bayley; William Cooke and Co; Kayzer, Ellison; Burys; Andrews; Beardshaws, etc., some of whom hare since amalgamated with other firms, fringe both regions. The whole industrial area, intermingled with the workmen's dwellings, cannot be less than 20 square miles in extent. Resides these firms there are large numbers of small crucible steel-makers who represent the original Sheffield makers of cutlery steel, who used charcoal from the Pennine forests in conjunction with the local ores, and who may be compared with the "Little Master" in the cutlery trade. These needed very little capital to start their business, or to increase it as the business expanded. Given a few tools which he could carry in his pocket, a chamber or back premises to work in, and natural ability trained by a seven years' apprenticeship, a journeyman cutler could set up on his own account. The race is by no means yet extinct, though it grows less numerous year by year as machinery takes the place of hand-labour in the various operations comprised in making a knife, and as the heavy firms gradually develop and absorb the manufacture of crucible steel and the tools made there from.

It may seem strange that trades requiring, on the one hand, minute delicacy of handling, and, on the other, the production of huge weights of metal, should flourish in the same place, that place being an inland town, dependent on costly railway carriage for the transport of its wares, in the production of which the whole of the material used, except fuel, is brought from the coast. Swedish iron is, owing to its purity, the basis of crucible steel for cutlery purposes. Iron made from Spanish or hematite ores on the Cumberland coast is used for the heavy finished products of the district, all of which, except material for British railways, are sent forward to the coast in their turn, either for export or for use in the construction of ships and marine engines. The question thus arises, How far can Sheffield count upon the continuance of her trade prosperity in days when manufactures tend to centre round the source of their raw material and to cheapen their costs by dispensing with railway carriage and by loading their exported products direct into ocean-going ships? The answer to this is the same as that to the further question whether the foreigner, with his native skill, capital and education, and the aid in his home markets of protective tariffs, may not yet outrival the Sheffield manufacturer. So long as Sheffield can rely on the hereditary skill which has descended through generations of handicraftsmen, upon technical training of the best, and on the sagacious management of the capital employed so that her works are kept fully up to date, so long will she prosper, and there can be no question that, so long as the same care is devoted to the analysis and structure of an armour plate or the tail shaft of an Atlantic liner as to a penknife or a watch-spring, Sheffield has little to fear from foreign competition, in either our home or neutral markets, so far as high-class goods are concerned.

None of the branches of the heavy Sheffield trades has called for a greater exercise of these virtues of men and masters than armour-plate manufacture. The genesis of this industry is a history in itself. First came, in the fifties, the all-iron plate; next the compound steel-faced plate; next the nickel-steel plate; after that the Harvey cemented plate; and this has in its turn been supplanted by the Krupp cemented plate. Each process has demanded fresh plant and manual training, and all these developments have been made in the space of fifty years. The capital invested in armour-plate plant and machine tools for heavy gun forgings, cranks and shafting by what were called the armament firms (John Brown and Co.; Cammell, Laird and Co.; Vickers, Hadfield's and Thomas Firth and Sons) amounts to a large sum, probably more than £10,000,000. This plant maintained its full value only so long as British and foreign Government orders consequent on naval construction came pouring in. Needless to say, the Washington Agreement, in limitation of naval units, fell with crushing force upon Sheffield, rendering the greater part of the investment unproductive for the immediate future. To make matters worse, the Government had taken over the financial control of these and some other firms at the beginning of the War, and, by the enactment of what was called the "Munitions Levy," not only kept manufacturing profits down to a reasonable scale — which was perfectly just in the circumstances — but, while encouraging great capital extensions, disallowed the appropriation of gross profits to writing down and sufficiently depreciating these new buildings and the machinery plant and equipment used solely for the production of guns, armour, ships, engines and munitions of war. These firms were treated very differently from other manufacturers, who in the following year were merely subjected to "Excess Profits Duty." Before this duty was levied, very liberal allowances were permitted for depreciation of every kind. When the War came to an end, the armament firms were left with great and costly plants standing at full nominal values but no longer required for use, and therefore of small commercial value; while firms subject only to Excess Profits Duty had fully written down the book values of their plant. Nothing can be more trying to capitalist and worker than to find that machinery adapted to carry on easily a lucrative business has to be suddenly scrapped to give place to another process. Then comes the opportunity of the new competitor to step in; and to keep him out is no slight achievement. A long purse may meet the expense, and it is said that good wages will get workmen anywhere; but to undo all, or nearly all, the expenditure this year, and to unlearn all that has been so laboriously learnt last year, and to carry on with equal skill a new trade is good evidence of personal adaptability.

The Sheffield manufacturer has been always ready to seize on new ideas and new markets. The prompt adoption of the Bessemer patents and Siemens patents, and their ultimate development to their present proportions, disposes of any general charge of obtuseness against Sheffield works management. No new idea in steel manufacture has been allowed to remain latent in Sheffield, and few have been seriously tried elsewhere before being first tested in Sheffield. In the development and use of electrically-driven machinery Sheffield has been well abreast of the times. In 1846 the total consumption of coal in the town was 800,000 tons. It is no exaggeration to say that in 1881 this quantity was consumed by the large works on the Don alone, and chiefly for steam raising. The London Midland and Scottish Railway Co. has in average times carried yearly over 1,000,000 tons to and from its own stations and sidings in Sheffield, in addition to the tonnage which is carried by the London and North-Eastern Railway Co. Considerable diminution has taken place since then in consumption of coal for raising power. Great changes have been made in crane and other labour-saving electrically-driven machinery of the like character.

The value of the steel made in Sheffield was, and is, not so much due to the weight of the metal itself as to the work put into it. The material value of a watch-spring is small, but the work expended on it is immense, and the capacity and ability to do this work have been the monopoly of the Sheffield manufacturer. In times past this ability was very largely individual — it came from the brain and muscle of the craftsman. Improved mechanical appliances have, however, enabled the maker to deal with large masses of metal, and the training of centuries, with the application of modern science, have enabled him to achieve results in the mass which are technically equal to the minute results of the laboratory. Expressed in money, the steel manufacture of Sheffield in busy times has probably equalled in value that of the whole of the rest of England. Where this condition obtains — that is, where the quantity of work expended upon the material bears such a disproportion to the weight of the finished article — it will be at once seen how small is the relation between quantity and quality. The dictum of Alfred Krupp, whose Essen works were founded on a study of Sheffield manufacture, that "second-rate material will not be used and shall not be made," was simply the summary of Sheffield methods.

While attention is given to mechanical efficiency, the human factor, the influence of which has been so great in the past, is not being neglected to-day. Special privileges of shorter working hours are accorded by most firms to apprentices, to enable them to attend technical classes, and extra wages are given for evident ability. Sheffield was one of the first towns in the kingdom to move forward in the cause of technical education. Her University is now second to none in this country. A University charter for the college founded by the late Mr. Mark Firth, one of Sheffield's great men, Chairman of Thomas Firth and Sons, and the donor to the city of the Firth Park and Almshouses, has been obtained, endowing it with full faculties. Public-spirited men like the late Duke of Norfolk, the late Sir Henry Stephenson, and Sir Frederick Thorpe Mappin have contributed generously to the foundation, and none of the leading firms has refused a contribution. But when so much depends upon the personal qualities of the race of hereditary workers who keep the heavy trades at the high level which is more than ever demanded by the conditions of to-day, Sheffield expects that they, too, shall respond to the ideal she sets before them. There is no doubt that she is handicapped as compared with foreign competitors by restrictive labour conditions. Her machines are not all speeded to the point of most economical working, though progress has been made during recent years in this direction. Labour costs are, owing to trade-union regulations, frequently unduly high; while skilled-rate wages have too often to be paid for service which a labourer could do just as efficiently.

Things have, nevertheless, improved in these respects within the last few years, and no one has gained by the change more than the workman. It may be hoped that before long the strange fallacy that slow work spreads trade over a longer period, and thus ensures better earnings for labour may be altogether dispelled. The working man has far more to gain by helping his employer to turn out the best work at the lowest cost and in the shortest possible time than by letting in his rivals, who can ensure quicker and cheaper delivery, and the Sheffield worker is sufficiently intelligent to grasp this fact. And while he works conscientiously, he plays hard. He can tell the quality of a piece of steel by the eye where a metallurgist might learn less about it by analysis. He is often an artist in the finer branches of his trade. When he lives in the suburbs he is fond of his garden and his flowers. Though he is not careful about his personal appearance, his home is scrupulously clean and neat. He loves sport; cricket and football have their home in Sheffield; while the members of the local fishing clubs, who number nearly 20,000, and who go out on Saturdays to the Lincolnshire rivers, enjoy special facilities from the railway companies in the shape of cheap accommodation. The Sheffielder loves to drink well and to eat well, particularly the latter; he is temperate, but not a teetotaller; and perhaps his leading characteristics may be summed up in the phrase that he loves free-and-easy independence.

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