BRIAN Alcock is last man standing after 800 years.
The 70-year-old is Sheffield’s only remaining jobbing grinder; the final foreman of a craft first plied here in the 13th century; the end of a pre-industrial line.
When he eventually stills his grinding wheel, this ancient skill of shaping metal will be gone from the city for good.
“It’s like watching history disappear,” says Anthony Bennett. “But this is a way of celebrating that heritage.”
‘This’ is a series of stunning sculptures - including, pictured here, a bust of Brian. The metal man who spends his days in dusty, rusty workshops is pride of place at the city’s Millennium Gallery.
The eight-piece collection, meanwhile, is thought to be the first sculptures ever made from swarf - the detritus thrown from a grinding wheel when the moving stone meets metal.
“It’s not a pleasant material,” says Anthony, the professional artist behind the work. “If you breathe in too much of it, it ruins your lungs. That’s why the average life expectancy of a grinder in the 19th century was only 35.”
He looks at his work. “But it’s lovely to sculpt with.”
The eight pieces have gone on display this week at some of the city’s most prestigious sites including the Town Hall, Sheffield University, Electric Works and Whiteley Woods. The idea is to draw attention to our 800-year-old grinding heritage as it comes to a close.
“This was one of the hardest, most skilful manual activities ever used by mankind to shape the world,” says Anthony, a 51-year-old father of three of Hillsborough. “And Sheffield was the best in the world at it.
“It’s perhaps not surprising there are no apprentices today, because it’s hard dangerous work now mainly done by machines, but it’s still a shame.”
It was a project Anthony dreamed up after meeting Brian, who is based at Beehive Works, in Milton Street, for another project.
“He told me about being the last in line and I thought, as a city, we should acknowledge that,” he explains.
Each sculpture was made slightly differently. For some, Anthony crafted a mould and placed it next to Brian’s wheel for the swarf to fall into. For others he took a lump of the material and carved the shape. Some are life-like and some are abstract.
But all have come with Brian’s approval.
“They’re fantastic,” says the father-of-one of Killamarsh.
“In years gone by we would make shapes in the swarf for fun before we cleaned up but I never thought it could be turned into an actual sculpture.”
* Sculptures can be viewed at city venues listed at Swarfhorse