Retro: job that ground down Sheffield workforce

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John Nicholson & Sons 
Mowbray Steelworks

The date stone of 1854 in the clue picture can be found on what was the John Nicholson & Sons works on Mowbray Street.

The Nicholsons were in business in 1847 and were makers of spring knives, table knives and open razors .

It seems that they had a small works at 19 Union Street in 1852, whilst living at the family home on Gloucester Street just off Broomspring Lane.

This area of Broomhall seems to have been very popular with the cutlery manufactures of Sheffield.

I suppose the area was clean with newly-built houses and villas surrounded by fields and woods. I can smell the clean air now.

By 1857 he was in the local business directories as a steel merchant and converter and refiner at a works at 12 Orchard Street.

I could not find any images of John or his wares, even though the firm continued at the Mowbray Steelworks from 1854 to 1953.

If I’m correct John was born in 1791 and was baptised at the Queen Street Independent Chapel. Just 21 years later he married Martha Jow on February 16, 1812 and on the December 13 of the same year his first son John was born. William arrived on May 12, 1818, James appeared in September 1824, Mathew Henry was the next on August 14, 1828 and finally Samuel was born on March 25, 1831. John Senior must have been very proud of his sons but did he or Martha wish for a daughter, who can say.

Pigot’s Directory of 1834 mentions John and Matthew Nicholson who were pen and pocket knife manufacturers at Pond Street.

The 1852 directory mentions John Clayton Nicholson who was a spring-knife manufacturer at 34 Pond Street. Lead Mill Road in the map shown to the right turns into Pond Street going north.

Matthew’s wife Maria was resourceful in maintaining a house, business and raising a large family. She was shown as being a beer house keeper on Fornham Street, Sheffield in the 1841 and 1851 census.

The City Directory mentions her again at 17 Fornham Street in 1852. Fornham Street was in the central part of the city to the south-west of where the Midlands railway station was to be later built.

One of the city’s dams, the Dale Dyke Dam, was to later burst in 1864 before William and his family moved to Philadelphia.

The trade that John’s sons eventually went into was a dire and dangerous occupation for the hands-on workers which included children and men and women.

The men who were hand grinders rarely survived past 40 years.

Here’s a report on the conditions they had to endure, written by Friedrich Engels, a German who was the co-founder of Marxism alongside Karl Marx.

The Conditions of the Working-Class in England in 1844: “By far the most unwholesome work is the grinding of knife-blades and forks, which, especially when done with a dry stone, entails certain early death.

The unwholesomeness of this work lies in part in the bent posture, in which chest and stomach are cramped; but especially in the quantity of sharp-edged metal dust particles freed in the cutting, which fill the atmosphere, and are necessarily inhaled.

The dry grinders’ average life is hardly 35 years, the wet grinders’ rarely exceeds 45.

Dr Knight, in Sheffield, says, ‘I can convey some idea of the injuriousness of this occupation only by asserting that the hardest drinkers among the grinders are the longest-lived among them, because they are longest and oftenest absent from their work.

‘There are, in all, some 2,500 grinders in Sheffield. About 150 (80 men and 70 boys) are fork grinders; these die between the 28th and 32nd years of age.

‘The razor grinders, who grind wet as well as dry, die between 40 and 45 years, and the table cutlery grinders, who grind wet, die between 40th and 50th year.’

The same physician gives the following description of the course of the disease called grinders’ asthma, ‘They usually begin their work in the 14th year, and if they have good constitutions, rarely notice any symptoms before the 20th year.

‘Then the symptoms of their peculiar disease appear. They suffer from shortness of breath at the slightest effort in going up hill or up stairs, they habitually raise the shoulders to relieve the permanent and increasing want of breath; they bend forward, and seem, in general, to feel most comfortable in the crouching position in which they work. Their complexion becomes dirty yellow, their features express anxiety, they complain of pressure on the chest.

‘Their voices become rough and hoarse, they cough loudly, and the sound is as if air were driven through a wooden tube.

‘From time to time they expectorate considerable quantities of dust, either mixed with phlegm or in balls or cylindrical masses, with a thin coating of mucus.

‘Spitting blood, inability to lie down, night sweat, colliquative diarrhoea, unusual loss of flesh, and all the usual symptoms of consumption of the lungs finally carry them off, after they have lingered months or even years, unfit to support themselves or those dependent upon them.

‘I must add that all attempts which have hitherto been made to prevent grinders’ asthma, or to cure it, have wholly failed’.

All this Knight wrote ten years ago (1834); since then the number of grinders and the violence of the disease have increased though attempts have been made to prevent it by covered grindstones and carrying off the dust by artificial draught. These methods have been at least partially successful, but the grinders do not desire their adoption, and have even destroyed the contrivance here and there, in the belief that more workers may be attracted to the business and wages thus reduced; they are for a short life and a merry one. Dr Knight has often told grinders who came to him with the first symptoms of asthma that a return to grinding means certain death, but with no avail. He who is once a grinder falls into despair, as though he had sold himself to the devil...

One of the last razor grinders, as the photo describes him, was Billy Hukin, who worked for J & W Wraggs at the Little London Works in the 1970s.

The photo doesn’t show grinding, it looks to me like Billy is glazing the razors on a double header machine, but people who have never stepped into a cutlery firm just seem guess at operations shown.

To make a open razor entails more than 45 operations before it’s finally inspected and the result is a work of art.

I didn’t know Billy personally but I did know one of his brothers, a chap called Gilbert, a bit of a lady’s man, not too far from my pals Dawson and Sorsby who are ‘Lady Boys’, their choice.

The cutlery and edge tool trade in the 1800s was a killer.

Health and Safety? If only that was available then.