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ULR Trip to Kelham Island, March 2013

In March this year, the branch Union Learning Reps organised an educational trip to Sheffield’s Kelham Island Industrial Museum, as part of expanding our education and considering broader approaches to learning, outside of the classroom.

The event started with a viewing of the impressive (and very loud!) River Don Engine:

River Don Engine

…and then a  45 minute tour of the museum with a museum curator and guide, who walked us through the various exhibits focusing particularly on the labour movement history of Sheffield’s industry, and the Sheffield Outrages.

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What was really apparent was that growing industrialisation caused a huge amount of friction for Sheffield workers. Companies’ attempts to bring in big machines to mechanise processes which had been done by ‘little mesters’, or small artisan craftsmen, for a long time before, caused upheaval in the workforce. The appalling working conditions, as described in Friedrich Engels’ ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844’:

“In Sheffield wages are better, and the external state of the workers also. On the other hand, certain branches of work are to be noticed here, because of their extraordinarily injurious influence upon health. Certain operations require the constant pressure of tools against the chest, and engender consumption in many cases; others, file-cutting among them, retard the general development of the body and produce digestive disorders; bone-cutting for knife handles brings with it headache, biliousness, and among girls, of whom many are employed, anæmia. 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 thirty-five years, the wet grinders’ rarely exceeds forty-five.”

Violent attacks were made on un-unionised workers (colleagues who refused to join the union) and factories were firebombed by workers when bosses tried to undercut ‘union prices’ (more on that later). It was hard for us to believe all that could come from a trade union when you look at how they are now!

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We were also shown around the reconstruction of a buffing workshop, where women would work polishing the steel. It was very dark and noisy and we could well imagine what an oppressive atmosphere it must have been…it reminded us a bit of the Contact Centre!
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After the tour, we were taken to one of the classrooms where the museum’s archivists had kindly selected a number of trade union related documents which really brought the history of the unions and workers alive. There were lots of subs books (before the days of direct debits!), and union rule books including the terms and conditions that a worker could expect. There were some pretty funny ones! Some of them were incredibly old and fragile.
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One thing we learned was that Sheffield, unusually, retained a large number of ‘craft unions’ right up until the mid 20th century, when most other places had amalgamated into more general unions. The other amazing thing is the membership which was so much higher at the time than now. Even the very specialist unions had huge union density and numbers.

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These are price lists for tools and items produced by union members. Union price lists were used as a way of controlling the prices of items so that competition was eliminated and the money that workers received was not undercut. When companies started trying to undercut union prices with unionised labour, the unions would retaliate. At Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet in 1842, workers blew the doors off of the factory with explosives in a dispute over the bringing in of un-unionised labour, in the Grinders Union dispute. Later, one of the managers was shot in suspicious circumstances. It’s well known that the unions used to use ‘heavies’ to beat people up. One lesson we’ll keep in mind – don’t mess with the union!

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Overall, everyone had a great day, even our littlest attendees were entertained!IMG_3142And afterwards, of course, what could be better than a pint at the Fat Cat?

If you are interested in another visit such as this, the ULRs would be interested in putting on a further tour, perhaps to Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, Weston Park Museum, or further afield to the Coal Mining Museum or the Salford Working Class Movement Library.

To find out more, email rosie.huzzard@dwp.gsi.gov.uk

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