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Can anyone help describe the working conditions in the large steel factories in the late 1930s please? How many hours did they work? Pay? Clothing? Any known disasters? My great-grandfather worked for English Steel from 1920 onwards, shame I can't ask him. :)

I have searched this site and I can't find any old threads. I have also search the internet and there is tons of stuff before and after this time but none just before the war.

many thanks

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I was at ESC from 1960 to 1967. Up to around 1963 I don't think working hours & conditions would be significantly different from the 1930's. I recall we ( those on staff conditions) worked 8.30am to 5.30pm  Monday to Friday. We had to clock in & out.

 Steelmaking was not a continuous process so steel plant workers would work Monday - Friday two 8 hour shifts per day , maybe Saturday if required. My first pay packet was £2  17 shillings & six pence.  

Prior to the early 1960's safety had a limited impact on operations. Manual operation of bar mills occasionally resulted in a man getting a red hot piece of bar through his leg!  This changed when the new Tinsley Park automated bar mill was built in 1963 & overnight safety was vastly improved. People were killed in accidents  from time to time in the steelmaking plant though particularly prior to the 1960's. Little safety equipment was used. On the Siemens furnaces which were used until they were replaced by electric arc furnaces about 1962, the 3rd hand would go to The Wellington pub every so often  & bring back large plastic containers full of beer to prevent dehydration. I worked with an old steel melter & he mentioned drinking up to 24 pints a day including what he drunk at night. In  the early 1960's beer was replaced by salt tablets.

That might just give you some idea of what it was like.


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I started work as an apprentice at Sanderson Bros & Newbould in 1959. For the first year I worked in the drawing office because 15 year olds were not allowed to work in the production areas. The day workers and the single night shift workers were on a 44 hour week. Soon after I started working on the shop floor the hours were reduced to 42 Hours. All our rod & sheet mills were manually operated. The only accident I remember was when a man lifted himself by 1 foot on the plate in front of the rolls to turn down the handle reducing the gap of the rolls and the foot slipped into the rolls. He lost his foot and got a guaranteed job for life as a fork truck operator. Fortunately it was the electrically operated mill that stopped instantly The other mill had a steam engine with 30 foot flywheels that took 20 minutes to stop.  In the pickling shop the operator should have neutralised the spent acid in the pickling vat before opening the valve to dispose of it. He decided it was easier to open a manhole nearby and shovel the neutraliser into the acid as it passed. Unfortunately he slipped and fell down the manhole for a very nasty death. In the machine knife department a Pakistani labourer cut his fingers off by trying to lift a machine knife by the cutting edge. It was then found that he did not actually work for Sandersons. His brother who did was sick and thought he would lose his job if he did not turn up for work so he sent his brother in his place! At Sandersons workers with hot and molten metals got a "Salime" mixture from the ambulance room that contained salt to replace what was sweated out and was lime flavoured. I left in 1965 at the end of my apprenticeship because you we expected to having learnt your trade working as cheap labour mates to electricians.


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The adverse social and economic affects of the industrial depression of the 1920/30's was ,by the mid 1930's, being replaced by "re-armament" and , as a consequence, full employment. Indeed, so busy were many of Sheffield's steel plants that , for example,armour plate for a range of naval vessels was being imported from Czechoslovakia ( until the Germans took over in 1938) in order to meet the  Admiralty's shipbuilding programme. Most steelworks worked the "Sheffield shift system"...Monday to Friday...6am to 2 pm. 2 pm to 10 pm and 10 pm to 6 am with overtime on Saturdays and Sundays when things became frenetic!!

Working conditions would depend almost entirely on the occupation.

Steel melting/hot rolling/forging or stamping were HOT and potentially highly dangerous with white hot steel ,to the outsider being almost casually handled... it wasn't it was skill and experience which made it appear so.

Turning or other cold working operations tended to have much better conditions....although safety glasses and gloves were often not worn.

Old Rider mentions acid pickling...that job tended to leave people with bad lung conditions as did grinding.

Health and Safety ,as Johnm suggests, was far less important than it is today ( we should probably thank the EU for that) Many plants operated equipment that was fit for exhibiting in an industrial museum and human muscle was still widely used...mechanisation was slow to be introduced in many of Sheffield's smaller steel plants,

Pay was generally poor.(£143 per annum average) Clothing was often ordinary ( but old), In hot working operations legs would often be protected with sacking, with trouser bottoms being tied around the ankles with thick thread . Steel toe capped boots or clogs with steel strips attached to the soles were the usual footwear, Safety helmets almost unheard of...although steel melters would sometimes wear protective head gear and goggles. Others would wear overalls and "flat caps" were common.

Sheffield was a very proud city and still resented its poor treatment after being the "arsenal of the Empire" during the Great War. Unemployment had affected Sheffield as much, if not more, than any other industrial area and this was remembered by the workers who were determined it should never happen again ( it did!) but the post war unwritten social contract to aim at full employment,as a Government priority, saw Sheffield become something of a boom town from 1945 until probably the early 1980/late 1970.s

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