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A Day in the Life of a Young Sheffield Steel Worker
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A day in the life of a young Sheffield steel worker in Victorian times

A day in the life of a young Sheffield steel worker in Victorian times

I, Mr J E White, found that the youngest working children are to be found to be making cutlery. Girls as well as boys sometimes begin at seven and even six years old and one boy who I found at work had begun at five.

When I asked how the workers get to work Mr. TB Hawksworth, steel manufacturer stated that ‘the work people live near or on the premises’ and Mr Alfred Ibbotson, steel manufacturer told me that ‘ file cutting work is chiefly done in the houses of the workers’.

When I asked what people wear at work, John Smith aged 15 said ‘the boys in the rolling mill often get burnt legs. This wares their trousers but does not hurt them much. They wear leather aprons for heating steel.

I spoke to a number of workers about the hours worked. In the iron and steel works the hours are moderate, being 60 hours a week. A period of 12 hours less stoppages is the established rule each day but there are often no regular hours sometimes working from 6 in the morning until 9 at night and on Fridays until 9.30 to finish for Saturday but not working much at the beginning of the week, maybe only half a day on Monday according to the work.

Workers learn their trades in a variety of ways. It remains the general custom for children or young persons to be employed not directly by the manufacturer but as apprentice or servants to the men who work by the piece. Robert Newbert aged 15 told me ‘ I’m an apprentice to the tilter until I'm 21. I’ve been with him a year and a half, or so, I live with him and get my meat and my clothes but no wages, that’s the usual way.

I talked to both owners and workers about the conditions and dangers they face at work. I found that grinders are liable to frequent pain and sometimes serious injury or loss of eyesight from the mites or sharp particles of hot steel, which fly into their eyes when grinding. Some wear glasses but I did not notice many so protected. A fellow worker takes the mites out with a lancet or a sharp pin.

I found that in the grinding wheels worked by steam power, the engine stops at dinnertime for an hour but not on Saturday. Martin Herefry, aged 11 said 'we never worked at meal times the man was very kind to us, I have to live badly and if I had no dinner he always gave me a bit. I worked in the crinoline factory once. There we worked in our breakfast half hour and in our dinner hour and we were forced to whether we liked it or no.

I asked how the children spent their time after work. Robert Newburt aged 15 told me ' I get some play after I get home, I have me dinner' where as George William Ross aged 12 said ' I can read and write, father sets me to it sometimes in the evening and if I don't feel tired I can do as much as I’ve a mind to. Some days I feel so tired I can do nowt at all. There's a night school sometimes and I always go to it when it's open and I go to Sunday school on Sunday afternoon.

It will be sufficient to say that in the large works, generally the wages are very good. Few boys get less than three shillings a week and some up to five shillings. The clergy and schoolmasters complain that great moral injury results from the high wages earned at an early age making children independent of the control of their home. However, in some branches of work such as cheap cutlery, where there is competition between the Small Masters, the wages are much lower, as low as one shilling a week.

The words of one young boy working at the John Brown steel works tells us a lot about the life of young working people in Sheffield in 1865. William Henry Ray aged 10 said ‘ ‘I shove on at the rollers, I don’t know how old I am or how long I’ve worked here, stay at work till 8 at night and sometimes till 10, have a half an hour off for breakfast and an hour for dinner.

No wonder the boys sometimes fall asleep at their work, stumble and fall when the metal flooring gets hot and slippy. Get burned or pierced with red-hot iron or steel or otherwise suffer for their supposed negligence. This shows an over amount of work for young boys which is truly fearful.