Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The steel-grinder: his health

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An Asiatic despotism is a dreary thing to contemplate and describe: and the tyranny of the ruder sort of African kings is intolerable to the imagination of Christian nations. The barbarity of negro slavery in its grosser forms is no less painful: and our only consolation in reading or hearing of the things that are done under such authorities as these is in hoping that the spread of civilisation and Christianity will, in time, render rulers and strong men aware of the value of human life, and more or less considerate in the expenditure of it. If we were to read of a country in Central Asia where a valuable mineral was found, which slowly poisoned everybody who came within reach of its fumes while it was smelted; and if we heard that the Khan of that country took strong men from their homes at his pleasure, and made them work upon that mineral till they were dying of the fumes, and then cast them adrift in their last days, we should think it a horrible destiny to be that Khan’s subjects. If it was also the fact that means were known by which the poison might be partly neutralised, so that the workmen might live for twenty years instead of certainly dying within ten: and if the Khan would not allow those means to be used, saying that ten years were long enough for his workmen to live, and that it was more convenient to him to have a rapid succession of them, we should proclaim such a ruler to be the monster of the world.

If we knew of a wild African king who required a certain quantity every week of weapons and other implements made of bamboo, and insisted on their being made in a particular way which caused the bamboo to fly in little spikes which stuck in the eyes and throats and lungs of the workmen, so that they began to cough the first day they went to work, and never stopped till they died choked in a few years—many being blinded also before that time—we should call the king a savage and his workmen slaves. If, moreover, the weapons might just as well be made without inflicting a single prick on anybody, and yet the king insisted that the pricking was precisely the part of the business which took his fancy most, we should call him a monster too. It is sufficiently horrible that there are slave-owners in Louisiana who say they find it answer better to “use up” (kill off) their negroes in a certain time, and get fresh ones, than to spare labour and replenish their stock less frequently. It makes an Englishman’s blood boil that such things should be said. But how could he find words for his indignation if the sugar could be grown and made just as well without the “using up,” and the owner should refuse to adopt the machinery which would answer that purpose because he did not like new ways, or because he did like to whip the negroes up to their toil, and get work out of them to the last gasp? This man, too, would be execrated as a monster wherever he and his methods were heard of.

Suppose a sovereign and a set of officials in England who should propose to inflict these very sufferings on Englishmen.

Nobody will stop for a moment to suppose any such thing. It is an insult to our country, and to all the men in it, we shall be told, to admit even a passing imagination of men being wantonly murdered by inches—doomed to a ten or a five years’ term of torture, ended only by a lingering death. It would be mere nonsense, if it were not also wickedness, to suppose that in England there are men who would submit to such tyranny in their own persons, or who would permit it to be inflicted on others.

Do we really think this? Do we confidently say it? Then we are mistaken; and we have some melancholy truths to learn about our country, and the men in it. Many hundreds of workpeople die every year, in each of several branches of manufacture, after a slow torture which is as needless as the early death; the difference between the English case and those of Asia, Africa, and America being that here it is no sovereign, no official personage, and no master who inflicts the murder, but the victims themselves, and their neighbours of the same craft. It is true the evil is not so great as it was: but it is still the fact that men are prevented by hundreds from saving their lives in dangerous occupations avowedly because their places are wanted for new-comers who had reckoned on their not living beyond a certain short term of years.

Did any of my readers ever happen to see the forging and finishing of a sail-maker’s needle? After the steel is cut into lengths, each bit is separately treated—flattened at the head, and guttered, and filed, and punched with repeated strokes for the eye. Each needle is separately hammered into its three-sided form; and, what is most to my present purpose, each is separately pointed by being held to a gritstone cylinder. There was a time when every needle of every size was made in the same way, costing an infinity of time and trouble which is now saved by the use of improved mechanical methods. Every one of these needles, in the making, helped to shorten a man’s life. The grinding of the points gave out a never-ceasing dust, composed of gritstone and steel particles, which infested the workmen’s eyes, nostrils, mouth, and lungs, so that no one of them lived to forty years of age. This is the peril which makes life so short among the Sheffield cutlers, and which renders the grinders of steel everywhere, whether for needles, or razors, or scissors, or skates, or sickles, a peculiar class of men.

Going back a generation, the career of, say, a Redditch needle-maker was this.

A boy in any family of that craft heard from his infancy upwards of wages of from two guineas a week to a guinea a day; and he was accustomed to the ideas which belonged to such pay under the peculiar circumstances. He saw his father drunk very often; and he knew that he would be tippling for a week together, after which he would go to work for two or three weeks when he could get credit no longer; and those were the times when there were capital suppers at home—the first delicacies of the season being upon the table. His father used to come home much out of breath, and he would be heard coughing in the night. When it was time for the boy to go to work, it seemed to be taken for granted on all hands that he should follow his father’s trade. If any friend remonstrated on the ground that the occupation was an unhealthy one, and, for some reason or other, not reputable, there was a family chorus of opposition. The father would not live long; nobody in his business lived to much beyond his present age; and then the good wages would be wanted. There were no such wages to be had in any other branch of manufacture in the place, and the boy could not think of taking up with less. He was not to sit at the grindstone, however, till he was near twenty. That sacrifice to prudence was agreed to because it was a rule of experience that no boys employed in needle-pointing lived to be twenty.

At twenty, or somewhat earlier, the lad married, and sat down on his “horse,” before his wheel. There, as he stooped over his work, hot atoms of steel and stone dust filled the air he breathed, and were driven into his eyes, nose, and throat. His employer was a humane man, we may suppose; for most of them were so, as well as they knew how. There were as many doors as possible in the workshop, and supposed to be always standing open, in order that the dust might be blown away, to a certain extent. The men shut the doors whenever they had an opportunity, complaining of constant colds from the draughts. They were strictly ordered to go and rinse their mouths and throats once every hour: but when they were interested in their work, and, yet more, when they grew short of breath on moving, they were lazy about leaving their wheels for this rinsing. Moreover, they objected to it in itself. If it did no good, it was a needless trouble and loss of time: and if it did remove any of the dust, the men would be unwilling to take the benefit. No man in the business desired to lengthen his own life, or chose that his neighbour should have any advantage over him, or should keep the rising generation waiting too long.

The employers entirely disapproved this view of things; but they were actually afraid of the debauched set of fellows who pronounced for “a short life and a merry one,” and threatened vengeance against any one who should lower their wages by prolonging their lives. A mask of magnetised wire was recommended by Mr. Abraham, who pointed out how the wires were studded with particles of steel, after a morning at the wheel; particles which would have entered the mouth and nose of the grinder, if not thus intercepted. But not a man would wear the mask. The employers used every effort to get it adopted: but the men said, as on all such occasions, that to make the work safer was to lower the wages. Thus the lad who was a beginner had no chance of wearing this safeguard. The eyes of older men were upon him. He fancied, too, that recklessness was a mark of spirit and good fellowship. He told his little wife, however, that the mask was no good, as it did not dispose of the stone-dust.

To dispose of this stone-dust, some employers tried an experiment of fitting the wheels with canvas cylinders, up which a good deal of the dust might be carried by a proper draught. In one night every cylinder in Redditch was cut into strips, and every workman in that branch informed his employer that the craft would never allow either cylinder or mask. The lads were told that their employers had seen two, three, or four generations of needle-pointers to their graves, and were advised and entreated to take with good-will to a long succession of improvements, all directed to keeping their lungs clear of the fatal dust. It was no use. Ventilators, screens, fans,—all devices were destroyed or neglected.

In a few months, the young workman found he never was well. In a few years, he had a habitual cough. Mother and wife urged him to eat; as the hearty eaters bear the work longest. Much of the money went to keep an expensive table. Then drink followed; and then rows, riots, midnight vengeance for trade quarrels, a soured temper when every breath was drawn with pain; an anxious mind when there was a long score at the public-house, and several hungry children at home; and finally the poor fellow, old at five-and-thirty, and sinking under “the grinders’ rot,” knew that his lungs were black as ink, and tough as parchment, and were on the point of stopping for ever, while his fine wages were gone, he could not tell how, and there was nothing for his widow and little ones but to go into the workhouse. So much for “a short life and a merry one!”

The sons who followed him to the grave as infants now find their occupation a very different one, and not much more dangerous than many other employments. Happily for them, though not for all parties at the time, there was, in their youth, a disastrous strike in their little town, and their father’s trade. The needle-pointers were misled, and suffered much hardship: and when they petitioned for work at the old wages, the employers imposed a new condition;—that they should honestly use the means provided for the preservation of their health. A fan-wheel in the midst of a group of grinding benches, each of which has its wheel covered so artfully as that the dust is whirled away from the workman’s face, conveys the whole collection of stone and steel particles out of the work-room, and blows it into some harmless place in the open air. I have seen the cloud issuing from an opening, and actually whitening a green bank for a considerable space. This white stuff would have turned human lungs black by the inflammation it would have caused; and, but for the apparatus, and the will to use it, the present workers at the wheel would long ago have been in their graves.

The same improvement has not taken place wherever steel is ground. We think at once of Sheffield, where the fork-grinder expects to die at thirty, and the grinders of razors and scissors a year or two later; and the tableknife-grinders at five-and-thirty; and the grinders of saws and sickles at nearer forty; but none so late as forty. The wretched men,—who, however, are proud of the peculiarity of their lot,—seem to be at about the same point that the needle-pointers elsewhere were at in the days of the mask and the canvas cylinder, and before the strike, to the failure of which so many lives are owing. Some of the first cutlers in the world have applied themselves to obviate the mortality among their men; but almost in vain. When they set up the fan-wheel, the men will take every opportunity of stopping its working. The words which they are reported to have used are these: “Trade is bad enough as it is. If the men live longer, it will be so overfull that there will be no such thing as getting a living.” They do, however, permit the dry-grinding to be turned into wet, as improved machinery works this effect. Knowing as they do that it is the dry-grinders who die, on an average, before thirty, while the wet-grinders live from two to ten years longer, they allow of such a quickening of their wheel, and such a drip of water over it as may detain a portion of the dust from entering their lungs. Of the dry-grinders, however, there are five hundred employed on forks only in the one town of Sheffield:—five hundred young men who have doomed themselves deliberately to an early death; and in such a way as to excite only disgust, instead of the sympathy and admiration with which all men are wont to regard any loose hold on life which has any respectability about it whatever.

The position of Sheffield is singularly bad in the scale of comparative sickness undergone by the working-classes, as ascertained by the managers of Friendly Societies; and yet there is no note taken of the fact that the lives, out of which this sickness is computed, are little more than half the ordinary length. In comparing the sick weeks in the life of a rural labourer and a Sheffield artisan, we ought to note, not only that the one has 52 weeks of illness to 95 of the other, but that the rural labourer’s term may extend to 60 years, while the Sheffield man’s ends at 40, or even 30.

Even without this, and supposing that all have an equal right to talk of their life “from twenty to sixty years of age,” what a preponderance of sickness there is in Sheffield! In town life generally in England the proportion of sick weeks in those years is somewhat under 55. In city life it is under 66 weeks; whereas in Sheffield it is just upon 95. No other town, and no city on the list before me, comes near it, even Leeds being under 63, and Rochdale under 57; and the ill-favoured and unpopular Stockport, the worst after Sheffield, under 85.

We shall know more about all these matters after the approaching Census: but we now perceive plainly enough that there is an enormous sacrifice of life in the commonest processes of manufacture, which a little more knowledge may enable us to obviate entirely, and which a better morality would at this day materially check. It is the terrible attribute of this sort of mischief, however, that it is at once cause and effect. Peril to life, of this particular kind, generates the immorality which, in its turn, creates the recklessness which again imperils life. The mere mention of Sheffield brings up the image of such recklessness in the minds of all who hear the name. The low regard for human life, and the propensity to violence for which the working population of Sheffield are notorious, must have some explanation: and the explanation is easily found in the excessive sickness and mortality of the place, through hardships for which the victims would murder any tyrant who imposed them, but which they inflict on themselves against all remonstrance and preventive efforts on the part of their employers. It is impossible to remain many days in Sheffield without perceiving how low and wild are the habits of a portion of the population; and every newspaper reader in the kingdom is familiar with “fearful outrages” of which the scene is Sheffield, and the occasion generally some trades’-union dispute. For the deeper cause we may look to the depraved state of bodily health, and the self-imposed doom of death under which a certain proportion of the citizens pass what they choose to call “a short life and a merry one.”

Their case is not like that of the Redditch needle-makers, an improved and improving one. In old times the grinders of Sheffield were scattered about over the neighbourhood—small groups of them being found beside any or all of the waterfalls which abound in that hilly district. They were always a rather wild and rough set of people; but they lived a free life of less toil than at present, or rather, as they now vary their toil with intervals of dissipation, we may say that their fits and starts of labour and holiday were more wholesome when they depended on the flow of the waters than now when they are determined by the inclination of the workers. When, in former days, there was not water enough for the wheels, the grinding stopped perforce. As the flow might begin again at any moment, the men could not go far from the spot, so they used to sleep, or play, or drink and gossip on a green bank, or beside the weir. Where there was a whole hamlet of fork-grinders, eight or ten men might be collected in one room; and the dust from their wheels was then abundantly pernicious. But on the whole there seems to have been more air, and less of an aspect of fatality about the occupation than of late years. It is rational and wise to supersede water power by steam, wherever it can be done, not only for reasons of commercial economy, but to save health and life and good land by abolishing the practice of dams on flowing streams; but, when the Sheffield grinders were collected from these country spots, and assembled to grind in steam-mills, it was essential that they should use every precaution on behalf of their health. This is exactly what they will not do. They work cooped up in an atmosphere of grit and steel. A few of the more intelligent make more or less use of some apparatus for carrying off the dust: but the greater number oppose and resent all such concessions to reason; and the cry of all who would save them is now for an Act of Parliament to compel them to save their own lives. To save the women and children in factories we have passed a law which would be wholly indefensible, under our constitutional system, on behalf of men : and it would disgrace our country in the eyes of all the world if we were to pass such a censure on the working men of England as to make a law to prevent any class of them from wantonly throwing away their own lives, without any pretence of a reason, to keep up a high rate of wages. We must hope that some better method than an Act of Parliament will in time avail to stop this disgraceful form of suicide. Meantime, a well-known Sheffield physician has published the fact that whereas, in the kingdom generally, the number in a thousand who die between twenty and nine-ami twenty years old is 160—among the Sheffield fork-grinders the number is 475!

Many of the people complain that the fortunes of the town are sinking; and it is only too notorious that the character of the place has long been declining. As to its poverty—there is, we are told, a large class always in precarious circumstances—the small manufacturers who have been journeymen or jobmen, and who set up for themselves as soon as they have a little money in hand. With a fair chance of an even trade these small makers might do well, as their brethren in Birmingham do, on the whole; but the ravage of trades’-union tyranny has prevented any fair play to the Sheffield men. The largest capitalists cannot sustain the prosperity of the place while the labour market is disordered by the interference of trades’-union dictation: the manufacture leaves the place, and goes over to America and other countries, in spite of the eminent natural advantages of Sheffield. As the trade declines the men bring more and more of their children into it, and insist that wages shall not be lowered. They threaten the employers, and are jealous of one another; and they insist, among other things, on the grinders dying off as fast as they ever did. From time to time we hear of some plot to ruin or murder an employer ; and every year or two there is an explosion in some working-man’s bedroom or cellar, from a can of powder introduced by an enemy, in the name of the unionists; and thus Sheffield has acquired its bad name and its low place in the scale of English civilisation. It would be very interesting to see that population—naturally hardy, apt, strenuous, and skilful in toil— work its way up into a condition of health, comfort, prosperity, and good repute: and we should like to see them begin their reform with that great cause of disturbance—the grinder’s health.

If the grinder could once consider himself a man on equal terms with other men, as likely as they to live to threescore years and ten, he would at once be a wiser, a better, and a happier man. The Redditch needle-pointers have come round to show a sort of complacency in the clever contrivances for the preservation of their health, and a contemptuous pity for a man who can take no satisfaction in them. If the fork-grinders could attain thus much wisdom, any man of their class would soon be ashamed, instead of proud, of being pointed out as an old man at five-and-thirty. Their habits would be those of health, instead of reckless disease. Their skins would be cleaner if their lungs were not so foul. They would eat plain wholesome meals, instead of pampering themselves with costly diet—“feeding high to keep themselves up,” when every hour’s work is pulling them down. They would work and play more temperately and regularly when the ordinary prospect of bringing up and establishing a family of children was before them, instead of the excuse of custom for spending their great gains in debauchery for a few years, and leaving their widows and orphans to the charity of the world.

This class thus raised, the moral atmosphere would be purified to a certain extent, and the selfishness and violence which now render all law and order precarious would moderate by degrees, till the peculiar facilities at present afforded to tyranny over the working man would disappear. The managers of strikes have more scope for their cruel tyranny now in Sheffield than in more enlightened and orderly places; and great are the sufferings of employers and employed, whether they at once submit to slavery or resist it. If the matter is not settled sooner by the good sense and proper spirit of the citizens of all classes, it will by the loss of the trade of the town and district— already grievously reduced; but it is fair to hope that a body of workmen, renewed in health and heart and hope, by casting off a dreary doom, might reinstate the labour market and its liberties, and retrieve the fortunes of the place. If the thing is ever to be done, could it begin at a better point?

If the men now at the wheel are too far gone, physically and morally, there are the children. If they can be brought up to understand the nature and value of health, and the sin and disgrace of throwing it away, the supply of working class suicides may be cut off, as that of juvenile thieves is by reformatory schools. One point which should be looked to is their notion of honour or spirit. From their fathers they are apt to pick up a notion that there is something fine in recklessness of life, and contempt of early death. It is not difficult to make it clear to anybody who will listen that it makes the entire difference whether life is held lightly for one reason or for another. If it is in devotedness for Man—for one man or many—it is a fine act to risk life; and we honour accordingly the Deliverer, like Garibaldi—and the Doctor and Nurse in a plague-stricken city—and the Martyr at the stake, who dies for what he believes to be the truth, be its form of profession what it may, and the Explorers of the globe, who brave the terrors of the Pole and the Equator to enlarge our science, and thereby enrich our human life. But the recklessness of life which proceeds from self-indulgence and ignorant obstinacy has nothing fine about it, and is often found to cover a tendency to cowardice. It ought not to be difficult to enlist the sympathies of any Briton, in early life, on behalf of the true courage which faces the duty of life, and prepares for it by building up a sound body, as the power and agency of a brave mind. There is no fear for the arts of life. Steel will be ground, whether men thrive or die over the work. They need not die; and it rests with the educators of society to decree that the present generation shall be the last of such ignoble martyrs.

Harriet Martineau.