Sheffield Record Office

Sheffield Archives Research

At Sheffield Archives

At Sheffield Archives I looked at documents concerning the city’s first Mechanics’ Library (1823) and Mechanics’ Institute (1832).  I consulted the Minute Books and also posters advertising Institute exhibitions from all over the North and Midlands of England. Some of them are reproduced here, and are from 1823 until around 1850. Many of the posters advertise exciting experiments to encourage people to join their institute. It’s like the best university open day you could imagine, plus a ‘Chromatic Fire Cloud’, ‘Glee Singing’ and perhaps a ‘Cowslip Wine’ for 3d.

derby mechanics
Derby Mechanics’ Institute Exhibition
York Institute

exhibition poster

sheffield archives
Mechanics’ Library Minute Book, from August 1823

Within the Library Minute Books I found much concern about the effects of Industrial pollution. In his Prevention and Treatment of the Sheffield Grinders’ Disease (1857) J. C. Hall found that:

‘the average age of fork-grinders does not exceed thirty years […] the poisonous atmosphere […] produces a complication of diseases, of which the most formidable is the asthma and dry cough, known by the name of the “grinders’ complaint”, attended as it is by consumption, which no medical man can cure. In such cases, life is a burden to the poor sufferers, and their frames are gradually emaciated and wasted by a repetition of slow tortures’.

p. 24.

At Rodgers and Sons, the average age of death for a grinder was 42; at both Union Wheel and Soho Works, 40; and at Suffolk Works it was 38.


Going to Sheffield Archives and finding concerns about industrial air pollution took me back to my own working life in Engineering. During my apprenticeship as a Fitter/Turner, and after when I became a Journeyman, there was always dust in the air.

When I was a turner, and especially on Vertical Boring Mills turning cast iron, the air was thick with dust. It didn’t bother me much, although my contact lenses developed rust spots behind the safety glasses. At that time we were supplied with plain goggles and had to fight for prescription safety glasses. This was a fight we eventually won, but only after we implemented an overtime ban and worked our contracted hours. Action was the only way to get anything.

The dust bothered my mum more than me. It somehow got inside my overalls and the drum in the family washing machine started to go rusty from dealing with the cast iron dust on my clothes. No, the dust that bothered me, and my workmates, was asbestos.

Despite it being legal to work with, we workers were aware of its dangers. I first came across asbestos at the training centre that most apprentices from the West of Scotland went to at this period. Some instructors would have a side job on the go that they made a little extra money from.

Asbestos Dust

During that first year I made many model brass cannons for an instructor on centre and CNC lathes, which he would then sell. But sometimes there was nasty side work that no regular employee would want to do without protection, such as cleaning metals with powerful solvents. This could mean having to be taken outside for air. Another non-official job was stripping redundant equipment for recycling. Once two of us sixteen-year-olds had to strip down a welding extractor for the aluminium. It was dry lined with asbestos, which came out in a white cloud when I drilled through the rivets holding the thing together. The instructor, not known for his honesty or humour, told me it was ‘monkey-dung’ when I asked what it was. I later found out this was the name of an asbestos and plaster mix.

Pipework lagged with ‘monkey dung’
A typical calorifier lagged with asbestos

The instructor didn’t care. I was sixteen and there would be no immediate effects from the toxin. From then on I worked with asbestos daily at work. The gaskets we cut with snips, hammers and ball bearings to fit the pumps and pipework were made from asbestos. Asbestos also lagged the steam chests of old pumps, turbines and pipework we worked on. It frequently had to be removed to get to the bolts. This released dry, powdery dust that often had chicken-wire through it, making it harder to get off the pipework. We didn’t have masks and were advised to damp the asbestos with water to keep the dust down. It was still legal to work with until the EU ban in 1999. More of that later.

Asbestos from the sky

Fairly regularly, overhead steam joints would burst. On one occasion, while I worked a CNC machine centre, asbestos was suddenly released from a blown steam joint. It fell like a sad snowfall over me. Apparently asbestos was used as fake snow on films made from the 1930s to the 1950s, including The Wizard of Oz.

Often in the test shop apprentices would work the valve on a live steam line. We would sit on pads of asbestos so as not to get burnt with the pipe. My legs would hang down as I straddled the valve, ready for instructions to open or close it from the fitters below. It was a good gig in the winter as the test shop was often freezing. 

1930s advert for pipe lagging

Boiler Rooms

However, the most exposure I had to asbestos dust was probably at a university, when I worked in the boiler-room each summer shut-down. As I had my trade papers I could work a lathe to make parts. I would also help with stripping calorifiers, repairing machinery, regrinding valves and putting in valve and pump packing. Some of those boiler rooms were like hymns to the asbestos laggers art. You could find beautifully shaped, almost completely spherical, asbestos sculptures covering pipe flanges. Chicken wire and ‘monkey dung’ were usually used for the straight bits of pipe. Much of it had been painted in the past and this now flaked off with bits of friable raw material frequently exposed.

Asbestos Twist

Lascar Asbestos
‘Lascar’ gland packing.

The twist and packing for the stuffing boxes were all asbestos, which was kept in a steel cupboard in the boiler room. The dusty packaging looked antique and the manufacturers had strange names like ‘Beldam’, ‘Lascar’ and ‘Cape’.

Gland Packing
A packed gland

Asbestos worked well as gland packing and we were told that graphited asbestos was the best. Ropes of it would be cut through at angles with Stanley knives or sharpened saw blades. We removed the old asbestos stuffing with pickers made from welding rods, and repacked them with alternately spaced winds of asbestos packing. We all knew it was dangerous, nonetheless asbestos was still legal to work with until 1999. When the EU ban came the steel cupboard was silently emptied. The contents disappeared and were replaced with non-asbestos packing and gasket material. Was it inferior? I found it as easy to cut and use. The following year there was no more weeping from the glands than there was from the asbestos packed ones. However, cutting gaskets and picking packing did not deliver the worst exposure to asbestos.

The Most Exposure

The most exposure to polluted air was to be had in the ducts, running under the university. These underground tunnels are relicts from when the university used a hot air system for heating in the nineteenth century. They now contained hot water and steam pipes lagged with asbestos and sometimes cutting, scratching fibreglass. It was in an awful state. The pipes often burst, and we had to remove and remake sections of them. That meant removing asbestos lagging to get to the flange bolts. The dust would move in the dank air like soot in a chimney. Entrances open in the street would draw up the contaminated air. We could see the dust rush by and around with our lights and torches. It was like standing in a working flue and no one liked it.

Employers were eventually forced to bring in professional asbestos removers and they were all kitted out. However, it took the force of legislation until many employers actually stopped making their workers work with asbestos unprotected. These experiences came back to me as I read about those Sheffield grinders who would be dead by forty if they worked a wet wheel and thirty-five if it was a dry one.

Sheffield Library as ‘a father’

At Sheffield Archives I saw just how much worse it was for workers than anything I had ever seen. In engineering work I’ve used wheels to grind tools, drills, and shafts, but not enough to worry about the dust hazard. What must that have been like for those Sheffield knife grinders? No wonder they wanted an educational institute and library. One of the committee members said that the library would be ‘a father’ to children left behind after their own had died from the effects of their employment.

Thank you to the archivists Sheffield Archives for making me feel welcome and for making the work of research easier. Some of the research carried out here is part of an article on Mechanics’ Institutes that will be published in 2021.

This work is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

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One Comment

  1. I found this article very interesting as I am researching my great great uncle Samuel Holberry and his links to Chartism and democracy. Unfortunately he died at 27 from TB whilst in York prison

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