Figure of a steel worker
Materials: cast metal
Dimension: 13 centimeters high
Place acquired: junk shop, Sheffield, 2012
Place of manufacture: probably local steel works
Sheffield used to be famous for its cutlery and steel manufacture. It is where I come from, and in the late 1960s when I was at college I would do casual labouring work in the steel works during my holidays. I was an art student, and I remember the awe (and slight fear) of being amongst working class men who looked pretty much like this figure. I remember their constant stream of droll humour, their creative obscenities and disrespect for authority. But also I remember their intense pride in the difficulty and skill of the work they were doing and the standards of the products they were producing.
If there is a touch of nostalgia in these memories of mine it is only appropriate to this little cast-metal figure. For soon after my holiday jobs of the 1960s Sheffield’s big steel works began to close down along with many of the small independent cutlery manufacturers. Like most of Britain’s heavy industry it is now largely a thing of the past and Sheffield, like many other northern British cities, has had to reinvent itself.
I found the figure in 2012 in a Sheffield junk shop (now calling itself an antique centre) and it has all the hallmarks of a product of a new British industry, the heritage industry. The figure depicts a burly steelworker with a thick leather apron pouring molten metal from a crucible into a small two-part mould. In effect the little sculpture is in its very subject demonstrating exactly the process that was used to make it. It is a barely finished cast, with the seam burrs only roughly filed off by hand. As well as being a decorative figure, it is as much about showing the process by which the figure was made. I have no information as to when and where it was made but my guess is that it was sometime in the last twenty years and perhaps in a small Sheffield steel foundry kept open as a working museum. It would have been bought maybe in the works itself, after the visitor had witnessed a similar piece being cast.
According to the government’s National Career Service Britain has over 57,000 people currently working in what is loosely called the cultural heritage industry. It contributes over £1 billion annually to the UK economy. Most of it is low-paid work and, interestingly, volunteering is a significant factor in the workforce. The pride and sense of identity that lost industries still generate in the communities that once worked in them is surprisingly strong. It is quite possible that this little casting was made by a volunteer. Possibly a retired steel worker now demonstrating the work in his own time out of a sense of pride at what Sheffield used to produce. It seems to speak of a collective pride and identity through local industry that is difficult to recapture in Britain’s post-industrial state. Certainly for me, as a Sheffielder, this little cast-steel figure has a pride-tinged-with-poignancy about it that makes it rather special.