Storying Sheffield

Steel stories: The ‘dogsbody’

Steel Stories is a current project in which three photographers and film-makers are producing visual narratives of the steel industry in Sheffield. They are accompanied on their shoots by students from the School of English who are writing reflections on the visits. In the second of her blog posts, Lucy Hamilton describes a visit with Shaun Bloodworth to scissor-makers Ernest Wright. To read her first post click here.
I ask Eric: “If Cliff’s a ‘Putter-Togetherer’, what are you?”
“The dogsbody,” he replies, “Aye, I do the grinding and polishing, Cliff walks about quite a bit. He’s off again look, Roadrunner.”

Eric has worked for Ernest Wright since 1992 and has been in the industry for 57 years, but reflects how very little has changed in terms of the scissor-making process itself. Whilst hand grinding a batch of blades, he tells me that the most significant change is a new deburring machine which minimises the polishing process. They call the machine a ‘rumbler’. Whilst Shaun films, Eric demonstrates the process of hand polishing the inside of the mild steel handles (depicted in the photo), a task, he says, which would be a lot easier if the belt wasn’t broken. “It’s worn aht, like me,” he laughs.
This process is one of the more dramatic elements of scissor manufacture; Eric selects mild steel, rather than stainless steel, for his filmed demonstration as it produces more sparks. However, despite this drama, there is an incredible synchronisation in this process as Eric rotates the blades around the grinding belt. It is this effect which Shaun will utilise for his film; he will record and loop elements of the manufacturing process to reflect the impression of repetition.
It becomes clear that Eric’s work will lend itself perfectly to this concept; he has no idea how many pairs of scissors he will prepare for assembly today, and the speed at which he works reflects how the repetitive process is second nature to him. It is this repetition which is the subject of Eric’s own comic cynicism. He jokes that some mornings he wakes up and dreads the thought of all the scissors he has waiting for him at work that day, and when I ask him if he still enjoys his job he pulls a face, “It’s alright, not bad”.
“Do you ever imagine polishing your very last pair of scissors, Eric,” Shaun asks, “it seems never ending?”
“Aye it is,” Eric replies pointing towards the hundreds of blades lined up down the centre of the room, “never ending, never ending.”
However, this repetition, whilst perhaps tedious, seems to reflect how, for Eric, his work at Ernest Wright is steady and predictable. This is a concept mirrored by Shaun’s film which will encompass these repetitive and seemingly disparate elements of the manufacturing process to create an overall impression of a complete, finished product.

The industry’s relatively unchanged processes seem to have found a sustainable niche within the modern global market. Ernest Wright seems, for the present, at least, to be successfully showcasing the benefits of remaining small and traditional (with the exception of very new looking, and accordingly ignored, health and safety notices placed deliberately around!) Eric reflects that his personal struggles within the industry when running his own scissor-making business, chasing work, chasing materials, and then chasing payment, have been resolved by his coming to work at Ernest Wright.
“It’s better than work here.” Eric concludes, and, spotting Cliff on his way back down the road, says, “Look, walking abaht! I told you, it’s better than work here.”
To read more about Steel Stories click here.