Storying Sheffield

Steel Stories: The ‘Putter’

Steel Stories is a current project in which three Sheffield-based photographers and film-makers are producing visual narratives of the steel industry in Sheffield. They are accompanied on their shoots by undergraduate students from the School of English who are writing reflections on the visits. In this blog post, Lucy Hamilton describes her first visit with Shaun Bloodworth to scissor-makers Ernest Wright.
Cliff is a ‘putter-togetherer’. There is nothing he couldn’t tell you about ‘putting together’ a pair of scissors and no one can do it better. And yet today, upon visiting Ernest Wright, Cliff meets us with a humble hesitancy. For a few minutes, as we intently watch him work, he is oblivious to our presence, and when he finally notices us he seems genuinely surprised at our intrigue. His “nowt to see ‘ere” attitude epitomizes the humility with which he works. ‘Putting-together’, Managing Director, Nick Wright, tells us, ‘is the most skilled aspect of scissor manufacture, but Cliff would tell you otherwise’.
Cliff’s specialised role involves shaping the scissor blades into precise curves before assemblage, ensuring that the blades meet with the exact amount of tension required for a perfect cut. It is an undoubtedly delicate art, yet one which seems to have been curiously forgotten in Sheffield today. Though just a few minutes’ walk from the University of Sheffield campus, Cliff’s incredible skills go apparently unnoticed, and it seems negligent that his expertise remain relatively down-played. But, naturally, he would have it no other way. Despite his undeniable mastery of a trade which he claims to still be learning, for Cliff, there is no irony in the overtly humble title of ‘putter-togetherer’.
Cliff’s determined simplicity, however, seems to reflect a much broader Sheffield tendency to resist over-complication, and to just “ger-on-wi’-it”. But in an increasingly competitive, globalized market, is this “head-down” humility actually compromising the Sheffield scissor industry’s cutting edge? After speaking with Cliff, I am able to answer this question with a resounding ‘no’. It becomes clear that what keeps Ernest Wright unique is a special combination of pride and heart. Cliff, like most Sheffielders, knows the importance of not taking himself too seriously.
One aspect of his character which he does not simply “ger-on-wi’” is his story telling. Initially not expecting to have much of a chance of speaking with him in an introductory ten minute meeting, almost two hours later, we are delighted to be leaving Ernest Wrights with an earful of stories of old Sheffield. ‘Injuries, in my job!?’ he repeats back to us, ‘aye we’ve ‘ad a few, but in them days we dint even have a cupboard wi’ a plaster in, so there weren’t much we could do abaht it. It were just, “back to work!”’. I begin to wonder how many times Cliff has told his stories, and how much they have evolved over the years, but find myself eager to hear them again (and it seems likely that we will!)
I know we have only scratched the surface with Cliff and I am keen to ask him more about his industry, its future, and its changing place in the global market. But, most of all, we want to capture some of Cliff’s fascinating stories and experiences on film and, hopefully, with a little begging and prodding, Cliff, and Sheffield, will begin to see that his stories are more than worth telling!

To read Lucy’s second post, click here.
To read more about Steel Stories click here.