'There's not much happening in Sheffield any more. It's a dead town'
Heading back to the 1980s with 'Survivors of Steel City'
By Sophie Atkinson
Geoffrey Beattie is a working-class writer from Belfast who came to England to study psychology at university. Following a PhD at Cambridge, he moved to Sheffield to take up a job as a lecturer in psychology at the university. At the time, he’d persuaded himself that he’d left his working-class roots behind and that he would study people purely in an academic way. It was the early 1980s, and he was surrounded by people who had been made redundant from the mines and steelworks.
He remembers going to a talk at the university on the psychology of unemployment. “I was thinking, hang on, this isn’t really capturing the reality of what’s happening around me. I thought, nobody’s documenting these lives.” So he started writing essays about life in Sheffield — which were first published in the New Society (which, following a merger in 1988, became the New Statesman), and then in the Guardian and which were eventually turned into a book, Survivors of Steel City.
I stumbled across Survivors while interviewing the makers of the ‘90s documentary Tales from a Hard City — they cited it as inspiration, and on reading it, I wondered why I’d never heard of it before. It manages to be extremely funny and sad all at once, with Geoffrey writing about unemployed steelworkers swerving the supermarket when their friends might be there to save embarrassment; ‘millionaires’ who were actually on the dole, burglars, boxers and clubbers.
He told me of writing the book: “There were several questions at the back of my mind: when the economy implodes in this way, how do you still have self-respect? How do you still be a person? I became interested in people, people in clubs, pretence and self-presentation.” With the cost of living crisis upon us, its narratives feel painfully relevant to today.
I’d initially hoped to write an essay about this book — but what could I write about it that would be superior to the contents of the book itself? We asked Geoffrey if we could publish an extract and he graciously agreed.
By Geoffrey Beattie
Fred Smith was a Sheffield man, born and bred. Sheffield is famous for its steel and for twenty-two years Fred had worked for Hadfield's, the private steel firm in Sheffield. But not any longer. He had been made redundant in 1981 when the Leeds Road plant closed. For two years, Fred had had time to sit and think about what might have been, to sit and brood. Two years is a long time. Not surprisingly, Fred was bitter about the industry which had paid him off and about the country which had allowed it to happen. “I wouldn’t go back now if you paid me,” said Fred, not noticing the irony of what he has just said.
Fred started in the firm of Brown-Bayley in Sheffield in 1959. (It was taken over by Hadfield's in 1974). He was twenty-one and had just completed his national service in the RAF. He was born and brought up in Darnall in the east end of Sheffield. This is where the big steel mills and factories were situated. Once they operated twenty-four hours a day, the furnaces in constant use, manned by three eight-hour shifts. The air thick with smoke. Now the mills were silent and the furnaces had been extinguished. Cold, dead hulks. When Fred started in 1959, Hadfield’s employed about 10,000 workers — now there were fewer than 800. The Leeds Road plant was closed completely, leaving just the Vulcan Road plant in operation. In a town which owes its worldwide reputation to steel, these figures clank ominously. The steel industry was, and is, a tough manly business. Fred didn't have any misty-eyed view of his former work. “Hell” was the way he described it.
Up to your ankles in dust from the insulation tiles. Swept out once a week by a special gang on overtime but a few days later you were up to your ankles in it again. There were three eight-hour shifts; one from 6am to 2pm, one from 2pm to 10pm and one from 1pm to 6am. Fred laughed as he remembered the shifts. “In them days, the pubs closed at 10pm. The afternoon shift used to start really at 1pm and finish at 9pm so you could have a pint on the way home. By mutual consent with the other shifts, of course. In the melting shop they had to send out for their beer. It wasn't just a practice, it was a custom. it was the only way of stopping the men going outside for a pint. They brought the beer in in half-gallon cans and allowed a ten-minute break. The heat in the melting shop was fierce. You needed a pint: It may have been hell but there was companionship — what Fred missed most about his work. “When the afternoon shift finished, the gang would go to the Greyhound pub or the Attercliffe Liberal Club for an hour's drinking,” said Fred.
Working in a steel mill was a hot, dusty and dangerous job. Three of Fred's friends had been killed during his time at Hadfield's, the last one not long before Fred was made redundant. “A load fell off a fork-lift truck on top of him,” said Fred. “And I was sitting playing dominoes with him in the canteen ten minutes before it happened. Despite the obvious changes, safety equipment seems to have been minimal before about 1967. Before then, Fred said that they would make their own protective clothing out of any sacking they could find lying about to cover their trousers in a giant apron. Clogs they bought themselves. "Shoes didn't last a day,” he said. Steel helmets only arrived in '67 and even then, many people did without. “It wouldn't have done a lot for my friend anyway, would it?” There were also no showers. “You travelled back to Attercliffe or Darnall dirty.”
It may indeed have been a hell but it was a hell with a career structure. Fred started as a pit labourer at just over £8 per week in 1959 — “the lowest of the low — the general dogsbody.” He was part of a four-man gang consisting of a header man who made the feeder heads for the moulds, a second pit man who raked the dirt out of the mould before casting with a vacuum, and the first pit man — the gaffer in charge of the gang. His promotion was rapid — it was in them days — there was a big turnover as men headed for cleaner jobs in the cutlery industry and elsewhere. Fred became 'header man' within a year, then he did charge-wheeling in the blast furnace, then became trainee foreman, then shift supervisor, all within another year. As shift supervisor he had to accept a drop in salary at first but it was a cleaner job. “Anything was better than working on pit side,” he said, “it was really dirty, really scruffy.” In 1962 he earned £14 a week as a shift supervisor. By 1981 it was £8,500 per annum — good money by anybody’s standards. But then came the crash. He heard in May 1981 that the Leeds Road plant was to close. It came as a shock. “We always thought it would be the Vulcan Road plant — its equipment was older — nearly thirty years old. The equipment in the Leeds Road plant was only five or six years old. It didn’t make sense. Me and all my mates were sick. We thought we were all there for life. All my mates who I’d been to primary school with were all made redundant at the same time. We went to London to lobby our MP but it did no good.” Fred still quibbles about the productivity indices which suggested that British steelmaking was comparatively poor in performance compared with other EEC countries. He could argue his case well — “but,” he said, “no one listened.”
When news of the closing sank in, the local technical colleges were invited to send guest lecturers to the firm to tell the men about what retraining courses were available. Fred opted for a course in electronic servicing. And while he was on the course he got full pay for fifty-two weeks but he failed to get a job afterwards. “All the firms want experienced men and here am I at forty-five with paper qualifications but no experience. What use is that? I wish I'd done something else like getting an HGV licence, it would have been more useful.”
Money had recently started to get tight for the first time. With his £5,000 redundancy payment he had paid off his mortgage on his terraced house in Crookes — another working-class district of Sheffield, but upmarket from Darnall. He had bought a neat little house which now had red tulips overflowing in a small, well cared-for garden with a plaque outside which read “Mr and Mrs Smith live here”. Since being made redundant, Fred had worked his way through the house, decorating every room in turn. It was good taste — no flying ducks or swarthy beauties on the wall. But since his retraining course finished, he was down to his dole money and his wife’s salary (his wife was a clerk). “It's down to essentials now,” he said.
But money wasn't the only problem. His wife was now the breadwinner. She went out to work every day. She brought back the bacon. He stayed at home and got their sixteen-year-old daughter ready for school. “She's doing O levels at the moment. She's applied for forty jobs but only had one interview.” He made the dinner and did the cleaning and the shopping. “I don't mind cooking,” he said, "I did a bit when I was at work because of the shifts. I don't like cleaning, though. My wife says I don't do it right. She’s always telling me off about cleaning. I only do the surface stuff really. She does the deep-down cleaning at weekends. I do like shopping, though — I like to see what the prices are and to make sure that I'm not being fiddled. I’d never done any cleaning or shopping before but I do nearly it all now. I've no timetable. I just do what I feel like, except of course for the tea which I have to get ready for half five. Most of my old mates don't do anything about the house. Especially the older ones in their fifties and sixties. They're just not used to it. They just sit about the house. In the old days the man of the family would be served first in Sheffield. But luckily in our family it wasn't like this. Just as well. I'm just one of the family now, not head of the family.”
But wasn't he glad to be out of that hot, dusty and dangerous place — to be sitting in the spring sunshine in his garden full of tulips? “Not really,” he said. “I miss the lads at work. I've no male company any longer. I still see my mates from work. The problem is they live all over Sheffield. We meet for a drink about once a month and I meet another friend who was made redundant at the same time who’s now a bus conductor once a week, but it's not the same. Up in Crookes when I go into Shoppers Paradise supermarket, it's full of young mums or grannies. There’s only about three other redundant steel workers in all of Crookes and I didn't really know them before. Darnall's not the same. Most of it's been knocked down and the last time I went to the Greyhound pub it was in new hands — it wasn't doing any business since the steel mill closed down. There's not much happening in Sheffield any more. It's a dead town. But I've just got an allotment. I like to see things growing.”
Survivors of Steel City is currently out of print but used copies can still be found online. Sheffield Libraries also have copies of it for both withdrawal and reference.