Illustrated Guide to Sheffield 1879

It is assumed that working conditions in industrial England in the 19th Century was dominated by child labour, greedy Simon Legree type bosses and starvation wages, while conditions were nothing like as good as todays industrial workplace, perhaps it is worthwhile to see what it was really like. You might be surprised.

This is an excerpt from "The Vital Statistics of Sheffield" by G Calvert Holland Esq MD Physican Extraordinary to the Sheffield General Hospital from 1843. The book is out of copyright, as far as I can tell. I have re-formatted it slightly for the web page, but the content is unaltered.



The workmen in this branch of trade are, perhaps, in no degree inferior in intelligence, sobriety and general good conduct to those in the manufacture of which we have just treated. They have both equally their respective unions, which regulate wages, the introduction of apprentices and which, in time of sickness, afford a weekly allowance. The following answers to the subjoined questions will convey a correct idea of the condition of the artisans.

1. What are the principal branches of the saw-making department?
The saw trade is divided into three branches saw-making, saw-handle making, and saw-grinding.

2. What parts are usually executed by boys or women ?
Boys in the saw-making branch attend first to toothing and filing. Women are employed to rub and scour saws, and, also, to oil and wrap them up.

3. What number of workmen is there in the different branches ?
In the saw-making branch, there are two hundred and eight journeymen,—about twenty of them not in union.

4. What number of boys or apprentices ?
The number of boys is about one hundred and thirty, which exceeds what is allowed by the rules of the trade.

5. What number of women ?
There is one female to about every eight men.

6. Were girls or women much employed in the trade thirty or forty years ago ?
Always as at present.

7. What are the rules regulating the admission of apprentices ?
The master is allowed two apprentices to five journeymen. During the bad time of trade, this regulation has not been strictly attended to by the masters.

8. What is the average of the wages in the different branches, supposing an individual to labour eleven hours per day ?
There is so great a difference in the work, and such diversity of talent in the workmen, that it is scarcely possible to give an average. The following statement is not far from the truth:— The few who are datal earn from 24s. to 82s. per week. The piece-work varies very much in its kind. Some departments will allow a person to earn from 85s. to 45s. per week, whilst others restrict the earnings to between 28s. and 80s.—28s. is about the average of the wages.

9. Are the workmen usually by the piece or *datal?
Both by the piece and datal, but generally by the piece.

* Datal means paid by the day or week—piece, for the amount of work executed.

10. What proportion of the adults can read ?
Nineteen out of twenty.

11. What proportion can write?
Nearly nineteen out of twenty.

12. What proportion of boys can read or write ?
We are not aware that there are any that cannot do both.

13. Are the different branches of the trade in the same or different unions? If in different unions, is each under a separate and independent management
In different unions, and their management is quite independent of each other

14. What changes have taken place in the prices since 1814?
The saw-making branch, for making the best article, receives about the same as in 1814; but there is twenty per cent, more work in the articles than in 1814.

15. What proportion of men are in sick clubs ?
About nine-tenths.

16. What proportion in secret orders ?
About one-sixth.

17. Are the men, in sickness, or when out of work, relieved from any fund belonging to each branch of this trade ?
Workmen belonging to the saw-making branch, in case of sickness, or when out of employment, receive a weekly allowance; and in case of death, a certain sum is paid towards defraying the funeral expenses. During the past two years, this branch has paid about £2000, principally to workmen out of employment It has been in union, and regularly organised above forty years.

18. What proportion of the workmen are depositors in the Savings' Bank?
From the depression of trade, during the last two years, we doubt whether any deposits remain in the Savings' Bank.*

* In 1840, it is shewn, at page 133, that there were 34.

19. Are the prices as strictly enforced, in time of bad trade, as in time of good ?
We have had great difficulty in maintaining the prices, but have generally been successful.




1. What is the number of men employed in this department of trade?
The number of men employed is about 120.

2. What is the number of boys employed, and what are the rules regulating their admission?
The number of boys is about 100, and there is no particular rule regulating their admission.

3. What is the number of females employed ?
Women are not employed in this department of trade.

4. Are the men datal or by the piece ?
The men work always by the piece.

5. What is the average of the weekly wages, and when were the present prices fixed ?
The average earnings, 26s. per week. The prices were fixed in 1821, but many men are working at prices lower than at that time?

6. Are the men in union ?
The men are in union, but one very imperfectly formed and conducted.

7. What proportion of the men can read ?
About eighty.

8. Are the apprentices the property of the masters or the journeymen ?
With few exceptions, they are the property of the journeymen.





1. What is the number of men employed in this department of trade?
The number of men in this department of the saw trade is nearly one hundred and twenty.

2. What is the number of boys employed, and what are the rules regulating their admission ?
The number of apprentices is about 90. No journeyman is allowed to have more than one apprentice, unless the apprentice be in his twentieth year.

3. Are the men datal or by the piece ?
With few exceptions, the men work by the piece.

4. What is the average of the weekly wages?
The average earnings are from 40s. to 50s. per week, out of which sum the grinder pays wheel rent, and the cost of stones and other articles required in grinding.

5 Are the men in union ?
The men, with the exception of about 12, are in a union which was formed in 1819.

6. What proportion of the men can read ?
About one hundred.

In the consideration of the silver and silver-plated manufacture, several conditions are stated which appear to be favourable to the workmen—such as restrictions on the introduction of apprentices, and the difficulty, from the capital required, for journeymen to become masters. The same exist, but not to an equal extent, in the saw trade. This is more liable to fluctuations from the greater competition resulting from this circumstance, and likewise from the manufacture depending largely on foreign markets. The well-being and intelligence of workmen will always be most marked in those branches in which the demand is the most regular. Neither inordinate prosperity nor adversity is conducive to the improvement of the artisan.

Many of the facts in the foregoing answers redound greatly to the credit of the operatives. Not to be able to read and write, is the exception and not the rule. It is also stated, that nine-tenths are in sick-clubs, which is perhaps a greater proportion, with the exception of the silver-plated branch, than in any other in the town. In some of the occupations, the proportion is little more than one-half. Men who are insufficiently remunerated for their labour, yet liable to the frequent vicissitudes of trade, cannot be expected to be provident, nor have they generally' either the means or the inclination to improve their minds.


The researches of Mr. Felkin into the condition of the workmen in Nottingham, during the depression of trade in 1837, afford some valuable facts on this subject, and are evidence of the vastly superior circumstances of the artisans employed in the manufactures of this town.

Out of 452 stocking makers, 91 only were in sick clubs; about one in five. In 498 lace makers, 128; rather more than one in four. Of the smiths, one in five. How different are these proportions from what are furnished by the saw trade ! Were there no other facts, on which to form an estimate of the condition of the artisans in the latter, these would be sufficient to establish the comparative comfort of the one class, and the comparative misery and degradation of the other.

The saw-making branch may be regarded as generally healthy. It is an occupation in which considerable muscular exertion is required, and yet the labour is not so severe as to make an undue call upon the energies of the system. The men art mostly well formed and strong, and live to a fair average age, taking into consideration that the employment is entirely within doors. The saw-grinders are among the most powerful of the artisans, either in this or any other manufacturing town. A great part of the labour is heavy, but several circumstances concur to prevent this exhausting the vital powers. The wheels in which they work are mostly propelled by water, being placed upon the streams, in the exquisitely beautiful situations within a few miles of the town; consequently, the artisans are liable to numerous interruptions, either from too much or too little water. The frequency of these interruptions has led many of them, to add to this employment the cultivation of the soil.


They have frequently either small farms, or plots of ground for garden purposes. The wheels, moreover, are always well ventilated, in consequence of dilapidated windows and roofs, for they are proverbially in a bad condition. The workmen, also, generally live in the country, and the wages they receive, which is an important circumstance, enable them to command the substantial necessaries of life. The combination of these conditions, satisfactorily explains the strong muscular frames which they possess. Further, the branch does not admit of the employment of boys at a tender age or of delicate constitution, the articles being too heavy for either to hold with advantage. Saw grinding is also entirely done on a wet stone, and the position of the grinder, when at work, is standing, so that the lungs have free play, which is not the case in other branches of grinding.

The saw grinders are peculiarly liable to accidents, from the breaking of stones and from becoming entangled in the machinery. This arises from two circumstances, the largeness of the stones on which they work, as well as the great length and weight of many of the articles which they grind. The larger the stones, combined with the rate of motion, and the more liable they are to break; and it is manifest that a saw, five or six feet in length, is much less under the command of the grinder than a penknife; hence greater the chance of becoming entangled in the machinery. Of the 42 deceased, since 1821, of which we have returns, five were killed by the breaking of stones; and the following are a part of the accidents which have happened to 78 living members in union.


1. Lame nine months, from the breaking of a stone.
2. Lame six months;—drawn over the stone.
3. Arm broken, from being entangled in the machinery.
4. Skull severely fractured;—was incapable of work for nine months, and the individual has broken eleven stones.
5. Drawn over the stone;—severely hurt;—in bed nine months.
6. Severely hurt—confined two months;—has broken seven stones.
7. Hand cut;—confined one month.
8. Leg entangled in the machinery;—for twelve months unable to work.
9. Arm severely lacerated;—lame three months.
10. Lamed, from the stone breaking;—ill three months.
11. Hand lacerated;—incapacitated from work.
12. Hand lacerated;—lame two months.
13 Leg broken, and now a cripple.

In this branch, there are only four affected with the disease peculiar to grinders, and these cases are more likely to have arisen from exposure to wet and cold, than from the inhalation.