Daily Archives: February 4, 2020

Bending sheet metal


During the 1980s, as my father approached retirement and before my mother died, they took up American Square Dancing.  I’ve no idea whether they practice this in America but it is similar to and quite different from Ceilidhs.  They took it to the lengths of competing and for that they needed a team and so they needed a name.  The name they chose was “Steel City Squares”.

The Steel City is, as I’m sure you know, Sheffield.  Built on seven hills with 5 main rivers, it was the home of iron and then steel, from the earliest times.  By the twentieth century, Sheffield boasted several major steelworks in the Lower Don Valley.  A few survive today. 

This was the world my father inhabited during his working life.  The hammers, the furnaces, the rolling mills, grinders and buffers were all familiar to him.  He knew the smells, the dust, the noise …  But unlike most who worked in the shops, he was self-employed. 

I have lost track of his early working life.  He did national service for three years but I think he started work at an earlier age, possibly 16.  He seems to have been mentored by his Uncle Eric, who was not much older than he was.  Dad’s mother, Elsie had three sisters – Nellie, Annie and Maud plus two brothers – Herbert and Eric.  Eric was the kid brother.  He showed my father how to do roof work, putting up steel chimneys, it was great fun and they were unencumbered by Health and Safety!  At this time, my father got his sole qualification, through night school, in technical drawing.

Uncle Eric died at the age of 26, I’m not sure how he died but I gather it was some illness.  My father married and soon after decided to go it alone.

He was in business from 1956 to 1986, which was a success.  He bought a house and helped me and my sister through university.  This was success to a degree but we need to understand what motivated him.

He set out to make bespoke (my word) machine guards, ducting and balustrading.  (He enjoyed wrought iron, for gates and fences and at one time there was loads of his work around Sheffield but this never paid and so he reluctantly dropped it.)

 The thing that motivated him was not so much the crafting and installing of things but the problem solving.  Mass produced solutions are always cheaper but all the things my father made were unique.  The configurations of buildings and the juxtaposition of machines within them, meant there was nothing readily available that met the needs of a factory. 

My father would visit, find out what they needed and measure up.  Then he would go to the drawing board, design something new and then his men would make it.  This may sound simple but he never found anyone else who could do what he did.

Once someone called him in.  They needed to get a huge boiler into the cellar.  They said they wanted my father to put some pulleys onto the cellar head.  Then he could lower the boiler into the cellar.  My father said it would cost £300 (a lot of money).  They looked downcast and so my father said, they could try something else first.  He suggested they call together 6 of their men and tell them they would have an extra £10 in their pay packet of the boiler was in the cellar the next morning.  If not, they would have lost nothing and my father would do it.  The next morning, my father’s phone rang.  The manager was delighted.  He said my father was a miracle worker.  The boiler was in the cellar!*  The manager told loads of other people too, which was good for business.  My father had done nothing!

One day, my father came home and announced he had discovered that he was an entrepreneur!  But was he?  Entrepreneurs build businesses, my father enjoyed solving problems in steel. 

The reality was the business fizzled out in the 1980s.  There were four reasons I know of.  My father found that neither the Conservatives nor Labour cared for small businesses.  He was a lifelong socialist and yet found the unions always sided with his workers, no matter how feckless they were. 

Chasing payments was a constant headache.  Everyone was awaiting payments and when one came through, they would pass it along the line.  There was no point taking a debtor to court because they were in the same boat.  The money would come through eventually.  This played havoc with cash flows.  Even worse was the end creditor, like the Inland Revenue.  They did use the courts and if they made a business bankrupt, all their creditors lost out.

The third problem was the closure of many steel businesses in the mid-1980s.  Many of my father’s regular customers disappeared overnight.

Finally, my father had multiple sclerosis.  It affected his right hand side.  He didn’t know where those limbs were.  This was not good when he was climbing on rooves and erecting chimneys.

Looking back at this history, I think he became increasingly isolated in the business world.  Overnight his business became anachronistic.  He had the inner resources to take this philosophically, he taught himself to meditate and this helped immensely.  He lost his purpose, was constrained by MS and for the last 15 years of his life mourned the passing of his wife.  And yet he was calm and unaware of the inspiration he was to friends and neighbours. 

He made two interlocking squares from metal, the logo for Steel City Squares.  They were still there when we sold the house.

Day 6/21 of my writing challenge. Every weekday, I publish a short piece of writing on my subject, solitude. The writings are based on a daily prompt from Megan Macedo, who leads the challenge. These are all first drafts with minimal revision. Please comment if you find these posts helpful. Previous: Inscriptions. Next: Newspapers.

*  OK, I’ll put you out of your misery.  There was a window opposite the cellar head and they put a beam across and lowered it down with ropes.  If you’re like me, you’re none the wiser!