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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

Chapter III. — Ten Acres of Hell.—a Night in a Steel Works.—Labour and Production

page 26

Chapter III.

Ten Acres of Hell.—a Night in a Steel Works.—Labour and Production.

In the vicinity of Sheffield, the country is full of deeply-wooded landscapes sheltering many a quaint village, many a romantic tower soaring above some silent sunlit flood. Spires and roofs hover among the trees and over hill and dale, spellbound with beauty, the radiance of summer floats. It was amid such surroundings that the early cutler came and pursued his craft. In many a shaded vale by the banks of the rippling radiant river the primitive steel was ground. They were the days of "little masters," each pursuing his individual will and little dreaming of the change that was at hand.

But industrial England was suddenly shaken to the roots by revolution. The great white god of steam had been chained to the rock of industry. With the development of mechanical power a new order of things, marshalling men, women and children into factories and from factories into big works, came with irresistible force over the hills. Foundries, shafts, furnaces, retorts, derricks, stag heaps and other things, rose with the flood. The triumph of invention had begun. The hills and man went down alike before its irresistible sweep. Ribands of steel shot like silver streaks through the land and with them noise, fire, transit and whirring wheels. Towns were convulsed with activity and expansion. England suddenly deserted her centuries of agriculture to become the manufacturer for the nations. Europe was reverberating to the voice of cannon. The tramp of armed hosts and all that romance of war which found expression in blood and slaughter blinded the continent to what industrial expansion meant to the Englishman.

America, too, was torn with dissension and civil war. Britain stood apart in the cultivation of the fruits of peace. The gloomy period that ended with 1815—the period that witnessed the doom of Napoleon and England drained and crippled by war—had passed. The industrial era brought demand for the new and destruction to the old. The Motherland was thrilled from shore to shore, and down to the very fabric of her social foundation by its giant catyclismic force of revolution.

To-day one sees the march of events in piles of chimney stacks, in pipes plumed with steam, in jagged derrick and tangled twisted girders, in furnace and roof reaching up in black and drunken shapes to the pitiless dominance of the smoke. The might of it is huge; the genius that inspires it astounding. Nothing could be more potent in contrast to its array of unbeautiful, stunted and blackened elements than the sylvan splendour that once adorned the land and filled its vales with loveliness. That contrast which suggests itself so aggressively to the stranger is still to be had between the moors and vales that reach out on the one side of Sheffield to the scenic wonders of Derbyshire and the torn and devastated area, overpowered by chimney stack and smoke, that lies on the other between Sheffield and Rotherham—Rotherham and Leeds.

Outstanding in that conglomeration of machines and plant are the great Steel Works for which Sheffield is so justly famed. In all the industrial ac- page 27 tivities that are associated with the phenomena of fire, smoke and steam, nothing is more attractive or inspiring than these massive concerns. They rise up filled with vast energies. Some of the great wonders of the mechanical and chemical age are compressed into their complement of blast furnaces, stoves, Bessemmer converters and rolling mills. One hears them from afar throbbing with an activity that knows no peace, day or night. They are dominated by the omnivorous demands of the Nations for production. It is their's to do, and man's to die. In the twilight hours, when the cities themselves are blotted out afar in the smoke, they gather on the hills—strange grim piles silhouetted against the glowing west. Long canals glide past in the gloom and unwind their silver glories to the stars. Electric lights flash through the smoke and steam, flames leap out to the darkness, but over all, over the black smothered country a vision of these palaces of industry rise up in the night, black and fiery, proclaiming the might of industry. There is a strange sad beauty in the scene charged as it is with so much blatant realism, but it is a beauty that mocks. Underneath it all and down in the valley amid that huddled congestion of houses is the man, the woman, and the child, and that is the problem!

A visit to a big steel works at night, when all the processes by which iron ore is transmuted into the finest bar steel, are in progress, is one of the sights of modern industry. The melting of the raw material by the blast furnaces, the burning out of its impurities by the Bessemmer converters, the casting of the molten metal into ingots and the rolling down of the glowing mass into fine bars of steel are things associated with an extraordinary accompaniment of fire, steam, noise, dirt, danger and sometimes disaster. One is ushered from the outer darkness into arenas of bewildering activities, of dazzling bursts of flame and molten metal. In the yards, where the massive furnaces tower into the gloom, locomotives gather and bear away to the fiery area of converters the inexhaustible flood of metal that the world awaits. One stumbles over innumerable rails, over areas of slag, sand and waste, past a fairy waterfall of coolers, into, at last, the long black halls of labour. They are full of shouts and noises, and shadows moving restlessly against the furnace fires. There is neither disorder nor waiting. It is simply organised labour brought to the maximum of production. The men are grimy and sweating, but they do not stop. They pass with gleaming eyes and matted hair. One looks in vain for the familiar type of slow, heavy British worker, plodding along in his rut of unprogressiveness. These men fill the place with extraordinary energy. The work proceeds apace. From daylight to dark, round the twenty-four hours of the clock, it is the same. Nowhere could the realisation of the link between time and money be more complete—more strenuously recognised.

High in the roofs electric cranes glide to and fro. They swoop down in the darkness like birds, swift and voiceless. For them, there is neither the song of the morn nor the twilight, only the clatter of steel and the ceaseless rushing of sparks. It seems as if machines and men were in unison with nature beating out some great symphony upon the breast of the world, and the effect is mad yet masterful, inspiring yet terrible.

A blast furnace is, in appearance, like an elongated gasometer, reaching to an average height of sixty-five feet by twenty-five feet in diameter. They are usually erected in rows of half a dozen on an eminence together with companion towers known as Cowper stones, each some 75 feet in height. With the assistance of these stones, gas is produced page 28 and ignited in the furnace under a blast pressure of some 5lbs. to the square inch, which develop a tremendous heat. The furnaces are charged from the top with ore, coke, etc., and the materials are speedily reduced to a molten mass. The capacity of these monster furnaces may be gauged from the fact that six of them produce 4000 tons of metal from some 12,000 tons of material per week. All that material has to be hoisted the full sixty-live feet of the furnace, and let into the furnace through hoppers.

Immediately around the furnaces is a scene of extraordinary desolation. Large areas of sand lie at the base, ready to mould the molten metal into ingots of iron if steel is not required. The surroundings seem to have no thought above slag heaps, ashes and waste material. At night one is dwarfed by the fiery towers in a grey and melancholy wilderness Everything is given over to an orgy of fire and smoke, which reaches extraordinary intensity when the furnaces are tapped, and their tons of seething metal borne away in great ladles by locomotives to the converters. The furnaces have been roaring for hours. A little group of workers are gathered in the gloom at foot, silent and sweating, for the heat is almost unbearable. The foreman gives the signal. Crowbars are plunged into the wad of clay that corks up the outlet, and in a flash, as the men leap aside, a flood of fire bursts into the night. It roars and suckles greedily down a bank of sand, dazzling the night with sparks, and tumbles headlong like a golden waterfall into the ladles many feet below. The aperture widens, and the Hood swells till it rushes down the slope like a stream. The sand channel wears and chokes under the strain. The workers move, black and staring, between you and the Hood. The channel must be kept clear, and thus they stand on the brink of death, face to face with that blinding ordeal, shaping the course of the irresistible flood. Sometimes it happens that the water jacket that keeps the aper, ture cool becomes fouled and bursts, carrying with it practically the whole of the bottom plates of a furnace. With such a moment there is a blinding burst of metal over the whole bank, and what, working like a demon down there, was man, life, labour, love and parent, disappears with a shriek in that frightful incineration.

Blast furnacemen, as a class, require to be physically strong when young. Their work is hard, and wages are good. But at an early age the strain of occupation, and the example of older workers soon develops in them a heavy propensity for beer. Under the combined influence of intemperate habits, and violent changes of temperatures, they break down readily and become prematurely old. The majority of them die from bronchial and pulmonary affections. They are also in constant danger of being poisoned by carbon monoxide gas whilst charging the furnaces. This gas, which the furnace generates, is very deadly. Two mouthsful will kill an ordinary man, and even when he is but partially affected by it the after effects are such as to permanently unfit him for his work.

The furnaces drained, and the ladles filled, and the metal is hurried away to the converters, where is passes through a process, the story of which is one of the romances of industry. The Bessemmer converter is a fat and bluntedlooking vessel, pear-shaped, and open at one end, about nineteen feet long by seven or eight across at the widest part. Ten or eleven tons of the molten iron are poured into the mouth of the vessel, and a powerful blast of air introduced from the bottom. The air sets up a violent ignition, by which all the impurities are burnt or blown out. The page 29 vessel is mounted like a gun, and turned by hydraulic power to an upright position ready for blowing. The roar chat follows the blast of air is deafening. Volumes of coloured flame and smoke, and endless sparks, are given off. After a period of from twenty to twenty-five minutes, when the flame turns white, the blast is shut off, spiegel iron is added to the seething mass to restore the proper amount of manganese and carbon required, and then the converter is turned over and the liquid steel run off into a monster ladle, that in turn distributes it into moulds in the pit below.

One approaches the area of their activities dazzled by tremendous outbursts of flame and myriads of sparks, rushing out to the stars. It seems as if the gates of the inferno are at hand. From the shadow of a gaunt iron building, with cinders crunching under foot, the visitor climbs on to a platform, where half a dozen converters, with their blunt noses pointing skyward, are roaring with a terrific effusion of flames, sparks and smoke. All the colours of the rainbow are cast into the ordeal. Below the platform there is a sandpit choked with moulds and men, where preparations are in progress for casting—at least, that is what the great husky foreman at your elbow tells you. Only vague shadows moving about in the gloom can be detected, for the atmosphere is charged with Steam and smoke. Moreover the roof of a long building extends over the yawning pit like the wing of a grea: black bird. A lurid peep is suddenly given as one of the converters is turned back on its mountings, hurling forth fire and destruction into the building itself. Nobody minds, for there is nothing but iron in its construction, and it is hopelessly dirty and black. Sparks rain into the pit below, but no one stops. Something is shovelled into the mouth of the vessel, and back again it turns roaring to the heavens. Down in the depths the workers can give no consideration to the menace of fire towering above them, even though it is the deathtrap of the whole place. It sometimes happens that in tilting a converter back over the pit the machinery fails at a critical moment, and the great vessel lumbers over with a crash. Tons of seething metal are shot with a rain of fire into the pit, there is a shriek—and then—horror!

It sometimes happens, too, that in the easting process which follows, despite the greatest care, a mould will be a little wet. The effect of pouring boiling metal into a damp mould is disastrous. A violent explosion occurs, and it is a matter of chance which of the band of workers in and around the pit is not hit, or who is not blinded by particles of fiery steel. Accidents occur with such frequency that every works of note keeps its own ambulance outfit and staff.

Once the ingot of pure metal is cast, it is hurried away to a furnace, heated and then squeezed down in the rolling mills. The latter, with their rows and rows of furnaces, adjoin the casting pit. The rollers spread across an immense floor space that extends over several hundreds of feet and out into the yards themselves. They are for all the world like huge mangles fluted so that the ingot as it passes and repasses between them is reduced from a solid red lump to a black strip the thickness of one's little linger. It is virtually one operation that transforms a solid block of metal four or five feet long by some eighteen inches in thickness and width into a thin bar of the finest steel over two hundred feet long. And it is done at pace.

The ingot at white heat is dropped into position by an overhead crane, and the workers, seizing it with tongs, bunt it into the gaping jaws of the rollers. There is a scrunch as it is shot through and page 30 clouds of steam rise off the rollers as water trickles over their polished surface. The men catch the ingot on the other side with their tongs and thrust it back over the rollers in no time. It is caught and hurled through again, and so the process of reduction continues, until the long black strip is borne away and sliced into lengths by a high speed saw amid sparks and groans.

The dexterity of the man with the tongs is a thing to marvel at. The ingot bounds at him like a great red serpent. He slips to one side. There is a snick, and instinctively "got him" leaps through heart and mind. But he has need of all his skill and strength. The faltering of a single moment and the scorching metal will have done its worst. No man can afford to stop a few hundredweight of livid steel.

Strings of railway wagons are awaiting the finished product in the yards, and immediately the clatter of loading ends, are rushed off to the main line and so to the omnivorous markets of the world.

The heated mind and body of the watcher finds repose at last under the glad cool stars. The night is full of murmurs as the roar and thunder of tinworks recedes into the distance. One views them from afar, vomiting flame and smoke to the silent skies—a veritable ten acres of hell. Neither the hills nor the vales know no peace from its fierce unrelenting life. It throbs on far into the night, calling at last with syren voice to the fresh thousands for the morrow.

Across the dawn an army of workers drift, stained and weary. Somewhere in the distance are congested streets and their huddled, dirty homes. There will be food of sorts awaiting them, and hungry children too. Is it not incongruous that all this marvellous process of production they are concerned with, these huge activities that make for national wealth, and build fine homes on the outskirts of the cities and rear palaces in London, can do for them no more than this? There is surely something inhuman in the anomaly!