A Fading Industry: Inside the John Clarke & Son factory (1980)

40 years ago this week, Sheffield photographer Mike Bellwood visited John Clarke & Son to capture the skilled workers using traditional methods to make fine cutlery, knifes, scissors and razors. We spoke to Mike about the images he captured that day and how they came to represent the dying embers of a famous trade.

All images copyright of Mike Bellwood Photography

Can you tell us a bit about your background as a photographer?
My father was a photographer, learning most of his trade during his time as an RAF photographer. After the war he set up the family business in Stannington. From an early age I was taking photographs and learning the processing side, before studying professional photography at Blackpool School of Arts. By a strange coincidence it was the exact same building which had been the RAF School of Photography where my father had studied. Over the past 40 years I have undertaken a wide variety of assignments ranging from weddings to portraits to commercial photography. A few years ago I was invited by Google to work with them photographing the interiors of local businesses for Street View, creating internal 360 virtual tours.

How did the shoot at the factory come about?
The project was a collaboration with a local business to create a window display showcasing the rapidly disappearing way of working. John Clarke & Son were selected due to them being one of the last small companies using the old methods of production, which had hardly changed since the company was founded in 1848.  The firm only survived for another three years following my visit.

What were you aiming to capture?
The aim was to record a way of life and a disappearing industry. It was important to not only show the technical aspect of the manufacturing processes, but to capture the atmosphere of this small factory and the skilled craftsmen and women at work.

Were there any specific techniques used to get the shots?
For a young photographer only recently out of college it was a tricky project. Due to the subject containing  flames, sparks and moving grinders, and in a very low light level, the careful control of exposure was essential. There was no checking the images on the camera’s digital screen like there is today. Only when the rolls of film had been processed you could be certain the  shots had been successful, so you had to rely on experience. To ensure the successful capture of the atmosphere it was important to use the natural ambient lighting as the main source of lighting and refrain from using an unnatural photographic photographic flash. I recall asking one of the craftsmen while he was grinding if it  would be possible to create more sparks, and he replied, “Yes, but only for you. Too many sparks are bad for the metal and make it look like I’m not doing a good job!”

The photographs were shot with a Swedish-made Hasselblad medium format camera (as used by NASA on the Apollo moon flights). The images have recently been scanned and the results have revealed a fantastic amount of detail and tonal range from the German Carl Zeiss lens and British Ilford roll film. The quality of the images are far superior to what most modern digital cameras can produce even these 40 years later.

Can you tell us a bit about the working conditions inside the factory?
John Clarke and Son were located on Mowbray Street, Sheffield, and backed onto the River Don. My first impressions were that the factory wasn’t very well illuminated: the workers relied on a few bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling and light from the windows. There was a constant drone from the grinding wheels. As the photographs revealed the work rooms looked busy and cluttered and I remember it was quite cool. The ladies in the packing area were relying on a domestic electric coal effect fire to keep them warm, which looked quite out of place. Despite the conditions the workers were most helpful and seemed to be happy at their work.

These featured images and more are available as to purchase as high quality prints here.

Bellwood Photography are also working on an exhibition that will showcase Mike’s work as well as some of his father’s early shots of Park Hill and Hyde Park. This will be announced once current government social distancing measures are lifted. 

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