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Posthumous BEM for Brian Alcock leads six heritage crafts Honours

Broian Alcock BEMThe family of the late master hand grinder Brian Alcock have received a posthumous British Empire Medal in the King’s Birthday Honours in recognition of his service to the Sheffield cutlery trade and heritage crafts.

Brian, who passed away less than three weeks ago, was one of six makers nominated by Heritage Crafts to receive national honours, alongside clockmaker David Poole MBE, boatbuilder Ronald John Maclean MBE, blacksmithing trainer Delyth Done MBE, marbler and woodgrainer Robert Woodland MBE, and knitwear designer Jeanette Sloan BEM, in recognition of their unparalleled craftsmanship and tireless work in ensuring their skills are passed on to current and future generations.

The six were nominated for this year’s Birthday Honours, following 24 previously successful nominations from Heritage Crafts since 2013. In May, the charitable organisation – which was set up in 2009 to support and champion traditional craft skills – published the fourth edition of its groundbreaking Red List of Endangered Crafts, the only report of its kind to rank UK craft skills by the likelihood they will survive into the next generation.

Heritage Crafts was deeply saddened to learn of Brian Alcock BEM’s passing on 30 May. As a jobbing grinder working up to a week before his death, Brian was an unparalleled repository of knowledge and skill in the craft of hand grinding. He exemplified the honest work ethic of a skilled master craftsman, and even at the age of 81 he would work 40 hours a week, starting at 6.30am each morning through all four seasons. No job was too small for him; even putting an edge on a simple pocket knife was handled with the care and concentration of a man who relished the craft he had learnt so well.

What set Brian apart was how freely he shared his knowledge and skill. Five years ago founding Heritage Crafts Chair Robin Wood MBE was concerned that once Brian stopped he would have nobody to grind axes for his growing business, and that this important part of Sheffield’s cultural heritage could be lost. At this point Brian offered to train Robin’s apprentice Zak Wolstenholme. He had been passing his knowledge of how to grind tools and maintain the machinery to Zak, free of charge, right up until his passing. Zak admired him greatly and he had become a very significant life mentor.

Thankfully, Brian learned of his forthcoming honour before he died, knowing the esteem in which he was held. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.

David Poole MBE has been clock maker of the highest standard for over forty years. He has made critical contributions to horological education, establishing remote learning, support and examinations through the British Horological Institute and organising apprenticeships through the George Daniels Educational Trust. Between 2016 and 2019 David set up the Watchmakers Trailblazer Apprenticeship Scheme, one of the first of its kind under the government-backed initiative to promote craft apprenticeships, overcoming many obstacles with devotion and total service.

Ronald John MacLean MBE represents an unbroken line of boat builders who, over 150 years, have provided as many as one thousand workboats to the island communities of the Hebrides. He has preserved an entire style of vernacular boat building (the Grimsay workboat of Scotland) through his craft skills, teaching and interpretation of the tradition. He has designed accredited courses in Traditional Boatbuilding Skills, and with his gifts as a teacher devised a curriculum to transmit the Grimsay boat tradition through Gaelic boatbuilding terminology.

Delyth Done MBE has been unparalleled throughout the past decade in ensuring that the next generation of blacksmiths have the high-level skills they need. As head of the blacksmithing degree programme at Hereford College of Arts for over ten years, she has been directly responsible for improving the training standards so that graduates are recognised and sought after as employees by master blacksmiths around the world.

Robert Woodland MBE is one of the most highly-skilled ornamental artists, woodgrainers and marblers in the UK today. His work can be seen in a variety of buildings across the country, including the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, the Tower of London, Grand Lodge, Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Kensington Palace, Bagshot Park and the Mandarin Hotel. Robert has a passion to keep his trade alive and shares his knowledge openly with students from around the world, enthusiastically demonstrating his craft whenever he has a chance.

Jeanette Sloan BEM is one of the most prominent and successful Black knitwear designers in the UK today, and has done a huge amount to promote and celebrate the contribution of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) to British textile crafts. Among a career of achievements, she devoted her time and expertise, unpaid, to found the ‘BIPOC in Fibre’ project, to celebrate and raise awareness of the contribution of BIPOC to British textile design.

Heritage Crafts Executive Director Daniel Carpenter said:

“We are thrilled that six of our nominations have been recognised in this the first Birthday Honours of King Charles III’s reign. Having traditional craftspeople up there with other great luminaries of public life in this way is vitally important, as UK is still one of only 12 of the 193 UNESCO member states yet to ratify the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage.”

Heritage Crafts encourages anyone who supports the continuation of traditional craft skills, whether or not they are makers themselves, to become Heritage Crafts members via its website www.heritagecrafts.org.uk.

The charity has set up an Endangered Crafts Fund to provide small grants to projects that increase the likelihood of endangered craft skills surviving into the next generation, and is currently seeking donations to save more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion – visit www.heritagecrafts.org.uk/ecf to find out more and to donate

Hand grinding

The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Hand grinding

 

The shaping and sharpening of blades by grinding on a grindstone.

 

Status Endangered
Historic area of significance Sheffield
Area currently practised
Origin in the UK
Current no. of professionals (main income) 11-20
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Current no. of trainees 1
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers

 

History

Grinding is the craft of shaping, sharpening and polishing blades on a grindstone. Grinding was a subsidiary stage in the making of cutlery and other bladed tools. Once the item had been forged to the required pattern, the blade would be passed to a grinder for shaping and sharpening, before a handle was fitted.

Sheffield was the centre of the cutlery industry in the UK, and historically grinders were self-employed and rented a work space. In the late-eighteenth century there were roughly 1800 grinders working in Sheffield, specialising in particular items depending on the size of the wheel required, which could vary in diameter from two inches to six feet. There are two types of grinding: wet grinding where the stone ran through water (saws, files, sickles, table knives, edge tools and scythes) and dry grinding (forks, needles, brace bits and spindles). Some items were both wet and dry ground (scissors and razors) (M.P. Johnson). Dry grinding was much quicker than wet grinding, but created far more dust. Grinding was a dangerous job – there was the risk that the wheel might explode, and the fine dust from the grinding would get into the lungs. In the mid-nineteenth century, wet grinders rarely reached 45 years old, and dry grinders rarely reached 35 years old (Paul Allen, 2013).

Today, there is only one self-employed/’jobbing’ hand grinder left – Brian Alcock – who rents a workshop in Sheffield and grinds for other people. However, various firms also employ in-house grinders and most knife makers need to be able to grind. Most people grind on machines where possible, but there are some things that can only be done by hand. Many companies employ hand grinders, e.g. hand grinding is necessary to give a 12-inch palette knife its malleability; e.g. pocket knives are machine ground on a swage and hand ground from then on.

 

Techniques

  • Wet grinding – traditionally used for saws, files, sickles, table knives, edge tools and scythes
  • Dry grinding – traditionally used for forks, needles, brace bits and spindles
Some items were both wet and dry ground, such as scissors and razors.

 

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

  • Spring hammer forging
  • Buffing

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Possible shortage of octagon-carbon steel – only one rolling mill capable of supplying, but it needs 40-50,000kg orders to make it viable. As a result, businesses are currently importing Italian material.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

Using grinding wheels:

  • Brian Alcock – the last self-employed/jobbing hand grinder, Sheffield
  • Peter Gribben – part time grinder at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, Sheffield
  • Zak – training with Brian Alcock

Crafts businesses that employ two or more makers:

 

Other information

  • There is a difference between grinding on a wheel and on a linisher which is what the majority of knife makers grind on. The grinding wheel requires great skill, while the llinisher or belt sander is a tool that can be bought for £1,000 (professional versions) and there is little or no maintenance, just lots and lots of replacement belts.
  • Number of skilled craftspeople: Today, there is only one self-employed/’jobbing’ hand grinder. However, various firms also employ in-house grinders (perhaps 6 or 7 in Sheffield) and most knife makers need to be able to grind.
  • Total number of craftspeople: A. Wright & Son of Sheffield manufactures knives, folding knives and swords and does hand grinding in-house. They have a workforce of ten people – five older people, and five younger people whom they train from scratch, and everyone does a bit of everything.

 

References