The Continental Works of Sheffield’s Jonas & Colver high-speed steel company in Attercliffe is still dedicated to highly skilled metal-bashing.
In its heyday before the First World War, Jonas & Colver made their mark in the grimy East End by embellishing their forge building with elaborate cartouches of their trademarks and the date ‘1911’.
When the company left the Bessemer Road site by the 1970s the site was turned over to a training centre for out-of-work steel workers needing to learn new trades.
In 2014 Continental Works once again returned to steel manufacture and there’s a curious connection between Jonas & Colver and the current occupiers.
Special Quality Alloys Ltd, which is part of the Special Steel Group, was founded by Bennett Beardshaw, who began his career in the steel industry as a junior accounts clerk at Jonas & Colver in 1906. He would have known, at least by sight, both Sir Joseph Jonas (1845-1921) and Mr Robert Colver (1842-1916).
In 1925 Bennett Beardshaw suggested that Jonas & Colver should start a heat-treatment business. The management was unconvinced and Beardshaw was invited to leave. He set up the Special Steel Co Ltd, half a mile away at Bacon Lane on the Sheffield Canal, a site that still remains the base of the parent company.
Four generations of the Beardshaw family have led the company for almost a century, and the current managing director, great-grandson of the founder, is also called Bennett Beardshaw.
Earlier this year I was privileged, thanks to Shane Higgins, the company’s Sales Engineer, to watch a team of four men using a fork-lift truck to place red-hot steel Polo mints, up to three feet in diameter, under the sort of drop hammers that lulled me to sleep in my Attercliffe childhood, bashing the glowing metal to the shape and thickness required. Even when you’re outside the building, the earth moves.
This is noisy, dangerous, highly-skilled work that goes on behind the high brick walls. A new recruit to one of these teams simply watches for the first six months before they’re trusted to take part. Almost all of their communication is non-verbal, because they’re masked up to the eyeballs and wear ear-protectors against the deafening noise.
Most people think that the steel industry has largely deserted Sheffield, and certainly the thousands of gaberdine-clad men with flat caps and mufflers no longer trail daily into the huge black sheds that filled the valley floor until the 1980s.
But the city’s proud tradition remains of know-how and skill that produces steel of world-class quality to meet modern demands. Continental Works produces high-specification critical parts for oil and gas, defence, space and the emerging renewable sectors.
This promotional video gives a vivid idea of the combination of precision technology and traditional metal-bashing that is too hazardous to invite the public to see: Special Quality Alloys – A look behind the scenes at our facility here in Sheffield, UK (youtube.com).
It’s not easy to see how it’s done, but you have only to walk down Bessemer Road to hear it and feel it whenever the forge is working.