By Blythe Taylor
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2626

History of making things skips over some inconvenient truths

This article is over 5 years, 9 months old
Issue 2626
Former engineer Steph McGovern leads four craftspeople through the history of Britain’s industry
Former engineer Steph McGovern leads four craftspeople through the history of Britain’s industry

The first episode of a new BBC Two series, Made in Great Britain, sees four craftspeople take up the tools of steel workers through the ages.

Six episodes will each take one industry and look at it from the 18th century to the present day.

The emphasis in the first episode is on the methods and skill of Sheffield’s workforce. Each of the programme’s participants try out processes such as hand forging, blade-grinding, and cutlery polishing for themselves.

What is clear from the beginning is the enthusiasm the workers hold for their crafts, which include pottery, leatherwork, cookery and metal work.

The audience is frequently reminded how privileged the participants feel to be experiencing a taste of life as a Sheffield steel worker.

The focus of the show is about the skills involved in each trade.

What is missing is the ugly side of work.

There is some short commentary highlighting appalling working conditions in the industry.

The introduction of ever-more advanced forms of mechanisation attempts to reduce workers to the role of an accessory of a machine.


Token snippets give little more than a taste of the reality of the industrial revolution for ordinary people.

There is much glorification of the achievements of “Great Britain”, but little exploration of the cost workers paid for these achievements.

It contrasts with the programme’s participants romanticising of the period. That romanticism remains the main focus of the show.

However, some of the participants’ remarks are significant. One woman picks up on an important point. She argues there is a disconnect between the worker and what they produce.

Workers produced opulent pieces of cutlery—one example is given a “beetroot server”—for the middle classes and the elite to use.

But working class people often could not afford the food being served on such implements, let alone the cutlery.

The last stop in this episode is a modern, state-of-the-art factory which produces designer kitchenware.


The workforce here is noticeably smaller than during the industry’s peak era. This is justification for one of the participants to assert that the industry has gone back to its original craftsmanship roots.

What she fails to notice is that history has not been reversed—the same process of capitalist production is going on.

Workers are still operating within a fragmented, mechanised environment, with no ownership over the pieces they create.

It’s important not to confuse individual craft work with wage labour.

The programme’s commentator defends the declining British steel industry. She points to the manufacturer’s role as a producer of “quality” steel.

It’s almost presented as if the hollowing out of the steel industry was somehow the plan of the bosses all along.

This programme provides an interesting brief history of Sheffield’s steel industry.

But it only pays lip service to working conditions, the hierarchy of class and child labour in between its glorification of boutique mint sauce ladles.

Made in Great Britain is on BBC Two on Fridays at 9pm from 26 October


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