By Mary Grover
As a Christmas treat, we would like to introduce the reading journey of one of Sheffield’s most illustrious steel pioneers, Harry Brearley, who invented the process of manufacturing stainless steel. As we contemplate the possibility of the destruction of central library provision in this city, this is a story to reflect on. Brearley did not become one of the world’s pioneers by accident. He was able to satisfy his curiosity and his appetite to acquire skills because he was mentored by a man who lent him books. He came from a background which made the acquisition of formal qualifications and the purchase of books an impossibility. However this mentor and a library gave the boy the confidence to use whatever opportunities came his way.
Harry Brearley was born in 1871 and died in 1948. He was too frail to attend more than a few years of school, broken up by ill-health. His father, a steel worker, was uninterested in teaching him the practical skills that would have helped him make his way in any metal working industry. Yet throughout his childhood Harry read.
I have no idea of how I learned to read. My father and mother and elder brothers were readers of novelettes and blood and thunder stories. But there were no books at home, absolutely none. There was a ballad in a paper cover stitched at the back with worsted. It was called ‘The Story of an Unravelled Stocking’. I knew this story before I could read. I knew a few other stories learned from my elder brothers and sisters who had probably learned them, from my mother, when they were children. I was the eighth child and my mother was too throng to tell stories by the time I was born.
When he was eleven Harry entered the world of work. He ricocheted from job to job, always outspoken but always observant, until he found himself, at the age of twelve, working in the Laboratory of Norfolk Works. He came under the supervision of James Taylor, a metallurgist who recognised the boy’s intelligence and fostered it. Harry was in awe of Taylor’s skills as a metallurgist and would do anything that he was told to do.
Taylor seemed to be a magician. During the second week Taylor asked me what I read and I said the ‘Boys of England’, the ‘Boys Comic Journal’ and ‘Jack Harkaway’. He appeared not to have heard of any of these papers and I noticed no smile of recognition or approval when I produced copies for his inspection. He offered me a copy of Roscoe’s Chemistry which I honestly tried to read but with a total absence of either pleasure or understanding.
Despite his apparent lack of connection with Roscoe’s Chemistry, Harry was lent numerous books by Taylor, such as The Irish National Arithmetic. Then in 1885 Taylor bought his fourteen year-old assistant Todhunter’s Agebra, ‘a large book of 600 pages, which cost 7/6d’.
I was touched that anyone should think it worth while to give me a book costing so much money. I can see myself proudly taking it home and showing it to my mother who was swilling down the pavement after a load of coal had been delivered. Except the rather shabby looking arithmetic book, this was the first book I possessed, decently bound and gilt lettered on the back. I have it still.
In 1892 the boy suffered a double blow. James Taylor left England to work in Australia and at about the same time his mother died. Aged 21, Harry identified with typical good judgement the girl he was to marry. He also found another mentor.
After Harry and his much-loved elder brother had moved out of the family home, they found lodging with a man called Dacey.
He was a railway guard but had been a bandsman in the Royal Navy, and afterwards a newspaper reporter. He was well read, he talked well, he wrote without apparent effort and he had a very good memory. He made me a reader of ‘The Clarion’, the first number of which had just been issued, and introduced me to the writings of Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris. He had a small library of books of which I made use. He had visitors who cared about literature and politics … particularly labour politics.
I attended a bible class at the Sunday School. It was one means of meeting Nellie but it had other attractions. Some of the young men were very wide-awake. They read and talked of strange books. They were interested in talking and a few of them talked well. There was a mutual improvement class on Saturday evening where good speeches would sometimes be made. I used to think Harry Harper, a brainy young man of feeble physique was an orator. He was a very sensible, well educated chap and a good linguist. Many of the youths wrote shorthand and so I learned it. After a couple of months effort, well enough to report a speech.
I was so much attracted by some of Ruskin’s books, after Taylor left England, that I neglected everything else to read them and to read some of the less intelligible Carlyle. Ruskin’s ‘Unto this Last’ was a revelation. It was a Library copy I read. I dare not steal it and could not afford to buy it so I copied it out in my most careful hand-writing and bound it in cloth boards with leather back and corners. Bookbinding was one of the things I learned by watching professionals bind accounts and then begging enough of their material to see me through a few trial. My copy of Ruskin’s ‘Analytical Economics’ (‘Unto this Last’) and Todhunter’s Algebra are the two books I prize above all others.
This excursion into literature excited an appetite which will never be satisfied. But I saw no living in it and I was really equally greedy to understand more of my daily work from whose interests I had temporarily separated myself. There was some prospect of becoming an analyst which I could not afford to neglect. …. At night school in addition to mathematics and physics I had attended classes in German, Latin and literary subjects. I had attended lectures on the English language and literature with a moulder who had a decidedly original mind. This moulder took no man’s word for gospel and he had a disconcerting knack of asking awkward questions and putting an unconventional view. He also was one of my teachers to whom no fees were paid to whom grateful thanks are due.
Quotations are from Harry Brearley’s autobiographical notes, Stainless Pioneer, published by British Steel Stainless in conjunction with The Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Sheffield 1989.