Mexborough and Swinton Times, September 2nd, 1932
Sickles Of The World
How Conisbrough Serves All Lands
National Fads And Fancies
Fixing the handles and “putting the edge on.”
Unknown to all but a few South Yorkshire residents, tucked away in a little corner of Conisbrough, situated pleasantly near the bank of the Don is a world’s industry going on daily. Little interest is taken in it locally but eyes all over the world are on it. It is carried on by 35 people and known as the Conisbro’ Sickle Works or Steam Mills, which for over 100 years has gone under the title, George Booth and Sons, Ltd.
It is a world’s fashion display in sickles and grass hooks, for there are national fashions in such things, and to make sickle manufacturing pay you have to follow the fashion. Each country has its particular shape weight and size. In very corner of the world, George Booth and Sons have their agents, who follow keenly the fads and changes of those who use the implements. As a result, 180 different patterns, with six sizes in each, are sent out from Conisbro’. One type with a toothed edge is for the Fiji Islands. Ireland has a liking for saw edges too. America’s style is a sickle of vey light spring steel with a stiffening rib rivetted on.
“That I believe” said Mr. Rawding, the manager, “is because women use them to fettle up the garden in their spare time.” Peru favours heavy massive blades with hafts to fit the end of a stout pole. This one would have been an effective weapon in primitive wars. It is used from a punt to trim the banks., or prune water weeds. Poland demands polish: both sides of each blade must be ground to silvery brightness. Right through the 180 “fashions” there is definitely a national bias. Romania likes decoration and gets it. Cuba wants a broad blade: it is prepared for them. The display is interesting in the very extreme. So is the making. To the urban dweller the sickle may be an antiquity. It has been altered little from the implement that has been used for hundreds of years, and still thousands of acres are reaped by hand throughout the world. And this keeps 35 persons fully employed at Conisbrough,
But methods of manufacturing the implement have undergone radical changes. Geo. Booth and Sons have patented various machinery, but much of the actual making is still done by hand. The steel comes in strips from Sheffield forges, is cut to requisite lengths and sizes by machine, and “curled” to something near the actual shape. Then it goes to the hand forgers. This is where we see the expert craftsmen at work. With fascinating skill, they point and shape the steel to any pattern. Then on it goes to the grinders who, by machinery, put on a fine edge, or to the machinists who puts a toothed or saw edge on the blades. Finally, if necessary to the polishers.
The hand forging is the most interesting part of the business. Each employee in this section has had to serve at least five years apprenticeship with his hammer before doing the actual forging. To be a successful hand forger you must know just where to hit the steel, how heavy to make the blows and a host of other little points. And of course, you must know just how hot to make your steel. After several minutes watching, we were suitably impressed. Hand forging is harder than it looks.
Another interesting part of the works is the handle-making department. As in the blades and hooks in the handles there are many shapes, weights, sizes and even colours.
“Why are they so faddy?” we asked. “Well, I suppose it is what each country had been used to. We have to give them what they want or our trade is finished. Romanians must have a bright green handle. If our implements have not got them, they do not sell.”
So even the “fashions” of the handles of the world must be watched and their changes noted from the little office in Conisbro’. They are proud to be meeting the demands of every country. “We make things for everywhere on the map” is one employee’s proud boast. He ran off a list of implements he had made, and where they had gone.
Every year nearly 650,000 sickles and reaping hooks are sent out of Conisbro: and less than ten per cent of the output is used in Great Britain. Moreover, each implement has several years of life. During recent years great progress has been made, and is still being made in the use of agricultural machinery. But many factors forbid the use of reaping machines to the extent they are used in this country. The contour swamps irregular ripening of crops and in some instances the abundance of native labour all contribute to the maintained demand for sickles and reaping hooks; for which the employees of Geo. Booth and Sons are thankful.