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At times an event or disease from safety and health history makes its way into the culture, literature, poetry and music of society. That is true of a disorder that was known at one time as grinders’ asthma, grinders’ rot, grinders’ disease or grinders’ phthisis. Today you are not likely to find these terms, not because the disorder does not exist. While cases are far fewer today, the disorders now have different names. Later this article will reveal the current names. You are likely to know those current names.

The Dangerous Activity – Steel Grinding.

Grinders are a class of workmen known for their skill in grinding steel implements. In the 19th century, that trade involved a long apprenticeship to achieve proficiency. Many grinders followed in the footsteps of their fathers. They earned good wages for their skill, lived in decent housing and worked reasonable hours. The grinding stones allowed workers to shape and sharpen a variety of items, from forks and cutlery to saw blades, scissors, knives, razors, scythes, files, and other cutting blades. Most stone grinding wheels were natural sandstone. There were two main classes of grinders: dry grinders and wet grinders. Most grinding involved wetting the interface of wheel and steel object. Fine grinding required the dry process. Polishing involved wheels with leather over wood and an iron oxide powder (crocus). Dry grinding was more hazardous, because the stone and steel created fine dust. Most of the dust came from the stone wheels. Most grinders worked in factories, but a few plied their trade with a portable stone and provided services within a community to restore and sharpen items already in use. Specific manufacturing functions in Britain during the industrial revolution were concentrated primarily in a single location. Grinding was found in Sheffield. The grinding occurring there would have been similar to that in other countries. However, Sheffield became known in the 19th century for its large population of grinders.

The Grinding Factory.

After steel objects were forged to create their general shape, grinders removed material to give them their final shape and details.

A hull with two rows of grinders.

A hull with two rows of grinders.

A large factory was called a wheel, derived from the water wheel which provided power for grinding operations. The wheel was divided into rooms, called hulls and had one or more floors. Each hull may have had one or more rows of grinders connected by a trough extending under the stones of the row. In many cases, the trough contained water, especially for wet grinding. Each grinder sat on a horse, a seat positioned so that he could lean forward and reach the revolving stone. Most horses were adjusted by adding or removing stone blocks from under the seating surface. In some cases, workers had to almost stand in order to lean forward and create sufficient force of the object upon the stone. Most stones had a rest placed close to the grinding wheel to help a grinder control the object being ground or to provide a place upon which to rest and stabilize one’s arms.

The stones were natural sandstone, mined in the area. The grinding stones varies in diameter, depending on the item being worked on. Some were a few inches in diameter and others were up to six feet. In order for a stone to be used, someone had to create a hole in it and mount it on a shaft or axle. The grinder would have to prepare it by rounding it with a steel bar, a process called “racing the stone” or “racing.” until it was smooth and round. Depending on the diameter of the stone, the task would take one to six hours. This preparation created a lot of dust, but was necessary for all stones, whether used in wet or dry grinding.

During the grinding process, the grinder would also have to treat the stone periodically to remove imbedded steel and other particles. This process, called “rodding,” involved placing a flat iron rod against the stone to remove the unwanted material. The procedure which also created significant dust was done up to 30-40 times per day and each time it took about ten minutes.

Another preparation procedures was “hacking,” which was cutting a pattern of notches into the stone surface. This procedures was done without the stone rotating. Hacking produced less dust than racing or rodding.

The Impacts of the Disorder.

Many grinders began work as an apprentice at age 14 or 15. They typically served in such a role for a few years. Younger grinders were more likely to start as dry grinders. They usually progressed to wet grinding and then to polishing and glazing, the finishing steps for cutlery and other products.

The greatest hazard for grinders was inhaling the dust produced by grinding, which greatly shortened their life expectancy. The disability was minor at first and progressed with increased exposure, especially during the winter and foggy weather. The disability was accelerated for a worker who acquired or had tuberculosis. An 1865 medical report stated that the average age of dry grinders making forks was 29 years and few worked beyond age 40. Grinding of other objects extended life expectancy about 10 to 15 years compared to fork grinders. Because of its damp and moist conditions, grinders doing wet grinding more often acquired tuberculosis with the dusty conditions. Finishing tasks, such as glazing and polishing, produced less dust and grinders involved in those tasks likely had slightly longer lives.

Medical writers often found that various types of grinding tasks were randomly positioned in a hull. As a result, nearly all those in the hull received similar dust exposure. About the middle of the 19th century, many wheels introduced fans to blow the dust away from the stones. That reduced dust exposure to some extent, but the ventilation was not fully developed to exhaust dusty air from the hull. The airborne dust settled and often got stirred up again by activities in the hull.

Another hazard for grinders was the potential for a stone to break while operating. A stone could fly apart and fragments could strike the grinder and cause major injuries or death.

A Saw Grinder

A Saw Grinder

The Impact on Music and Literature.

Some major safety and health events or work conditions in history gained attention of writers and musicians. As a result, the sad conditions or events led to songs, poems, dramas, non-fiction stories, and other forms of literature. The events or conditions may also have captured the attention of politicians and others who sought to change laws to improve working conditions and provide protection from injuries and illnesses.

Grinders’ asthma made its mark in folk songs and poetry of the time.

Below is The Grinder’s Song, written in 1804 at Crookes, Sheffield for the Grinder’s Misfortune Society. The society provided relief for the misfortunes of grinders in the steel and metals trades.

To be a Sheffield grinder it is noisy trade
There’s more than you’d imagine to the grinding of a blade
There’s many a man amongst us that is old at 32
There are few face such hardships as we poor grinders do

And every single day we are breathing dust and steel
A broken stall can gi’ ye a wound that will not heal
There’s many a Sheffield grinder brought down by such a blow
There are few face such hardships as we poor grinders do

When the country goes to war, then our masters they all cry
Orders countermanded your goods we must lay by
Your prices we must settle and you’ll be stinted too
There’s few face such hardships as we poor grinders do

And there’s many a Sheffield grinder whose family is large
Despite his best endeavors, can not his debts discharge
When children cry for bread, oh piteous the view
There are few face such hardships as we poor grinders do

And know I will conclude these few and ‘umble lines
Good luck to every grinder that labours in our times
Good luck to every grinder and all their families too
There are few face such hardships as we poor grinders do

Another version of the song had the title, “The Sheffield Grinder.” One can find this version in Yorkshire and in Australia.

Sheffield grinder’s a terrible blade.
Tally hi-o, the grinder.
He sets his little ‘uns down to trade
Tally hi-o, the grinder.
He turns his baby to grind in the hull
Till his body is stunted and his eyes are dull,
And the brains are dizzy and dazed in the skull.
Tally hi-o, the grinder.

He shortens his life and he hastens his death.
Tally hi-o, the grinder.
Will drink steel dust in every breath.
Tally hi-o, the grinder.
Won’t use a fan as he turns his wheel.
Won’t wash his hands ere he eats his meal.
But dies as he lives, as hard as steel.
Tally hi-o, the grinder.

These Sheffield grinders of whom we speak –
Tally hi-o, the grinder.
Are men who earn a pound a week.
Tally hi-o, the grinder.
But of Sheffield grinders another sort
Methinks ought to be called in court,
And that is the grinding Government Board.
Tally hi-o, the grinder.

At whose door lies the blacker blame?
Tally hi-o, the grinder.
Where rests the heavier weight of shame?
Tally hi-o, the grinder.
On the famine-price contractor’s head,
Or the workman’s, under-taught and -fed,
Who grinds his own bones and his child’s for bread?
Tally hi-o, the grinder.

Ebenezer Elliot, an English poet from the 19th century who addressed many political issues in his poetry, wrote a poem about grinders. Like the music above, he captured the short life expectancy in his poem.

The Grinder, by Ebenezer Elliot

There draws the grinder his laborious breath;
There, coughing, at his deadly trade he bends.
Born to die young, he fears nor man nor death;
Scorning the future, what he earns he spends
Debauch and Riot are his bosom friends.
He plays the Tory sultan-like and well;
Woe to the traitor that dares disobey
The Dey of Straps! As rattened tools shall tell.
Full many a lordly freak by night, by day,
Illustrates gloriously his lawless sway.
Behold his failings! Hath he virtues too?
He is no pauper, blackguard through he be.
Full well he knows what minds combined can do;
Full well maintains his birthright–he is free!
And, frown for frown, outstares Monopoly!
Yet Abraham and Elliot both in vain
Bid science on his cheek prolong the bloom.
He will not live! He seems in hast to gain
The undisturbed asylum of the tomb,
And, old at two-and-thirty, meets his doom!

Today’s Names for the Disorders.

The introduction to this article said that the modern names for grinders diseases would be revealed later. Grinders diseases have existed for a long time, but have different names today compared to the 1800s. One disorder found in grinding work is grinders’ phthisis (pronounced TIE-sis). It comes from Greek, meaning “a dwindling or wasting away.” It is an old name for tuberculosis. Someone with tuberculosis tended to dwindle and waste away. Grinders with limited ventilation were more subject to this disorder, later reduced through improved ventilation methods. The more common disorder, grinders’ asthma or grinders’ disease, that resulted from inhaling the dust from the stones is commonly known today as silicosis. Many wheels made from natural sandstone contained 70-95% silica. The grinding process made the dust airborne and workers inhaled the dust. Poor housekeeping also led to accumulated dust on equipment and floors and some of it become airborne. Exposures over an extended period of time caused the lungs to stiffen and exhibit other symptoms. Physical work became difficult or impossible. Ultimately, loss of lung function led to death.


  • Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1892.
  • Charles V. Favell, Grinders’ Asthma, Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, s1-6, 424, 1843.
  • Charles V. Favell, “On Grinders’ Asthma,” Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, V 68, N 173, p 410-417, 1847.
  • John Charles Hall, “The Sheffield Grinders,” British Medical Journal, Vol 1, No 11, pp. 218-220, March 14, 1857.
  • John Charles Hall, On the Prevention and Treatment of the Sheffield Grinders’ Disease, Longman, Brown, Green, Longman, & Roberts, London, 1857.
  • M. P. Johnson, “The History of Grinders’ Asthma in Sheffield,” Hunter Archaeological Society, Vol 11, p 65ff, 2009.
  • Harold Scurfield, “Lung Disease Among the Sheffield Grinders,” Public Health, Vol 23, pp., 113-115, 1909.
  • Harold Scurfield, “Lung Disease Among the Sheffield Grinders,” Public Health, Vol 23, pp., 113-115, 1909.
  • John Watkins, Life, Poetry, and Letters of Ebenezer Elliott, The Corn-Law Rhymer, John Mortimer, Publisher, London, page 111, 1850.
  • Sinclair White, “Steel Grinding,” Chapter 26 in Thomas Oliver, Ed., Dangerous Trades, John Murray, London, 1902.
  • https://www.thesocialhistorian.com/file-grinders-of-sheffield/
  • http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/sheffield/26.html
  • For a video demonstration of the grinders’ trade, visit: http://www.robin-wood.co.uk/wood-craft-blog/2017/04/19/grinder-sheffield-grinder-brian-alcock-grinding-axes/ 

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