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trying to get in: cornish works

trying to get in: cornish works

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Everybody is trying to get in. Like SLR-wielding zombies they claw at the doors; looking for a gap, a glint, a glimmer from within. A fingertip hold that would prise the George Barnsley Works open.

Being locked out is as frustrating as trying to dismantle a Kinder Egg with mittens on, all the while knowing that even if you eventually crack the plastic shell with your woolly hands, what’s inside will be useless to you anyway. Do you really want a plastic toy dinosaur, when you’ve got a Playstation 4 at home? Do you really want to wander around an abandoned factory, when The Fat Cat’s around the corner, where it’s warm and there’s beer?

Cornish Works, George Barnsley & Sons, Sheffield • by Shang-Ting Peng

Cornish Works, George Barnsley & Sons, Sheffield • by Shang-Ting Peng

The workers at George Barnsley & Sons, back in the tool-making day, would have appreciated that warmth and that beer. People often talk about a ghostly presence surrounding them in old, empty places like Cornish Works, as if they’re still populated by industrious old souls, trapped in time; they don’t often consider that those same old souls may look at the lengths people take to get on their old factory floor, and wonder why they’re bothering.

Those ghosts had the best of George Barnsley. Not just the trade, when they made shoe-making tools that were world renowned, but the life, the colleagues, the camaraderie, the machines, the work, the products, the pay.

Cornish Works, George Barnsley & Sons, Sheffield • by Shang-Ting Peng • © The City Talking

Cornish Works, George Barnsley & Sons, Sheffield • by Shang-Ting Peng • © The City Talking

They had the worst of it, too; the things that stop anybody getting up in the morning; all the things that make a job a job and work work. The cold, the workload, the boss; that one machine you use every day that breaks down every day that you can’t wait to leave behind every day and forget when you finally walk out of here, whether it’s for the day or whether it’s for good.

The forgetting is what gives places like Cornish Works their glamour. George Barnsley & Sons lives on, thanks to one of the sons, just over the river on Mowbray Street. The company name is registered and alive, and the old products are in repair; ask at Woodware Repetitions and they’ll still turn you a George Barnsley tool if they can, and if you really want one. The wares haven’t been forgotten, but it’s of the building that people demand a memory.

Cornish Works, George Barnsley & Sons, Sheffield • by Shang-Ting Peng

Cornish Works, George Barnsley & Sons, Sheffield • by Shang-Ting Peng

The urge to get in is a retreat from the present and a nostalgic bulwark against the day Cornish Works is redeveloped or regenerated or gentrified or destroyed, whichever term you prefer. Those empty rooms and bare walls are repositories of stories about lives we had no part in, and they’re not telling them; and that makes us curious, because we’re sure they know a few things we’d like to know.

Some inevitable day soon those rooms and walls will hear the stories of new people, living new lives in new flats (or the same old lives, in new flats); with their own stories to tell, and the voices to tell them. A hundred people means more stories than you could count. But the urge to get in, the urge to hear stories, will transfer from Cornish Works to some other place the day the builders lay the first new brick.

Cornish Works, George Barnsley & Sons, Sheffield • by Shang-Ting Peng

Cornish Works, George Barnsley & Sons, Sheffield • by Shang-Ting Peng

For a while, at least; then it will be back. Humans have a grand capacity to be nostalgic about anything; look through copies of the Telegraph or Star from a hundred years ago, and you’ll find page after page devoted to the Sheffield of a hundred years before. That impulse will not go away.

A hundred years or more from now, someone else will be trying to prise open a door to Cornish Works, fascinated by the chance to discover all the untold stories scattered among the abandoned bedsteads, settees and photo frames left behind when the people moved away.

Cornish Works, George Barnsley & Sons, Sheffield • by Shang-Ting Peng

Cornish Works, George Barnsley & Sons, Sheffield • by Shang-Ting Peng

It would probably have been easier to ask them before they left; or to follow them to their new homes and talk to them there, just as it’s possible to pop over and ask a Son of George Barnsley all about the old days now. But what nostalgia thrives on, perhaps more than other people’s stories, is our own imagination; and that’s a sacred place where nobody should ever intrude. And that’s what takes us back to the barricaded door, forming an orderly queue, trying to get in and hoping to imagine.

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Originally published in The City Talking: Sheffield, issue 1


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