The line of mills shown in Finn’s picture are steam powered via a drive shaft from a horizontal engine just out of the picture on the right – the polished steel connecting rod can just be seen. (Gas engines were sometimes used for lighter rolling duties such as the one running at Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield). Notice the spare wabbler boxes in the foreground of the painting with their cruciform openings. These mesh with the wabbler – the cross shaped end of the roll to form a simple flexible coupling between the drive shaft and the roll.
Typically, each set of mills had two stands for hot rolling as shown here – one for roughing the sheet and one for finishing. Tinplate was made from flat rectangular sheets, about three feet long, guillotined off longer sheet bars. As the individual sheets were hot rolled and got longer and thinner, they were “doubled” – folded over while hot to increase productivity in rolling – then doubled and doubled again to form a pack eight sheets thick.
Social Hierarchy of a Tinplate Mill
The centre of Finn’s picture shows the rollerman. He is receiving the hot sheet over the top of the two high mill from the catcher the other side. This looks like a long, first run “virgin” bar. The rollerman was in charge of the mill and was paid the most. His skill in judging thickness and size determined the output of the mill and the piece rates paid to his crew.
The catcher, or behinder, just visible on the opposite side of the mill was very much the junior. He had the arduous task of grasping the hot sheet with tongs as it came out of the back of the mill and swinging it over the top roll back to the rollerman. The man at the back of the picture may well be the doubler who folded and sheared the hot sheets with the help of his steel toe capped clogs. The doubler was second in command and would relieve the rollerman. The doubler worked closely with the furnace man who heated and reheated the steel sheets during the rolling process. The sheets soon cooled during rolling. All of the crew would have the support of a first helper, a time served man who would rotate through the various tasks to learn the job.
Notice the primitive manual screw down to control the roll gap. The can beside the stand no doubt contains grease for regular lubrication of the hot brass neck bearings. The hot grease would splash onto the workers. There is elementary fume extraction equipment and chimneys from two reheat furnaces at the back of the mill shed.
The rollerman wears little safety gear. He wears the customary loose, collar-less short sleeved grey flannel shirt, trousers and thick boots, but has dispensed with the customary white apron!
Women’s Work in Steel
There is a woman working here on the left of the picture, feeding sheets into the two high cold mill for polishing to improve the surface quality prior to tinning. This suggests a degree of artistic licence. The presence of a woman worker is not in doubt. Rather, cold mills for tin plate were usually separate from hot rolling. Polishing the surface required little power as there was no reduction in thickness. So a low power steam engine drive was sufficient. Perhaps the artist was keen to show every stage of the tinplate manufacturing process in one picture and has moved the cold rolling process from another bay to complete the picture. The woman or boy in the foreground of the picture with well-protected hands is an opener – responsible for separating the rolled packs back into individual sheets after hot rolling.
All this hand rolling of individual sheets began to disappear with the installation of the first continuous wide strip mill in the UK at Ebbw Vale in 1938 by Richard Thomas & Co., although it was to take two decades before the last hand mills finally closed.
For further explanation of the above tin plating process and the individual roles please see the Ashburnham Tinplate Works website. See also photographs from Trostre Cottage Museum for further images of tinplate works.