More doubts on Malm's water power

Submitted by AWL on 11 May, 2021 - 6:06
Water power

I would like to add some rough and ready comments to the letter from Paul Vernadsky (Solidarity 591). The idea that coal-fired steam power (as opposed to water power) was somehow adopted in order to control wage labour seems to me to be questionable. Certainly water power at one point in industrial development was very important, and not just in textile manufacture.

I remember as a child growing up in Stockbridge, about ten miles west of Sheffield. There was a place called Tin Mill Wood where there was a small lake (now owned by an angling club) and piles of large stones lying around. I found out much later in life it was the site of a water-powered strip mill where sheets of metal, usually steel, were cut into strips. The river Don ran nearby, and further upstream was the Wortley Forge which can be visited today.

The forge has a history going back centuries. Not much is known about the strip mill. The point is that this is not exceptional. All around Sheffield there were dozens of mills, forges and furnaces, powered by the rivers and streams flowing down from the Pennines. In the late 18th and early 19th century the Sheffield region had more watermills than anywhere else in Europe. Some of these mills were still working into the 1950s.

Yet: 1. Water power alone could not provide the huge amounts of energy required to fire such furnaces as the Bessemer Converter, the Siemens Open Hearth and the Blast Furnace, all central to iron and steel making and processing.

2. Coal could be moved around the country — and abroad — relatively easily, water can’t. There is mention of aqueducts but, surely the sheer quantity of water necessary would make this impossible. Also, supplies of coal are not affected by drought.

3. The exploitation of the world’s coal reserves hardly made for a docile working class — coal miners were in the forefront of many struggles over the years. It should also be noted that in the Sheffield region workers in the water-driven forges were also not noted for their timidity, in one famous dispute they dynamited the factory owners’ mansions. Militancy and the willingness to resist the vagaries of capitalist development depends on a shifting, complex social and economic reality and surely can’t be reduced to a simple question of what fuel is used in a particular industry.

For these reasons I would suggest that Malm’s “insight” is open to some doubt.

John Cunningham, Lancashire

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