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Steel, strikes and spider-men: Steel erectors and the Daily Herald

Published: 13 January 2022

Throughout the 20th century, cities grew, and steel erectors—also known as ‘spider-men’—were among the workers who built our new urban landscapes. Reports and photographs from the Daily Herald provided a unique perspective on their work.

The 20th century saw the creation of new possibilities for urban expansion as innovative materials, technologies and construction techniques were developed. Cities spread out into suburbs, connected to commuter towns, and grew skywards.

This is a story about the workers-on-high who helped build our cities. It features images of steel erectors captured by photographers working for the Daily Herald.

Workers looking down from scaffolding on a building Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Workers on scaffolding look down at royal visitors arriving to a reception at Liverpool Town Hall, Gordon White, 1954

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

This story is based on a selection of images from the archive.

‘Spider-men’ and the Herald

‘Spider-man’ is mid-20th-century British slang for a person who works at great heights in building work.

The nickname usually refers to steel erectors, though it’s sometimes also applied to other trades specialising in work that happens high overhead, such as steeplejacks. An almost exclusively male trade, steel erectors construct frameworks for skyscrapers, bridges, and other major infrastructure projects.

The Daily Herald offered a particular perspective on the challenges faced by workers such as these. Originally founded as a strike sheet and part-owned by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the paper was left-leaning and had strong ties with the labour movement.

The Herald was first the creation of part of the labour movement and then the property of the whole of it.

Huw Richards, The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left (1997)

The Daily Herald consistently struck an anti-establishment tone and reported on the conditions experienced by, among others, British workers—workers like the steel erectors, who faced low wages, dangerous employment conditions, and the highest mortality rates in the construction industry.

A risky trade with many names

Steel erectors. Spider-men. Suicide squads. These were all terms that appeared in the Daily Herald to describe the trade that had the highest accident rate in the building industry.

With its union affiliations, the Herald frequently promoted workers’ rights and related issues—so it’s perhaps unsurprising that stories about ‘spider-men’ were regular fare. Photography had an important role to play in this; images of steel erectors at work show just how risky their roles were.

The images below show steel erectors scampering across beams and weaving webs of steel girders as they work on buildings such as the new telephone exchange at Tottenham Court Road in London. It’s easy to see how they acquired the spider-man nickname!

A risky trade with many names - gallery

One Daily Herald report detailed how a group of workers were accompanied by a life-sized dummy of a boy, affectionately dubbed ‘Aston’, who acted as their ‘lucky talisman’. The workers claimed there were fewer accidents when he was around. Anecdotes such as this, accompanied by evocative photographs, highlighted the dangers faced by steel erectors while revealing the inadequate measures in place to protect them.

Skywalkers

Steel erectors went by other names, too—it all depended on where they worked. The Kanien’kehá꞉ka (Mohawk) workers who helped build the iconic Manhattan skyline, for example, are known as ‘skywalkers’. The men shown in these photographs aren’t skywalkers, but it’s easy to see where the title comes from!

Innovations in steel

The age of skyscrapers is perhaps most associated with New York City’s Art Deco-inspired skyline, but the innovations that made these modern monuments imaginable came out of England’s industrial north.

In 1856, British engineer Henry Bessemer (1813–98) introduced an experimental smelting process: he blew air directly into molten pig iron. Carbon impurities bonded with oxygen in a fiery explosion, leaving behind pure iron. With refinements introduced over the next quarter-century, it became possible to produce five tons of high-quality steel in only 20 minutes!

The architectural implications of this new supply of high-quality steel were incredible. ‘Steel structural members’—engineered plates, angles, I-beams, and U-shaped channels—could be bolted, riveted or welded together, creating possibilities for stronger and taller structures that were less material-intensive than stone, brick or wood.

Innovations in steel - gallery

Steel erectors in action

Steel frame construction was adopted widely in urban construction projects across the United Kingdom from the early 20th century.

Liverpool’s Royal Insurance Building, designed by James Francis Doyle (1840–1913) in 1895 and erected 1896–1903, became England’s first structure built entirely using the new steel frame technique. Skyscrapers, like the nearby 322ft (98m) Royal Liver Building, erected 1908–11, soon followed.

The new materials and construction techniques needed for such projects required skilled labourers to navigate the risks of working at ever-increasing heights. Tasks like examining drawings, erecting scaffolding, positioning girders and beams, and bolting and welding metal parts are far from ordinary when accomplished high above a city street without a safety net.

We don’t know very much about the workers who feature in the series of photos below. Captured in January 1935, they are uncaptioned except for the date. Nevertheless, they provide a glimpse of the range of tasks (and precarious perches) undertaken by steel erectors.

Steel erectors in action - gallery

‘Engineers Turn Down Wage Cuts’

This was the headline for a story by the Daily Herald’s Industrial Correspondent that appeared in the newspaper in 1931:

The employers admit that ‘no industry is so dependent as engineering upon skill’. Yet the time rate for the skilled fitter is only 58s. a week, and the fitter’s present piecework rates, according to the employers, do not average more than 1s. 7½d. an hour.

Daily Herald (25 February 1931)

In 2020 terms, spider-men earned about £500–600 per week as their base rate, with potential to almost double that through overtime and piecework. This rate remained stable through to at least the mid-20th century, and has increased to an average of £700 per week in the 21st century. Data from Careersmart provides more information about the steel erector trade in the present day.

Cranes, derricks, and Manchester’s CIS Building

At 387ft (118m), the Co-operative Insurance Society (CIS) Building on Miller Street was Britain’s tallest office block when it was completed in 1962. Built from glass, enamelled steel and aluminium so that it could remain clean in a polluted environment, this Grade II listed building remained the highest building in Manchester until 2006. And, as of 2021, it is still the loftiest office building in the United Kingdom outside London.

Initially proposed in 1958 as the new prestige headquarters for the Co-operative Banking Group, the high-rise was testament to the success of the local co-operative movement.

By January 1961 the building was well on its way to completion. Daily Herald photographer Roy Spencer captured images of ‘spider-men’ at work during this late stage of construction. His photographs depict workers constructing and maintaining the cranes and derricks that were essential for lifting heavy beams and girders into place for the top six storeys of the skyscraper.

While the views are striking, the dangers to workers imposed by heavy machinery and strong winds are equally apparent.

Cranes, derricks - gallery

The right machine for the job

The Scotch derricks, also known as stiffleg derricks, featured in the images above comprise a boom arm attached to the base of a mast and secured with two ‘stifflegs’. Steel sills—horizontal members—connect the stifflegs to the mast.

This type of derrick is favoured for building high-rises and on jobs that require lift capacity over lengthy periods of time. The stifflegs are resistant to both tensile and compressive force, making it safer for pedestrian traffic below. This article from Popular Mechanics explores the reasons why cranes fall and the dangers they can pose in urban environments.

The race to the top: London’s GPO Tower

Manchester’s claim to the tallest building in the United Kingdom was quickly succeeded by the GPO Tower (now known as the BT Tower) in Fitzrovia, London. Situated just off Howland Street, the communications tower rose a full 620ft (189m) in the air when completed in autumn 1963.

The tower was designed by the Ministry of Public Works. It was constructed in concrete and glass, following a narrow cylindrical shape that was capable of withstanding high winds with very little movement. The technical requirements of the communications masts at the top meant that no more than 10in (25cm) of sway in winds up to 95mph were allowable.

The photos below, which show workers completing the final stages of the tower’s construction, capture the lighter side of the job: amazing views and a break for a ‘cuppa’. It’s not quite watercooler time, but still an extraordinary opportunity to catch up with a colleague!

The GPO Tower held onto its title as the highest building in Britain until 1980, when it was overtaken by the NatWest Tower in London.

GPO tower - gallery

Workers, unions and the press

Steel erectors provided the essential labour for shaping the iconic skylines of our cities. But unresolved disputes about pay and work conditions meant a sometimes rocky road to development, with strikes and work-to-rule actions influencing project deadlines.

In 1946, for example, 11,000 steel erectors from the Constructional Engineering Union slowed steel frame building production by about 50% in a work-to-rule action. By studiously following every safety regulation, they hoped to convince employers of their essential work and educate stakeholders about the risks they faced when working high overhead.

Daily Herald photographers waded into the fray by putting human faces on industrial-scale actions, explaining the demands of unions in terms of the experiences of individuals.

The photograph below, for example, features a hard-hat-wearing and safety-conscious veteran of the trade, Tony O’Donoghue. The accompanying story introduces the risks Tony faces every day on the job site and the constant worries experienced by his wife.

Two workers on high scaffolding, one wearing a helmet and one without Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Original caption: ‘Someone’s not wearing a helmet. But it’s not Tony O’Donoghue. He is sky-high on the left’, Ron Burton, 1962
Clipping of article about 'spidermen' profiling Tony O'Donoghue, a steel worker in Essex Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Clipping of Daily Herald article about ‘spider-man’ Tony O’Donoghue, story by Frank Dawes, 1962

In the report, Tony advocates for practical changes like:

  • Industry regulation
  • Limits on overtime
  • Better design standards
  • Training standards
  • More safety inspectors

The Herald’s coverage of work-to-rule actions, strikes, and day-to-day conditions provided readers with a worker-friendly context for understanding disruptions in the construction industry and demands for reform.

Further reading

Online

Books

  • Huw Richards, The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left, 1997