“Not just livelihoods have been lost but an ecosystem of workers and shared knowledge and an important part of London’s industrial heritage.”
I have been a freelance photographer for over fifteen years. For the last decade I have focused on documenting workshops, studios and factory floors. Inspired by my own family’s three-generation textile firm (Morton Sundour & Edinburgh Weavers), my ongoing series Makers & Manufacturers has taken me across the British Isles documenting artists, designers, craftspeople and manufacturers.
I am passionate about capturing dying crafts and recent photo stories include ‘The Last Glass Eye Maker of Britain’ and ‘The Last Eel Man’. Jost Haas the glass eye maker is in his eighties and has no assistant. “Maybe your photos will show someone my techniques and processes and they might be able to learn that way”. I made the photo series into a hard-back book, in case he really meant it.
As well as documenting individuals, I have worked with a number of London Boroughs creating visual audits of their industry and was recently commissioned by the Flemish Government to photograph industry and craft in West Flanders. As part of a series of workshops on urban economy, this one was centred around the city of Kortrijk, where demographic growth is low and demand for good industrial spaces is still rising. Along with Mark Brearley, from London Met University, they were keen that we documented what businesses were on their door step, as so often they are hidden from view – in Belgium it’s common to have an alley behind the main high street where industry and craftspeople are tucked away, quietly getting on with their business. Often the residents living right in front of these workshops have no idea what is being made there, so visual audits are not only a way of recording industry but also celebrating and reminding people what is being made in their neighbourhood. Mark and I have collaborated on similar audits in Southwark, commissioned by the Architecture & Urbanism Department at the London Metropolitan University.
Photo by Carmel King
Whilst there has been a resurgence in craft and British made products, there have been many struggles for the makers and manufacturers I’ve met. Brexit and the pandemic have affected supply chains and made it difficult to employ skilled workers. The main issue for makers and artists in cities is affordable workspace – often being priced out of their buildings and area. Many of the businesses I have photographed have been handed down the family – McCarthy & Sons in Woolwich are a fifth-generation family-run firm. They make packaging and have been doing so since 1880. William Say have been making tin cans since before the Second World War, despite dramatic expansion, they remain in central London and offer short lead times and a flexible, bespoke service. Both companies have the benefit of owning the sites they are on, which means they are not at the peril of a landlord or Council bureaucracy.
In Woolwich, acres of industrial areas are being flattened to make way for thousands of new flats. The famous Stone Foundries – a huge operation which in its heyday employed 4,000 workers and looked more like a small town with a canteen and running track for the employees, has recently been closed down and the huge site is to be demolished. Not just livelihoods have been lost but an ecosystem of workers and shared knowledge and an important part of London’s industrial heritage.
The aim of my project and ongoing series is to celebrate the diverse manufacturing and craft scene in the UK whilst highlighting the importance of keeping industry within the city. Cities such as London thrives off its creative industries and diverse manufacturing scene – you need the ‘messy’ alongside the ‘clean’. In other words, you need the engineers, powder coaters, mechanics and stone merchants alongside the designers and tech community to keep the city vibrant, creative and ever-evolving.