Lifting the Lid (Tins Tins Tins poem for Barnsley Museums)

I was commissioned to write a poem for the launch of the “Tins Tins Tins” exhibition, celebrating the Barnsley Canister Company and the beautiful tins they produced.

Loved hearing more from women who worked there in the seventies about factory and office life. (Especially as I’m a product of seventies office life- born of an affair between a secretary and her boss!). This project really resonated with one I recently did for Kirkleatham’s Steel Stories exhibition about the steelworks in Redcar. Overwhelming sense of family and support from being part of the factory workforce (which can be idealised but was also very real and now felt to be vanished).

Exhibition at Barnsley Town Hall til September


Take the Lid Off

If you take the lid off the four storeys 

of the clacking, stinking, buzzing 

of Barnsley Canister Company, t’in’ole,

you’ll know this town 

wasn’t just built on coal.

Some thought it was too much, 

they should keep a lid on it,

this hub, this hive

where passersby at the bottom of the hill 

heard women laughing and singing

as if it was the time of their lives.


Take the lid off,

who knew Barnsley made such beauties?

Slicing, edging, rolling, trapping,

tins moulded into teddy bears (biker bears, ballet bears),

puppies, cottages, Egyptian mummies.

Tombs topped with companion animals. Collectable as gems, 

as grudges. Stored in cupboards, coal holes.

Top on spinning, bottom on spinning, you’d get in a rhythm.

We should stop keeping a lid on their skill,

if only we’d realised sooner

how much they were really worth.


Let’s take the lid off how

a woman’s finger ends suddenly appeared on a tray.

A man held half another’s arm on,

at the very least you’d be ringed with plasters.

No helmets, no safety,

but at the end of the week, 

a brown envelope with your pay.

So you’d keep a lid on it

and there’s Fridays at the Fitz,

half a lager and lime, rollers in since lunchtime,

you’re part of a family.


Take the lid off this heavy work, men’s work,

leaving your kids instructions to make their tea

when you took twilight shift.

Earning anything from a good Christmas

to a holiday, freedom, survival, a lull in the thrift.

No need to keep a lid on it,

always someone to pick you up and carry you,

put a pound in, bits for the babbies, take up the slack.

Men scaring you to giggles with warehouse ghosts

a line of ARP hats in an abandoned room;

the women of tin have got your back.


Take the lid off the world,

you might get a chance to travel beyond Barnsley,

even if you’re not a twinkly manager in a suit,

though the tea in a Twinings tin’s been further than you,

than the office girls sharpening boss’s pencils 

when their special buzzer sounds.

If you’d wanted to be an artist,

someone would have said “Don’t be daft, put a lid on it”

but Dana, the designer from New York,

and businessmen with briefcases visited

and shouted to the world about your craft.


Take the lid off this box in a box filled  

with flickering specks in the air and talk,

folded intricately as origami 

by Pat, Wendy and Regina in their tabards.

Day after day they felt that click.

Surely there’d always be tick 

and treasures in the stock room.

Carol’s wind had them digging up the drains once

but she kept a lid on it,

unlike the Diamond White she thought was slimming beer,

the magnificent beehive she built every day for years.


Take the lid off, blow the dust from photographs 

of factory girls on a bus to the races, an old lipstick,

a newspaper clipping about the can can-themed float

winning the Christmas Eve fancy dress prize.

Smell morning break rolls from Edna Coes.

taste the butchers’ hot pies.

Keep a lid on the longing shining their eyes

reflecting faces turned to craquelure.

They thought t’in’ole would be there for ever

We see now that they are precious 

edged and embossed as fancy tins. Moulded together.


One response to “Lifting the Lid (Tins Tins Tins poem for Barnsley Museums)”

  1. Steven-Luke Skelley Avatar
    Steven-Luke Skelley

    Embossed with gorgeousness from Kate Fox, Thank you for visiting. Thank you for listening, to Barnsley.

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