All posts by Graham Snowdon

Exploring Iceland’s Volcanoes — Dr Dave McGarvie — 22nd Feb 2021

The men­tion of Icelandic vol­ca­noes takes most people back to the 2010 erup­tion, when fine ash caused wide­spread dis­rup­tion to air flights over north­ern and west­ern Europe from April to July.

But the  erup­tions of Eyjafjallajökull in the south of the coun­try were but a drop in the ocean – prob­ably lit­er­ally for most of the ash – when com­pared with earlier recor­ded erup­tions and poten­tially even greater ones to come.

Dr Dave McGarvie, a Scot who has worked in Yorkshire in the past but is cur­rently an hon­or­ary research fellow at Lancaster University, spe­cial­ising in vol­can­ism, kept 45 of our mem­bers and guests enthralled during a one-hour illus­trated talk on Iceland and its vol­ca­noes.

This was an addi­tion to our cur­rent pro­gramme of twice-monthly Zoom present­a­tions during lock­down, brought for­ward because Dave, after being groun­ded not by vol­canic ash but by Covid-19 in 2020, is hoping to get the green light to carry out another six weeks’ research in Iceland during the coming summer.

The 2010 Eyjafjallajökul ash cloud caused so much dis­rup­tion because it was, as Dave explained, a ‘per­fect erup­tion.’ It was unusual on four counts – it occurred during a pro­longed spell of dry weather, a higher pro­por­tion than normal of the ash was very fine, the winds at the time car­ried the ash dir­ectly towards the UK and the rest of Europe, and it was unusu­ally long-lived for its size, pro­du­cing ash for 39 days.

In addi­tion, all air­craft were groun­ded because of inflex­ible flight rules.

By com­par­ison, the Grímsvötn erup­tion to the north east of Eyjafjallajökull in 2011 — known as the for­got­ten erup­tion – res­ul­ted in a 20-kilometre high plume, com­pared with Eyjafjallajökull’s plume of around eight kilo­metres, and pro­duced as much ash in two days as Eyjafjallajökull did in 39 days.

In July 2011, a few weeks after the erup­tion ended, Dave trav­elled on the first exped­i­tion to the erup­tion site to study it and col­lect samples before snow covered the evid­ence.


Dr Dave McGarvie at Grímsvötn shortly after the 2011 erup­tion.

Our next port of call during Dave’s talk was Askja, a vol­cano in the cent­ral east of the coun­try which last erup­ted in 1961 but which, he assured us, would def­in­itely erupt again. In 2014 there was a large land­slide and a ‘tsunami’ which exceeded 50 metres in height and washed a great deal of pumice from an earlier (1875) erup­tion into the water-filled cal­dera (Spanish for boil­ing pot — GS) formed by that erup­tion and, at around 257 metres, the deep­est fresh­wa­ter lake in Iceland.

Dave then took us to the espe­cially scenic Eastern Fjords, and on to Hvalsnes, which means ‘Whale Point’ where lookouts used to watch, and which has a repu­ta­tion as one of the win­di­est places in Iceland, as he found out in 2003 when the win­dows on the sea­ward side of his parked minibus were smashed by flying sand and pebbles driven by a wind of around 140mph.

Öraefajökull, Iceland’s largest and tallest vol­cano.

Öraefajökull, in  the south east of the coun­try, is Iceland’s largest and tallest vol­cano, with a dia­meter of 25 kilo­metres at its base and a height of 2,000 metres. Öraefajökull had a huge erup­tion in 1362 and its last was in 1727–28. But in June 2017, there star­ted what Dave omin­ously described as a ‘period of unrest.’

If any­body is plan­ning a hol­i­day to Iceland, that might be a good place to avoid. Or at least wear a hard hat.


  • All images via Dr Dave McGarvie

Does wealth lead to health? — Prof Tim Stephenson — 19th Oct 2020

Once again high­light­ing the depth of know­ledge within our own mem­ber­ship, we were treated to the second half of Tim Stephenson’s explor­a­tion of the immensely power­ful and wealthy Medici family.


Prior to his retire­ment Tim, a pro­fessor of patho­logy, was Clinical Director of Laboratory Medicine at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals and an hon­or­ary pro­fessor at Sheffield Hallam University. Another excel­lent audi­ence of 40 mem­bers, plus three guests from our wait­ing list, watched our latest Zoom present­a­tion, eager to hear the con­clu­sion of the Medici talk which Tim had star­ted on 3rd August.

The answer to the ques­tion posed in the title of Tim’s present­a­tion is a resound­ing “No.” The wealth side of the equa­tion wasn’t a prob­lem for the Medicis, the bank­ing and polit­ical dyn­asty who first came to prom­in­ence under Cosimo de Medici in the Republic of Florence in the first half of the 15th cen­tury.

The family, as Tim poin­ted out, was richer than most mon­arch­ies, most nations and the papacy. But their health became decidedly ‘iffy’ through a com­bin­a­tion of over-rich diet, over-protection from the out­side world and nat­ural sun­light, and over-selective breed­ing (rich fam­il­ies only inter-married with other rich fam­il­ies, in the hope of increas­ing their wealth even fur­ther).

The sub­title of Tim’s con­clud­ing talk was ‘Part 2: The Diseases, the Suffering,’ and he explained how the Medici family has been the sub­ject of medico-historical interest as many of its most prom­in­ent fig­ures were known to have suffered from debil­it­at­ing ill­nesses through­out their lives.

The risks of wealth included assas­sin­a­tion; in 1478, Guliano Medici was assas­sin­ated by the rival Pazzi family in front of 10,000 people during an Easter church ser­vice.

Although the defi­ciency of vit­amin D that causes rick­ets is often linked to the mal­nu­tri­tion and pol­luted, cramped and sun­less living envir­on­ments of the urban poor, scions of the Medici family, Grand Dukes of Tuscany, suffered from rick­ets.

In 2003, research­ers at the uni­ver­sit­ies of Pisa and Florence began the exhuma­tion of 49 Medici family buri­als in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. Nine small coffins held the remains of Medici chil­dren who had died between birth and five years of age. X-ray and osteo­lo­gical ana­lysis of the remains found that six of them had the dis­tinct­ive signs of rick­ets – curved arm and leg bones – even in very early infancy.

So these chil­dren of great priv­ilege, raised in the lap of Renaissance luxury, not only suffered from vit­amin D defi­ciency as they were grow­ing up, but were afflic­ted by it prac­tic­ally from birth. Rickets, Tim poin­ted out, is easily pre­ven­ted by eating foods such as eggs and cheese, and by spend­ing short amounts of time exposed to sun­light, which trig­gers vit­amin D pro­duc­tion. Breast milk was sup­ple­men­ted with ‘paps’ made of soft bread and apples. Neither cer­eals not breast milk con­tain much vit­amin D, and fruit con­tains none.

The Medici chil­dren, wrapped in many heavy layers of swad­dling and cocooned in grand houses, prob­ably didn’t get the same amount of sun­light as their ‘less for­tu­nate’ peers. The research­ers con­cluded that the moth­ers them­selves might have had low-level vit­amin D defi­ciency because of low light expos­ure of high-status women, or as a result of fre­quent child­bear­ing.

The ladies of the house­hold would be heav­ily made up, often using white lead and ver­mil­ion which, at that time, was derived from cin­nabar, or mer­cury sulph­ide, and — with an SPF (sun pro­tec­tion factor) of 1,000 — blocked out vir­tu­ally all ultra violet.

The Italian Renaissance princes had a much wider choice of food than other classes, but appar­ently did not avail them­selves. Historical records reveal that after meat and wine, which con­sti­tuted the nuc­leus of the nobles’ diet, eggs and cheese appear – but infre­quently. In the aris­to­cratic diet, veget­ables occu­pied a sec­ond­ary place, with an almost total absence of fruit. Gout, gen­er­ally believed to be caused by an over-rich diet, was also pre­val­ent.

Since the aver­age age of the mem­ber­ship of Stumperlowe Probus Club is well over twice the life expect­ancy of the aris­to­cratic 15th cen­tury Florentine, one can only pre­sume that we’ve all been eating our greens.


Sheffield Assay Office — Thurs 5th March 2020

I should ima­gine that 90 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion of Sheffield have heard of the Assay Office, and are vaguely aware of its role in hall­mark­ing items of pre­cious metal, but few fully appre­ci­ate its sig­ni­fic­ance on the national and world stage.

Sheffield Assay Office has been making its mark since 1773 when local sil­ver­smiths, des­pite oppos­i­tion from the Goldsmiths’ Company of London, suc­cess­fully peti­tioned Parliament for the right to assay silver in the city, and whilst it is not the oldest of the four sim­ilar estab­lish­ments still in exist­ence – the others are in London, Edinburgh and Birmingham – it is today the biggest and most influ­en­tial.

Interestingly, des­pite that early oppos­i­tion from the Goldsmiths’ Company, there are many London-based busi­nesses who choose to send their pre­cious goods to Sheffield to be assayed, and some of those cli­ents have global repu­ta­tions to uphold.

© Sheffield Assay Office

A party of 28 mem­bers and guests from Stumperlowe Probus Club enjoyed a two and a half hour visit to the Assay Office, where we were priv­ileged to be given an intro­duct­ory talk, fol­lowed by a tour of the ultra-modern premises, by Emma Paragreen, the cur­ator, lib­rar­ian and arch­iv­ist.

Emma is a lead­ing figure in the world of pre­cious metals and jew­ellery. Apart from her Assay Office work, she is a com­mit­tee member of the Silver Society and editor of their news­let­ter, and a member of the Society of Jewellery Historians and, in the last three years, has com­pleted her Professional Jewellers’ Diploma through the National Association of Jewellers. She also recently became a Freeman of the Goldsmiths’ Company.

Michael Portillo fans will have heard of Bradshaw’s, the famous ref­er­ence book of rail­way timetables. The sim­il­arly named equi­val­ent for pre­cious metals (the dif­fer­ence being that this one is still going strong), is the snap­pily titled Bradbury’s Book of Hallmarks: A Guide to Marks of Origin on English, Scottish and Irish Silver, Gold, Platinum, Palladium and on Foreign Imported Silver and Gold Plate 1544 to 2020. Daniel Bradbury was the first Sheffield Assay Master; the book is pub­lished by the Sheffield Assay Office, and Emma is the editor.

Emma Paragreen — © Sheffield Assay Office

In short, we couldn’t have wished for a more know­ledge­able person to bring us up to speed on the work of the Assay Office, whose senior staff were and still are known as the Guardians of the Standard of Wrought Plate in the Town of Sheffield. Even in 1773, Sheffield had an estab­lished tra­di­tion of fine sil­ver­ware pro­duc­tion, but the number of guard­i­ans who were also sil­ver­smiths was restric­ted in number to ten to ensure that the Assay Office offered an inde­pend­ent and impar­tial ser­vice, for the bene­fit of the cus­tomer rather than the man­u­fac­turer.

The hall­mark, then, is the oldest form of con­sumer pro­tec­tion that exists, and the cur­rent Assay Office premises on Beulah Road at Hillsborough are known as Guardians’ Hall. But des­pite having almost 250 years of his­tory behind it, the office is a hi-tech sci­entific estab­lish­ment where hall­marks are just as likely to be applied (depend­ing on the item being assayed) by laser tech­no­logy as by the tra­di­tional hardened-steel dyes.

The tra­di­tional busi­ness of hall­mark­ing con­tin­ues to provide cus­tom­ers both nation­ally and world­wide with an assur­ance of qual­ity and purity. The instantly recog­nis­able Sheffield mark of the Yorkshire rose is care­fully applied to items of pre­cious metal which can range from the most del­ic­ate chain to a stun­ning one-off table centrepiece cre­ated by a con­tem­por­ary designer. Whatever the item, who­ever the cus­tomer, the inde­pend­ence and strin­gent stand­ards of The Sheffield Assay Office ensure accur­acy and inspire con­fid­ence.

© Sheffield Assay Office
© Sheffield Assay Office

The ori­ginal aim of the intro­duc­tion of hall­mark­ing was to pro­tect the public against fraud and the trader against unfair com­pet­i­tion. That prin­ciple is as import­ant in Sheffield in 2020 as it was when the first UK legis­la­tion relat­ing to hall­mark­ing was intro­duced in 1238.


You can find fur­ther read­ing on the his­tory and work of the Sheffield Assay Office on their own web­site:



A Life in Crime — Peter Stubbs — 17th Feb 2020

Peter Stubbs, who trav­elled from his home in Bakewell and was warmly wel­comed by an audi­ence of 48 mem­bers, is no stranger to Stumperlowe Probus Club. This was his fifth visit to us in just over two years.

Peter is a man of many parts, and tal­ents. On his first visit he man­aged to cram 900 years of legal his­tory into just over an hour. Then, after three talks on his other big pas­sion in life, naval his­tory, Peter rever­ted to the day job to enter­tain us with stor­ies of a selec­tion of the char­ac­ters — ran­ging from the col­our­ful to the scary — he rep­res­en­ted during his 35-year career as a crim­inal lawyer in Sheffield.

Peter Stubbs.            Photo ©

It was, as he poin­ted out in his intro­duc­tion, a story of his life in crime, not his life of crime. “My own crime record is modest,” he assured us. “I had a bit of a pen­chant for park­ing on yellow lines on shop­ping trips, and I also man­aged to pick up one or two speed­ing offences.

In my early 20s I was coming back from a night out in London, the fol­low­ing morn­ing, when an ‘Inspector Morse’ Jaguar over­took me and flagged me down, and in Sheffield many years later I was on Rivelin Valley Road when out jumped a police­man with a speed gun who told me I was doing 38mph just after the 40 limit had changed to 30.” The fact that he was on his way to work – in fact to York Crown Court — cut no ice with the zeal­ous officer.

Peter’s career began in 1978, and his prac­ti­cing cer­ti­fic­ate as a soli­citor was signed by Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls for 20 years up to 1982 and one of the most famous names in British legal his­tory.

Although Peter’s prac­tice in Sheffield was a gen­eral one, a large pro­por­tion of his work was involved with crime. “It was inter­est­ing and at times excit­ing, and often quite fun,” he recalled. “But what I might think was fun was ser­i­ous busi­ness.”

Cases, per­haps not sur­pris­ingly in Sheffield, included hand­ling stolen scrap metal. Another reg­u­lar client had set up a bogus build­ing busi­ness and was caught steal­ing lead from the roof of a bay window. “It turned out they had done about 60 houses; he was found guilty and went to prison. He just accep­ted it as a hazard of the job.”

Petty crime often ran in fam­il­ies, who would be Peter’s cli­ents for ten years or more. He felt sorry for one lady, who was proud that one of her sons had reached the age of 16 without being ‘done,’ only to catch his broth­ers up with alarm­ing speed as he worked his way up the crim­inal ladder.

Today, all police inter­views must be recor­ded, with both sound and video, but it was not always the case. “In the old days, one of the officers would sit at the table taking notes, and it was not unknown for some of the evid­ence to be made up. Police are no dif­fer­ent to any­body else, and some­times they break the rules.”

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act has largely countered that, and today all evid­ence must be recor­ded.

Peter was acting for a man who had been accused of assault­ing a police officer one Friday night on Attercliffe Road, but for­tu­nately  for his client there were three people having an Indian meal by the window in a res­taur­ant who saw what happened and claimed that it was the police officer who assaul­ted the accused. They went to the police sta­tion, where the police did not take evid­ence but were obliged to pass the wit­nesses’ details on to Peter.

Peter recalled a lady called Violet, who would more appro­pri­ately have been called Violent, who lived in Attercliffe and was well known to police. She got into an argu­ment in a pub with a fellow cus­tomer who was not phys­ic­ally injured but dropped down dead with a heart attack. Violet was charged with threat­en­ing beha­viour, but later claimed that the invest­ig­at­ing officer had sexu­ally assaul­ted her. “I found that hard to believe, know­ing Violet, but she claimed to have evid­ence” (which turned out to be a sample of semen wrapped in cling film, which Peter felt duty bound to take home and store in his freezer).

The invest­ig­at­ing officer ran a defence of con­sent, which was accep­ted, although he was dis­missed because of unpro­fes­sional con­duct.”

Murder was all in a day’s work for Peter, and he gave us examples of some of his more mem­or­able cases. In the first, a hus­band had claimed that his wife had killed their daugh­ter and then tried to throw her­self under a bus. She was charged with murder, but an expert on pre-menstrual ten­sion gave evid­ence which res­ul­ted in the woman being com­mit­ted to a psy­chi­at­ric hos­pital.

Another client, a bus driver in Sheffield, had been arres­ted on sus­pi­cion of mur­der­ing his girl­friend, who was found dead with her throat cut on the floor of her flat at Park Hill. The only evid­ence against him was from the man’s aggrieved wife, who claimed that he had admit­ted to killing the victim. The accused was able to prove “beyond doubt,” accord­ing to Peter, that he was sev­eral miles away at the time of the murder, driv­ing his bus on the other side of Sheffield, but the jury found him guilty by 10 to two and he received a life sen­tence. The wife later admit­ted to Peter that she had lied, but an appeal was dis­missed and the bus driver died in prison four years later from a heart attack.

The last murder case involved a long stand­ing client, for whom Peter’s prac­tice had pre­vi­ously done con­vey­an­cing work, who told his part­ner that he had voices in his head telling him to kill people. She took him to hos­pital where they sought psy­chi­at­ric help, but they were sent on their way.

The fol­low­ing day the man con­fided to his wife: “Actually, the voices were telling me to kill you, but I didn’t want to tell you last night.” He later stabbed his part­ner 30 or 40 times and was charged with murder, although he offered a plea of man­slaughter which was accep­ted.

Peter roun­ded off his present­a­tion by taking ques­tions from the floor. One member asked if he watched TV detect­ive pro­grammes. “All the time,” he admit­ted. “I’m retired after 35 years, and I am watch­ing Inspector Morse! It’s ridicu­lous! But they are metic­u­lously done.”

Newspapers, social media & politics in Divisive Times — Nancy Fielder — Mon 9th Dec 2019

These are troubled times for prin­ted news­pa­pers, all of whom are haem­or­rhaging cir­cu­la­tion in the face of com­pet­i­tion from the inter­net, and social media in par­tic­u­lar. Many are in their death throes.

For some­body who spent his entire work­ing life in journ­al­ism, the fig­ures make depress­ing read­ing. When I star­ted work on the Yorkshire Evening News in 1961 it was (unbe­liev­ably by today’s stand­ards) selling 119,000 copies a day across its Leeds and Doncaster edi­tions, and yet by the end of 1963 it had gone to the wall, regarded as uneco­nomic and absorbed by the rival Evening Post.

Today, regional even­ing news­pa­per edit­ors can only dream of a cir­cu­la­tion any­where near that figure. In Sheffield, The Star, des­pite having the field to itself as far as South Yorkshire is con­cerned, is strug­gling along on a print cir­cu­la­tion of less than 12,000 copies a day.

Nancy Fielder. © Prolific North Ltd.

Nancy Fielder is editor of JPI Media’s stable of daily and weekly news­pa­pers based in Sheffield, includ­ing The Star and weekly Sheffield Telegraph, and she had already filled us in on the state of play in the news­pa­per industry gen­er­ally when she last vis­ited Stumperlowe Probus Club in July 2018. Since then, things have only got worse.

Nancy’s latest present­a­tion, timed to per­fec­tion just three days before a General Election, was more about the part played by news­pa­pers and the inter­net, includ­ing their own online offer­ings and social media plat­forms such as Facebook and Twitter, in influ­en­cing public opin­ion.

The Star website’s selec­tion of news stor­ies.

Johnston Press plc, the country’s biggest regional news­pa­per pub­lisher and the Sheffield titles’ pre­vi­ous owner with a market cap­it­al­isa­tion of just £3 mil­lion, placed itself in admin­is­tra­tion in November 2018 when it was unable to find a suit­able buyer of the busi­ness to refin­ance its £220 mil­lion of debt. Its assets were brought under the con­trol of JPI Media Ltd, a com­pany formed by a con­sor­tium of Johnston Press’s main cred­it­ors who reduced its debts to £85 mil­lion and injec­ted £35 mil­lion of invest­ment.

The real­ity is that fewer people are buying the print product, and that is where most of the money comes from, but more people are access­ing our web­site,” explained Nancy, fresh from her appear­ance dis­cuss­ing the week­end papers on BBC Breakfast.

Generating enough money from the web­site to make up the loss of income from the prin­ted paper is easier said than done. Advertising rev­enue goes some way towards this, but the busi­ness model is com­plic­ated and the long-term viab­il­ity of the web­site is far from cer­tain des­pite, or per­haps because of, the ease with which people can click on by fol­low­ing a link from, say, Facebook.

More than half of all the ‘hits’ we get online come via Facebook,” Nancy told us. So that must mean that Facebook is doing The Star a big favour by driv­ing traffic to their web­site. Well, yes and no. Obviously, the more people who visit the web­site the more The Star can charge advert­isers for the priv­ilege, but only to a cer­tain point. Because who are The Star com­pet­ing with for advert­ising rev­enue? You’ve guessed it – Facebook.

Companies such as Google and Facebook can under­cut us for advert­ising because they are so big but, although we are having to com­pete with them [for income from advert­ising] it is our news that people are click­ing on. And we have a shrink­ing number of report­ers with an ever bigger job to do.”

So, while there is no doubt that news­pa­per web­sites such as The Star’s are attract­ing a healthy amount of traffic, just how sus­tain­able they will be in the long term from a com­mer­cial point of view is still largely an unknown.

In September, in the face of squeezed advert­ising rev­en­ues, The Star took a sig­ni­fic­ant step in secur­ing the viab­il­ity of its web­site by intro­du­cing a so-called pay­wall. This allows read­ers to view five free art­icles a week, after which they will have to register and choose from a range of sub­scrip­tion plans such as £1 per month for three months and £2 per week there­after, or £52 for the first full year and £78 per year there­after.

One inter­est­ing dif­fer­ence between prin­ted news­pa­pers and a web­site is that con­tent can be better tailored to meet read­ers’ tastes.

As Nancy explained: “With the front page [of the news­pa­per] it was always a bit of a gut reac­tion, what we thought people would like, but now we can actu­ally see what people are look­ing at.

But it is doubt­ful that the elec­tion will be the most read item.”

To illus­trate her point, Nancy brought along a screen shot of the elec­tronic ‘score­board’ which is per­man­ently on dis­play in The Star’s news­room and shows, in real time and updated almost by the second, what vis­it­ors to the web­site are look­ing at.

On the morn­ing of her visit, the most read item up to eight o’clock had been Sheffield United’s comeback against Norwich City. The first polit­ical story on the list, about LibDem leader Jo Swinson’s visit to Sheffield, ranked only sixth.

If they are not look­ing at polit­ics today, when will they be?” she asked. “We know what interests the people out there. If they are not click­ing on polit­ics, why should we write about polit­ics?

It is a very wor­ry­ing trend, and a depress­ing pic­ture that they [the fig­ures] paint.

How our local news used to look. A front page of The Star from 80 years ago. © British Newspaper Archive.

On a recent day, in the middle of the General Election cam­paign, the most viewed stor­ies were about a Sheffield cus­tomer who was turned away from a pub for wear­ing a flat cap, which attrac­ted 51,000 hits, and an item about a Sheffield mother who com­plained that her son’s day — “if not his life” — had been ruined by a Cadbury’s advent cal­en­dar which was miss­ing its chocol­ates, and which attrac­ted 47,000 views.

You get more money, the greater number of people look­ing at your web­site, so you have to give them what they want to read,” Nancy added.

It’s quite a ser­i­ous debate, how to get people to engage with polit­ics. We’ve had stor­ies about national politi­cians coming to the city, which we have put on the front page of the prin­ted paper, but vir­tu­ally nobody was look­ing at them on the web­site.”

Nancy Fielder is not alone in her cam­paign against polit­ical parties imit­at­ing local news­pa­pers. ©

Nancy also believes that local demo­cracy is at risk because papers such as The Star, which will only pub­lish unbiased stor­ies, are often com­pet­ing with polit­ical leaf­lets which are made to look like local news­pa­pers. “Political parties put a tre­mend­ous amount of effort and money into pro­du­cing mater­ial which just isn’t true,” she claimed.

The Star was first pub­lished in 1887. Let’s hope it’s got a few more years’ life left in it.


Amazon Fulfilment Centre visit — Wed 30th Oct 2019

In the days when Doncaster Rovers’ home ground was Belle Vue, the town was proud of the fact that it had the largest play­ing area of any club in the Football League, at 110 yards long by 72 yards wide.

But, in a town where size obvi­ously mat­ters, the old Rovers’ pitch would be dwarfed by the nearby Amazon Fulfilment Centre — a ware­house or dis­tri­bu­tion centre to you and me – which covers an area equi­val­ent to no fewer than 14 Premier League foot­ball pitches on the iPort Commercial Park just off the M18.

In round fig­ures that comes out at one mil­lion square feet, and no one among our party of 27 Stumperlowe Probus Club mem­bers who vis­ited the Amazon Fulfilment Centre today would deny that the first thing that hits you as you drive into the vis­it­ors’ car park, and even more so as you enter on foot through the main doors of the build­ing, is the sheer size of the place.

In Amazon par­lance, the iPort ware­house is LBA2. All Amazon ful­fil­ment centres are code named after their nearest inter­na­tional air­port, and when LBA1 was opened in 2010, closer to Doncaster and on the oppos­ite side of the M18, Doncaster Sheffield Airport was hand­ling only a frac­tion of the freight it does today. So Leeds Bradford it was.

Amazon began life only 25 years ago as an online seller of books but has grown to become the largest inter­net com­pany by rev­enue in the world. As of 2018 it employed almost 650,000 people world­wide, of whom more than 250,000 work full-time in their so-called ful­fil­ment net­work.

In the early Amazon days, the ware­house and its office in Seattle were one and the same. A hand­ful of employ­ees shared the work­space along with shelves and shelves of books. Over time, one ware­house became sev­eral hun­dred and the goods passing through came to include elec­tron­ics, soft­ware, video games, cloth­ing, fur­niture, food, toys and jew­ellery. By 2015, Amazon had sur­passed Walmart as the most valu­able retailer in the United States by market cap­it­al­isa­tion.

During our two-hour visit, there were 170 employ­ees – or ‘asso­ci­ates’ as they are known – on duty within the Doncaster build­ing, and every one of them, if not driv­ing some kind of high-reach fork­lift or other vehicle, was busy pick­ing, pack­ing, wrap­ping and send­ing on their way the hun­dreds of thou­sands of par­cels which make their way through the centre every day.

For although every move is heav­ily reli­ant on com­puters and bar­codes to main­tain some semb­lance of order, making sure that the right pack­age is on the right con­veyor belt at the right time, the human ele­ment was also very much in evid­ence. People who had come expect­ing to see banks of robots being con­trolled by per­haps one or two oper­at­ives in a con­trol centre might have been sur­prised.

They’re keen on acronyms at Amazon. My favour­ite in the whole pro­cess was SLAM, which stands for scan/label/apply mani­fest and is a stretch of con­veyor belt, or rather rollers of the type you see in air­port secur­ity, where the bar­coded pack­ages pass through a series of scan­ners. They then have self-adhesive name and address labels lit­er­ally blown on to the sur­face of the card­board by air pres­sure, rather than phys­ic­ally being stamped on, which could damage the con­tents, as the pack­age is routed to the cor­rect out­bound truck. From there it is trans­por­ted to a ‘sort­a­tion’ centre (another Americanism, but at least they spelt ‘centre’ cor­rectly) from where it would wing its way to a cus­tomer.

Our tour slot was too early to have lunch before­hand and too late to have lunch after­wards. So for 21 of our mem­bers the day star­ted with a late full English break­fast and mugs of tea or coffee at The Stockyard truck stop on the Hellaby Industrial Estate, just off Junction 1 of the M18. This was greatly enjoyed, but a sug­ges­tion that The Stockyard could be a pos­sible venue for our annual lunch­eon might be voted down by our wives.