Consett Stories: in their own words

In this series we will be providing a platform for recollections of Consett, its steel industry and the community that made it from the many contributions we have received either via Facebook or by direct email.

We’d love to hear your stories and share your memories and images. If you have anything you’d like to share please get in touch with Richard or Victoria here.

Barbara McEnaney’s Story: her Dad’s world in miniature

Dad has been passed 10 years now, but I still have a lot of his things including his model sailing ships. This was his hobby, but it was his life too. I’ve never seen a more devoted man to his ships.

He started work at CIC in 1958, he was a steel sampler, which is why he made the model of the sample room [see above]. He stayed at the works till it closed. This job also took him to Tyne dock to collect some steel samples,  I know this was one of the things he looked forward to doing as it got him a chance to go and be where he loved, on the quay, as you see from one of the photographs, he kept a record of all the ships he took the samples from. 

I remember going with him one Saturday morning because after he finished, we were going to Boldon to buy our horse. Dad was also a good horseman. When he had days off and I was at school or working a late shift Dad would take the horse out. When the works closed, he got a job at the YMCA in Consett, he could turn his hand to anything and I think he did do just about everything when he was there, from repairs to making kitchen units. It was here where he made a model of the Gill Bridge, I remember the research he did for that, I have loads of photos of the bridge,  from the bottom and from the top: Dad was a perfectionist, so it had to be right. I don’t remember what it was going to be used for, but I know it did go into some event or other in Consett.

He also made a wonderful fisherman’s  cottage; the inside was just as perfect as the outside and even had a fisherman sitting  by the fire. Dad was a very shy and quiet man and would do things that I would be amazed at, he always thought no one would be interested in what he could do, so kept a lot to himself.  The worst day was when Dad had a stroke and lost his speech and the use of his right arm, this meant he couldn’t make his models anymore. He wasn’t going to be beat though, he would get a small paint brush and meticulously dust them.

He was an amazing man, and I miss him every day, so thank you for this opportunity to maybe let a few more people know about him.  

Barbara McEnaney, via Facebook

Kathleen Rymer’s Story: the 1950 gas accident

The opening of the memorial for the victims of the disaster at Consett Blast furnace plant in July 1950, brought back memories for me as after working in the Head office of the National Union of Blast furnacemen, Ore Miners, Coke Workers and Kindred Trades in Middlesbrough as a general clerk I transferred to the Cleveland and Durham district office in the same building in January 1950.

The district Secretary was Mr Thomas Walsh and he was contacted by our local Evening Gazette newspaper when the disaster happened. Together with our local Mayor a fund was opened for the victims dependants and I remember letters pouring into our office with cheques, postal orders and cash from all parts of the North East. One in particular remains with me, a postal order for two shillings and sixpence signed only from a widowed pensioner.

Whilst working in the Head office, circulars were sent out regularly to the branch representatives from Consett to South Wales and all iron and steel workers in Lincolnshire, the Midlands and West Coast. I remember at that time John Shanley was the delegate at Consett blast furnaces until his untimely death and the only successor I remember was John Foreman. The Coke Oven plant was represented by Alec Roberts who was the District Chairman for many years until his retirement in the 1950s.

I had the privilege of meeting some exceptional men who dedicated their lives to improving the wages and conditions of their fellow members. They were true gentlemen in every sense.

I also have something in common with the victims children as my own Father was fatally gassed on the 8th December 1940, at the Acklam Blast furnace plant. Because of the war the gas could not be burned off and the men had to rely on the wind to disperse it. One of my tasks in the Head Office was to enter death benefit claims in a ledger and industrial accidents were in red ink. Being curious I looked up the entry for my Father and also found similar tragedies had happened at other plants in the Country. These blast furnacemen died helping the war effort but I have never read of any tribute to them.

Thank you for reading this which is my contribution to the disaster.

Kathleen Rymer (nee Johnson)

Steve Shields’s Story: life on the Tyne Dock to Consett railway

It’s hard to believe it’s nearly 40 years since closure but my memories of working on the railway at Consett are as clear now as they were then. I was fortunate enough to to have been a Train Guard and also a Relief Signalman on the [Tyne Dock to Consett] branch over a ten year period. 

Life as a young Guard at 18 year old was varied and challenging, especially when on the Consett line. We would bring coal from the Colliery of the Durham coalfield and Iron ore from Tyne Dock which had travelled by ship from remote parts of Europe, all to feed the beast which was Consett Steel Works. In turn, the steel the Works produced came out by railway on to the shipyards of the Tyne, Wear and Tees. 

The Tyne dock ore trains where always a turn I looked forward to doing, as you never knew how the shift would go. Steam locomotives had disappeared nearly 3 years earlier on the iron ore route so the locomotives we used were the Darlington-built class 24 or type 2s. They where underpowered for the task of the ore trains and had problems with high water temperature, and wet rails and many other [problems] led to breakdowns occurring. The gradients also where a challenge with 1-55 at Beamish and further on at West Stanley 1-35. It was they steepest locomotive worked railway on the British Railway network. 

Leaving Tyne Dock we took the route out towards Bolton Colliery then on the slow lines at Pelaw Junction. Passing Gateshead 52a locomotive shed an array of diesel locomotives could be seen, especially the mighty Deltics. Now on to the Team Valley, and passing the huge marshalling yard at Tyne yard we continued until taking the signal for South Pelaw Junction at the start of the 12 mile journey to Consett.  It was not unknown as we approached the 1-55 gradient at Beamish, especially in autumn with leaves on the line, that we would come nearly to a stand as the wheels slipped on the locomotives. The sanders on the locos were blasting sand on to the rail and we travelled at 2 m.p.h but at least we were still moving. The fire bell by now would be ringing in drivers cab indicating high water temperature.

We would stop to cool the engines down before having another go! Night shift was worse especially, with [the fire] boxes closed. Long signal sections meant that if you stopped completely and needed  assistance from another locomotive the guard would, after protecting his train, set of to a find a public call box to ring the railway control and report the incident. No mobile phones them days but we still survived!

Well, on with journey: onwards to Consett. The next part of the route after Beamish was at Stanley where for a short while the line was level. Then passing Annfield East signal box, further on [past] Ransome and Marles, the ballbearing factory, notable by the two high chimneys there. Coming round the corner at Greencroft summit on nights the glow of the works reflecting in the night sky was clear to see. Down now past the school at South Medomsley through Leadgate then final approach to Carr House West signal box, who routed you on to the Consett Fell signal box.  After bringing the train to a stand, the Consett Steel Works lads waved us on to the gantry where at a given signal the ore wagon doors where released to discharge to the waiting conveyor below.

Some iron ore didn’t always drop out of wagon, especially the powdered stuff. That’s when the steel men with poles would climb in wagon to give the stuck-on a clout to help it on its way. The health and safety boys now would have loved that, as the conveyor below went straight to the furnace I believe. So once we got the all clear after discharging the ore off we departed back to Tyne dock for another load to the mighty Consett steel works. 

Steve Shields, ex Tyne Yard Guard from 1970 to 1976.