Peter Smith has kindly shared his document from 2014 he does not profess it to be totally factually correct but is a good read
Consett, Co. Durham – some notes
Peter Smith, 26th May 2014.
Apart from my personal reminiscences, much of the detail below has had to be drawn from the Internet. There is a book about the history of the town, “Painted Red”, by Tony Kearney, published by Derwentside Cultural Association, 1990 (ISBN10: 0-9516859-0-3, ISBN13: 9780951682906) but it is out of print and very hard to get hold of. When I tried to obtain a copy recently, I was told it would cost me £55!
Consett, population now just over 27,000, is a former steelmaking town at the top of an exposed hill (about 250 metres above sea-level) in the eastern foothills of the Pennines. On the extreme north-western border of County Durham, it overlooks the valley of the river Derwent from the east. It is on the Sustrans C2C (Coast to Coast or Sea to Sea) cycle route from Whitehaven in Cumbria to Sunderland.
From 1691 onwards skilled metalworkers, sword-makers originally from Solingen in Germany, were working in nearby Shotley Bridge. Their operations later became the nucleus of the Wilkinson Sword company. Coal, black-band ironstone (containing both iron and coal) and limestone, all essential for iron making, were found in the area. In 1841 the population of Consett was only 145 but around that time the Derwent Iron Company, later taken over by the Consett Iron Company, set up blast-furnaces. The first ironstone shaft was sunk in an area of the town which is still called Number One. The company bought that section of the Stanhope and Tyne Railway which ran southwards over the moors of west Durham and leased it to the Stockton and Darlington Railway. This railway had originally been surveyed by Robert Stephenson,
From all this an ironworks developed, which expanded over the years. Looking for a secure supply of iron ore, the company joined a consortium which bought iron mines and associated railways and port facilities in the Bilbao area of Spain. The other members, apart from a local partner, were the Dowlais Iron Company and perhaps surprisingly the great German arms combine Krupps. It would be interesting to know whether the consortium still owned these works at the time of the Spanish Civil War, and whether the Consett company was still a member.
In the later 19th century Consett Iron Company provided houses for its workers and employed many Irish immigrants, mostly from Tyrone, Monaghan and neighbouring counties. There was residential segregation between British and Irish workers, and some riots and other disturbances between the British and Irish, starting with the “Battle of the Blue Heaps” in 1847 which only ended when soldiers were called in from Shotley Bridge. The blue heaps consisted of waste from the ironstone mines. Controversy over Roman Catholicism and Irish nationalism may have been intensified because a significant proportion of the Irish were Protestants, supporting a network of Orange Order lodges. Consett still has a big Catholic population, and its congregation is the biggest in the Catholic diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.
The works is supposed to have supplied steel for the building of Blackpool Tower, and for nuclear submarines in more recent years. It became a big integrated operation with its own coke-works, brickworks and electric power station on site, employing over 6,000 people there by the 1960s, as well as several collieries and coke-works in the surrounding area until the latter were nationalised in 1947. Rail buffs still enthuse over the memory, particularly the sound, of heavily loaded steam trains struggling up steep gradients (up to 1 in 40) hauling iron ore from Tyne Dock. Despite using Type 9F steam locomotives, among the most powerful ever built in Britain, the trains still often needed an extra loco (a “banking engine”) pushing at the back. The C2C cycle route follows part of the railway track-bed.
From 1883, the company made steel from iron produced in the blast-furnaces, using the Siemens-Martin open-hearth process. There is a very old black-and- white video clip on the Internet showing this in operation in conjunction with Bessemer converters.
The works benefited from new investment, such as improved blast-furnaces, over the decades.
In 1938 the company helped to found the New Jarrow Steel Company (in Jarrow, “the town that was murdered”) from the old Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company; the collapse of the Palmers Company in 1933 led to the Jarrow March of 1936.
When I moved to the area in the 1950s, the night sky over Consett viewed from across the valley lit up and glowed red for several minutes once every few hours when the furnaces were tapped. This was even more spectacular when the cloud cover was low, with the glow reflecting off the clouds.
In 1959 the company erected a plate-mill at Hownsgill, just outside Consett, to make steel plates for the shipbuilding industry. This was close to the elegant Hownsgill or Hownes Gill viaduct on the Stanhope and Tyne Railway, which now carries the C2C cycle track (and has recently been fitted with anti-suicide fences!) The viaduct was designed by “Thomas Bouch” who was later responsible for the ill-fated Tay Bridge.
In 1961, Consett was the first steelworks in the UK to introduce the more efficient LD (Linz-Donawitz) steelmaking process. This used a water-cooled lance to blow oxygen into molten iron from above to burn the carbon in the iron, rather than blowing air in from below as in the Bessemer process; it allowed the open-hearth step to be eliminated. I’m a bit puzzled because I can’t find any mention of this change on any of the various Internet sites devoted to the history of the steelworks. One immediate effect was that the glow in the night sky was reduced: instead, the new process produced enormous amounts of red dust (ferric oxide). The town was downwind of the works; the prevailing wind blew the dust that way and the town got covered in it – this is certainly mentioned on Internet sites.
My own experience
I was a labourer at the works for a couple of months from September 1966, as part of a small gang working on keeping the site generally tidy; the work was not particularly hard and the pressure was not high. I was paid £11-8s a week. Oddly enough, by an agreement with the unions representing the majority of workers, members of our gang were not allowed to join a union until we transferred into one of the operating departments of the works. I left in November to go to London to earn more money and after a few weeks living on my savings I got a job in a warehouse, earning all of £12 a week. At Consett, one specific duty we were given after about a month was preparing the site for inspection by the team which was to supervise the re-nationalisation of the works; the inspection actually occurred just after I left and the British Steel Corporation came into existence in July1967.
Molten slag from the blast-furnaces was run off into huge rail-mounted ladles shaped like inverted bells which were filled right to the top. These were propelled over the works’ internal rail network to the tipping site in groups of two by small diesel engines. Much of the routine site tidying involved removing odd bits of slag from between the rails; these had been spilled out of the ladles, which swayed alarmingly in transit. Most of the very top layer of slag had solidified and cooled a bit, but we could see the red glow from still- liquid slag in the interior. I wondered what would happen if a swaying ladle tipped over near me – could I run away in time? If I climbed up iron ladders into the upper parts of nearby buildings, would enough heat be conducted along the metal to burn me? The ladles had the manufactures’ name on the side in big letters: “Ashmore Benson Pease”. This company was part of the Davy Group, which had developed partly from initiatives by Edward Pease, the Darlington
Quaker, an important member of the Pease dynasty of industrialists and a major backer of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. The works had various rail- mounted cranes. Most were diesel-powered but there was one quaint survival: a steam-powered crane, trundling merrily along the rails with odd jets of steam spurting out here and there.
There was a short strike while I was there – it was not very serious, only lasting three days. Some (male) office staff who had no work were sent to unload lorries. They had not much idea how to do this and had to endure a lot of ribbing from the lorry-drivers. This was only the third strike since the war: there had been another short one in 1954 and a very serious one, lasting something like six weeks, in 1947 or 1948. When I had to go the pay office, the staff who dealt with me were mostly middle-aged women. What still sticks in my mind is how polite, friendly and helpful they were towards this scruffy herbert of a labourer.
We and some others spent two-and-a half weeks doing rotating shift work, including a week of nights, at a very small steel rolling-mill in Jarrow owned by the company. Transport was provided and we were paid a very small bonus which had been calculated from some work-study observations, according to the amount of output we produced. Whether the Jarrow site had any relation with the Palmers concern referred to above, I don’t know.
There was a sad failure of political communication in the area at the time. Although there had been extensive mine closures, the big modern pits on the Durham coast were short of labour and the Coal Board kept open a training school in the Consett area to prepare young men for work in the coastal pits. However, not enough had been done to explain the reasoning to local people, and everyone who mentioned it assumed it was a waste of public money. Consett was in a development area and was trying to attract new jobs to replace the coal mines which had nearly all closed: my fiancée (now my wife), living in Scotland at the time, was amused to get letters from me via the Consett sorting office, franked “CONSETT – FIRST CLASS MANPOWER AVAILABLE”.
In 1980 the British Steel Corporation decided on a large-scale programme of plant closures after a national steel strike had failed. Consett was one of the five plants smelting iron ore which were closed. I believe it was the only one operating the modern LD process but this was outweighed by its comparative remoteness, particularly as nearly all the coal mines in the area had closed so that not only the iron ore but also the coal had to be hauled in from a distance. In addition, it was probably too small to get the benefit of economies of scale.
3,700 jobs were lost at a stroke, in an area which was still recovering from the earlier closures of coal mines and other heavy industry. The Wikipedia entry for the British Steel Corporation states that governments were obliged under EU rules to withdraw subsidies; this was an excuse for the British government doing what it had intended to do all along.
A Greek Tragedy?
In the late 1970s, with government assistance, Ransome Hoffman Pollard opened a factory to make ball-bearings from Consett steel in the large former mining village of Annfield Plain, a few miles south-east of Consett. When the steelworks went, there was no longer any reason for the factory to be there and it closed in 1982 with the loss of a further 1,400 jobs. It stayed empty apart from a few very small enterprises for something like 20 years. The current Wikipedia entry for the village records specifically that “Annfield Plain is also known for not having any night life”.
After the closure of the steelworks, unemployment in Consett inevitably rose steeply and at one time hit 36%. All the buildings at the steelworks were demolished and the site – including the slag-heap – was landscaped. The area received massive help in attracting new industry, both from BSC (Industry), a British Steel subsidiary set up for this purpose, and from the EU Social fund. This succeeded to such an extent that at one point, probably at the end of the 20th century, the unemployment rate had fallen to about the national average – a remarkable achievement. One new product manufactured there was “Phileas Fogg Crisps – made in Medomsley Road Consett”. The town is now considered quite a desirable place to live by Tyneside commuters. However, I was told about four years ago that the old mining town of Stanley to the east (close to Annfield Plain and to the Beamish Open Air museum) was considered a problem area. The local police had introduced a curfew for teenagers: they were not allowed out after dark in groups of more than two or three.