Welcome to the History of Consett Steelworks blog, an place to bring forward some of the steelworks stories that you’d like to share. New content is always welcome, so if you have a story you want to tell or a memory you’d like to record please get in touch with the HCSW team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Memories in song of the last train links to Consett by Graeme Richardson
The following blog post has been taken from the History of Consett Steelworks Facebook page, where Graeme kindly shared his work and background to the piece.
On the 17th March 1984 the last ever passenger train set off from Newcastle Central to Consett Station. A few lucky people paid for the chance to be part of this final journey. Sadly, the train lines were soon dismantled after the Steel Works closure. 15 months previously Prince Charles made the same journey, albeit on a slightly more Royal train. I got the idea for a story based poem/song based on this event.
In 2016 I had a poem 1st Class Charlie published in a Northern Writes publication, which was shortlisted for a NE history poetry award. I finally put this poem to music in January 2021 and thought it would work well with photos of the day, along with a few snippets from the BBC story that was shown on Look North.
A big thank you to Stephen McGahon who kindly allowed me to use his brilliant photos in this video and also Richard Judd and Steve Shields for their history lesson. All other photos were found on the internet and Facebook sarches. If you look closely you might see yourself! Enjoy.
Graeme Richardson, 22 January 2021
As part of our Forged over 140 Years series of events to commemorate iron and steel production in Consett and the 40th anniversary of closure, the following is a guest blog from photographer, photojournalist and broadcaster Brian Clough. Brian was one of the people responsible for some of the most illustrative and iconic images of closure, as you can see here with these images from the Northern Echo. Brian also wrote an excellent piece in the Journal of the North East Labour History Society which has a timeline and many more images.
Our thanks to Brian for his great contribution to our Closure commemorations.
It seems hard to believe that it is forty years since the closure of a world-famous institution that became part of my life when I left school. In those days youngsters seemed to follow in well-worn family footsteps and most found work either in the pits or at Consett Iron Company. I was no different: a week after leaving school I started as an office boy in the Accounts Department following in Dad’s footsteps, moving to the Cost Office and finally to the Plate Sales Department. I left eventually, and became a photojournalist.
I remember with affection (and perhaps annoyance at the time) of being sent for ‘the long stand’ – where various offices were informed to keep you waiting for ages allegedly while they tried to find it – or being sent to the Pay Dept to ask for the ‘W Ledger’ (little knowing that Bill Ledger worked there). There were tales from outside administration in various other departments of young employees being sent for a ‘capful of nail holes’ or ‘a tin of tartan paint’.
As a journalist I worked initially for The Guardian Chronicle and covered many stories relating to what was happening at ‘the Works’ and covering many of the Christmas parties held at The Freemasons Arms in Front Street and the Trade Union Hall in John Street. Moving to the Northern Echo and based in Darlington I was often sent back ‘home’ to cover stories from the Consett area. As I was known as a Consett lad, they decided in their wisdom to send me back to cover all the proceedings that were going on with regard to the closure of the ‘Company.’ I remember with great sadness having to do pictures of the marches, and attending on the day when a government minister was pushed over while trying to explain to the steelworkers around him that it was necessary for closure. There were meetings at the old Consett Football ground and depression that seemed to fill every street in town. Sadness abounded during those traumatic times when it seemed everything that could be done had been tried but to no avail and doom and gloom lay heavy over all who worked there.
The day finally arrived when I had to return to take pictures of the last day of work and albeit that many photographers and camera crews positioned themselves at and around the entrance to the works I decided to go to the Old Tin Mill Road end. It was a good decision: I managed to take a picture that made front page the next day which I thought depicted the sadness. As much as it hurt the work force and their futures I also felt their pain to the extent that although I hadn’t worked there since leaving school it was as if I had lost a part of me too.
They say the heart of a town had been ripped out that day and although perhaps in one way it had, the strength of Consett folk will however never ever be taken away: they are, and always have been, a community that cares for each other and that survives through whatever hardships governments may throw at them. They are proud people and no-one can take that away. I, like many more, have great happy memories working there: gone is the buzz, the drone and the dust, but the spirit remains, which makes me proud to tell folk where I come from.
Brian Clough, Photojournalist and broadcaster, August 2020
The HCSW involvement in the University of Swansea Social Worlds of Steel Shaped by Steel Twitter conference at the beginning of July was a great way to share some of the fantastic images and stories many of you have sent in to us – for which we are really grateful.
The conference itself brought together steel stories from across the globe, with papers on Teesside, Port Talbot and Corby steel works, as well as insights into the steel that lies at the bottom of the sea in the form of shipwrecks. We submitted two papers, one on transport and one on the people who made Consett steel, and I have posted the scripts below. If you’d like to check out some of the other content then do have a look through the #SWOS20 hashtag – not least for some of the fantastic images speakers’ shared of their steel worlds.
We really welcome feedback, so if you have any comments or would like to add any information to these tweets please get in touch with us by emailing email@example.com. It may take us a few days to get back to you but we will reply. Twitter allows only 280 characters per tweet, but there is so much more to say about both of these topics, so if you would like to share we’d love to hear from you.
Tapping the Memories: the human stories behind the closure of Consett steelworks
1/15 Consett was built on iron & steel: a single industry town, its population grew from 145 in 1841 to almost 10,000 by the end of the century. From 1840 people came from across the UK & Ireland to work in the flourishing Derwent Iron Company, later Consett Iron Company #SWOS20
2/15 Growth was rapid & sustained until the closure of CIC, then British Steel, in 1980. In the 140 years of steel production, a strong, diverse community was forged around the Works, whose determination, innovation & enterprise made Consett profitable to the end #SWOS20
3/15 Most local families were connected to the Works, each new generation following the old: ‘it was one of those things…you fell out of bed & went to work for the Company’. From apprenticeship onwards there was loyalty too, as these cuttings from 1957 & 1979 show #SWOS20
4/15 Family & workplace bonds were the basis of community as workers grafted & socialised according to plant location & shift pattern even on retirement: this shared experience has formed powerful memories as well as strong lifelong & inter-generational friendships #SWOS20
5/15 The Douse family have CIC connections over 4 skilled generations: John, a maintenance fitter at Fell Coke Works 1959–1968; his father Tom an armature winder, his grandfather John a chequered plate pattern cutter & his great grandfather Cuthbert a fitting shop foreman #SWOS20
6/15 The closeness of their family & community ties was continued outside the Works with incredible creativity. Tom, resplendently seen here, was a skilled musician, forming the Tom Douse Mandoliers show band that involved extended family members & colleagues from CIC #SWOS20
7/15 The Douse family’s communality is representative of Consett life, & this cohesion was reflected in the community’s reaction to the threat of closure. Central to this was the Roberts family, whose strong ties to Consett were galvanised into protective action #SWOS20
8/15 Jim Roberts & his brother Brian followed their father, also Jim, & their mother Theresa in working for CIC. Jim was a fitter & turner in the Billet Mill, Brian & Jim senior worked in the Teeming Bay. Theresa, seen here in 1979, worked in the blast furnaces in WW2 #SWOS20
9/15 The Roberts family were a focus for protest in response to the closure & featured in a short 1978 film Countdown at Consett. This showed the community’s loyalty & passion but also uncertainty. In 1979 they took the protest to Westminster #SWOS20
10/15 The film shows that part of Theresa Roberts’s identity is firmly linked to place, a feeling shared by others across all generations. Wanting to stay but left with no choice, Jim & his skills left Consett in 1980 to work overseas for most of his professional life #SWOS20
11/15 Consett’s last steel was tapped Friday 12 September 1980. The teams involved, precise & quality-driven to the end, sent samples for testing. Commemorative samples were cast for workers, who competed with journalists to see the last steel from the vessel #SWOS20
12/15 True to the tradition in Consett of experiencing both good & bad times in shared community & music, that evening a piper played a final lament around the Works & many went for ‘a couple of pints to escape the misery of it.’ Within 3 years few traces remained. #SWOS20
13/15 The aftermath of closure was brutal, with an estimated 75% of the local workforce relying on CIC. Unemployment, particularly amongst under 25s, soared. Consett’s lights were temporarily dimmed rather than turned off: clearance eventually brought new, albeit different, growth #SWOS2020
14/15 The story of Consett & its steel is one of repeated adaptability & enterprise. The Works continued to innovate & thrive throughout its 140 year history & so did its workforce: it is their energy, pride & community that shaped not only the Company but also the town #SWOS20
15/15 Thanks to all who have shared their memories & images: the Douse & Roberts families, Paula Bleanch, Stephen Bridgewater, Joseph Campbell, Neil Crossan, Brian Hodgson, Bill Roberton, Billy Robson, Gwen Taylor, David Thompson #SWOS20
Forging Links in a Landscape
1/17 At over 900ft above sea level, perched on a fellside in a landlocked corner of north west Co. Durham, the town of Consett is not the most likely of locations in which to found what was to become one of the largest plants in the global steel industry #SWOS20
2/17 There is a long tradition of iron smelting & steel production in the Derwent Valley dating back as far as C13th, with remains of a C17th furnace at Allensford to the north west and the more complete C18th site of Derwentcote steel furnace to the north east #SWOS20
3/17 In 1840 when the Derwent Iron Company established its works at what was then Conside, the area had no easy access to a deep water port, no major road links, no direct access to a mainline railway nor easy access to a navigable waterway #SWOS20
4/17 What it did have was raw materials: coal from the Durham coalfield, limestone from the Pennines around Stanhope to the west & high grade iron ore in deposits local to the site at the time. This was rapidly depleted, requiring ore to be transported from further afield #SWOS20
5/17 From the earliest days the Company realised that communications were the weakness in their capacity & competitiveness & started to construct a network of integrated transport systems that allowed Consett to grow & thrive despite its geographical disadvantages #SWOS20
6/17 Control over transport links & collaborative working was key to Consett’s success: initiating infrastructure & working with other interested parties became a feature of the Company’s development. This was seen first in rail, specifically the Stanhope &Tyne line #SWOS20
7/17 From 1832 a line linking the limestone quarries around Stanhope & Consett, en route to the staithes on the Tyne at South Shields, was constructed. From 1841-1843 the Derwent Iron Co. controlled the part of the line west of Consett, renaming it the Derwent Railway #SWOS20
8/17 The challenging terrain, rising to over 1400ft & with gradients of 1 in 12ft, required several inclines, slowing movement of materials. One of the most remarkable was the double incline at Hownes Gill, a 150ft deep ravine immediately to the west of the DIC site #SWOS20
9/17 Initially using cradles to lower the wagons horizontally, a single engine on the ravine floor moved 12 loads/hour by this method. This bottleneck continued until the construction of the Hownes Gill viaduct in 1858, a single-line span of 730ft designed by Thomas Bouch #SWOS20
10/17 In exchange for a line linking the Derwent Railway to Crook, DIC agreed to sell the line to the Stockton &Darlington in 1843. The Weardale Extension Line opened reliable trade routes to the south, the second link in the integrated rail network supporting Consett #SWOS20
11/17 The final significant rail link to Consett was the 1893 line from Tyne Dock to Consett, supporting the import of ore by sea from the Orconera Iron Ore Co., Bilbao, owned by the Consett Iron Co. in collaboration with iron producing partners in Wales, Germany & Spain #SWOS20
12/17 What makes this 21 miles of line impressive are the steep gradients – up to 1 in 48 – that had to be negotiated, first out of Tyne Dock & then between South Pelaw & Consett; in the age of steam these stretches required powerful banking engines in constant attendance #SWOS20
13/17 Securing & controlling supply by owning infrastructure, CIC had staithes at Tyne Dock & Derwenthaugh, as well as 4 ore carrying ships, each named after local towns. Incidentally, these came to play a role in the relief of the Bilbao blockade in the Spanish Civil War #SWOS20
14/17 In the final years of production, collaboration, innovation & ingenuity continued to ensure Consett’s relevance in the industry, shown in the transport of molten metal from Teesside in specially designed torpedo ladles between 1969 – 76 https://youtu.be/9rLO02rit7w #SWOS20
15/17 The last ore train on the Tyne Dock line ran in 1974 with the last passenger train 10 years later. The line, along with the Derwent Railway and Hownes Gill viaduct, is now part of the C2C Sustrans cycle network, a much-enjoyed leisure facility & tourist attraction #SWOS20
16/17 This is only a partial snapshot of CIC’s overall transport infrastructure. Sitting at the heart of a finely tuned supply & distribution network, Consett’s willingness to collaborate & innovate ensured its survival long after its geographical disadvantages were known #SWOS20
17/17 Thanks for their expertise & images: C Allen, @Beamish_Museum, S Bridgewater, J Donnelly http://southpelawjunction.co.uk/wp/, D Dunn, @LandofOakIron, R Langham, S McGahon, Raines Antiques, A Reilly, @sustrans; railway diagrams & images: Colin Mountford & G Whittle #SWOS20
July 1st 2020 was the 70th anniversary of one of the most tragic events in the history of Consett Iron Company when 11 blast furnace workers lost their lives in a carbon monoxide gas leak. Many more were affected, with 7 men seriously injured and a total of 28 people needing hospital treatment at nearby Shotely Bridge.
Project Genesis are in the process of developing a permanent memorial to the men whose lives were ended by this tragedy. Here at History of Consett Steelworks we are hoping to create a permanent online memorial for the these men, paying tribute to their bravery and remembering their loss to their families. We’d love to hear from you if you or your family was touched by this event. Please do get in touch with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can make sure your story is recorded and not forgotten.
The following article was written by Northern Echo journalist Gavin Havery to mark the anniversary of the accident.
Thanks to Leadgate in Pictures Old and New Facebook group for the newspaper cutting image
Thanks to the South Pelaw Junction website for use of the header image
We have been really fortunate to have not one but two papers accepted for the Shaped by Steel conference organised by Swansea University and via the project Twitter feed @SteelWorlds
For anyone new to Twitter conferencing, it is a great way to share and discuss a specific topic over a series of tweets – in this case 15. Anyone can respond to the tweets, and they are permanently on the Social Worlds of Steel twitter feed for anyone to engage with and learn by. It’s a great way to get the stories you want to tell known and included in the discussion.
Our two papers, both presented on Wednesday 1st July, are:
9.40 – 10.00am: Forging Links in the Landscape: how Consett used its integrated transport system to connect with the world and overcome its locational challenges
4.00 – 4.20pm: Tapping the Memories: a selection of illustrative stories of the people who made Consett steel and how their contribution shaped an industry and a community
We’ve had some fantastic conversations and insights from people who worked for CIC and have had access to some fascinating and privileged information on how people worked, lived and enjoyed living in Consett. Community was key, and the links are still strong, even 40 years after closure. We are really grateful to everyone who has shared their stories, memories and images with us.
Please do join us live on Twitter at @SteelWorlds or using the hashtag #SWOS20, but if not take a look at any time, and feel free to add your thoughts in the comments to the tweets.