History in the making:

Alan Swinburne’s story

I have been asked several times to record my time at Consett Iron Company. I have always enjoyed giving talks about the Steelworks, but for obvious reasons any planned talks have been cancelled so I have been persuaded to write a few short articles about my time at Consett, along with a little bit of information about various departments in which I had the pleasure of working in!

A lot of people on this site will have more knowledge than me of some departments/processes as although I worked in most production plants some were only for a short period of  time. It has got to be remembered that anyone under 50 years old will probably have few memories of the steelworks, and of course the population in Consett has increased dramatically since 1980. I may include in my articles a few stories which I consider  reflect the  mood  of the times. Comments have been made in the past that some of the jottings are disrespectful. I am only relating what it was like to work at the Steelworks in the 1960/70s, I call it social history, and believe me there are a lot of stories I dare not tell! [Ed.: you are not alone, Alan! My role as editor has something of the confessional about it!]

Before writing about my time at the Company it may be worth giving a few facts and important dates in the history of the Steelworks.  Formed in 1840 as the Derwent Iron Company, it ceased trading for a short period of time in 1857 when the banks withdrew funding. In 1858 the Derwent and Consett Iron Company was formed; the Works still had financial problems, and in 1864 a new company, Consett Iron Company, began trading.

Initially local iron ore was used, but by 1872 the ore was of poor quality and in short supply so The Consett Spanish Ore Company was formed [ part of the Orconera Iron Ore Company, a joint venture with iron masters in South Wales] and ore was imported from Spain. Until the Works closed in 1980 all ore was imported from around the world, being brought from Tyne Dock on special ore trains, a familiar sight along the local railways. In 1882 steelmaking was started at Consett, with two Open Hearth furnaces. By the 1920s a major modernisation and restructure was necessary.  

In 1947 the mines were nationalised, and to give some idea of the size of the works at the time Consett owned seven pits, two coke oven plants at Derwenthaugh and Langley Park, a coal washery, four power stations, 12,500 acres of land, 3,500 houses, fifty miles of rail track and extensive rolling stock. In 1949 the iron and steel industry was nationalised, before coming back into private ownership in 1957. It was nationalised again in 1967 before the Works finally closed on 12th September 1980.   

This is only a very, very brief history, I have included a couple of photographs to show the extent of the Works, but I will try to answer any queries you may have, and of course any stories you have to share would be great. I will continue to relate my time at Consett, and expand on some of the production processes involved in my experience of making steel.

Alan Swinburne, former CIC steelworker