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 email@example.com.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 email@example.com 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.