With many of the former steel manufacturing heartlands switching political allegiances to the Conservatives in December’s General Election, the new year for many brings new political leadership, the promise of change and government support and proposals to support the remaining elements of the British steel industry alongside the preservation and regeneration of its relics. But these favorable reports are unlikely to banish uncertainty and the legacies of industrial decline in British steel communities.
In November 2019, it was announced that the most recent manifestation of ‘British Steel’ had been saved following the purchase of the ailing firm by the Chinese Jingye Group. The £70m takeover promises to save thousands of jobs and bring in £1 billion investment. The news brought relief for those employed in the industry and their families as many faced the prospect of imminent redundancy with Christmas on the horizon and the uncertainties of Brexit looming large. Weeks later, Tata Steel’s plans to cut up to 3,000 jobs, including 1,000 in the UK hit the headlines bringing further despair to Britain’s steel industry.
The latest uncertainties around the future of the UK steel industry have once again brought to the fore the prospect of redundancy for thousands in Scunthorpe, South Wales, Teesside and Yorkshire. As my research on Teesside’s steel history has revealed, the latest turmoil is an all too familiar tale for iron and steel communities caught in a Westworld-like loop of individual struggles and industrial uncertainties with severe social implications.
Of course, the steel industry today is unrecognizable compared to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries or the sector which employed over 320,000 people across the UK as recently as the 1970s. The industry employed around 24,000 employees (and only 0.1% of the domestic workforce) less than half a century later. Although diversification of local and regional economies means fewer people rely on heavy manufacturing as their source of income, the potential impact of those reliant on the steel industry for income and identity is no less severe.
For people living and working in these areas, the steel industry continues to hold deep meanings and attachments. This relationship goes beyond the economics of employment, although undoubtedly this is the driving concern of the individuals and families with bills to pay and families to feed. In steel heartlands such as Scunthorpe, South Wales, Teesside and South Yorkshire this cultural and emotional relationship goes back to founding firms such as Bolckow Vaughan, Ebbw Vale, Fox’s and Trent Ironworks. As Creed and Coult put it in Steeltown (1990), the industry goes beyond the furnaces and is ‘about a working community, its sense of identity, its character and lifestyle, where the daily and yearly patterns of individuals, families and workforce are closely interwoven and inextricably linked with the steelworks that dominate the town’s skyline’.
The devastation caused by decline and threatened closures in Britain’s steel industry has been felt across generations of families dependent on the industry and the recent iterations have echoes of the Depression and interwar decimation. Nicholas’ study of the social effects of interwar unemployment on Teesside — published in the mid-1980s during the nadir of the Thatcher’s era — pointed to individual suffering and anxiety on the part of Teessiders cloaked by overt resilience.
Depression and unemployment were bedfellows for many young men as many accepted ‘almost anything’ in their hunt for employment whilst others endured fractious relationships or were forced out of their home by the household dole ‘Means Test’. A century on, similar strains are been felt once again, as thousands are threatened with redundancy and the plan for British Steel 2019 and those at Tata remains uncertain.
Half a century later, Cleveland County’s ‘The Economic and Social Importance of the British Steel Corporation to Cleveland (1983)’ highlighted the severe impact of steelworks closure in the area. Overcapacity and redundancies resulted in the loss of 10,000 jobs nationally, including almost 2,000 in Cleveland. Although afforded only two pages in the 34-page report focusing on employment, income, local government finance and the social consequences of closure, revelations of the potentially shattering impact on everyday life pointed to ‘a diminished sense of identity and community, premature retirement and unemployment which lead to a lowering of morale and inspirations’. Moreover, closure was seen as a major contributor to social unrest, a cause of both a deterioration in the health of communities and an increase in the crime rate with the ‘very survival of some communities could be threatened’
Seven years later, Steeltown’s oral history interviews with former Scunthorpe steelworkers reflected the real life drama brought about by the economic and social impact of overcapacity, stagnation and strikes. The closure of the Normanby Park brought the loss of thousands of jobs, brought tears and disruption to many families and left a ‘gloom hanging over the town for a few years afterwards’. A number of those interviewed aligned the closures with ill health and declining sense of community resilience. One contributor even aligned the early death of a number of men with the ‘stress, the worry and shock of being made redundant’, whilst another described the ‘end of an era in Scunthorpe and the end of working lives for many, many men.’
Similar sentiments are manifest in oral history records in the British Steel Collection held at Teesside Archives. One contributor, who had enjoyed his time in the steelworks, revealed that his most significant memory was of the closures and loss of his job at one of the local mills. Another steelworker on Teesside facing redundancy amidst threats to the industry’s future in January 2010, reported that ‘scenarios of uncertainty’ were the primary cause of low morale and stress amongst the workers. These issues are again on the minds of those employed in the industry today.
The aftermath of closure at the Teesside Steelworks
Ultimately, thousands employed in Teesside’s steel industry and associated industries would lose their jobs following the closure of the SSI Teesside Steelworks at Redcar in 2015 in one of the highest profile closures in the industry’s history. In a Social History blog in the aftermath of the death of steelmaking on Teesside, I highlighted both the strong presence of heritage in the obituaries of the steel industry found on the front pages of the local press and the challenges posed by losing much of this key part of the area’s identity. The BBC’s The Mighty Redcar (2018) offered an insight into the turmoil faced by local communities in the aftermath of the closure as the abandoned plant loomed large across the Teesside skyline as a reminder of a lost world. Alongside the series’ indicators of hope and stories of youngsters seeking fame, there was an inescapable sense of struggle in the post-industrial community that provoked responses in the local and national media.
In the aftermath of the closure, the SSI Task Force was established to support businesses and individuals affected by the ‘dramatic economic shock’ caused by the end of 170 years of steel making. The local press enthusiastically reported quirky individual success stories of steelworkers turned gardeners, safety officers turned chocolate kebab purveyors and the transformation of an adult book shop into a cocktail bar: ‘if it hadn’t been for SSI’s demise, it may not have happened at all’. The SSI Taskforce Legacy Report (2018) hailed the ‘enterprising culture’ of more than 300 former SSI and supply chain workers who took the ‘brave step of starting their own business since we set up the Business Start-up support fund’, listing a significant number engaged in construction and general building maintenance alongside other enterprises including three dog walking services. Towards the end of the Report consideration of the ‘Economic Impact of the Closure’ outlined severe short to medium term implications of the axe falling, including greatly reduced business rates (including c.£9m from SSI UK per year), an initial 40% surge in Job Seekers’ Allowance claimants and significant drops in the average weekly wage.
One of the leading cultural responses to the closure has been the ‘Steel Stories’ exhibition at Redcar & Cleveland’s Kirkleatham Museum which showcased some of the area’s steel and industrial heritage. Against the backdrop of closure, the exhibition attracted around 10,000 visitors within a month of opening. Alongside an overview of the industry on Teesside over two centuries, the exhibition found space in filing cabinets that formed part of an installation to forefront narratives of how the SSI Taskforce has enabled many to find new opportunities after losing their jobs.
As well as museum exhibitions emerging from the ashes, the South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) Regeneration Master Plan for the steelworks site includes plans ‘respecting our industrial heritage’ as part the site’s regeneration, this despite Heseltine’s earlier ‘Tees Valley: Opportunity Unlimited’ Report stressing a ‘need to change the local identity and brand, moving away from over reliance on historic industrial imagery’. With the caveat that preservation would be ‘subject to the identification of discrete, financially viable projects that don’t overly compromise redevelopment, job creation and economic growth’, the Master Plan includes a proposed industrial heritage trail and the retention of landmark structures such as the Dorman Long Tower in South Bank and the Redcar Blast Furnace as examples of important architectural features.
As with the broader narratives of the British steel industry during the past half century, the Master Plan for the old site presents yet another scenario of uncertainty, with an early 2020 compulsory purchase public inquiry aiming to force the Thai Banks holding the site to sell it to STDC. Time will tell if these seismic shifts in steeltowns such as Scunthorpe, South Bank and Stocksbridge will end the devastating ‘scenarios of uncertainty’ that have shattered so many lives.
Dr Tosh Warwick joined Manchester Metropolitan University in January 2019 as Research Associate (Impact) in the History Research Centre. Tosh was previously Research Associate in Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow, lectured at Huddersfield, Leeds Beckett and Teesside Universities and held a number of roles in the heritage sector. This article was originally published by History Workshop.
*Photo credit: Protest march against the closure of Normanby Park, January 1981 (Creed and Coult, Steeltown 1990), Reproduced from Steeltown with permission from the authors.