For the second time in a decade, one of my Google Alerts has brought a story about Consett to my attention.

Steelworks from Above
Steelworks from Above

Today, it is Home History Demolition and Rebuild – The Birth of the Modern Town – Consett… (Consett Magazine). Six years ago, it was a story “Focus on Consett meltdown as steelworks shut” featuring photographs taken in 1981, when the steelworks shut; see http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/north-east-news/history-newcastle-north-east/remember-when/2009/06/17/focus-on-consett-meltdown-as-steelworks-shut-72703-23891228/

How prescient today’s Google Alert, when steel is again dominating the news headlines, as the production of bulk steel in the UK is being threatened entirely.

I have lived in Sheffield since 1971. I take the opportunity to note that, between 1979 and 1984, Sheffield lost nearly 50,000 jobs in steel and engineering – that’s more than the UK coal industry as a whole lost in any 5-year period.

As a result of seeing the article and pictures in 2009, I submitted a short article about my own ‘contribution’ to the closure of Consett’s steelworks. I have no idea whether it was ever used or reproduced.

Focus on Consett meltdown as steelworks shut

The Chronicle’s report and photographs of the demolition of Consett Steelworks brought back some vivid memories.

Consett Steelworks
Consett Steelworks

In 1967, I was recruited to a group of (supposedly high-flying) A-level Economics students by the University of Birmingham to undertake a sub-regional economics’ study in the north-east.

Following home- and university-based research, we set off to spend a week to undertake our local research. Based at Edmundbyers Youth Hostel, we travelled widely to conduct one-to-one interviews with bosses, trades union representatives, academics and politicians.

For me, an afternoon interview with T Dan Smith (the dynamic, but later discredited, leader of Newcastle City Council) drinking whisky and tea in his office stands out.

We also made a number of visits, including to steelworks, shipbuilding yards and pits – crawling along an undersea seam at Horden Colliery was a highlight.

I had specific responsibility for reporting on the prospects for the steel industry in the north-east generally and for Consett specifically.

My sharpest memories of Consett are:

  • the red dust which poured out of the works and then covered every surface in the whole town – white washing hung pink on the line
  • the hugest portion of fish, chips and mushy peas – floating on a sea of grease – I’ve ever experienced for lunch in the works’ canteen, and
  • my presentation.

At the conclusion of our research and visit, it fell to me to make a presentation on the Prospects for Consett Steelworks to members and officers of Consett Urban District Council and various other interested parties.

I set out a summary of

  • global and UK economic forecasts and the implications for steel demand
  • information about the global changing supply, transport and pricing of raw materials and energy
  • technological changes in production methods
  • the dramatic increases in steel-production capacity – particularly in China, India and South America, and
  • the particular strengths and weaknesses of Consett Steelworks. Questions were already being raised about its future, leading to delays in the redevelopment of the Tyne port.

Then, with all the naivety and arrogance of youth, I concluded that Consett steelworks would be closed within 10 years.

You can imagine the response I got from the audience – overwhelming denial, anger and derision, although a few contributions were more measured and thoughtful.

However, I was allowed to leave un-bruised and alive.

And, of course, I was wrong.

Although the decision to shut the works was effectively taken within 10 years, it was not until January 1981 that they were finally closed.

Submitted by Howard Knight, April 4 2016




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