As the steelworkers from ‘C’ shift prepared themselves to carry out the final coke push on oven 64 at the SSI UK steel works at Redcar this week they were not only starting the process by which the ovens would gradually cool down rendering them useless for any future use but it was also marking an end to a legacy of steel making in the Teesside area that had built up over the preceding 170 years and one which had seen the steel that was manufactured here reach across the world.
At around 6am when the coke was pushed and the final column of steam and smoke rose up from the ovens and was carried away on the morning breeze, gradually fading before disappearing completely into the dark morning sky over Teesside’s industrial heartland it carried with it any hope that this rich heritage could be saved and steel making on Teesside came to an end.
The final plume of smoke and steam rises out of the coke ovens at Redcar
Middlesbrough or Mydilsburgh as it was known began its journey in Saxon times as an ancient settlement. The term ‘Burgh‘ refers to an ancient settlement and ‘Mydil’ was possibly the name of an anglo saxon who may have had involvement with the early settlement or indeed it could be a reference to the position of the settlement’s location at that time, half way between Whitby and Durham. During this time it would have seen much activity as people passed through Middlesbrough between the two towns but even by 1800 it still remained a small farm of between 20 to 30 people.
In 1829 Joseph Pease from Darlington headed up a small group of Quaker businessmen and bought this small farmstead and its surrounding land and began the development of what they called `Port Darlington‘ on the banks of the River Tees. They then planned to build a town on the site of the farm in order to supply labour to this new coal port and Middlesbrough was born.
By 1830 the Stockton to Darlington railway line had been extended to Middlesbrough and made possible the rapid expansion of the town and port.
The small farmstead gradually grew and became the site for North, South, East and West Streets, Commercial Street, Stockton Street, Cleveland Street, Feversham Street, Dacre Street, Durham Street, Richmond Street, Gosford Street and Suffield Street, all of which were laid out in a grid style centered on Market Square.
Plots of land and businesses premises were quickly bought up in the town and before long shippers, merchants, butchers, innkeepers, joiners, blacksmiths, tailors, builders and painters were moving in and by 1851 the population had grown from around 40 or 50 people in 1829 to around 7,600 and it was quickly becoming the main port on the Tees ahead of Stockton.
Looking out over Teesside from the Eston hills
The seeds for the future steel heritage were sewn in 1850 when iron ore was discovered near Eston in the Cleveland Hills by John Vaughan, the principal iron master of Middlesbrough. Iron now slowly replaced coal as the lifeblood that carried the town. Whilst John Vaughan and his German business partner Henry Bolckow had already established a small iron foundry and rolling mill at Middlesbrough using iron stone brought from Durham and the Yorkshire coast this new discovery of a local supply of iron ore resulted in them building Teesside’s first blast furnace in 1851.
Blast furnace, Redcar, Teesside
Iron was now in big demand in Britain, particularly for the rapid expansion of the railways being built in every part of the country. More and more blast furnaces were opened in the vicinity of Middlesbrough to meet this demand and by the end of the century Teesside was producing almost a third of the nation’s iron output. This growth saw the population of the town increase to 20,000 people.
By the 1870’s a much stronger and more resilient metal was in big demand. That metal was steel. In 1875 Vaughan and Bolckow opened the first Bessemer Steel plant in Middlesbrough using phosphorous ores that had to be imported from Spain and which were needed for the steel making process but within 10 years new methods were developed which allowed the use of the local iron ores from around the Eston hills and the steel produced in the area began its journey around the world. At its peak there were with over a hundred furnaces along the banks of the River Tees.
Dorman Long, a name synonymous with steel making began production in 1917 and the steel produced at the site was used to build structures including the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Tyne Bridge and the Harbour bridge in Auckland in New Zealand. As part of Labour’s plans after the second world war Dorman Long was brought under a newly created nationalised company called the British Steel Corporation and in 1988 after privatisation under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1988 it became British Steel. In 1999 the company then merged with Netherlands-based steel maker Koninklijke Hoogovens and formed Corus who used the site at the company’s Redcar blast furnace for basic oxygen steel making.
In 2007 Corus was bought by Tata Steel but following the termination of a large contract in 2009, Tata stopped production at the Redcar site and 1,700 jobs were at risk. Steel workers and their families within the community rose to demonstrate their frustrations and thousands of people filled the streets of Redcar on 18 July of 2009 on a march to try and fight to safeguard Teesside’s steel industry…
https://player.vimeo.com/video/11838325 <p><a href="https://vimeo.com/11838325">Save Our Steel</a> from <a href="https://vimeo.com/user3846199">Ian Forsyth – Documentary Photog</a> on <a href="https://vimeo.com">Vimeo</a>.</p>” target=”_blank”>
Alas it was unsuccessful and the jobs were lost. The site underwent a mothballing process with hope that sometime in the future a new buyer could be found and once again steel production could carry on. In the meantime and inevitably, Redcar and the surrounding areas started a sad slide into decline as the ripple effect of the job losses was felt across the entire region.
Then on 24th February 2011 a flame that had been slowly dying started to flicker a little brighter. A new buyer had been found. Thai-based Sahaviriya Steel Industries (SSI) came in and took on the site and finally in April 2012, and with much publicity the plant was officially reopened and as the first slabs of steel rolled a new found optimism, albeit tentative had began to come back into an industry that had been brought to its knees by economic pressures, global changes in the steel markets and a general run of bad fortune.
Over the following years production continued. The slabs of steel continued to come out of the site. There were some underlying wobbles and concerns through those years but despite these the steel still came. But then a change of events began that seemed to gather pace. A storm was coming. There’s something that is often referred to called the ‘Butterfly Effect’ in chaos theory and you’ll have heard of it I’m sure. It states that when a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world then there is an inevitable connection to a hurricane that occurs thousands of miles away on the other side.
Well there was a butterfly flapping its wings in China. Their economy was starting to slow after a few years of strong growth. Businesses, Industry and the economy in general had done well off the back of the boom but as that economy slowed so to did the demands for products right across the board. With the construction industry slowing the need for steel started to drop but China’s steel furnaces were still producing a huge amount of cheaper steel and selling it to world markets, including Britain and it wasn’t long before there was a significant overcapacity of steel.
As oil prices also began to fall the oil companies began to reduce investment in the exploration of new oil fields or stopped trying to get more oil and gas out of their existing fields because the prices just didn’t justify the investment. As a result companies all along the supply chain, including steel plants who produce steel for pipes needed for extraction and movement of oil, started to see their order books going unfilled.
With prices for steel dropping, poor trade opportunities and the knock-on effect on the supply chain it seemed that there were butterfly’s flapping their wings everywhere and for those at Redcar it seemed that it was only a matter of time before the hurricane hit!
In August Cornelius Louwrens, the SSI chief admits that the business is facing problems. Then on 18 September, production was paused due to the declining steel prices with some reports suggesting that SSI was also facing a September deadline after missing a series of payments to its banks. Then on 28 September the plant, the second largest steelworks in Europe was once again mothballed and at the start of October it was announced that SSI UK had entered liquidation.
Against this backdrop local Teesside MPs like Labour’s Anna Turley and Tom Blenkinsop lead calls in the Commons for the government to intervene and help the steel industry…
Meetings were set up with the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle to give steel workers an opportunity to speak to at least some government ministers, from Labour at least, but one look at the faces of those at the meeting told more about the questions they had and the uncertainties that they and their families faced than any number of meetings might have done.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Labour MP for Redcar Anna Turley
Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle speak with Brian Dennis
Like any community threatened Redcar steelworkers rallied around to try and protect their way of life. People like Linda Robinson, a writer from Billingham and who has four generations of steelworkers in her family and who has taken it upon herself to stand outside the entrance to the SSI UK steel making site each morning for 22 consecutive days (as of 2 days ago) holding placards to help raise awareness to the plight of the steelworkers…
Local shops all across Redcar and surrounding towns started displaying posters supporting the steelworkers and a petition was started that quickly gained thousands of signatures…
Steelworkers like Brian Dennis, a steelworker of 26-years became a public face of the workers as he stood up at the Labour Party Conference recently and gave a passionate speech about the real effects of what this all meant to the workers once you looked beyond the business speak, the corporate jargon and the political bullshit. You can see his speech HERE
Within 24 hours of a social media post initiated by members of the local community and supported by Anna Turley, thousands of steelworkers and their families, members of the pubic and supporters attended a ‘keep the light burning‘ rally one evening near the beach in Redcar…
But despite all this, despite a few slim opportunities that seemed to offer a potential last minute reprieve to secure the site if local businesses or suppliers stepped in and despite all the other efforts that were made it became increasingly clear that the end was coming and on 12 October 2015 the receiver formerly announced there was no realistic prospect of finding a buyer and the coke ovens, for the first time in thirty years, were to be extinguished.
On the 15 October the final ‘coke push’ was carried out at Redcar and after 170 years, the steel stopped on Teesside. The sounds that emanated from the site over years ceased and towns like Dormanstown who sit in the shadow of the giant steel and iron monolith of the blast furnace fell silent. Familiar noises now gone. The backdrop of an industrial pulse that had driven the communities around the blast furnace slowly ebbed away.
So what of the future for Redcar and Teesside in general? What of the future of those leaving this way of life? What will happen to the thousands of people in the supply chain for the steel works and the security of their jobs and businesses? All will be affected and we have already seen job losses at PD Ports and Hargreaves coal suppliers and more will follow it is certain.
To step away from the emotion of it all, to ignore the effects this closure will have on the family of a steelworker or another contractor…to forget how this might affect his partner and his children as they approach an uncertain Christmas and an even more uncertain future…to not allow any emotional connect to this story then that answer is a simple one – A private business got into financial difficulties and a government, hands tied and restricted by law under EU rules and regulations couldn’t act to do anything. Even if it had wanted to it couldn’t do anything. Although the lack of government involvement or intervention or empathy has been shameful.
There are talks of police investigations into SSI regarding their insurance cover for employees at the site. There is a risk of the closure being used as a political football for point scoring. There is a minefield of redundancy packages to be negotiated, so this is a long way from over. But to turn away from all this, to ignore the emotion and to disregard the confusion and uncertainty and doubt etched on the faces of workers, of hard workers, of proud men – and women, with a background of determination and dignity and with a pride in a world-building industry with a heritage that contributes to what makes us collectively as a country what we are then ignoring the feelings permeating through Teesside right now is indeed a very tragic thing to do.
Yet despite it all, despite the difficulties it is those very same qualities that they and others like them possess that will be the very same reasons that will ensure that whatever the future may hold for the steelworkers and contractors on Teesside who may have taken a hard hit this time, they’ll get through it. One way or another. They’re made of strong stuff. Maybe as strong as steel?
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