Unlike many of my friends and relatives I didn’t work at the Steel Works, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t got my own memories, and information I would like to share with you about my family’s involvement with Consett Steel Works.
From an early age I was aware my Dad worked at the “Company”. I can remember looking out of our sitting room window one Christmas morning waiting for him to walk down the hill to our house. My little brother Philip and I wrapped up in dressing gowns, with sleepy and excited faces, waiting for Dad to come home from working the night shift.
Phil and I learned to play quietly when he was asleep during the day, and seemed to know that Dad worked shifts 6 ’til 2, 2 ’til 10 and night shift.
Dad was called Harry Carr and he had been an agricultural worker when he met Mam in 1952. Eventually when they decided to get married; Dad went to work in the Steel Works as the pay was better. He started work in the melting shop, in 1956, but he studied hard at Consett Technical College to gain many qualifications in steel making.
In 1963 Dad was part of a team from the Consett Works who travelled to Holland, Austria and Sweden to look at different processes of making steel, using the oxygen steelmaking process. They visited LD plants, a Rotor plant, and the only Kaldo plant which was in operation (at that time), in Sweden, to look at the best process to bring to Consett. Extensive trials were completed before the decision was made that a combination of the LD practice at Donawitz in Austria and the Kaldo practice at Domnarvet in Sweden could be the best processes to be adapted to use in Consett.
Over ten million pounds was spent on the oxygen steel plant, and Consett (at that time) was unique in industry as it has used both processes in the same shop to make different qualities of steel. Consett became well known as a producer of high quality steels.
I can remember when Dad came back from the working trip he brought me (age 3) a traditional Austrian costume for me to wear (which I still have). Dad by this time was employed in the new steel plant, and he was involved in the making of steel until the plant closed in September 1980.
Dad became one of the Assistant Shift Managers in the oxygen steel plant. He would sometimes spend days at a time at work when there was a breakdown, or they were relining a vessel. I can remember going with Mam in the car down the “canyon” to the car park to take Dad clean clothes and something to eat, and his “baccy” as he smoked a pipe in his break time. Sometimes they used to send a Company van into Consett to buy a takeaway, like fish and chips.
In 1969, molten iron supplies were brought from Teesside using large capacity ladles on the back of a train. It was the first time British Rail transported liquid iron in the UK. At one time Consett processed 60,000 tons of steel a week, through its own production, and by processing the molten metal from Teesside. We used to tease dad about his “train set”, as he was often involved in processing the steel from the train.
The Steel Works in Consett could process steel cheaper than Teesside, but was eventually sacrificed to save the plants on Teesside, where only the Redcar plant remains today.
As we lived near Shotley Bridge Hospital, we were used to hearing Venture buses which travelled up to the Works, and brought nurses back down to work at the Hospital. The burns unit at the Hospital was created because of the steel works, and potential accidents.
I can also remember the red dust. When you travelled up and down the A68 in either direction you could see the red dust, and the red glow of the slag being tipped at the Works. One day in the 1970s, Consett Empire Theatre in the centre of town was hosting an International folk Festival. Mam was out shopping and met our Auntie Hilda, who complained about the red dust, which was particularly bad that day. She thought it was a shame the visitors from Europe had to experience it. She was silenced when Mam said: “it was her favourite nephew’s fault that time”.
Dad wasn’t the only member of our family who worked at the Steel Works. Dad’s father also called Harry Carr. Harry Carr (senior) worked as a crane driver at the Plate Mill, and later at Hownsgill. He worked through WW2, accompanied by a lady crane driver called Sadie, who started driving cranes at the age of 17 years of age to help the war effort. The lady is still hale and hearty and is called Sadie Walton.
Dad’s younger brother Malcolm Carr started as an apprentice fitter and turner at Consett works, on leaving school, and worked in the fitting shop. He was a Foreman for ten years, finishing his time at the works as the Blast Shift Engineer.
Mam’s Brother Billy (Charlie) Stephenson, (known as “Charlie Stivva”) also left school to become an apprentice electrician in the Steel Works, and worked as a blast furnace sparky.
The husband of Granda’s sister Hilda, called Cuth Burnhope was also an electrician. Granda’s brother Jim Carr, worked in the Masons dept, his son Allan Carr, was also a fitter and turner in the fitting shop. Granda’s cousin Bella (Walker) Craggs was a cook, her son Glenn Craggs was at one time an electrician; and finally Billy Wigham, the husband of Dad’s cousin, also Hilda, was a wagon driver, and latterly drove the slag transporter.
In total 10 members of my near and extended family were employed at Consett Steel Works. As were many friends and neighbours.
It was devastating when the Works closed in September 1980. Dad found it hard to deliver notices to the homes of his men, who lived in Consett and the surrounding area and out to Stanley and Chopwell. Ironically, when so many of my family including Dad were made redundant, I started work at the Unemployment Benefit Office in Consett.
Mam’s brother Charlie (known to us as Billy) Stephenson and Dad (Harry Carr) opened Karsway Lawnmower Service in the former Spirocon workshops in Knitsley Lane in Consett centre. They sold and repaired lawnmowers and chainsaws, and had a successful business. Many steelworkers became self employed, some retrained, and lots got new jobs, like Malcolm Carr who still works at a local engineering company. But some, unfortunately, never worked again.
Christine (Carr) Meiklejohn
Christine: thank you for all your efforts in writing this really enjoyable and heartfelt piece. Many people in Consett will relate to your memories: well done.