The Ebbw Vale Steelworks – A lost legacy

The British steel industry has been in dire straits with many companies like India’s Tata Steel plant at Port Talbot, in South Wales,on the brink of closure. But in 2002, another steel plant in Wales called the Ebbw Vale Steelworks faced a similar situation.

Ebbw Vale Steelworks ; Credit:CC

Ebbw Vale Steelworks ; Credit: CC

Located about an hour away from Port Talbot, the Ebbw Vale valley was once home to Europe’s largest steelworks, called the Ebbw Vale Steelworks. Established in 1789, the valley surrounding the works was rich in coal, iron ore ,limestone, water and timbre. The steel produced was exported all over the world.

Mel Warrender, who worked at the plant for 44 years and is currently the chairman of the Ebbw Vale Works Museum, was awe-stuck by the size of the Ebbw Vale operations when he first joined the works. “When I started at the works in 1955, my first impression was Wow! What a big operation, these works, nestled in the base of a valley was. The works were probably of the order of two and a half to three miles long which in practical terms is a fairly big operation.”

Situation after World War II

Taken over by Richard Baldwin & Co in the 1930’s, the Ebbw Vale Steelworks were nationalised after World War II. With the steel industry changing to bulk handling, the manufacture of iron and steel was ceased and the plant was eventually denationalised. The steel works were then redeveloped and there was a cessation of iron and steel production. As a part of the reconstruction, a new tinplate complex was also announced for the Ebbw Vale works and the staff was redeployed to develop this complex.

But this redvelopment resulted in job losses. Many  steel workers lost their jobs during this period. However, according to Mel Warrender there was an element of social security provided by the steel industry itself which helped the people tackle these challenges.

He said “There was an element of commaradri which pushed people together and made them look after each other. Moreover, around the industry a lot of social clubs sprung up like swimming and rugby which helped people socialize and develop a special bond outside the works.

Steelworkers(From L-R)Mel Warrender,Noel Evans,Howard Robinson;Credit: CNP

Closure of 2002

The redevelopment of the works in the 1970’s, triggered a series of challenges involving the closure of hot mills and blast furnaces and redistribution of the staff. In 1999, a merger was announced between a steel company in the Netherlands called Koninklijke Hoogovens  and the British Steel Plc., forming a new company called Corus.

After this merger, although investment continued at the Ebbw Vale site, competition from an advancing Asian market and lack of demand for steel in Europe, threatened the functioning of the works. On February 1, 2001, Corus announced the closure of the Ebbw Vale steelworks. About 780 jobs were lost during this period.

The plant began its shut-down procedure, with many of the lines within the plant packaged up and transported to other sites in the Corus company. In July 2002, the Ebbw Vale steel works site oficially closed, though a skeleton staff deconstructed the remaining sold plants and handled shipping of residual finished product until December 2002

Steelworkers were devastated with the closure. Noel Evans who worked at the plant for 38 years was upset he could not pass on his expertise and was sad people moved away. He said “It is very sad that many people have moved away from the valley in search of jobs. But we do keep in touch. We meet at all the funerals now.”

Noel Evans who has lived in Ebbw Vale all his life, also recollects how dirty the valley was when the works existed. But now he refers to it as an ordinary green valley. “My grandchildren never saw the works. I describe it to them according to the famous book, ‘How green was my valley’, now it is ‘How green is my valley.’ Ebbw Vale has just become a pit stop for hikers and explorers travelling towards the Brecon Beacons. But nobody knows this green valley was once the valley of steel.”

Ebbw Vale Valley after the 2002 closure ; Credit :CNP

Ebbw Vale Valley after the 2002 closure ; Credit : CNP

 

After shock of the closure

According to the Ebbw Vale Steelworks Museum, though many people left the valley after the closure of the steelworks, the effect of the closure is still felt in the valley. Unemployment levels continue to linger around 12 percent. Howard Robinson who works at the museum said “Though redevelopment projects have taken place with a university and hospital being set up, the valley has lost a legacy with the closure of the steelworks.”

Ebbw Vale Steelworks Museum ; Credit: Museum archive

Ebbw Vale Steelworks Museum ; Credit: Ebbw Vale Steelworks Museum archive

Fate of Port Talbot

The steelworks at Port Talbot are the largest in Britain and its closure could put millions of jobs at risk. “The steelworkers need to be afraid for their future,” said Noel Evans. “When Ebbw Vale shut we were under a good pension scheme but youngsters found it hard to find well paying jobs. Port Talbot could face a similar situation.”

Dr. Dean Stroud, a lecturer at Cardiff university who has researched the challenges of the British steel industry says that the workforce will face the biggest problem if the works close. “Port Talbot’s steelworkers could face a similar fate as Ebbw Vale did. They will find it difficult to find jobs immediately.” However Dr. Dean Stroud thinks that since Port Talbot is better situated than Ebbw Vale, the situation might not be very bad.

At present, the fate of Port Talbot is still uncertain with its owners trying to find potential buyers to take over the steel works. But Steel workers all over UK, have been taking part in several protests and demonstrations to pressurize the British government to secure the uncertain future of Port Talbot.

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