Chapter 2

II

 

‘Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.’[1] These are the views of Holden Caulfield, the main character in J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, who is troubled by the prospect of change. Without control over his own destiny, Holden sees the world shifting around him. A similar experience is observable within our three towns. Having established the complex nature of the communities before the decline took place, it is now necessary to explore the impact of the economic deterioration. Firstly therefore, we must ascertain the extent to which the downturns were expected, thus helping us to assess the immediate impact of the change in fortune for our towns. Furthermore, many of the workers expressed a strong view as to who was to blame, helping to illuminate who the workers formed their identities against. Finally, broad similarities in the responses of the workers’ reactions to the closures will be examined in the years following the closure. Hence, we see a mutation of identity from one of comfort and familiarity, to insecurity and change. Just as Holden Caulfield is troubled by ‘You’ scrawled across the wall, our interviewees were forced to confront their identities.[2]

Grimsby’s decline as a fishing port is a complex issue, with a number of factors combining to create the slump in fortunes. The loss of traditional fishing grounds; the increase in oil prices; joining the EEC; inefficient and greedy management in combination with power politics, are often cited as the reasons for the fall from prosperity for Grimsby.[3] Nevertheless, for our purposes, more manifest is whether the downturn was expected by Grimbarians.  This will give us an indication about how identities in the town were affected, but also suggest who the workers blamed for the depression that ensued.

Image 2.1, A map to show Grimsby’s distant water fishing territories:[4]

The success experienced by Grimsby was dependent upon two different types of fishing: North Sea and distant water fishing. The latter, particularly after the 1950s provided the majority of the employment and was considered to be more lucrative.[5] Nevertheless it was challenged from 1958 by the extension of Iceland’s fishing limits, which promoted a series of disputes, known collectively as the Cod Wars. For the best academic discussion of these events Robb Robinson’s Trawling, The Rise and Fall of the British Trawl Fishery provides the most authoritative and detailed account of the events. The crucial point that Robinson outlines, however, is that in 1958 Iceland had set a precedent for the extension of fishing grounds.[6] At first the extension moved to three miles, but by the 1970s, Iceland had demanded a two hundred mile limit. John Vincent, a tour guide at the Fishing Heritage museum and former trawlermen spoke with real conviction about the events:

This is what I always try to tell people: Iceland, still today, have got enough fish around their coast to last for the next hundred years because of the way they looked after it and the conservation. Right, this is why I tell people it [the extension of fishing boundaries] had nothing to do with conservation or anything else. What Iceland kicked off, when she decided to extent her limits to 200 mile, Faroe Islands did it, Norway did it, Russia did it, these are all of our big fishing grounds for us, for Grimsby, Hull and whatever, for this country.  So what happened when Iceland did it, they got the big trawlers, these are the ones that weigh 8-12 tonnes and they sent these to go and fish the Faroe Islands. Well they then started to put pressure on other boats that used to fish there like these [the Ross Tiger] … and the ports as well. So when Iceland did it the Faroe Islands did as well. Well you don’t want big trawlers fishing off the coast of this country, it’s not sustainable so the owners took the decision to scrap the ships.[7]

In John Vincent’s memories a series of events which took over twenty years to unfold are remembered in a flash. This was the case with many of the fishermen who were interviewed.  To them the three Cod Wars that had taken place had blurred into a conglomeration of political ineptitude.

To summarise, in 1956, Britain agreed to accept an increase in the fishing boundaries of Iceland from three to four miles; and Iceland agreed not to extend her limits pending discussions by the UN General assembly. Nevertheless, in 1958 a dispute over a twelve mile no fishing limit around Iceland was brought to The Hague. Britain’s failure to accept these proposals resulted in the First Cod War, which continued until 1961. These conflicts resurfaced in 1972 with the Second Cod War, witnessing Iceland extend its limits from twelve to fifty miles. In 1975 the boundaries were extended again from fifty to two hundred miles. This growth of the fishing boundaries did not go unnoticed by the trawlermen of Grimsby or the British Government. Disputes resulted in a number of attempts to try to resolve each crisis. To the fishermen of Grimsby, the policy-makers seemed unable to negotiate with the Icelanders. Eddie Collins, the skipper on the Aldershot (the British trawler involved in the Aegir incident)[8] not only saw the Icelanders stance as untenable, but also criticised Anthony Crosland, the MP for Grimsby, and the Foreign Secretary of the Labour Government at the time:

The Icelanders had chucked us out of the –they’d gone from 12 miles to 50 miles and then unlawfully took 200 miles which, the angst had put pressure on Britain. And my very good friend Don Lister who’s [ … ] dead now, he was manager of consolidated [fishing] but he was also an ex skipper in the Everton. But he was adviser to Tony Crosland, and the government from Grimsby. And the Icelanders offered us… somebody’s put on there [a book on the table] 100,000 tonne, but it wasn’t, it was actually 90,000 tonne. And, as Don said to Harold Wilson and, who was the other one, Brotherton … was it? […] Erm, he said you’ll never catch that because we had a declining fleet, most of the big steamers was being scrapped, we wouldn’t be able to catch 90,000 tonne. But, Wilson told Crosland not to accept it. So the Icelanders said, well you get nothing then. So that’s how it was.[9]

Consequently, a clear lack of understanding by politicians resulted in a stalemate, when many Grimbarians would have been willing to accept Iceland’s proposals. These negotiations meant that the people of Grimsby had an element of hope for a positive outcome from the talks. Nevertheless, from 1972 it was clear that this would not take place. At first, therefore, it appears that the decline was incremental, helping people come to terms with the downturn. Nevertheless political bungling worsened the situation; exacerbating the conflicts and, ultimately decimating Grimsby’s fishing fleet. For John Vincent, the Icelanders were, in a way, responsible for the collapse of Grimsby’s fishing industry:

I suppose we resented the Icelanders because they were putting us in danger. I mean, you’ve got to understand, when Iceland extended their limits to 200 miles, it wasn’t just 200 miles in a circle round the island. It was from the furthest point. So in places you could be 500 miles off-land. I always said it was the land that God forgot in the winter because it was a hell of a place to be, up off the North Capes in the winter, you’re putting fishermen’s lives at risk. Besides that, pushing us further and further out, they were pushing us off the continental shelf where trawlers fish. If you’re off the shelf then the water’s too deep. You can’t fish. It’s unsafe. So I suppose yes, there was that resentment.[10]

In spite of this, there was respect for the Icelanders:

And I respect them [the Icelanders], I respect Iceland for the way she’s looked after the fish, I really do. But then again, I used to detest it when I was fishing.[11]

For John Vincent, the feelings of bitterness towards the Icelanders have clearly diminished over time. In a reflective and insightful comment, it is apparent that the relationship between the fishermen of Grimsby and Iceland was less than simple:

A lot of Icelandic trawlers used to land in Grimsby and they used to get a rough time. We used to call them scrobs, which isn’t a very nice thing to call anybody. But when you come towards the Grimsby fish docks, to the right of it, there used to be a big Seanet place there. […] It was called Scrob’s Corner. So calling the Danes scrobs meant that Norwegians were scrobs, and Icelanders were scrobs. I’ve been ashore in Iceland, in Reykjavik, and had no bother. British seamen, British fishermen, no bother. I don’t suppose they liked us being there, because we had to get permission to go in if it was bad weather. If the weather was too hard to fish and we wanted shelter we had to get permission off the Icelandic government to go in. But it was the same in the Faroes. I’ve been ashore in the Faroes and they’ve treated us alright. But it was different in our own port. We used to… well, it was almost fighting them. And it wasn’t right. But if anything ever went wrong, then the Icelandic gunboats were there to help us. And they did help us. 1968, when the Notts. County ran aground, she was being escorted in by the Ross Cleveland. She was one of the three trawlers that all went down – 62 men, 1 survivor. She turned over escorting a Grimsby trawler into there, and the Icelandic gunboats were stood off, waiting to take survivors. They were there all the time with us. [12]

On the one hand, the Icelanders were clearly perceived to be a nuisance and they were often involved in fights with the Grimsby fishermen. On the other hand, however, the Icelanders were there in a crisis, to offer support and refuge. For Gordon Green, an accountant who worked at the docks throughout his life, the Icelanders were: ‘wonderful people. But as I say there was no animosity between us and the Icelanders. It was all politics and we, the fishermen, were the ones who suffered at the end.’[13] Interestingly, for Gordon Green, who, crucially, had many good friends who were Icelandic, the disputes over the Icelandic fishing grounds were just politics, a topic where Grimbarians themselves had no input:

I mean it is like the government now, towards North Korea or something. You can’t do anything about Kim Il Sung, or whatever he is but he might start dropping atom bombs everywhere. I mean, alright, they tell you about it but there is nothing you can do, similarly with the Cod Wars.[14]

Surprisingly, therefore, politics and decision making were thought of as completely out of the control of the Grimbarians. This mind set is, however, more understandable when one looks at the way in which labour was organised on the docks:

Well the fishermen had no input into the organisation of the fishing industry at all. The trawler owners organised the industry and the fishermen were just labourers. Even the skippers had to do as they were told and if they didn’t catch a lot of fish they didn’t get paid and they lost their jobs. And this in all was the essence of greed as they wanted as much as possible out of the industry and they wanted to pay the men the least possible wages to get the money and this was one of the reasons for the decline in industry.[15]

Thus, seemingly advertently, the trawler owners had created a culture whereby the workers had absolutely no control over their occupation. Ken Standing, for instance, notes how: ‘the skippers and mates went on strike over the Icelandic limits but it wasn’t a recognised strike, we weren’t allowed to go on the dole or anything … seven weeks without any money!’[16] The Workers Exchange allowed the ship owners to have complete control over their employees[17]. Each mate, and even the skippers, only signed on for one voyage. Hence, if they failed to secure the catches that were expected of them they lost their jobs. This led Gordon Jackson, an academic at the University of Strathclyde, to say that trawler owners were regarded as the ‘lowest of the low in order of human evolution.’[18] The transport and General workers Union described them as ‘not the most noble group of men’.[19] Whilst John Prescott, who was MP for Hull, referred to them in 1977, as ‘antiquated’ and ‘vicious’[20] The trawlers owners’ insular and selfish business model had deprived the workers of a political voice, thus helping to allow the deterioration of Grimsby’s fishing industry. One wonders why the owners allowed this to happen, but the trawler owners were offered a large pay out in compensation by the government, whilst many of the trawlers were sold for scrap, resulting in a further pay out for the trawler owners.

Hence, when one is assessing who the fishermen blamed for the decline in Grimsby’s fishing, it is difficult to pin the responsibility upon one group. As is often the case, the fishermen themselves disagreed over who was in the wrong, some believing Icelanders were illegally extending their boundaries, whilst others saw politicians and the trawler owners combining to sell Grimsby’s trawlermen short. This latter view appears most prevalent, as John Vincent summarises:

So yeah, there was a bit of resentment [towards Iceland] because we were out there just to do our job. I lay off the coast of Iceland for five days inside the limits, and we never fished, because the British government were in negotiations with NATO and Iceland, and we were told to keep a presence inside their waters. Don’t fish, but lay there, so we lay there for five days without fishing, just so that we were in there. But when the island of Surtsey bubbled up on to the coast of Iceland, they claimed that as theirs and put a 200 mile limit round that, which pushed us further away. If any of us could have got aboard it and stuck a British flag on it, we could’ve claimed it and had our own fishing grounds up there, but no. Everything becomes political, because governments get it wrong. It’s the working classes that have to suffer.[21]

For Consett, there were rumours that the works were going to close throughout its history. However, the fact that the rumours had existed for so long meant that the people were slow to believe that closure could actually happen. As we have established, Consett was viewed as synonymous with iron, and later, steel making. The town would have remained an isolated agricultural hamlet without the impetus that the works injected. As the works was so often threatened by closure, many of the workers believed that it could not close – how could it?[22] After all, it had been open for so long. Nevertheless, in the 1970s the BSC changed policy and decided to focus upon five areas for steel production; Consett was not on the list. So to the BSC, Consett was not considered viable, but to the economic well-being of North West Durham, Consett was crucial as it was the largest single source of employment, as the number of open pits had dramatically reduced through the 1970s.[23]

The first clear sign, for the workers, that the works could close came at the end of 1978. Consett operations had lost £15.2 million, far less than many of Consett’s counterparts also belonging to the BSC. For instance, losses at Teesside totalled £69.5 over the same period.[24] Nevertheless, the BSC took the decision to close the Hownsgill plate mill, a branch of the Consett steelworks, which employed around 400 people. Paul Fail, was one of those four hundred people, and for him the closure of the plate mill meant that the closure of the works would soon follow:

We worked in the plate mill, and we were told in the plate mill at roughly sort of September time-ish, 1998… No, 1989.[25] We went out to see the rest of the plant. And we said, well they’ve shut the plate now, they’re going to shut the rest of the steelworks. So we got thirty days’ notice, and what we did, we accepted it. When it finished, because it wasn’t just like a departmental closure, there were no courses for you to go on. There was nothing to do, you were just unemployed, unless you were a fortunate one that got a job, fairly straightforward after everything finished. [26]

Paul’s views do however seem to be in the minority. For many people at the steelworks, the closure of the plate mill was an injection of life into the main works. Workers perceived this as a chance to save their livelihoods. Joanne Car, an interviewee for the Made of Steel group believed that the redundancies from Hownsgill would relieve the pressure on the BSC.

Unfortunately, it did not and the chain of events that led to the closure is in a way farcical. Poorly organised, and clearly rushed, the BSC singled out Consett as the plant to shut. Once the BSC had removed managerial opposition to the works, by sending them to new pastures in Middlesbrough, opposition was short lived and ineffectual.[27] Many workers were unaware of the imminent threat to their livelihoods. Rather strangely, by a sad quirk of history, the letter that was sent outlining Consett’s closure was delayed and did not arrive in Consett till the 13th of June 1979. Consequently, when asked on the previous day, the Managing Director of the Teeside Division of the BSC had lied, assuring workers and the trade unionists that their jobs were safe.

Consett, although productive, was small fry for the BSC. Consett was the sixth largest of eleven works in the country, the top five being over twice its size.[28] This factor, in addition to its isolated location, made it an easy target. As we can see in Table 2.2, the costs to produce steel were not disproportionately high, nevertheless competition from foreign markets put pressure on the BSC to act. In spite of the trade unions’ best efforts and their impressive document No case for closure, the BSC appeared to have made up its mind.

Table 2.2: Molten Iron costs at Consett and other BSC plats, 1978/9, per ton.[29]

Blast furnace plant Total Cost/£
Consett 69.47
Cleaveland 67.43
Redbourn 74.17
Normanby Park 74.71
Appleby 75.17
Port Talbot 76.42
Llanwen no. 3 76.90
Shotton 78.93
Ravenscraig no. 3 79.57
Corby 94.98

This decision is intrinsically linked to poor communication from the BSC. For instance, although the BSC had decided to close Consett, they failed to make this clear to the workers or the trade unions. Even more surprising is the way in which Consett had clearly being singled out by the BSC. Following a review of the works in 1978, workers at Consett had fought tirelessly to improve efficiency and productivity. The result of this effort did not go unnoticed. The Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, for example, argued that Consett’s production costs were, in fact, the lowest in the country.[30] In addition, once the plate mill had closed, profits of £24,000, £110,000 and then £300,000 were achieved respectively for September, October and November 1979.[31] To the ISTC, and the steel making world, Consett was renowned for its ‘experience, reliability and flexibility.’[32] These opinions were not however isolated to the upper echelons of decision making. Many workers themselves were dumbfounded at the decision, failing to understand the logic of the closure. In a study of educational programmes following the closure of Consett steelworks, John Holmes interviewed a selection of workers and made these astute observations:

Consett is quite unique. The reduction of the workforce from 6,202 in 1971, to 4,915 and to approximately 3,700 at the time of the closure […] were accepted for the sake of the works as a whole and as a way of increasing productivity and profitability. Moreover people were able to point to the fact that the Blast furnaces at Consett had recently been refurbished; that production records had been broken in 1979; and the profitability of the works improved 1979-80 and was projected to improve again from 1980-81.[33]

Thus for workers themselves, the decision was unfathomable. Redundancies had been made, which had helped to improve productivity, yet the writing was on the wall for Consett. The sheer injustice of the decision is palpable whilst listening to the interviews. Strong adjectives are used by the interviewees to explain their feelings about the closure: devastation, depression and apathy seemed to breed in that environment. To add salt to the wounds, the closure was brought forward from its original date:

Production records were being broken in 1979 […] when in Dec 1979, BSC announced its intention to close the works. Not until June 1980 did it become clear that the closure was scheduled for 30th of September, and this date was brought forward to 13th of September. [34]

Owing to this sudden change, a counselling service was set up for the steelworkers after the announcement was made. Instead of reassuring the people this angered many of the steelworkers; they saw it as a way to fragment the solidarity of the Save the Steelworks movement. [35] Hence, the level of expectation about closure was crucial, but also how this information was communicated to the workers affected how the town and those workers responded to the closure.

Now, unlike Consett, where the steel works was considered less viable by the powers that be, Vickers was prioritised by Margaret Thatcher and was made responsible for building the majority of the Trident force, as it was a privatised industry.[36] Thus, Barrow was a town that thrived in the 1980s, swelling with the money and wealth brought by large military contracts. Nevertheless, there was always an underlying unease with the situation at Barrow, which David Clarke, a fitter at the shipyard remembers well. For David the redundancies were inevitable:

The fact that, the shipyard had been over manned for a number of years but it needed to be over manned because everybody was doing so little work. And then once the work did slow down we had some weeks where you’d be there all week for 35 hours and you’d be lucky if you did eight hours work. There was just nothing to do. You’d complete what was to do to when it was to be done then you’d be waiting for services or they’d be saying we’re not doing that bit till Friday but keep coming.[37]

David could perhaps hold this opinion owing to the way in which he was made redundant in a later phase, helping to lessen the impact of a sudden closure or spate of redundancies. As David rightly points out: ‘I mean it wasn’t like people turned round overnight and said: ‘Right 10,000 will go tomorrow’, it was in quite a lot of phases.’ [38] In spite of this view, tension and angst remained:

Yeah, there was always the sort of thing round the office of ‘it’s definitely going to be next’, definitely going to be next’ and you get a sigh of relief when someone else got their collar felt and forced them to the door.[39]

As such, it seems reasonable to suggest that the decline in Barrow was expected, yet it seems as though the workers were ill-informed as to the extent of the redundancies. Harry Knowles, the chief executive of Furness Enterprise, was keen to point this out:

In Barrow [there are] 70,000 people. Working population let’s say… you know and it varies, but working age population, 35,000 to tops 40000, depending on the employment situation. Of that, some 15,000 people worked in the ship yard. So you could probably say that this directly and indirectly, about half the working age population owed their livelihoods directly and indirectly to the ship yard. And then it was a situation where you’re going from 15,000 employment, and at the time […] the Furness enterprise […] envisaged that employment would go down to between 7 and 9 thousand which was seen as absolutely devastating. In effect, employment went down to as low as 3000.[40]

Thus workers themselves and local businesses were expecting a decline and job losses, but not to such a dramatic extent. Cunningly the employers, Vickers, were able to cushion the impact of the unemployment, owing to the way in which the workers were made unemployed. Unlike Grimsby, where the trawlermen had lost their fishing grounds, or Consett, where the whole steelworks had closed, in Barrow many felt that more ships could be ordered at some point, so a hope remained:

Yeah, and I think there was always an underlying hope that things would turn round and we would get more orders for surface vessels in particular and then everybody would be re-employed. So there was always that hope, which actually dampened the bitterness I think.[41]

In spite of these rumours,

There was, for the most part, there was a lot of misinformation. and a lot of panic about what am I gonna do, how am I gonna pay the mortgage?And a lot of apathy regarding there’ll be no work after the shipyard. But most people that I know who got made redundant , they’re working, there’s very few… I think the only ones that aren’t working are the ones that… went with the apathy completely and just sort of signed on until they were retirement age. But there’s quite a story on Waldney there’s this place called the Vicker’s Town Institute which is like a men’s club and for years it was the place where you would find ex-shipyard workers that were were just drowning in pints. You know, it was just this total apathy of ‘we’ll never get a job now’ so we’ll just go to the Vickers’s Town Institute.[42]

 

Although the job losses appeared at different times within differing industries, there are clear links in the responses to unemployment. Firstly, the nature of the redundancies and its expectedness has implications upon the mind-set of the workers. For Barrow, in contrast to Consett and Grimsby, the overly inflated economy, created through substantial orders for the Trident Project, allowed many workers to come to terms with their fate. In contrast, ill-informed workers at Consett were, as the phrase went at the time, ‘in the black and faced with the sack’.[43] Similarly, those at Grimsby felt powerless as geo-politics seemed to outweigh and mask the fishermen’s perspective, as they were forced to watch political miscalculations. Interestingly, one trawlermen felt that he had more in common with the Icelanders than with the British Government. Whilst the Government seemed to place a greater importance on maintaining the USA as an ally, through the preservation of the NATO base in Keflavic, the Icelanders were protecting their livelihoods. For Ken Standing this was a more understandable and ‘worthwhile’ pursuit.[44]

The second factor which seems to have a clear implication upon identities is having a clear figure to blame. In Barrow, one figurehead could not feasibly be singled out.  The end of the Cold War had simply reduced the demand for weaponry. The world appeared, as Fukyama wrote, to be a ‘safer’ place. In contrast, for Consett, the BSC were thought of with bitterness, anger and confusion. How could the loss of 3,700 jobs, at a profitable plant, be portrayed as ‘economic rationalisation’?[45] To the workers this rationale was the definition of irrational. Similarly, for Grimsby, anger and confusion lingered over the decisions taken by the government, the Icelanders and the trawler owners.  In each case, the workers appeared burdened by a deep-seated hopelessness, as their futures were decided without any substantial level of accountability. In Consett for example, protests were staged, with 650 people marching to London, but ultimately it appeared that the decisions had already been made.[46] Equally, Fred Lambert a former fisherman remembers how the organisation of the trade unions in Grimsby, ‘meant the union had no power […] if you missed a ship, they, made up of employer and union mind, could suspend you.’[47] Although there were larger and more powerful unions in the shipyards, the unions were powerless in contesting the levels of redundancies.[48]

The third clearly visible similarity in the response to the decline was the importance of timing. Behind each statistic, within the tables of data showing unemployment statistics, there was an individual story. Within all three towns, those who lost their jobs at a younger age, before they were burdened by dependents, mortgages, and stress, tended to view the downturns or slumps in economic fortunes as a blessing in disguise. In Consett, for instance, a Made of Steel interviewee who wished to remain anonymous, admitted that although he had enjoyed working at the steelworks, working as an electrician, he had always wanted to follow his dream to become an English teacher. The closure of the steelworks, therefore, actually gave this person the impetus they needed to pursue a new career.[49] Equally, David Clarke could escape the cold and wet, which he had experienced as a fitter in Barrow.[50] Similarly, in Grimsby, the change in fortunes for the young people was viewed positively by some. Mothers for example often commented that they were relieved their children could avoid such a dangerous occupation.[51] Moreover, workers often had a similar experience if they were near to retirement age. In Consett and Barrow, large redundancy packages were gained for the workers by their trade unions thus allowing many of the workers to retire.

In spite of these clear positives, many workers were reluctant, even if they were young or nearing retirement age, to accept the sudden and brutal change in their lives. David Clarke remembers how many workers would simply walk up and down the shipyards at around 6am, as it was simply part of their routine. [52] Similarly, in Consett, many workers felt a sudden sense of unease as their circadian rhythms were ruined by the closure:

I’m not sure that people realise the situation in Consett, it’s depended totally on Steel – meal times depended on what shift your father was on, if he was 6 ‘til 2 you ate at 3, if he was 2 ‘til 10 you ate at 1. Everything was determined by a shift system – a continuous steel making process.[53]

Thus, many workers left with a ‘sense of distress at the abrupt and unceremonious ending of near a lifetime of work with one organisation.’[54] This point is crucially important. As such, it is impossible to judge how the identities of all people involved in the industry, and ancillary industries, were forced to change. For instance, of the twelve interviewees examined, each person’s story was different. Every memory of the events portrays a different picture.  Social scientists in the past have attempted to group and analyse these vignettes, seeking to find trends. In one sense, this is academically challenging and a worthwhile pursuit, but identities are immensely complex and personal. Although it is relatively simply to investigate whom the workers blamed for their loss of employment, and therefore, who many workers positioned their identities against; it is a troublesome quandary to see the essence of who they were. Far from attempting to impose trends, or establish similarities in the experiences of the workers and their identities, one must be respectful and allow the stories to resonate through.

Hence, when broadly speaking, one can see a similarity in the reactions of the workers, or their families, however, the personal experience, the deepest feelings of the person can be difficult to gauge. As such, one can see a trend in how workers perceived unemployment if they had other responsibilities. For Pat Car the closure of Consett steelworks came at completely the wrong time:

I mean, I was 26 when I left, I think it was. An awful lot of people in their early twenties, and they were devastated, because that’s all they knew. They’d got married, and all of a sudden were out of a job. And then the rest of the company closed, other bits of industry that were employing people who were to do with the steelworks shut, so it affected everybody, really. Really badly.[55]

Pat highlights a crucial point, namely, that our workers had lost ‘all they knew’. From a position of relative comfort the rug had been pulled from beneath their feet.[56] As Harry Knowles, head of Furness enterprise, notes, redundancies from any industry reduce feelings of ‘confidence, energy and vibrancy.’ [57] In Consett, for example, Paul Fail remembers how some workers had an extreme reaction, dying soon after the works was closed. The stress, in combination with depression and uncertainty was simply too much to handle. These thoughts were echoed by Jan Gourlay, from Consett, who recalls how many people threw themselves off the bridge. Unfortunately, these stories are not isolated to Consett.

Many of these individuals seem to have been winded by the experience of unemployment. They appear to have suffered from a complete loss of self-esteem. As Harry Knowles rightly points out, ‘human beings […] act, not on the facts, but on their perceptions of the facts.’[58] For many of the workers in Barrow, Consett and Grimsby, their work was their defining characteristic; they felt there was no future:

For democracy and society to function effectively, there has to be a view that we’re all in this together, and we share common aims and common purposes. And one of the ways that you feel that you have a stake in society and working age population is to actually work in it. You know, you actually make a contribution, either the public or private sector, you get paid for that you have some discretion over how you spend your money, and you feel that you are a member of that society and a working member of society. If you actually then throw thousands at people out of work whether it’s in a coal mining community, steel ,mining, or ship building community … you, if you’re not very careful those people feel that they’re redundant, useless, they have no control over their destiny and to go into the jobcentre classes is a deeply demoralising experience […]we may not like our work but it still defines us and gives us a measure of security and a measure of control over our own affairs.[59]

Thus, when the candle was out on our three industries, it appears to have had an enormous effect, which goes beyond purely financial implications. The workers lost the comfort, familiarity and security of their occupation; often the only job they had ever had. Nevertheless one must bear in mind that when examining oral histories we are investigating the memories that one recalls. For the interviewees the angst, pain and suffering, understandably, seem to have been at the forefront of their minds. However, in Consett and Barrow large redundancy payments were given to the workers. One assumes that this helped to soften the immediate impact, as is suggested by Paul Fail from Consett, who was given just £100, as he worked for the Hownsgill Plate Mills, and he resented how many of the workers at the main Consett steelworks were given large pay-outs.[60] In spite of this, people have rarely spoken about the redundancy packages that they received, suggesting such pay-outs failed to prevent a severe change in people’s identities. In Grimsby, however, there was no redundancy package for the trawlermen. Unlike many Dockers, who managed to receive compensation when they were made redundant, the fisherman had to wait over twenty years for their compensation until after the end of the Cod War, as Gordon Green points out:[61]

When the thing collapsed of course the government came in and asked: “who did you work for?” “Well, I worked for them, them, them and them.”…. “Oh so you were casual?” So there was no…you couldn’t put your finger on who was responsible for the redundancies so most of the fisherman got nothing. It was a big political issue. I mean a woman like Dolly Hardy, who was involved in it. She fought for years for the recognition that the fisherman weren’t, you know, casual labourers, but that they were all involved in an industry. They did manage to get something but by this time 90% of them had died. So the vast majority didn’t get anything and they were all treated like this. The essence of the industry was poverty. The fisherman worked, sometimes twenty hours a day for wages. A lot of the time when they finished in the industry, whereas the people like the Dockers and the Lumpers got a fortune.[62]

Thus, for people from Consett and Barrow, the large redundancy payments do not seem to have been particularly well remembered. The bitterness of the experience of unemployment seems to have outweighed the pay-outs, which were quickly spent on food and bills. Hence, even though the majority of Grimbarians did not receive compensation at the time, their response was very similar.

Interestingly, John Holmes, author of Consett, A Case Study of Education and Unemployment argues that ‘unemployment stared them all in the face and therefore it did not carry the same stigma as in other communities.’[63] In one respect, this is what one would expect.  The overall unemployment rate stood at 15.5% in September 1980 and went up to 27.7% in 1982.[64] Nevertheless, in Barrow, Harry Knowles felt that there was a greater stigma. This could be owing to the large numbers of migrant workers who worked in Barrow, who left once their contracts were terminated, thus allowing those who lived in Barrow to feel as though there were fewer  people in the same position.[65] Moreover, in Barrow, following the decline, there was an enormous increase in the numbers of people claiming incapacity benefit, rather than job seekers allowance. [66] This suggests that the stigma was so large that people preferred to take a different form of benefit, so as to not appear on government statistics for those who were ‘unemployed.’

There’s a real stigma in terms of having to queue up for the dole at jobseekers. Whereas incapacity money just [potentially register the incapacity] and you get your money. The other thing was that money was far more beneficial than jobseekers allowance because it’s not means tested, […] so you get a person who has got a decent pension, like a early pension they could still get the IB and the IB wouldn’t be means tested. So [IB] in a community like this, you know, where people know each other if one person say] I’m off on the sick and I’m getting IB and essentially it’s good money, that tends to sort of go through like wildfire. And likewise you have GPs who are very sympathetic to people who, you know, have been out of work, can’t get a job and are suffering mental stress. And if you look at the incapacity benefit claimant numbers in various studies, stress is the new back ache you know. [67]

Unemployment in the three towns came as a shock. Individuals whose lives had ben defined by one industry, suddenly, whether it was anticipated or not, lost their raison d’être. The response to change did, however, differ. The brutal and seemingly nonsensical closure at Consett appeared unfathomable, whilst workers at Barrow could at least comprehend the closure. Nevertheless, the forced nature of the change meant that many workers felt powerless to stop it. In spite of this, one must be wary of broad sweeping generalisations. To some, the redundancies provided a lease of life, and an opportunity to change, for others the decision is viewed as the turning point in their lives. Both, of course, are ‘true’ and valid representations of the past.


[1] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (Penguin books, London, 1994) p.110

[2] Ibid.p181

[3] J. Goddard, R. Spalding, Fish ‘n’ Ships: The Rise and Fall of Grimsby – The World’s Premier Fishing Port (Swannack Brown, Hull, 1987) p84

[4] R. Robinson, Trawling: The Rise and Fall of the Great British Trawl (University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 1996) p209

[5] J. Goddard, R. Spalding, Fish ‘n’ Ships: The Rise and Fall of Grimsby – The World’s Premier Fishing Port (Swannack Brown, Hull, 1987) p.54

[6] R. Robinson, Trawling: The Rise and Fall of the Great British Trawl (University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 1996) p.242

[7] John, Vincent, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 6/05/13, see appendix for transcript.

[8] The Aegir was involved in a collision with the British trawler, the Aldershot. There was extensive damage to the stern of the Aegir, whereas the Aldershot was repaired and back fishing within twenty four hours. Eddie Collins was forbidden, by law, to talk about these events whilst being recorded.

[9] Eddie Collins, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 9/07/13, see appendix for transcript.

[10] John, Vincent, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 6/05/13, see appendix for transcript.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Gordon Green, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 5/04/13, see appendix for transcript.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ken Standing, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 3/6/13, see appendix for transcript.

[17] Goddard, J, Spalding, R, Fish ‘n’ Ships (Dalesman Books, Lancaster, 1987) p78

[18] Ibid. p79

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] John, Vincent, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 6/05/13, see appendix for transcript.

[22] K, Warren, Consett Iron 1840-1980: A Study in Industrial Location (Oxford University press, Oxford, 1990) p157

[23] Ibid. p145

[24] Ibid. p154

[25] This is an inaccuracy of memory, but Paul’s feelings about the events are invaluable.

[26] Paul Fail, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/06/13, see appendix for transcript.

[27] K, Warren, Consett Iron 1840-1980: A Study in Industrial Location (Oxford University press, Oxford, 1990) p157

[28] Ibid. p160

[29] BSC Standard cost statistics, 1978/9 (unpublished) in Ibid. p161

[30] Ibid. p166

[31] K, Warren, Consett Iron 1840-1980: A Study in Industrial Location (Oxford University press, Oxford, 1990) p167

[32] Ibid.

[33] J. Holmes, Consett, A Case study of Education and Unemployment (Further Education Unit , London, 1985) pp.23-24

[34] Ibid. p.4

[35] J. Holmes, Consett, A Case study of Education and Unemployment (Further Education Unit , London, 1985) pp22-23

[36] M, Mort, Building the Trident Network (MIT Press, London, 2002) p103

[37] David Clarke, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/01/13, see appendix for transcript.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Harry Knowles, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/06/13, see appendix for transcript.

[41] David Clarke, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/01/13, see appendix for transcript.

[42] David Clarke, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/01/13, see appendix for transcript.

[43] B., Robson, J., Healy, Memories of Consett 2 (County Durham Books, Durham , 2006) front cover.

[44] Ken Standing, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 3/6/13, see appendix for transcript.

[45] K, Warren, Consett Iron 1840-1980: A Study in Industrial Location (Oxford University press, Oxford, 1990) pp. 171-172

[46] J. Holmes, Consett, A Case study of Education and Unemployment (Further Education Unit , London, 1985) p.24

[47] Ibid. p57

[48] M., Mort, G., Spinardi, ‘Defence and the Decline of the UK Mechanical Engineering: The Case of Vickers at Barrow’ in Business History, Vol. 46 No. 1, (2012) p. 23

[49] Made of Steel. 2013. [DVD] Consett: Andrew Hagan, Tom Kelly. 15.20-16.30

[50] David Clarke, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/01/13, see appendix for transcript.

[51] N. Triplow, S. Bramhill, J. Shepherd, The Women They Left Behind (Fathom Press for CPO Media, Hull, 2012) p15,p74, p104.

[52] David Clarke, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/01/13, see appendix for transcript.

[53] J. Holmes, Consett, A Case study of Education and Unemployment (Further Education Unit , London, 1985) pp.22-23

[54] Ibid.

[55] Pat Carr, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 12/07/13 , see appendix for transcript.

[56] Jan Gourlay, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 21/06/13, see appendix for transcript.

[57] Harry Knowles, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/06/13, see appendix for transcript.

[58] Harry Knowles, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/06/13, see appendix for transcript.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Paul Fail, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/06/13, see appendix for transcript.

[61] ‘Cod Wars Trawlermen win their battle for Compensation’ Grimsby Telegraph, 31st march 2012, Available online:[ http://www.thisisgrimsby.co.uk/Cod-Wars-trawlerman-win-battle-compensation/story-15678211-detail/story.html#axzz2QMQLK0fQ] accessed 13/04/13

[62] Gordon Green, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 5/04/13, see appendix for transcript.

[63] J. Holmes, Consett, A Case study of Education and Unemployment (Further Education Unit , London, 1985) p4

[64]  Ibid.

[65] David Clarke, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/01/13, see appendix for transcript.

[66] S, Fothergill, C, Beatty, ‘Hidden Unemployment among men, a Case Study’ in Regional Studies, Vol 36, no. 8, (2002) p814

[67] Harry Knowles, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 19/06/13, see appendix for transcript.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s