‘A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so, has ceased to belong to the future.’
Albert CamusThe Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays[1]

Thomas Stearns Eliot wrote: ‘this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.’[2] Towns, whose histories were written in relation to their industries, lost their impetus. Although fish is still landed in Grimsby and ships are built at Barrow, there will never be the same levels of production. This work has examined the memories of the workers affected by the events and the findings suggest a lack of consultation, which has led to bitterness and frustration. Many of the workers, far from being angry with the decision makers, simply feel alienated and apathetic about politics.

The evolution of Grimsby, Barrow and Consett is the antithesis of unique. Their experiences represent, and reflect, many of those from other industrial towns. Their growths were dramatic, often doubling in size, in a matter of years in the nineteenth century. The stress this placed upon the town was manifest. Moreover, it also helped to create the culture of poverty for the workers and their families that we are familiar with. The populations in the three towns were, however, rather sedentary and, even at this early stage, appeared to be linked to the primary industrial occupation in the town. Nevertheless, the scars of this unrelenting ‘development’ had lessened by the twentieth century. The welfare state, two World Wars and countless reforms meant that the periods before the decline, which range from the 1960s through to the 1990s, had often been idealised. Remembered in a flash, in a montage of joy and happiness, the workers had allowed this period before the decline to become the epitome of an idyllic lifestyle. Workers, rightly, stressed the communal aspect of daily life and the plethora of activities that were available to the working man to enjoy with friends, as a Made of Steel interviewee recalls:

I would go back to the old days, me, I would. Even though you used to get a nice fight or two in Consett on a Saturday night, like, you know what, you never got knifed or nowt like that, you just got a good kicking! You know, well I mean, socially, as far as I was concerned, it was a better place because, I think I’ve told you, I mean, every company, every department in the company had a darts team or a dominoes team and they all had one pub in Consett that you went to.[3]

The social aspect of pubs, working men’s clubs, and sports, whilst being surrounded by the people that you knew, seemed to have incorporated an element of nostalgia. That is not to say that these times were not often enjoyable, but having delved deeply into the interviewees’ memories, there were elements of difference, particularly relating to class, as well as environmental worries, which were less obvious. A contributor at Beamish museum remembered the red dust in a rather strange way:

I remember that my auntie Violet’s dog, Roy was an unusual colour–PINK. They lived in Constance Street in Consett and Roy-originally white, kept coming home tainted with the iron ore dust from the fields. Another memory is of my Dad, Jackie Robson, meeting someone in Devon who said ‘I bet you come from Consett’. When my Dad asked the man how he knew, the man said, ‘Ah, the accent and the fact that the underneath of your car is coated with pink dust.[4]

Beneath this superficial analysis, one can also perceive the presence of difference, particularly in Grimsby. Unlike the other industries, where workers seemed to be avoiding the foreman and were mildly frustrated by the difference in pay, in Grimsby there appeared to be a deep-seated view that the ‘deckie learners’ and other less experienced workers were exploited.[5] Nevertheless, even among these interviewees, it appears that those who postulated these opinions were not those who worked directly in fishing. For instance, Gordon Green, was critical of the exploitation of the trawlermen and was an accountant on Grimsby dock throughout his life. Similarly, Ken Standing reiterated many of these claims, but Ken Standing had left fishing to pursue a career on the Humber bank, working for Tioxide. Thus, for Eddie Collins, and John Vincent, who both spent their working lives as fishermen, the way of life, the exploitation, was merely part and parcel of the culture of fishing. This suggests that further investigation of the three towns would be worthwhile, in order to examine the views on the rest of the town with regard to the workers and their families, in more detail. This may help to illuminate, further complicating factors. Nonetheless, this point also alludes to another: namely that the workers themselves accepted the hand they had been dealt. Death, inequalities in pay and horrendous conditions were widely known about, but were just the way things were. Hence, when we assess the impact of the decline in industry, although the conditions in Grimsby were often horrendous it was all the workers had ever known.

These varying lifestyles and industries had an impact upon the communities before the decline. Although the trio of towns shared a love for a myriad of pubs and often had their lifestyle patterns orientated around their occupation, often including their circadian rhythms, the situation in Grimsby is somewhat anomalous. Unlike both Consett and Barrow, where the community was defined in strict time zones: the shift; for Grimsby the voyages to the distant water grounds complicates the workers’ relationship with the fishing community. The identity of the fishermen, forged through the hardship of their occupation, appears to have been one of obdurate pride and perseverance. Collectively, therefore, the fishermen were often viewed negatively by the rest of the town, at the time.

Thus, when our industries’ fortunes deteriorated, the workers were faced with a change. The response to this decline and the personal effects of this shock seem to be dependent upon the individual. The towns incurred their slumps at varying times, yet there are clear links in the responses of the workers, who were faced with an enormous change. Barrow does, however, stand out. For many of the workers there, the unemployment appears to have been anticipated, even if it was on a much larger scale than first envisaged. Similarly, in Grimsby the protracted nature of the Cod Wars, meant that many of the workers feared for the worst. In contrast, Consett steelworks was closed abruptly, without adequate communication or consultation. This unsanctimonious ending meant that many workers and people in the town were, and still are to this day, frustrated, angry and confused by the decision to close the works; and understandably so, as the works had been making a profit at the time of its closure. Workers, therefore, were faced with a redundancy package and the opportunity for re-training. For some, particularly those who could afford the time to retrain, without as large an income, this was an ‘opportunity’.[6] The majority, however, were winded by this decision, which hit those with dependents, mortgages and little savings, exceptionally hard.

Moreover, this sudden and spectacular change in the towns, meant spaces that had been ingrained with emotions, history and friends, were stripped of some of their symbolic value. The docks, in Grimsby, had thrived and grown, yet, when fishermen returned there, it was a shadow of its former glory. Equally, around Walney in Barrow, the area was not filled with bustling people, heaving pubs, familiar faces and friends. The very space was now less meaningful. The community therefore, not only changed in its outlook, but also in the areas where it gathered. In Consett, pictures of the works on the horizon, still have pride of place in pubs, and houses.

People had experienced symptoms similar to those of bereavement. As we have explored, the history and lifestyles of the towns have been defined by the occupations of the workers, and the particular communities that emerged. Harry Knowles, head of Furness Enterprise, a company founded to encourage job creation in Barrow, was acutely aware of the effects of redundancies: ‘massive redundancies and a feeling of hopelessness is really toxic for any community.’[7] Harry, having worked with many former workers at Barrow knew that confidence, a crucial element of collective action, had been severely damaged:

There was a massive increase in antidepressant prescriptions etcetera as people felt that they were being chucked out at the age of 50 and trying to get another job if you’d been a fitter or a rigger or a sort of welder all your life was virtually impossible. So you know, generally a depression. And that has affected the whole redundancy issue, the feeling of insecurity affects the, the outlook of the community whether it’s positive or negative. And then you get situations where people find that there’s – if you aren’t very careful you get endemic unemployment in terms of welfare generations, you know welfare – three generations of people aren’t working. And it also you know – people say: ‘what’s the point?’ You know: there’s no point me striving hard at school because there’s no jobs and you get that sense of hopelessness and despair which affects the outlook of the community, and the willingness of the community to strive to do something better.[8]

Crucially, these industries were targeted. Nevertheless one must remember that these industries were not ‘backward’ or ‘out-of-date’, they represented a severe change in people’s lives from a productive and efficient model:

The quote was that you can make anything in Barrow, they have the skills and the… facilities and the experience and the know-how just to fabricate and to make anything. And that’s what was so sad about the decline, it wasn’t just economic potential, it was the loss of key skills. And people were very proud of those skills.[9]

Moreover, both Consett and Barrow were well respected across the world for their skills:

They were at the forefront of technological innovation in so many ways, certainly Barrow, certainly Consett, and possibly Grimsby in a sort of – these large scale industries were constantly innovating, they weren’t stuck in a rut, they were having to be at the forefront of technological development and skill development and you know, what has been lost is not just you know … a way for people to make a livelihood that’s old fashioned and we don’t need any more but actually you know there’s been a failure to understand what was being shut down.[10]

Maggie’s thoughts here illuminate an important issue: namely, that these industries were not backward, but they were based on innovation and skills. Even trawling, which was in dire need of investment, pioneered the use of sonar, or as it was known ‘the fish finder’. Moreover, the freezer trawler had revolutionised the volume of catches that were possible.[11] Furthermore, the government, or the decision making body, does not appear to have understood the ramifications of their actions, as Harry points out:

I mean the great tendency, make people redundant, thousands of people redundant, right now what do we do? Rather than saying we know this is going to happen, so let’s make sure that we’ve actually got the plan in place with the resources, realistic plan not an unrealistic one. So we can do our best to mitigate those consequences rather than wait until after the event. And that’s what we do. We wait until the engine is broken down before we do anything about it. It’s just, the problem as far as I can see is that as Lord Heseltine would say, the entire economy of the country is run on what’s best for London and the south east. We’re a very centralised government with civil servants making decisions and advising politicians because they themselves are not directly affected, they wait until after the event rather than before the event so everything is based on dealing with the situation after it’s happened not in trying to understand the consequences and deal with them beforehand.[12]

This study suggests a discrepancy, a mismatch, between workers in an area and the decision making process, which often appeared completely out of the worker’s hands. This observation echoes the findings of other studies, most importantly that of Derek Sayer’s and Philip Corrigan’s The Great Arch. They postulate, in their introduction, that social orders were, and still are, historically constructed. For instance, in the 1980s the butchering of the mining communities was seen as mere ‘economic necessity’, whilst their ‘defence was something akin to treason.’[13] These remarks cast aspersions over the effectiveness of democracy as a form of dividing power, but they also allude to clear differences in perspective. On the one hand, the changes experienced in Consett, Barrow and Grimsby were deemed viable as options by the various powers that be, yet, to the workers themselves they were the definition of irrational.  How can a group of individuals represent people they so clearly fail to understand? Surprisingly, these feelings were promulgated by Austin Mitchell, the MP for Grimsby:

Fishing was betrayed. It was betrayed by the big owners who put too little back and tried to take too much out – particularly through their greed in Iceland. It was betrayed by politicians who sacrificed our fishing rights and the ability to rebuild the industry in the headlong rush into a European common market which has proved so disastrous for fishing. And for Britian. It was betrayed by governments who never regarded fishing as important enough to fight for – far easier to let it dwindle away without even a burial grant. The men who carried the can for all these betrayals were the trawlermen, poor bloody infantry of fishing. They kept a cruel industry going. They loved the life yet hated it at the same time. Through no fault of their own they were thrown onto the scrapheap without a penny in redundancy pay – the ultimate betrayal.[14]

As we contemplate the future, our industries have changed their place in the towns’ and communities’ identities. The way they have been remembered has also shifted. In Grimsby, the fishermen are remembered with pride, by all those who live there, forgetting, of course, the divisions within the town before the decline. In Consett, children are taught about the steel, which travelled across the world, whilst in Barrow the museum proudly displays past achievements. This does beg the question: what happened? Often swept aside, the elephant in the room, the redundancies are rarely spoken about, owing to the deep and lasting effects that they had upon the workers in the towns. Perhaps in the future, policy-makers, politicians and civil servants will heed the advice of Ellen Wilkinson. In 1939 she wrote a book entitled The Town That Was Murdered. In the concluding sentences she so eloquently writes:

This is the story of Jarrow. But not Jarrow only. A similar story could be told of many other towns in Lancashire, in West Cumberland, in Scotland, in South Wales. The outline would be the same. The human tragedy very similar. Only the details of the background would differ with the differences in the industry, cotton instead of shipbuilding, haematite instead of coal.[15]

Wilkinson, in 1939, was challenging policy makers to think, to consider, to reflect, and to adapt to the effects of capitalism upon the country. If Britain is to become a pluralist and effective democracy then ‘workers must have the main stake in their homeland.’[16]

[1] available online: [] accessed 28/04/13

[2] T, S, Eliot, ‘Hollow Man’, in H, Bloom (ed.) T,S, Eliot (Chelsea House Publishers, Broomhall, 2003) p.108

[3] Made of Steel. 2013. [DVD] Consett: Andrew Hagan, Tom Kelly 1.10-1.45

[4] GR068 commenting upon the steelworks 30 year anniversary of the closure, Beamish Museum, available online: [] accessed 30/08/13

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

[6] Made of Steel. 2013. [DVD] Consett: Andrew Hagan, Tom Kelly, ‘Sparky’s story’ 22.54-23.59

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Maggie Mort, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 20/05/13, see appendix for transcript.

[10] Maggie Mort, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 20/05/13, see appendix for transcript.

[11] J. Goddard, R. Spalding, Fish ‘n’ Ships: The Rise and Fall of Grimsby – The World’s Premier Fishing Port (Swannack Brown, Hull, 1987) p89, Gordon Green, interviewed by Alasdair Fuller, 5/04/13, see appendix for transcript.

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

[13] P, Corrigan, D, Sayer, The Great Arch: English State formation as Cultural Revolution (Blackwell, London, 1991) p1

[14] Foreword by Austin Mitchell MP in J. Goddard, R. Spalding, Fish ‘n’ Ships: The Rise and Fall of Grimsby – The World’s Premier Fishing Port (Swannack Brown, Hull, 1987)

[15] E. Wilkinson, The Town that was Murdered (Victor Gollancz, London, 1939) p273

[16] Ibid. p284


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