A UNIONIST who fought with passion on behalf of the workers of a doomed Dale cement works has died.

Billy Wilthew, of Frosterley, was a key figure in the campaign to save the Blue Circle plant in Weardale where he was a long-standing employee.

Mr Wilthew, who was married with two children and three grandchildren, passed away on February 4, at the age of 78.

The works, once the biggest employer in Weardale with 800 employees at its height, closed in 2002 with the loss of 147 jobs.

But colleagues, union and community leaders recognised the passion with which Mr Wilthew represented workers and the Dale.

He was part of a GMB delegation that met with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, in an effort to keep the plant open.

GMB branch secretary Derek Cattell said: “Billy was a passionate trade unionist who would always go the extra mile to support his fellow workers, he will be sadly missed.

"He was outraged when Blue Circle pulled the plug on the Weardale site.”

The impact of the closure is still being felt in the upper Dale 15 years on.

In the wake of the job losses, 57 families moved from the area, including people close to Mr Wilthew, and the local school reported a loss of 70 pupils.

Despite numerous proposed projects which included harnessing natural energy resources and a tourist attraction, the former Blue Circle site at Eastgate remains abandoned.

Durham County Councillor for Weardale John Shuttleworth added: "He was a man who represented the people of Blue Circle with passion and everyone in the Frosterley area had a lot of respect for.

"He always stood up for the workers and the area.

"I remember the look on his face when it was suggested they could retrain as beekeepers, he almost went purple.

"He was a family man, a nice person and a man of principle."

Trade unionists will be among mourners at Mr Wilthew's funeral at Wear Valley Crematorium in Coundon, near Bishop Auckland, at 2pm tomorrow, followed by a service of thanksgiving at St Michael's and All Angels Church, Frosterley, at 3pm.