TODAY marks the 40th anniversary of the closure of Consett steelworks and the devastation of the local economy in north-west Durham.

The steelworks shut after 140 years on September 12, 1980, with the loss of 3,700 jobs directly and several thousand more indirectly.

Consett was a town built, quite literally, on steel. When the Derwent Iron Company was formed in 1840 to exploit the hilltop’s natural reserves of iron ore, coking coal and limestone, Consett was a village with a population of just 145. By 1878, “the company” was employing 5,000 people in the ironworks and its collieries as the village exploded into a boom town.

And when the local ore ran out, the Stockton & Darlington Railway was extended to Consett to bring in ore from the Cleveland Hills.

In fact, the S&DR is very important to this story because in 1864, “the company” (it is still known as that locally) was on the brink of bankruptcy with debts of £1m, but it was rescued by Sir Joseph Whitwell Pease, the head of the Darlington railway family. He worked in conjunction with one of his most successful lieutenants, Sir David Dale, who is credited with turning the new company around.

By 1889, the company had switched to steel production, and boasted the largest steel plate factory in the world, and in the town it owned 2,700 cottages for its workers, as well as a 16-bed infirmary for those injured in the works.

In 1894, it was said to be the largest steel manufacturer in the world, with its material being used on everything from Blackpool Tower to, later, nuclear submarines.

The company peaked during the Second World War, employing 12,000 people. It was nationalised in 1951, and became part of British Steel in 1968 when they were at their peak, employing 6,000 people.

The steel industry suffered a rapid, ugly decline in the 1970s and it was decided to concentrate production at five coastal centres for ease of import and export – the ore was now largely being imported from the Basque region of Spain.

Consett in deepest inland Durham did not fit the bill and so, even though it was profitable even in the year that it closed, it was shutdown amid much bitterness, often directed at the new Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Her opponents called it “the murder of a town”, and in Consett unemployment rose to 35 per cent and youth unemployment to 65 per cent.

Over the decades since, almost all signs of the steelworks have been removed, although there are several memorials, with a new one to be unveiled today to those who died in the works – this year is the 70th anniversary of a carbon monoxide leak from a blast furnace that killed 11 men.

Since closure, the town’s economy has slowly improved with manufacturing being attracted in. Its environment has certainly improved – Consett was notorious for a thick red iron oxide dust which came from the works and coated all the houses.

Perhaps an idea of how the town has come to terms with the change of the last 40 years was indicated in December. The North-West Durham constituency was formed in 1885, and since then it has only elected Liberal or Labour MPs (although in the early 1930s, a National Liberal Party MP was elected whose party later merged with the Conservatives). But in December, a Conservative was chosen as Consett came to reconcile itself with Mrs Thatcher’s former party.

DAVID DALE was born in 1829 Bengal where his father worked for the East India Company, but his father died on the boat bringing the family back to Britain. His mother, a Quaker, then caught the mail coach back to her family in Glasgow only to be seriously injured in an accident near Darlington.

She was carried to the King’s Head Hotel and was shown such kindness by the local Quakers as she recuperated that she decided to settle in the town.

David grew up and entered the Quakers’ railway business, and in 1853 married Ann, a member of the Backhouse family of Quaker bankers. Her first husband, an engineer, had been accidentally shot in Madrid during a Republican uprising, so Mr Dale got to live in the Backhouse family home of West Lodge in West Crescent – the house still stands, off Woodland Road, almost hidden by modern housing.

Dale had fingers in many pies: the Shildon works, shipbuilding firms in Stockton and Hartlepool, iron ore mines in Bilbao in Spain. The first engine made at Darlington’s North Road shops was called “Contractor” in his honour.

In 1864, he and Sir Joseph bought the ailing ironworks in Consett for £295,000 and turned it around – Dale was chairman until his death in 1906.

The iron industry was notoriously volatile, and part of Consett’s success was because of Dale’s pioneering use of arbitration to resolve poisonous disputes. He set up the Board of Arbitration and Conciliation which held its first meeting in March 1869 in Darlington’s Central Hall, and became a Europe-wide expert. He was knighted for his contribution to industrial relations in 1895.