In the mid-1800s, Teesside’s position as a global leader in steel was only just being forged when iron ore was discovered in Eston’s Cleveland Hills. Its steel then went on to form landmarks here and abroad including Auckland and Sydney’s Harbour Bridges. However, when the final stoves of Redcar’s blast furnace were demolished in March 2023, locals have been left to wonder: what now? Despite this, nearly 180 years after its beginning, a group of bold campaigners are fighting to re-ignite the flame of steelwork which has defined generations of Teessiders, and they hope will carry on to the next generation.

The air was thick with hope and nostalgia for many in the small hall of Grangetown Generations Voluntary Community Organisation in Middlesbrough on Wednesday (November 29), as people gathered from across the community to have their say on what the future of steel in Teesside should look like through the Support UK Steel campaign.

Set in front of a colourful yet poignant backdrop depicting the area's steel heritage reading ‘Born of iron, made of steel’, the 3-hour drop-in event was organised by Unite the Union and volunteers to discuss the workers’ plan for steel – an encapsulated plan signed by over 130 businesses across the region outlining what they want to see happen for steelmaking in the not-too-distant future.

The Northern Echo: Support UK Steel campaign.Support UK Steel campaign. (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

What are their demands? Well, following the announcement of a £1.25bn investment by British Steel to install an electric arc furnace on Teesside by 2025, the community has responded by naming ‘four pledges for steel’ as unions say “it’s crunch time” for the next phase of Teesside’s steel history.

These demands include a vote of confidence from the government to allow UK public contracts to use 100% British-made steel, investing in a steelworker's green transition plan to retain jobs, a plea to tackle energy prices and for more funding in general.

An open letter reads: “We need major investment now. The UK’s four Blast Furnaces, which produce 80% of our steel and provide thousands of decent jobs need replacing between 2026 and 2035.

“There are two choices. On the one side: a bright future with the UK as a world leader – serious investment that takes advantage of rising demand for green steel and pays for itself over time.

“On the other: Managed decline. Let the steel industry keep shrinking. Tinkering around the edges is putting jobs at risk and it means Britain will lose the opportunity to become a world leader in an industry of the future.”

Amongst the chattering and chanting of ‘Support UK Steel’ in front of banners emboldening the same chant, the people of Teesside’s steel industry’s past, present and future spoke of their deep connections to steel as many asked the all-important question – what happens now?

Carrying a folder of photographs and documents chronicling his illustrious time in the steel industry was one meeting attendee John Neesam, 68, who began his career in steel in Redcar when he moved to the area from Northallerton, aged 18.

Pointing at his face on several vivid retro board committee printout photographs and his name typed neatly on presentation briefings, John recounted his career which eventually led to an impossible decision. Was he to remain with 1960s rock band The Plainsman and live a life on the road or throw that dream away and attend a multi-year college course for metallurgy training?

The Northern Echo: The Plainsmen band.The Plainsmen band. (Image: JOHN NEESAM)

Well, based on John’s stories, it was going to be heavy metal whichever route he took.

“They said to me, when I got there, we’ll send you off to college to do metallurgy – if, and it’s a big if, you pack in the band. I understood that but it was a hard decision.”

John continued: “Someone told me of this campaign just in the street, and that’s when I heard about it. They invited me to come along tonight.

The Northern Echo: Images from John's collection.Images from John's collection. (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

The Northern Echo: A paper from 1984 from John's collection.A paper from 1984 from John's collection. (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

“To put it in to perspective, the new electric arc furnace will probably produce 5,000 tonnes of steel, when I was working there we made 70,000 tonnes – we were feeding the world with steel.”

“I think this support coming back for the steelworks is great – the people of Teesside are very strong, probably stronger than they think they are.

“But, when we talk about what it was like before, it certainly can be like that again but it’s all about scale. There will be a steel community and there always has been.”

When asked whether this new arc project could reignite the industry as it was in its heyday, John admitted it will not be as much about the size of the operation, but rather its “spirit”.

The Northern Echo: John Neesam's collection of relics.John Neesam's collection of relics. (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

The Northern Echo: John's collection of documents.John's collection of documents. (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

He said: “It won’t have the breadth and strength it had before when there were around 20 to 30,000 people working at the steelworks that slowly dwindled down.

“But, what the new arc may do is bring back the spirit of steelmaking rather than the totality and scale of it.”

For sisters Jillian Lillystone, 62 and Carol Hughes, 61, steel is and always has been a family affair. “Around here, the steel industry is in our DNA,”, said Jillian, re-telling the story of their father Edwin Robson, now 86, who spent around 20 years of his working life in the steel industry following a period of National Service in the army.

Smoke rising in plumes to the sky from blast furnaces, the blackening of washing hung out to dry from the thick air, receiving British Steel socks for Christmas and the hordes of workers who made their way to work along the streets each day are just a few of the vivid images the sisters brought to life. Their colourful memories of a childhood lived in Grangetown re-tell the story of a lost way of life experienced by their generation that once put Teesside on the map.

“My dad – he was down the works each day. He was on the line, and he even wore my mother's tights to keep warm. You’d think with red hot steel it would be warm, but it was freezing”, Jillian laughed.

“I think this new campaign is a good thing”, she added, continuing that the pair have been involved since its inception just two months ago.

The Northern Echo: John Neesam.John Neesam. (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

Carol agreed, adding: “I honestly don’t think the works should have shut down in the first place. People have since been buying steel from China, which is far inferior.

“British steel is the best steel in the world.”

Another prominent issue expressed by the siblings was that of social mobility. To them, the loss of the steelworks has led to a lack of education for the next generation, ultimately leading to less investment in the area.

Carol said: “There is nothing around here now. We have gotten used to the industry just being chipped away bit by bit. If they had knocked it all down at once it would have been shocking but it declined slowly.”

“For the steel industry, it just feels like false promise after false promise – they give with one hand and take with the other.”

Jillian added: “I feel for my grandchildren’s future around here – I really do. I don’t know what it’s going to be like for her. What kind of job will she be able to get in the future?

“There is nothing around here for kids these days. We need passion and drive.”

Finally, they concluded that when it comes to investment, development, and Teesside’s future in steel, they believe: “We will believe it when we see it” but hope that the new electric arc is eventually built.

Norma Johnson, 75, a fellow Grangetown local, was another attendee who brought with her the story of her veteran father, Samuel Johnson, who made a career at the steelworks after returning from World War two in 1948 until his retirement.

Born in 1914, Samuel served in Palestine, Alexandria and during the Italian Campaign during the war. “At the steelworks, he worked in the gantry, above the pig beds,” Norma began.

“Back then, we didn’t like the air we breathed but we knew it was worth it because it meant the men were working – that was the important thing.

“I love to see this campaign and I hope to witness it be successful. This area has changed a lot, it used to be a better place to live before.”


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She added: “I want to see eventually the steelworks back in action again and for people to have a proper job – to have that pride of earning money for themselves.”

As the campaign marches on, the team are hoping to expand to gain more support from steel towns across the North East, earmarking Hartlepool specifically as their next stop on the way.

So, whilst many may believe Teesside’s steel-making days were all but in the past, extinguished to ashes regardless of the haunting memories that live inside the minds of thousands, a spark has been lit by this latest campaign as they continue their movement to reignite Teesside’s steel prowess.