FIFTY years ago today the then Spencer Works - which became Llanwern Steelworks - was officially opened by the Queen.
KEILIGH BAKER talks to those who worked in something which became a key Gwent institution. COSTING a massive £150m, the steelworks were officially opened by the Queen on October 25, 1962, on her first visit to Newport since her post-coronation tour in 1953.
Planning for the works was first submitted in 1956, and building started in late 1959.
By the time the site was built, more than 1,500 people were living in a caravan town outside Llanwern village.
Gwent was shaped by the arrival of the steelworks, which brought thousands of people to the area.
Towns like Caldicot and Cwmbran were expanded as a direct result of the need to house Llanwern’s workers.
The steelworks was the latest word in technology.
It was the first oxygen-blown integrated steelworks in Britain.
When it was officially opened there were more than 13,000 workers and contractors at the site.
While the current Llanwern steelworks site, far smaller than its original footprint, now no longer manufactures steel, Tata Steel’s remaining operations include a hot strip mill, two pickle lines, a cold strip mill and a hot dip galvanising line.
The works rolls 1.5 million tonnes of steel coil a year for automotive, construction and general engineering applications.
Newport West MP Paul Flynn was working there when the Spencer Works opened.
He said: “There was great excitement when the place opened.
“I can recall the great lines in the Argus and there was a feeling jobs were secure forever, and it did for a long time provide good, secure jobs to tens of thousands of people in the area.
“I don’t think anyone foresaw that it would have such a short life.
“I started working there in 1962, as a technician, so I was there from the very beginning.
“I have some very happy memories of my time there. When you work closely together due to shifts, it often seemed as if you sawmore of your co-workers than you did your own family.”
Former worker Thomas John Lewis, 70, said: “I was involved in the construction of the steelworks, and then stayed on in a maintenance role. I worked on the blast furnaces.
“When I started there was nothing there bar bogs, and we built it all.
“There was no accommodation when we got there, so me and a couple of other boys lived in a caravan on Pye Corner. I worked there for ten years, and only left to work on building the Severn Bridge.”
Alan May, 78, from New Inn, said: “I was there for quite some time, from1962 to 1994. I worked on quality control in the lab. I remember when the Queen visited I was working a shift. The job was shift work, so it could be hard.”
Sarah Cousins, 84, her husband, Lewis, and their small children moved to Wales from Lanarkshire in Scotland so her husband could work at the steelworks.
She said: “My husband was appointed foreman in the plant and we moved to Llanwern Village and lived there until my husband’s death in 1997.
“We had twin boys and a daughter when we moved, and it was very difficult.
It was my first time out of Scotland.
“When the children started in Langstone School, I thought I would see if I could get a job in the steelworks. I ended up working in personnel for 20 years. We both retired in 1980. I enjoyed every minute of working there, we both did.”
Alan Robins, 86, from Cwmbran, said: “I worked on the installation of the strip mill. The first hot slab went through in September 1962.” Alfred Bown, 69, from Pontnewydd, worked at the steelworks for two years: “There was a real sense of comradeship at the steelworks. I thought I had a job for life when I saw the third blast furnace go up.”
Karl Earnshaw’s dad, Jack, worked in the steel industry for almost 40 years as a steeplejack. He said: “Dad worked as a steel erector. He loved climbing.
Sometimes, after a night out we would find him sitting on a lamppost outside the house with a bottle of cider.
“People have told me he was one of the best steeplejacks in the country. He moved from Rochdale for the job and met my mother when he was staying in Abersychan. They settled down and had 11 kids. He loved the job.”
Tom Edmunds, 74, from Risca, worked at the steelworks from 1962 until his retirement in 1994: “ I was part of the works protection, which dealt with safety and security. When the Queen visited, she came by rail, and all the local children stood there waving flags. We had to cover parts of the works to ensure her safety.”
Joanne Marsh’s father, David Parrish, helped design the steelworks and worked as a chief engineer from 1960 to 1980. She said: “My father commissioned a miniature scale of the works, which was in Cardiff Museum for many years. My dad missed seeing the Queen as he was too busy making sure everything went smoothly!”
The story of Llanwern steelworks on film
The following are from a film made in the mid-60s telling the story of why Newport was the site chosen for the steelworks. It includes fascinating footgae of old Llanwern, the opening and building of the works and Newport scenes from the 60s.
‘Union bigots and weak managers’
EXCERPT from Newport West MP Paul Flynn’s book, The Unusual Suspect: “In the early 1960s Llanwern enjoyed great publicity as a model, newly-minted works with staff that were the elite of British steelworkers.
“The dream faded fast. In the bleak, self-destructive spirit of the early 1960s the simple-minded union bigots ruled.
"Management was weak. “New equipment saw production records broken.
“But the works were plagued by disputes, strikes and an endemic atmosphere of bloody-minded lethargy.”
What the Argus said at the time
South Wales Argus , 1962 “All of Newport has felt the impact of full employment and freer spending – a process that is reflected in the changing face of the town’s shopping centre.
“The Queen, radiant and smiling after her morning visit to Newport, this afternoon pressed the button in the slabbing mill of the £150m Spencer Steelworks to mark the official opening.
“During a speech at the luncheon, the Queen referred to the important contribution the works will make to the country’s prosperity, and said they were ‘a venture which implies great faith in the future’.”
Renewal will see 4,000 new homes on site
● Steel-making at the site ceased in 2001 with the loss of 1,300 jobs, and the ‘heavy end’ of the works was demolished in 2004.
● A £115m renewal project called Glan Llyn, led by St Modwen Properties PLC, is currently transforming the former steel-producing part of the Llanwern steelworks site. Started in 2004, full completion is anticipated by 2026-8.
The site will feature 4,000 new homes, a 1.5 million sq ft business park, 37 acres of play and sports space, two primary schools, and 23 acres of parkland.
● The first resident moved in at the start of April 2012 and 30 houses have been sold so far.
● Rob Dangerfield, spokesman for Tata Steel said: “Llanwern Steelworks remains a very important part of our hub. Llanwern does not have its own heavy end any more, but nevertheless the rolling mill capacity is very important.
“The resurgence of the automotive industry in Britain, particularly from Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover, is very important to the line.
“Though it has been reduced, the Llanwern steelworks remains a very important part of our structure.”