The Last Days of Round Oak Steelworks
Following the extension of a warm welcome to members and a large number of visitors, Mike Perkins (himself a former Round Oak Steelworks employee) gave a brief Society member update on current local matters. Chairman Pat Martin then introduced Keith Hodgkins to a lively audience in the Lehr Theatre at the Ruskin Centre. She made the observation that in the 1930’s her late husband Bill issued letters and invoices from a firm in Bedfordshire to Round Oak and little did they know that in the future they would be living in the close vicinity of the famous works.
Keith took the stage, confessing that he was not a former employee nor an expert on the steelworks, but that he had a passion for the history of the Black Country, and his talk was largely based around photographs he and friends had taken by sneaking into the works in the last days of steel production at Round Oak.
To start the talk he displayed a copy of the Acorn magazine, the Round Oak Steelworks journal which are now a collector’s items, and also displayed some historical maps of the steelworks in the 1800’s and in 1901 when the steelworks and the Old and New Level Ironworks were very much established. The works were originally founded by Lord Ward, later the Earl of Dudley in 1857 as an outlet for pig iron made in the nearby blast furnaces. He also drew attention to Stanley Mill in Stroud which was constructed from Black Country iron (see picture right) manufactured in the new level ironworks under the charge of Benjamin Gibbons.
In 1894 the Earl of Dudley started to make steel at Round Oak, with the first cast being made in the August of that year. Keith showed a great photograph showing the classical frontage to the iron works, which was well served by railway lines, including a crossing where the original Pensnett Railway tracks were crossed over by the newer Great Western Railway (pre British Rail) tracks.
Keith accelerated through time to the 1950’s by which year of course the steelworks had expanded considerably and boasted 5 open hearth furnaces, which were ventilated by five stacks, affectionately and proudly known as the Cunarder’s in deference to the funnels on cruise ships of the day.
One of Keith’s favourite photographs showed a farmer and a young lad on a small, early, combine harvester working away in the fields with the Round Oak Steel Works in the background. The audience related to this scene as it was very clear that the cornfield being worked is now the site of a major part of the Merry Hill Shopping Centre. How the landscape has changed.
Taken from Netherton Hill in the early 1980's, this view looks towards Brierley Hill and Round Oak Steelworks. Clearly visible is Level Street and just to the left on the horizon, St Michael's Church. Today, this view is dominated by industrial units in the foreground and the Merry Hill Centre/Waterfront complex in the background.
As time passed Round Oak saw the installation of electric hearth furnaces in 1974-75, apparently the first of their kind in Great Britain for making tonnage steels with ingots of 42 tons being produced. This is very much a contrast to the 1940’s when it had been suggested that 5000 tons of coal per week were transported up the Pensnett Railway, not all of it reaching the steelworks I may add, this coal fuelling the production of 5000 tons of steel. Somewhat unknown or at least not frequently mentioned was the Brierley Hill Laboratory which pioneered the continuous casting process at Round Oak. This was a technical innovation in steelmaking which ultimately resulted in Round Oak being awarded the Queen’s Award for Industry in 1980, ironically just before it closed. An interesting piece of knowledge which came forward from the audience was the purpose of the Powder Shop at the bottom of Level Street - we were informed that this operation finely ground down iron to form the powder for Xerox photocopiers, not many people knew that! It’s amazing what you can learn at the Amblecote History Society.
Keith then went through many photographs taken in the final two weeks that the steelworks were running, many were taken at night in poor lighting conditions, and most as an uninvited ‘guest’ on the site. On one occasion they were caught by two officials and unceremoniously encouraged to leave site, but, as they say, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” and Keith then made pals with a several of the workers, notably on one of the locomotives and who were helpful in enabling the photo-shoot to continue. This friendship improved their opportunities, as they gained access to the furnace areas and even had a ride on the train pulling the slag bogey full of molten red-hot slag to the slag tip for disposal. Mike spotted on one photograph a little bell which clanged a safety warning as the locomotive made its way to and fro. Some of the photographs were actually taken at the slag heap where Keith snapped away with his shoes starting to get uncomfortably warm – “to hell with Health & Safety, you’ve got to get the picture” he exclaimed! You really need people like Keith around to capture such events for posterity and history society enjoyment.
He then spoke about the public outcry in the local and national press about the possible demise of steel-making at Round Oak, led by John Blackburn MP, but despite the protests the closure became inevitable and the last day of steel-making was on Friday 10th December 1982. Naturally Keith had the day off work to make his photographic record of the day which all in the room thoroughly enjoyed seeing.
The end of the presentation prompted much audience participation with informed debate about the detail of activities in some of the photographs - the rolling mills, the state and destiny of 14x12inch steel billets, flame-cutting to length, health & safety issues and the frequency of serious accidents and why the sparks and flames used to spectacularly illuminate the works and indeed the night sky.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the Three Furnaces Public House in Level Street which featured regularly in Keith’s presentation and was the setting for the farewell drink to the era of steel-making in Brierley Hill and indeed to the pub, which also closed a few days after Round Oak. Free beer was the order of the day, but not until after 10 o’clock! Keith’s talk was most enjoyable, informative and brought back memories for everyone in the room and he was loudly applauded for his excellent presentation before being formally thanked by Pat Martin.
The next meeting of the Amblecote History Society will take place on Wednesday 8th April at 7.30pm in The Lehr Theatre at the Ruskin Centre with John Hale talking about The Dudley War Memorial - the men, the battles and the burials from Adanac to Zouave Valley.
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