There were 10,000 lights shining in the Theatre of Dreams, an SOS signal to the government to Save Our Steel. Middlesbrough fans used the stage to show their solidarity for the 2,200 workers losing their jobs in the Teesside area after the Redcar steel works announced it would close.
It’s not just Middlesbrough FC who are supporting the ailing steel industry in their towns. Scunthorpe United are holding a Save Our Steel day when they play Southend United in the FA Cup first round. This follows the announcement that 1,200 jobs will be cut at the Scunthorpe and Lanarkshire works.
There’s a symbiosis between steel towns and their football clubs. The sports teams were filled with workers from these plants from the days they were formed and cheered on by their colleagues in the stands.
Wednesday was half day closing at the steel works in Sheffield. This is how Sheffield Wednesday got their name because this was the only day of the week where workers had leisure time. However it’s another team in Sheffield that bears the scars of a steel industry that is integral to its community.
Stocksbridge is ten miles outside Sheffield centre but still within the city boundary. It’s not just the distance from Sheffield city centre that makes it feel isolated it’s an attitude around the area. There’s a feeling that it wants to be independent, free of the shackles of council and corporate interference.
Since the bypass was built in 1988, there’s no reason to pass through Stocksbridge. It’s a destination at the end of the line. There is a pub on the main high street just in front of the steel works called The Friendship. I came across a review on Yelp of it a few years ago.
“The Friendship is not really a pub I'd recommend anyone to go in that's basically looking for a quiet pint or enjoyable night out. On the few occasions I've been in I've found it extremely hostile, one always gets the feeling a fight is going to brake [sic] out. 'Locals' don't really welcome 'new' people in there and don't seem to like them playing pool in peace.”
The irony of the pub’s name is not lost on the locals but then to an outsider Stocksbridge can come across as prickly and unwelcoming. Once you’ve opened the saloon doors you’d better be ready for the music to stop playing.
Even after seven years of living in the Stocksbridge area I was always seen as a ‘townie.’ An off-comer brought up all of five miles away. It’s not until you break through the deep suspicious nature of the natives that you find a close-knit community that takes care of each other and the reasons behind their reticence to seem welcoming.
For a start they don’t like Stocksbridge being called Clanktown. It borders the Peak District and perches on the hillside looking down into the valley where the focal point of the township resides, the vast steel works. The nickname derives from the rhythmic ‘clank’ of the machinery in the steel processing works, a hypnotic sound of metal on metal.
In the winter months Stocksbridge can become physically cut off. In the snowdrifts of 2013 I was trapped in my cottage for three days with dwindling supplies because the roads were cut off and the shops couldn’t receive deliveries. There was a point where I considered whether mango chutney and Cheerios would be a good combination but thankfully the main Manchester Road thawed enough to make the journey into relative civilisation.
A few years ago I moved to London but I have returned recently to prepare the cottage I bought after my divorce, to sell. It has been chance to take what feels like a last look at the area that made me independent again and hardier to outside influences.
Up the road from my house is the home of Stocksbridge Park Steels. One Saturday as I drove into Deepcar (Deepkuh if you’re pronouncing it properly) I saw that the Park Steels were playing that day. The forthcoming fixture list is a piece of MDF nailed to a tree at the crossroads. It’s a bit low tech but it gets the attention of the stationary cars parked at traffic lights.
The Steels ground, the Look Local Stadium is breath taking. Not necessarily the facilities but the altitude and view. High up on Bracken Moor the main stand has the perfect view to watch the weather go by. With a vista of working farms on the other side of the valley, it distracts from the football. You can’t help but admire its beauty. Some may call it bleak but to me it shows off Stocksbridge to its best. It’s character-building experience.
Around the ground it’s not difficult to tell how the club is supported. Advertising boards surround the ground for local steel production companies, forges and specialists in steel manipulation. Tata steel, Stocksbridge’s main employer, have a small advert next to the far goal. Smaller than an advert for the local Alpha course. God clearly needs more marketing in this area than the Indian steel magnates.
The Park Steels were formed in 1986. This was a pivotal year for Stocksbridge. The club were formed after a merger between Stocksbridge Works FC and Oxley Park Steels FC. Stocksbridge Works FC was just as described, a team formed from the British Steel works at the heart of the community. As the football club was being liquidated and merged so too was the steel works. Between 1986 and 1988 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government denationalised British Steel and the Stocksbridge works moved into private hands for the first time since 1967.
There has been a steel works on this site since 1842 when Samuel Fox set up his wire manufacturing business. Sammy Fox’s patented designs for crinoline hoops but it was for an innovation in umbrellas that catapulted Stocksbridge into the global limelight. The internal ribs of an umbrella were traditionally made with whalebone until Fox invented the steel wire Paragon frame. Fox revolutionised the umbrella making business.
At its peak in the late 1950’s the works employed 8,200 people. By the time it was denationalised in 1986 it employed less than half with only 3,200 remaining. A few weeks prior to me returning home Tata had announced that 700 jobs would be shed at Stocksbridge and also at its works in Rotherham.
After watching Stocksbridge Park Steels put in a woeful performance against Tividale, I returned to my parents only to find Channel 4’s Paul Mason ranting about the impending crisis in the steel industry. Tata steel had announced surreptitiously that 1,200 jobs were likely to go from the Scunthorpe, Clydebank and Motherwell steelworks. The announcement came during a summit being held in Rotherham by the government to prove how invested they are in the saving the British steel industry.
Stocksbridge make the highest quality steel and what are regarded to be the best steel rails in the world. Whilst Chinese companies are allowed to dump low quality, low cost steel in this country the British industry doesn’t stand a chance. Especially when our own chancellor is glad handing Chinese companies to bid for work on HS2 to create rail links to the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’. A powerhouse that will have to say ‘Ta-Ta’ to even more of its industry and heritage if it doesn’t even consider using works like Stocksbridge to build the lines.
You can see why there’s a suspicious nature about the locals. Even as a townie I’m angry for Stocksbridge. It’s a community that’s being told constantly it’s not worth it. The years of stripping back the jobs at the heart of this town, the promises of new retail parks and housing estates that never materialise. Even the leisure centre was first on the council’s list to be disposed of when the budgetary cuts came in.
It’s here that you see the determination of the people of Stocksbridge. The leisure centre is now run by a community led scheme. It may sound like a success story of David Cameron’s ill-fated Big Society but this was a necessity not a vanity project.
During the 2015 election there were a frightening number of UKIP banners around the Stocksbridge area. This shows that some people within this community, despite being a majority Labour constituency, are looking to isolate themselves not just from the local council but also from an entire continent. Better to be separate and solitary than to keep enduring the indignity of having the last few vestiges of dignity and culture it has left taken away from them. Labour may have doubled their majority in the constituency due to the demise of the Liberal Democrats but UKIP registered over 10,000 votes, up 18.8% since the 2010 General Election.
Stocksbridge is seemingly awash with the self-employed. Central heating engineers, plumbers, electricians and gardeners, you can’t go a few yards without a white van in a drive. There is certainly an air of if no one will help us maintain work in our area then we’ll do it for ourselves. A sentiment I’m sure a Conservative government would applaud and believe it has done its job.
As I sat in the main stand watching the Park Steels do a much needed warm-up and wondering which wall it was that Jamie Vardy had to jump over after a game because he needed to meet his tag curfew, Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi played across the ground. Whilst environmentally Joni Mitchell wouldn’t approve of vast steel works in the green, green valley, the lyrics resonate with the British steel industry and to Stocksbridge.
“Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
'Till it's gone.”
Now that the time has come for me to leave the Stocksbridge area I really am grateful for the time I spent there. The isolation gave me time to think after my divorce and the locals took in this townie as one of their own. One day when I returned home from work, after high winds had blown over the gate to my garden and pulled the dry stone wall with it, my neighbours had rebuilt the wall for me. No fuss, no charge and no bother. Stocksbridge looks after its own, maybe its time the government and council start to look after them.
Laura is @YICETOR.