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“The City of Steel”: Port Talbot’s Steel Industry, from ‘Treasure Island’ to Crisis

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On 29 March, Tata Steel, Britain’s largest steelmaker, announced their decision to sell their entire British operations. For the nation’s industrial economy and political class, the firm’s shock decision precipitated a crisis, but nowhere were its effects more painfully felt than in Britain’s steeltowns, especially Port Talbot.

Since the Second World War Port Talbot has been a town synonymous with a single commodity, steel. In light of recent events, the national media have been quick to apportion political blame and postulate potential economic solutions. Such cold analysis, however, often fails to communicate the symbiotic relationship between industry and place. In towns, like Port Talbot, the relationship between the steel industry and the local community are not only economic but symbolic and historically constructed.

In the 1950s, the Steel Company of Wales unveiled a new advertising campaign in the national press. Bearing an image of their new flagship steelworks at Port Talbot, the advert’s caption read, ‘The City of Steel’. It went on, ‘Day and night, this city is at work. It’s one concern is simple: to make steel.’

‘The City of Steel’ would prove to be an endearing epithet for a town whose fortunes became entwined with its steel industry. Steel has been made in Port Talbot since the beginning of the twentieth century but it was not until after the Second World War that the town rose to national prominence as the nation’s leading steel centre.

The construction of Port Talbot’s Abbey Steelworks commenced in 1947 and, upon its official unveiling in 1951, it was claimed that, ‘there has been no single project of this size in the British isles since the great days of the railway age.’ As Europe’s largest and most modern steelworks, the impact of the plant on its locality was truly transformative. The local newspaper, without any exaggeration, described the opening of the Works as ‘the most important day in Port Talbot’s history’.

The effect of the new steelworks on the town itself was to transform Port Talbot into a largely mono-industrial economy. Prior to the Second World War, steel had been a significant employer but Port Talbot had also sustained a varied industrial base. The coal and tinplate industries, for example, remained important to the locality’s economic life.

As these traditional industries contracted after the Second World, the steel industry experienced an inverse expansion. In 1948, the steel industry in Port Talbot directly employed just over 4,000 workers. By 1961, this figure had risen to over 18,000. ‘Steel’, as historian Chris Williams commented, was ‘until the 1970s the greatest single success story of the post-war Welsh economy’.

During a period where the demand for steel regularly outstripped supply (in direct contrast to the present situation), few people were moved to consider the potential consequences of a town whose fortunes were so dependent on a single industry. Due to a prevailing national labour shortage, the plant’s proprietors were forced to make generous concessions to their workers. Port Talbot’s steelworkers became amongst the best paid manual workers in Britain and had access to employee leisure and welfare facilities that ranked amongst the finest in Wales.

The Abbey Works thus came to be elevated as a symbol of the town’s post-war growth and renewed prosperity, something which was recognised in the steelworks’ new nickname, ‘Treasure Island’. Port Talbot was dubbed a ‘boom town’ as workers from throughout South Wales and beyond moved to the area in search of the plentiful and well paid jobs available at the plant. Between 1939 and 1961, the town’s population increased by 10,000.

Developments in the local steel industry were mirrored in Port Talbot’s own expansion. To accommodate the large influx of workers to man the new plant, the local council embarked upon the most ambitious program of house building in the town’s history. At the behest of the Steel Company of Wales, who made frequent overtures to the local council, 1,000 homes were erected in the borough between 1945 and 1951.

Most of these new houses were built on Sandfields Estate, an archetypal post-war housing development that grew to be the second largest estate in Wales. At the end of the Second World War, the area was a barren expanse of sparse sand dunes but, by 1960, almost 4,000 steelworks employees called the new estate home. By now Port Talbot’s largest resident area, the estate was a symbol of the way in which the steel industry was transforming the town.

Since the Second World War, then, Port Talbot has been a community built on steel (or as one sociologist described it, a town ‘built for steel and not for people’). For many living in this area, steel has not only provided a wage packet but a sense of collective identity and pride. The steelworks is Port Talbot’s most recognisable symbol and has, despite fluctuating economic conditions, given the town a sense of common purpose.

The significance of industry as a source of collective and civic identity has often been lost in much of the recent speculation over the plant’s closure. Present day visitors to Merthyr Tydfil, the seat of the Welsh iron and steel industry in the nineteenth century, are greeted by the sign, ‘Welcome to Merthyr Tydfil – Iron Heritage Town’. Without strong and decisive action, Port Talbot too is now at risk of becoming a ‘heritage town’: a town that defines itself by its industrial past, rather than its present and possible future. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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