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Friday, 12 September 2014

1980 Keep the Candle Burning (Part one)

Celebrations for the 30th anniversary of Corby as a New Town were muted with the demise of the steel industry.  This despite Corby Development Corporation handing power over to the Commission for the New Towns who over the next 12 years vowed to build new industrial estates and over 200 factory units. 
What was once a shining light in post war industrial Britain, a beacon of vitality and ambition, where men worked hard and played hard - crumbled with the closure and demolition of the vast iron and steelworks. Doom and despair had hung over the town like a heavy cloud since the last rites were administered by the government in November 1979. Corby was on Death Row, with no hope of a reprieve. A premature death for a community brought up with an expectancy of eternal employment and a high standard of living, which in the immediate post war years, seemed inconceivable. 
Back then, it was suggested; 'there was enough iron ore around here to last a 100 years!' Maybe there was, the only trouble was, it became too costly to excavate. When successive governments decided it was cheaper to import the core materials of ore and coal, the writing was on the wall.
Industrial Britain was at the crossroads, and about to take a turn for the worse. The traditional industries of steel, coal and shipbuilding were coming to the end of the line. Cars, shoes and textile industries would go the same way. By the time of the nineties, Britain would become the biggest warehouse in the world. Manufacturing little of consequence.

Britain had survived the austerity and transitional period of the fifties, enjoyed the freedom and wealth of the sixties, ploughed through the troublesome seventies. As we moved into the eighties, the cycle turned full circle, with Leslie Teeman, Chairman of the Confederation of British Industries East Midlands Regional Council warning; 'Britain faces a difficult and daunting year. There must be moderation in wage claims and an increase in productivity to improve the financial situation in the country. With high interest rates and a continuing world depression we can't afford to relax our struggle in the fight against inflation if we are to hold our position as a trading nation.' 
On January 2nd steel workers staged their first national strike for more than fifty years. Talks between the unions and management had broken down in December when the pay offer on the table was 2%. Management upped its offer to 6%, and proposed an additional 10% based on local productivity deals. The Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, the biggest steel union with 90,000 members among the 150,000 staff employed by British Steel, demanded a 20% pay rise. BSC plants across the country were shut down; the strike was backed by the National Union of Blast Furnacemen, which had almost 13,000 members working for British Steel. ISTC leader, Bill Sirs, said: "We are being looked upon as the worst producing steel nation in Europe, and those facts are not strictly correct at all. The steel industry had improved productivity by 8% last year and 7% the year before and members are angered at having their pay rises linked to fresh productivity deals." 
As the strike gathered momentum, action group ROSAC wound down its operation at a meeting held in the Labour Club. A solemn George McCart, declared; “Appertaining to the current situation, whether we like it or not, we have lost the battle," before adding a classic line; "certain unfounded allegations have been made against us, it is imperative we find the alligators amongst us!"

Support for the steel strike from the doomed Corby Works, due to close in March was tepid. Many couldn't understand the logic in going on strike for a pay rise when they knew they were going to be out of a job in a matter of weeks. Despite the reluctance, flying pickets were organised to stop the movement of all steel in the area at transport depots, railway stations and docks. The blockade of east coast ports at Boston and Kings Lynn were targeted. 
Meanwhile, British Leyland boss Sir Michael Edwards was slamming Corby motorists for buying foreign cars in an article in The Times. In a plea to 'Buy British', he claimed jobs were lost every day in Britain when a foreign car is bought. 'Thousands of BSC jobs are axed at Corby, yet half the cars driven in the town are foreign'. The rant received a mixed response. Datsun owner and country & western star Ray Brett was unrepentant. "Foreign cars are more reliable and economical. I disagree with his comments. It’s nothing to do with steelworkers at BSC."
Geoff Peart of Clarke Road had a different view; "I agree with Edwards, if people did buy British our industries wouldn't be in the mess they are in now."
As the strike entered its tenth day, 200 steelworkers left Corby by coach and cars, 'to throw a network of barricades around vital supplies,' with a warning from Corby Works director Harry Ford that 'the steel strike could hit redundancy payments in Corby.' The statement was issued following rumours which had made workers doubtful about joining the strike. ISTC's John Cowling countered, "The statement is absolute rubbish. It is an absolute disgrace that such a statement was made. All men of Corby Works will get their severance pay. Its' an attempt by Ford to break the strike but it has been totally unsuccessful."
Help for striking steelworkers feeling the pinch and those facing the axe came from all quarters. The manager of Station Road Garage offered a 10% discount on fuel to all steelworkers. Various community centres around the town held collections and arranged events to help families struggling on the breadline, including a weekly Frozen Food Sale at Corby Boating Lake. 24 Beefburghers for £1, 5lb of streaky bacon for £2. More bizarre was a scheme launched at the Focus Cinema by manager Martin Parry who revealed plans to screen x rated sex films at 10 o'clock in the mornings.  "Shows are aimed at Corby's unemployed" Martin explained, "This is a new venture. We thought people might get fed up sitting around at home with nothing to do. The first films are Truck Stop Women and When Girls Undress. It'll be a £1 for the entertainment." 
Well intended or not, Martin's initiative soon attracted the wrath of Corby housewives. Mrs Allen of Chesil Walk; 'Men of Corby don't need or are inclined to patronise morning sex films. Men of this town have other hobbies. I can't believe they want this exotic entertainment.' Mrs Rae of Pages Walk; 'Alex can get wired into the garden if he's got nothin' to do! Never mind goin' to watch filth!' 
Corby stores were also suffering from the effects of the strike. 'Some will have to close if strike goes on for much longer', Corby Chamber of Commerce warned. "Things are really bad" said Jimmy Reid, manager of Franklins Furniture Store on Rockingham Road, "I used to sell about six suites a week but now its' down to one."
Morale was on the wane but given a boost when Scottish mineworker’s leader Mick McGahey pledged 'financial support of his members to steelworkers during a 'Back the steelmen' speech at Tresham College. McGahey, a life long Communist Party member, urged steelworkers; "support Labour and the trade union movement and stand together to fight for the future of your town. This is not a steel crisis. It is a crisis for every worker in British industry,"
Defending their right to picket, Denis McBlain, a machine operator in the Plug Mill spoke out at accusations of their heavy handed tactics. "Strikers are always cast as the villains, trouble makers, accused of idleness. BSC are no exception to the accusations. People shouldn't get the idea we enjoy the strike. Sure we have a laugh on the picket line. We are all in the same boat and it draws you closer together. The camaraderie is one of the best things to come out of being in a situation like this. But we want to go back to work as soon as possible.'
 Willie McCowatt, a mill operator in the EWSR tells of how he spent 18 hours on the picket line in Sheffield and all he received was a paltry £2.50p. "That was the last time. I remember Mick Skelton telling us to stand in the middle of the road to force Lorries to stop. So we did as Mick said, and then this big articulated lorry comes along, and made it clear he had no intention of stopping. We had to dive out of the way! Bollocks to this I thought."
Dennis Taylor, Fitter in the EWSR; "During the strike both myself and my dad were out on picket duty. At that time I had a van and I used to travel to picket sites taking a van full of pickets with me. While doing picket duty I would stop at a food manufacturing companies we would come across and would ask to see a manager, explaining who I was and asking them if they would contribute products or offer it at a lower price. If we were successful the food went towards the food parcels which were given to strikers and their families. I don't recall any of the companies who were approached refusing to help with donations of food. I remember I super glued the locks on the admin building at the Works and nobody was able to gain access for hours, causing disruption to those workers who ignored the picket. The worst hit were those families who had all the adults in the household out on strike. I would always double the food parcels I delivered to those households. The steelworks closure affected tens of thousands of people and I believe there are people today who have never recovered from it. Their fellow workers were their families, so socialising both in and out of work were the same people. Never again will this country see the rise and fall of integrated iron and steelworks all within the span of 50 years."

As the strike entered its eighth week, more and more families were plunged into financial hardship, sparking rumours that support seemed to be crumbling as some men were thinking about going back to work. John Cowling's, Corby's representative along with Peter Floody on the ISTC National executive, response was to demand £2 million from steel union’s funds to pay the steelworkers on strike.  
The reality of the situation kicked in, if it hadn't already, when the Glebe Coke Ovens closed on February 27th. 1500 redundancy notices went out.
Come the end of March, the steelworkers were offered another increase by BSC of 1% to take it to 15.5% which was enough for Bill Sirs, ISTC Chairman, to urge the men to go back to work. Mick Skelton was indignant; "I'm amazed at the offer of just another 1%. I personally haven't been out on strike all this time for another 1%." After fourteen weeks of strife, the steel strike was at an end, for Corby's steelworkers it was all over. With hindsight, many like Tom McConnachie, later to become Mayor of Corby, regretted the strike and called it; "all a waste of time, the plant was going to close anyway. There were complaints afterwards that people had lost money on their pensions." Train driver Edwin Andrews; "We had no money coming in for three months and we were all concerned about what we were going to do after the closure. I was broken hearted when it did close as I loved working there." Ex Blastfurnaceman Jimmy Kane; "People knew that regardless of what happened with the strike, they were going to be made redundant." Kelvin Glendenning, leader of Corby Council recalled; "It was very depressing because not only did the steelworks close but so did much of the surrounding subsidiary industries."  

Corby's hottest band Energy decision to 'give up the day job' just as the unemployment figures were set to rocket was a brave one, but who could blame them on taking the chance? For the four young lads, some far reaching horizons and exciting times were ahead of them, as well as their share of embarrassing moments, as guitarist Iain Wetherell admitted: " We played a venue in Peterborough and during the AC/DC number Whole Lotta Rosie, Boz our bass player jumped up in the air too much on the one spot and eventually the boards on the stage gave way, and he went straight through it! Corby Civic Centre was yet another cringe maker. Flapper (Steve Fulton) did his usual routine of jumping off the stage and running around the hall, singing and whipping up the fever. He then ran back to the stage and couldn't get back up! The Civic stage was a bit higher than most of the others. He had to sheepishly walk to the side and get back on via the stairs. Everybody took the pee out of him as you'd expect in Corby! We used to have an intro, the Thunderbirds 54321 tune, till one day we decided to change it to an air siren. Unfortunately, the first time we used it, at an air base, it caused a panic and they thought it was an air raid! A red alert! They weren't amused."
Iain; "We secured a publishing deal with Nigel Gray, who had seen us play at the Ad Lib Club, London. Nigel was the producer of the first three Police albums and Message In A Bottle, Roxanne. We demoed all our songs in the same studios the Police had used which had a big impact on me as I was even then, interested in the recording and producing side of the business. A showcase was arranged for us at the famous Marquee Club in Wardour Street, home of the British blues in the 60's. It was a great experience but it was a shithole! Three coach loads of our fans traveled down to support us. Unfortunately, none of the invited Record Companies bothered to turn up. This soured our relationship with Nigel. We were disappointed and disillusioned but later on we realised it was just typical, it wasn't particularly Nigel's fault, it's just the MUSIC BUSINESS!!"

A highlight of the summer was the appearance of punk band The Stranglers, along with a band called The Baldheads, at Corby Festival Hall on July 23rd, recalled here by Stuart Allen; "The show was part of the 'Who Wants the World' Tour, though it was advertised as a 'Benefit for Steel Workers' gig. It was 35p to get in, at a time where normally tickets were around £2 or £3. They ran out of 'proper' tickets on the night and I was given one that had Corby Swimming Pool on it!! After a couple of numbers they stopped playing as some Punks down the front were spitting at them. Corby kids thought that's what punks did but the band said they were going to quit if the spitting carried on. The show eventually got moving again and the spitting stopped, though fights broke out with a mob from Northampton. The security got heavy handed when one of them was given a 'Corby welcome'. I remember Ricky Berry getting a bloody nose in all the chaos. Afterwards the Northampton mob was chased into Woollies car park and had their faces and bus windows 're-arranged'."
Problems also occurred at Corby Stardust Centre during a Wrestling Night when local wrestler Tony Rowney was fighting Rushden's Ken Joyce. Steelworker Rowney kneed Joyce in a delicate area and was disqualified, and left the ring to a chorus of boos, pursued by angry wrestling fans, including the obligatory 'granny', who belted him over the head with her walking stick! Before she could repeat the act she was bundled away by stewards. She then complained afterwards that she had lost the rubber from the end of her stick. Arthur Pitcher was bemused by the incident; "We usually get some crowd trouble, but this is a first! In a few weeks we have Japanese wrestler Yasi Fuji here - and the last time he was here he poked a spectator in the eye. We will have to have another look at our public liability insurance policy before that event."
Kettering was gaining its share of adverse publicity also following a Radio One Roadshow at Wicksteed Park presented by DJ Peter Powell. Thousands turned out for the show which was broadcast live and nationwide, bringing the town to a standstill at one stage. It was afterwards when trouble flared up with gangs running riot, ripping fencing up and fighting each other. Thirty youths from Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough were arrested by the police. A double decker bus in Kettering Bus station was also held up by police and the occupants arrested for questioning after a chocolate machine was vandalised. 

Many felt it was just the beginning; that the danger signs were there, the whole of Corby Works would die in the 1980s. 
Patrick Foynes (Rolling Mills), who lost £1700 through the strike said; "It's alright for the tubeworkers, they've got a job to go back to. But I'm finished and that is that."
Pickets were sickened by a three fold setback. First was the announcement in the Budget that strikers' families were to have their social security entitlement slashed by £12 a week. Second was the news that BSC chiefs were to get rises of £340 a week and the third was that the Lever Inquiry would only recommend a rise for workers of 15.5%
There was strong resentment against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's 'terror tactics', complaints that the original offer of 2% wage rise was deliberate strike provocation so why they should victimise young families by cutting down on social security payments? 'It just shifts power into the hands of the bosses who can force strikes when they feel like it and make us suffer.'
BSC claimed they were saving £13 million a week in wages while the strike was on - yet were still losing £18 million a week. The ISTC estimated the strike cost BSC £500 million whereas the dispute would have been avoided for less than £50 million.
A kick in the teeth for long term workers came with the news of a loophole in redundancy payments. Men with 40 years service taking home £3000 instead of the £15,000 they were expecting. BSC claimed that men and women who reached retirement age by March 31st 1982 were excluded from lucrative severance pay packets. This only came to light when men from the Coke Ovens and Minerals collected their 'golden handshakes'. Loco driver Jack Langley couldn't believe it; "We've been led to believe we'd collect a lot more than the £2226 I received." Unions demanded action for the BSC to pay up. Corby MP Bill Homewood called for an adjournment debate in the House of Commons as support for the 600 workers grew. Any hope was dashed by Charles deVilliers; "It would cost the company many thousands of pounds." 
A temporary reprieve for the Corby Works came on April 2nd when workers agreed to go back to work to help BSC out of a crisis though 'trouble was expected' with steelworkers refusing to work with lorry drivers who had crossed the picket lines during the long strike. On April 21st the last iron was tapped from No. 4 blast furnace and the next day, the last steel was produced at the BOS plant.