We get nostalgic – protective even – of landmarks. For me as an observer, this is an interesting piece of engineering and industry, but for many locals, it represented something, as did its removal from the landscape.
I’ve been a member of a Teeside steelworks Facebook group for a few years and it’s open to anyone, not just steelworkers. I’ve been amazed at the depth of feeling there for the industry and the steelworks. Many memories and personal pictures have been shared, and I know from not just working for a large industrial employer myself, but also the number of comments on my View From The North website, the close bond shared by communities in industrial towns. Few jobs for life exist anymore, but large industrial concerns still exist where people start as apprentices and retire 40+ years later having worked their entire life at the same place. Some will spend their entire life on the shop floor, a few will become managers or even directors. Many will hate it or at best tolerate it, but most will be grateful if the opportunity and stability it affords. In an age of zero hour contracts, minimum wage unskilled work, there’s a lot to be said for workplaces that train people up and pay them if not well then reasonably.
I’m under no illusions that in 2022, this place was an anachronism. Dirty, polluting and probably not the image any government – local or national – is after. Sure, Redcar was a relatively modern plant as these things go, but that counts for little if it’s not making money for the owners or projecting the right image. Generations of local history? That can be read about on Wikipedia. Thousands of jobs lost? They’ll get new jobs. Well, let’s see if the new industries promised by the local mayor come to fruition – it may go someway to reducing the feeling of loss felt locally.
I’ve spent my working life in engineering and manufacturing – and will hopefully spend the next 15-20 years until I retire, but I can’t take that for granted – as well as living and working in industrial towns all my life, I’ve survived numerous redundancies (so far) and had a damn good look at how British industry has declined. Two of my former employers from earlier in my career – each employing over 400 people – have closed down. Most of the places I’ve photographed over the last 15 years have been demolished now. I’ve been an eyewitness to the decline of the industrial north in my lifetime, literally having a ringside seat.
But the demise of heavy industry and other traditional industries does not mean that we don’t manufacture anything in Britain anymore. Far from it. But the nature and scale of manufacturing has changed; there are far fewer places employing 500+ people on sites covering dozens of acres, and far more smaller places with more automation. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up for debate – but not here, I’ll leave that to those who have their own, different, agendas.
But that’s me speaking with my ‘ day job’ hat on. As a photographer, I find that my day job does inform my perspective, and both roles have taken me to factories large and small in Britain and abroad. From a visual perspective, I’ve come to realise that in an age where industry is smaller scale and hidden away in generic sheds that could be a DIY store, an Amazon warehouse or a machine shop, to see something so outwardly, overtly industrial, and on a colossal scale, was like a step back into history. Unfortunately, it is now history itself.