I wanted to take a break from my usual content to talk about a renowned Teesside institution: steelmaking. Today (02/08/2021) is a bittersweet day, because it was the start of demolition works on the now-defunct Redcar Blast Furnace (RBF) and its surrounding buildings to make space for new industrial ventures.
The blast furnace was a part of the Redcar Steelworks in Teesside, and made molten iron from ore for use in the steelmaking process; this iron was sent via rail to the Basic Oxygen Steelmaking (BOS) plant, where it was mixed with scrap to make liquid steel; this steel was sent via crane to the Continuous Casting (Concast) plant, where it was formed and cooled.
The RBF was built near the Redcar Bulk Terminal (RBT) at the mouth of the River Tees, and was opened in 1979 – it was the second largest blast furnace in Europe, and the only one remaining in Teesside even at this point. It closed in 2015 due to financial pressure, alongside the majority of the steelworks, including the Redcar coke ovens, South Bank coke ovens, and the BOS plant at Lackenby.
The RBF was owned by British Steel between 1979 and 1999, when the company was merged with the Corus Group (which became Tata Steel Europe in 2007); the site was primarily mothballed in 2009 due to financial difficulties.
The plant was then bought by the Thai-owned Sahaviriya Steel Industries (SSI) in 2011, and re-opened in 2012; in late 2015 production was halted due to falling steel prices, and the plant was mothballed again shortly after, forcing SSI UK into liquidation.
The steelworks is important to so many people in Teesside, not only because it has been a part of the local landscape for so long, but because it has influenced so many lives – generations of Teessiders have worked as a part of the steel industry, some for short periods (like myself), some for their whole lives, and everywhere in-between.
It’s important to me, personally, as it made me the person I am today. I worked there for several months in 2015, on a summer placement during my undergraduate degree – I had a fantastic (if very dirty) time, met lots of great people, and learnt lots of interesting things. The experience led me into a career in heavy industry, which I probably wouldn’t have considered otherwise, and gave me a lot of memories that I won’t soon forget. The steelworks also gave me an excuse to ask out my crush, who also happened to be working on site at the time, and we’ve been together for almost six years now.
My placement ended just a week before the plant was shut down, on the 11th September 2015, so I was there until pretty much the end. The closure came as quite a surprise to most of the workforce, and the announcement was rather abrupt – there were signs that things were heading this way, as the previous months’ pay had came later than usual, and there were lots of rumours circling around.
I also recall that we had been sent up to the top of the furnace to inspect the water-spraying system that was used to cool the “burden” (the furnace contents) when the furnace needed to be shut down. Tensions were obviously running very high at this point, given that there was only one reason why these systems would need to be checked.
On what would turn out to be the last day of production, we had all been told to down tools, and were sat around the office waiting for instructions. The plant had run out of materials needed to keep the furnace running – there was an ore carrier circling the bay, and management were frantically trying to make payments for its payload. At this point, SSI UK was basically bankrupt and had already pulled every last loan and favour that it could muster – as such, the ore carrier never docked, and the furnace had to be taken offline.
I was also present at the “Save Our Steel” rally on the weekend of the blow-down, when there was still a chance for the furnace to be re-ignited as it hadn’t yet grown cold. However, due to political and financial reasons, this would never happen.
I thought it might be nice to pay tribute to the steelmaking plant by sharing some of the pictures that I took during my time there – I hope you enjoy them.
The closure, demolition, and planned site developments have attracted a lot of media attention, particularly from local newspapers such as the Teesside Gazette.