Christ Church, Consett
|North West Durham|
Consett is a town in the northwest of County Durham, some fourteen miles southwest of Newcastle upon Tyne. It is a sizable town, of 27,394 folk recorded in the 2001 census, and one which has risen and fallen and risen again with the fortunes of its industries.
Consett sits high on the edge of the Pennines. In 1841, it was a village community of only 145, but it was about to become a boom town: below the ground was coking coal and blackband iron ore, and nearby was limestone. These were the three ingredients needed for blast furnaces to produce iron and steel.
The town is perched on the steep eastern bank of the River Derwent and owes its origins to industrial development arising from lead mining in the area, together with the development of the steel industry in the Derwent Valley, which is said to have been initiated by immigrant German cutlers and sword-makers from Solingen, who settled in the village of Shotley Bridge during the seventeenth century.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Derwent Valley was the cradle of the British steel industry, helped by the easy availability of coal from the towns on the Tyne and the import of high quality iron ore from Sweden through the port of Newcastle upon Tyne. However, following the invention of the Bessemer process in the 19th century, steel could be made from British iron ore (which was otherwise too heavily contaminated by phosphorus) and the Derwent Valley's geographical advantage was lost, allowing Sheffield to become the leading centre of the British steel industry.
The Consett Iron Company was established in 1864, a successor to the original Derwent Iron Company of 1840, when the first blast furnaces were introduced. Over the next 100 years, Consett became one of the world's most prominent steel-making towns, and the name Consett became known for iron and steel, making the steel for Blackpool Tower and Britain's most famous nuclear submarines.
Steel dominated Consett's economy for 140 years. The steelworks was visually spectacular, too, and the town was renowned for images of its tall cooling towers and other large plant looming over rows of terraced houses. The townspeople could hear the ghostly sound of the works through the night. During the iron and steel era a pall of 'red dust' hung over the town; airborne iron oxide from the steel-making plant. At its peak in the 1960s, the Consett steel works employed 6,000 workers, and it was nationalised to become part of the large British Steel Corporation. Although there was intense competition in the 1970s from both British competitors and from abroad, Consett steelworks remained relatively successful and was making a profit in the year that it closed. As the rolling mills were closed in the 1970s, despite local opposition, there were rumours and heated discussions over the future of the plant as a whole.
Consett steelworks had always avoided closure, even in difficult economic times, but in 1980, state subsidies having ended, it was closed with the loss of 3,700 jobs plus many more from the 'knock-on' effect in ancillary industries. It was a devastating blow to the town. The unemployment rate in Consett became double the national average. A deputation of steelworkers lobbied the government in London, but to no avail: the taxpayers' wallet was closed.
The social impact of the closure was quite devastating and it was often characterised by many of the local people at the time as "The Murder of a Town". After closure of the steel works the town became one of the worst unemployment blackspots in Britain. The unemployment figure reached 36 percent in 1981. The demolition of the works was very thorough, and even the most imposing and architecturally important building in the town, the Company Offices, was not left untouched. To this day there is no permanent museum to the history of the steelworks apart from some pots that were used to transport molten pig iron from the blast furnaces to the steel plant. The last steel ingot from the Consett ironworks was made into a cross and is kept at St Mary's RC Church, Blackhill.
Regeneration in the 1990s, through Project Genesis, went only some way to revive Consett. Unemployment came down to the national average, partly due to outward migration.
Alongside the public sector, small and medium-sized businesses now provide some jobs in the area. Phileas Fogg Company (County Durham), with its factory on the town's Number One Industrial Estate, were mildly famous for a few years from 1988 for their snack food "Made in Medomsley Road, Consett" television adverts. The Phileas Fogg Company is now owned by KP Snacks as part of United Biscuits. The Explorer Group, based in Consett, is the United Kingdom's second largest manufacturer of caravans.
Since 2000, several new housing developments have taken place on the former steelworks site and surrounding areas. Derwentside College, formerly sited at Park Road, moved to a new campus at Berry Edge in September 2002 and national retailers have moved into Hermiston Retail Park.
Consett today is now mainly a commuter town, providing low-cost living for people working elsewhere in the region.
Culture and leisure
The Empire Theatre in Consett, one of County Durham's oldest theatres. Recently refurbished, the theatre stages variety acts, plays and a Christmas pantomime. The theatre also screens blockbuster films at times when there are no live performances.
Several pubs have at least taken names that reflect the town's steel-making past - the Works, the Company, and the Company Row. From its bygone days of a steeltown, with a huge reliance on rail, next to where the main railway station used to be is a club named the Station Club, now opposite a health centre. With the steelworks gone, visitors and inhabitants are beginning to realise the beauty of the picturesque views over the Derwent Valley, and Consett is becoming a popular place to live for commuters from Durham and the towns by the Tyne looking for a taste of the country.
- Football: Consett AFC
Crookhall, off Second Avenue in Consett, is a public playing field which has been enrolled as a Queen Elizabeth II Field.
Salvation Army Band
Consett was the first town in the world to have a Salvation Army Corps Band. The band was formed in December 1879 and went out on the streets playing at Christmas. The original band consisted of just four players, bandmaster Edward Lennox and bandsmen George Storey, James Simpson and Robert Greenwood.
- Local history of Consett and surrounding areas
- Detailed information on iron / steel works
- Consett AFC
- Steel Towns: From Boom to Bust, BBC Nation on Film
- Kearney, T. (1990) A Social History of Consett 1840-1990, DCA
- Eyles, J (1980) The Diary of a Closure: BSC Consett Works December 1979 - December 1980
- Salvation Army Band. Retrieved on 28 January 2013.