It's too late for my dad but my home town Middlesbrough is finally fighting back, RUTH SUNDERLAND returns to Teesside
AS a teenager, once I had got far enough in my Latin lessons to know what it meant, the motto of my hometown of Middlesbrough struck me as pretty ironic.
The coat of arms is a blue lion, a star and two ships, emblazoned with the word Erimus, meaning ‘we shall be’.
Back in the 1980s, it seemed to me that any hopes of prosperity lay in the past.
Ruth Sunderland makes an emotional return to Teesside — and finds hope after the demise of steel
Tens of thousands of people were losing their jobs in the steel and chemical works that provided most of the employment in the area – and my late father, Alan, was one of them.
For young people growing up on Teesside, the future looked utterly bleak.
Like many of my contemporaries, I left the area as soon as I could in search of better prospects down south.
I felt as though the spectre of the 1980s had returned last year when the SSI steelworks at nearby Redcar were closed, with the loss of around 3,000 jobs at the plant and its suppliers.
A photograph of a young girl being carried on her father’s shoulders at a Save our Steel demonstration brought memories of my dad flooding back. At my desk in London, I was reduced to choking down tears, three decades on.
So I went back to Teesside. I wanted to know whether, thirty years later, people have managed to create genuinely viable alternatives to the old heavy industries – or is it as bad as ever?
The economics, although they are important, were not the only thing that interested me. For behind the unemployment statistics are thousands of human stories.
Big family: The work was tough and the hours were long, but there was camaraderie and decent enough pay to buy a modest house and bring up a young family
That is something I know only too well. My father started work as a fifteen year old apprentice in Head Wrightson, one of the region’s most famous ironworks, which operated from a vast site in Thornaby on the banks of the Tees.
The work was tough and the hours were long, but there was camaraderie and decent enough pay to buy a modest house and bring up a young family.
For 40 years, Head Wrightson was his life – until, when he was in his mid-50s, the axe fell.
The company was just one of the casualties of the industrial downturn of the 1970s and 1980s. Where the blame lies is still the subject of bitter debate: in reality the company suffered a long decline.
In the background lay factors including the nationalisation of the steel industry in the late 1960s, toxic labour relations and the recession sparked by the 1973 oil shock.
P oignantly, Dad, a works electrician, was the last person to leave the plant, as he oversaw the final extinguishing of the furnace. He never worked again.
At the time, there simply were no jobs to be had, and for a man who had always taken huge pride in being the breadwinner, that was devastating.
Hard times: For 40 years, Head Wrightson was Ruth's father's life until the axe fell when he was in his mid-50s
His despair and humiliation were so profound that his health failed.
Although it is impossible to make a direct link between his redundancy and his premature death from cancer ten years later, I believe deep in my bones it was the loss of hope that really killed him.
And it will haunt me for the rest of my life that I failed, as a daughter, to get through to him and to give him the love and support he needed to claw his way back from the very dark place in which he lost himself.
Fortunately, the support systems seem much better now than they were when my dad lost his job. Schooled in northern working class self-reliance, he thought he should be strong enough to cope, but it was too much to bear.
At least, this time around, there is practical assistance in the form of an SSI Task Force, set up with a multi-million pound funding package from the Government, to help former employees and their families.
Although some of those who have lost their jobs have been hard hit – people told me they had friends who had fallen into heavy drinking and depression – others have made a fresh start.
One of those is Dan Wilcox, 53, the co-founder of Cleveland LGV Training, a firm that offers lorry driver training courses to ex-steelmen.
‘I’ve always taken pride in my job,’ says Dan, who invested £14,000 of his redundancy money in starting the firm, ‘but now it is … about taking pride in finding jobs for others.’ Dan has no shortage of takers and that is no surprise to anyone who knows the area. The loss of the steel industry cannot be underestimated: it has been at the core of the identity of Teesside and its people for more than a century.
The steel industry has been at the core of the identity of Teesside and its people for more than a century
The town of Middlesbrough was established as a coal port in the 1830s by the Quaker Pease family, now best known as one of the founding dynasties behind Barclays bank.
But it was the discovery of iron ore in the nearby Cleveland Hills a couple of decades later that really transformed its fortunes, as it ballooned from a farmstead with a population of 40 to a bustling industrial town of 20,000 souls.
The Redcar steelworks, a few miles along the coast, was founded in 1917. Steel produced there was used to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Tyne Bridge and to help bomb-proof Winston Churchill’s war rooms beneath Whitehall.
No wonder Middlesbrough football fans wave banners boasting ‘We built the world’. In 2010, the Redcar works was mothballed until salvation seemed to arrive in the shape of Thai firm SSI, which took over in 2011.
But it was not long before trouble hit again when the price of steel plunged on world markets and SSI announced it was closing the plant in the autumn of last year. Now, there are fewer than 500 steelworkers left on Teesside.
But there is new economic life emerging from the ashes of industrial devastation.
Very near the site where my father worked is a company called Visual Soft that builds e-commerce websites for more than 1,500 retailers and employs more than 200.
Inside the Visual Soft offices, you could be in any tech company in London or even Silicon Valley. All the trappings are here – table football games, brightly coloured bean bags, an Xbox, picnic benches for meetings and even a tap dispensing draft beer for staff who do not have to drive home. Founder Dean Benson, 40, started the business in 1998 in a spare bedroom in his home in Middlesbrough. ‘The companies we were working for didn’t care, they treated us with respect.’
The town of Middlesbrough was founded as a coal port in the 1830s by the Quaker Pease family
So could the next Facebook or Twitter really be started in Middlesbrough? ‘Why not?’ Dean flashes straight back.
A few miles away in what was once a derelict no-man’s land in the centre of the town is the Boho Quarter, the self-styled creative and cultural quarter of the town.
One company based there is Viral Effect, which manages social media for companies such as Domino’s Pizza. The firm, which is growing quickly and heading for a £1m turnover, is run by local boy James Pennington, 27. He says one of the attractions of being based in Middlesbrough is its relatively low cost.
That is a sentiment echoed by businesswoman Emily Humphrys, 48, the co-founder of Cambridge Research Biochemicals. Don’t be fooled by the name: although the company was set up in Cambridge, it is firmly based on Teesside.
In Cambridge, she says, ‘rents are ten times higher’ but in Billingham, a few miles from Middlesbrough, ‘you can pick up a bargain in terms of space’.
Traditionally, the region has been a Labour heartland but many locals feel let down by Westminster politicians of all stripes. In the recent referendum, Teessiders voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.
In the short term, that has raised question marks over whether the Government will make good the EU funding the region may lose, and over the Northern Powerhouse initiative set up by former Chancellor George Osborne.
Difficult: It will be an uphill climb for the shiny new tech businesses to compensate for the industrial jobs lost
But for tech businesses, and for speciality biochemical firms like Emily’s, ambition, brain-power and innovation may well be more important than whether or not the UK is in the EU.
The digital revolution has broken down physical borders so companies can be based in Middlesbrough and trade all over the world.
Teesside is still a high unemployment, low wage economy. There are boarded up houses, there is poverty and there are kids being brought up in households that have been dependent on benefits for decades.
That’s one part of the story, but it has changed immensely for the better since I lived there.
Would I make the same choice to leave, if I were coming of age now? Probably, but that is more a reflection on my journalistic ambitions than anything else – the idea of staying looks far more tempting than it did in the 1980s.
It will be an uphill climb for the shiny new tech businesses, no matter how brilliant, to compensate for the industrial jobs lost.
But the clever, entrepreneurial youngsters I met clearly feel they can make a career and a life for themselves on Teesside. That is important because their talents are a priceless asset.
Steel may be the past, but brilliant young people and their new companies are hope for the future.
In Business: Return to Teesside is on BBC Radio 4 at 20.30 on Thursday, July 28 and repeated at 21.30 on Sunday, July 31.
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