This week we are marking the 20th anniversary of the closure of Ravenscraig. Here are some links to other stories.
Ravenscraig 20 years on: The day the towers came down
Ravenscraig 20 years on: Motherwell and Wishaw MP Frank Roy
Ravenscraig 20 years on: North Lanarkshire Council’s £10 million investment
THE smoking chimneys standing on the skyline were once a constant reminder of the prosperity that Ravenscraig brought to the former Burgh of Motherwell and Wishaw.
Commissioned in 1957 by the Colville Group, the steelworks would became synonymous with the district – the talisman of the region’s healthy economy for 35 years.
The plant was, at one point, the largest hot strip steel mill in Western Europe and, as an integrated steelworks, brought prosperity to the area. It employed around 13,000 people, enabling the redevelopment of housing and infrastructure in both Motherwell and Wishaw and provided assurances of security to families and their communities.
The labour of Ravenscraig was never questioned, with the plant constantly smashing steel industry production records time and time again.
But the dream was to end inside 40 years, some say more for political reasons than economic ones.
Ravenscraig was originally constructed in stages on a massive greenfield site which stretched from Craigneuk to Carfin, with Colville given sanction to construct a coke oven, blast furnace and steel-making plant consisting of three 200-ton open hearth furnaces capable of producing 400,000 tonnes of steel each year.
It would gradually expand into a facility capable of producing up to two million tonnes of liquid steel in a year, with two of its three blast furnaces designed to be in operation at any one time.
More than £250 million was invested in development projects at the plant, right through from its initial construction to later upgrades incorporating specialist equipment designed to produce sophisticated, high-quality steels capable of meeting the most demanding applications.
Between the first sod being cut in 1953 and the first iron run in 1957, 21 miles of rail track were laid, three miles of road constructed, and four million cubic yards of earth excavated as the burgh prepared for the steel generation.
The plant was always subject to large investment. As part of the first stage of the Colville development programme in 1957, £22 million was commissioned to the start-up of the Ravenscraig and a new ore uploading plant at the General Terminus Quay on the Clyde, a huge amount of money 60 years ago.
A year later – and during the 1958 recession – work was then started on a £7 million slabbing mill, designed to be the biggest such facility anywhere in the world.
Sam Thomson, director of Colville Limited, was confident that the development was no gamble, despite the climate of financial uncertainty.
Thomson said that although the recession was affecting the Colville plants, it was not expected to last forever, and the company had every confidence in the future – a belief such a sizeable investment supported.
“The company must develop or go under,” he said. With no intention of seeing the Colville empire collapse, the direct answer to the question was that such large-scale expenditure was not a gamble but a necessity for the company’s orderly development; a refreshing attitude to look back upon, certainly in this day and age.
Government involvement in Ravenscraig became evident in 1959 when Sir Andrew McCance, chairman and managing director of Colville, revealed that a £40 million plan to develop the second stage of the works over four years was to be accelerated to meet the needs of the strip mill.
The result was a dramatic increase in spending – one which would eventually rise to £70 million. £50 million went towards the plant’s much-heralded hot strip mill and cold reduction plant, and helped pay for a further expansion of the steel-making capacity and a third blast furnace.
The government provided the necessary £50 million funding through a 19-year-loan, on which interest payments did not start until the strip mill started operating in what was expected to be 1963.
However, in January of 1960 it was decided that the strip mill would come into use as soon as it was completed, with surprisingly high demand for strip steel allowing Colvilles to double their original estimate of 230,000 tons of sheet steel per annum to a massive 500,000. This meant an increase of £10.5 million in the cost of the strip mill.
By 1970 the steelworks had come under control of the state, and the national structure of the British Steel Corporation was divided into four Iron and Steel Product Divisions, with the General Steels Division based in Glasgow, which ultimately brought the steel industry under a single control.
Eight years later, the government produced a revised plan for BSC, entitled ‘British Steel Corporation: The Road to Viability’, which stated that all major schemes at Ravenscraig nearing completion had to be finished.
The government were hoping that their ten-year development plan would create a balanced steel industry in Scotland.
The White Paper plan included the £220 million ‘Ravenscraig 3’ scheme devised to double the plant’s annual steel-making capacity from 1.5 million to 3.2 million tonnes. Colville had previously hoped that their own developments would generate an annual steel-making capacity of 3.3 million tons (3.35 metric tonnes), an interesting point to note.
These events became known as the ‘Big Change’, and saw the closure of old plants, phased out open hearth furnaces and left Ravenscraig as Scotland’s only basic oxygen steel-maker. The only blast furnaces left in Scotland were the three at Ravenscraig.
However, it would not be long until ominous black clouds started to gather over the plant.
The National Steel Strike of 1979 triggered the loss of many customers for Ravenscraig. Clients were difficult to coax back and the works’ credibility had taken a hit.
Ian MacGregor was appointed chairman of British Steel in 1980 and immediately recommended the closure of Ravenscraig. Protest ensued, with a plant committee eventually convincing the government that their disciplined economic argument – rather than that of the knock-on social consequences of shutting down the plant – was viable.
Further confrontation was not far away.
A new pay and productivity deal sparked scenes of revolt in March 1982, with the entire Ravenscraig plant threatened with complete closure as Iron and Steel Trades Confederation members walked out on strike.
The proposals came in response to the loss of £8 million at the plant during January, caused mainly by bad weather. The scheme offered potential bonus earnings which could reach double figures in the return for the achievement of performance standards which management claimed were well within the capability of Ravenscraig.
However, both union and management dug their heels in, openly admitting that the strikes could lead to the complete closure of the works.
In December 1982, the works’ slab mill was closed, taking with it around 700 jobs.
Despite this, unions were reported to be relieved by the news, admitting that they could handle slimming down without putting the plant’s future at stake.
Ravenscraig received a stay of execution as – along with the other four main steel plants – they were chosen to remain open, but would be watched closely for the next three years. In 1983 MacGregor unsuccessfully lobbied plans to close the plant’s hot strip mill. There was a sigh of relief en masse when McGregor moved on to take control of the coal industry later that year.
Aware of the scrutiny they were under, the Lanarkshire steel men powered forward with real vigour, regularly setting national steel production records as work continued under added pressure.
Despite this, the 1984 miners’ strike lit the fuse on one of Ravenscraig’s most dramatic episodes, as the plant fought an epic struggle to stay alive.
Amid violent battles between picketing miners and police – in what is still considered the most divisive social and political fracture in post-war Britain – massive convoys of lorries brought coal to the plant by road, saving the ’Craig from closure and ensuring blast furnaces and coke ovens were able to continue. Ravenscraig could not work without coal.
With MacGregor at the helm, the Scots-American oversaw sweeping pit closures on behalf of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The strike rang the death knell for Scotland’s coal industry, catalysing Ravenscraig’s demise in its wake.
Cuts continued thereafter. It was announced in 1990 that the strip mill was to close and, despite a high-profile campaign, Ravenscraig was decommissioned in 1992, when only 800 workers remained on the books.
The plant’s last two years saw 4400 steel workers made redundant. On Saturday June 27, 1992 – the day the plant officially closed – Motherwell District Council released a green balloon for every steelworker that had been a credit to not only their industry, but their families, towns and communities.
As the swarm of green disappeared high into the grey skies above a silent Ravenscraig, down came the curtain on what was an immensely proud chapter in Lanarkshire’s industrial heritage, the end of a generation of steelworkers who were the lifeblood of the Burgh of Motherwell and Wishaw.