“They would have put a lump of steel in my coffin” it was customary when a Steelworker burned to death.
Leaving school in August 1971 aged sixteen, I followed previous generations of my family into the Steelworks. My father, grandfather, great grandfather and uncles were all steelworkers or miners. It was the steelworks or the pit. Most of my school mates went into one of these industries.
I started at the British Steel Corporations, Templeborough works. Before privatization it was known as Steel Peach & Tozer, nicknamed ‘Steelo’s’. I started as a production apprentice and after a spell at a local college I gained my City & Guilds in General Iron & Steelmaking. I then went on six week placements in different departments of British Steel.
At this time the Rotherham works were vast, taking in the Parkgate iron and steel works, and the Aldwarke works at Parkgate. My first placement was in one of the old cross country mills at Parkgate iron & steel. The 10 and 12 inch mill. You started with a billet four foot long and four inches square. You grabbed it with a pair of iron tongs and fed it into a set of rolls. When it came out at the other end a man grabbed the hot metal billet and fed it into the next smaller rolls, so it went on until the small billet came out as a 30 foot long steel rod used for concrete reinforcement.
My next placement was in the cogging mill shop, where deseamers dressed steel billets taking defects out of them with a deseamers torch (like a long burning torch). Everything was old in these mills, pre-world war one. You went in the power house which had massive electric motors in and you could eat your snap off the floor, they were kept that clean. People took enormous pride in their jobs and the electric motors had all coach work painted on them, very old fashioned.
I remember at this time we were on the three day week due to a miners’ strike, so we only did 3 shifts a week. At home we had candles burning in every downstairs room during the power cuts. We had run out of coal, so one early morning after me and my dad had finished the night shift, we went coal digging down at Kilnhurst, not far from the pit. They were doing some opencast mining and there was a lovely seam of coal a couple of feet thick exposed on the surface. Well; we filled a dozen sacks and went home.
My next placement was in the Templeborough Electric Melting Shop*. ‘T.E.M.S.’ the biggest melting shop in Europe. There were six electric arc furnaces. My job was to collect the ‘melt sheet’ off the first hand Melter’s after their furnace had tapped. They were all the older end and wore immaculately clean white sweat scarfs round their necks. One day one of the old first hand Melter’s advised me not to walk too close in front of the furnaces when they were on and melting, sometimes they had what you called a ‘blow out’. The furnace would spit out its contents, tons of molten metal would fly out of the furnace mouth. I took note of the advice and always walked as far away from the furnace mouth as I possibly could. That advice possibly saved my life.
One day as I went to collect a ‘melt sheet’ off the first hand melter, I walked past the front of a furnace in action, at the safest distance possible, suddenly I heard this incredible ‘whoooosh’ sound’. My instinct told me to run, which I did for several yards, I then looked behind me and where I had been stood the floor was covered in glowing red hot metal and slag, twelve inches deep, steam bellowing off it, setting fire to anything and everything near it. It was bubbling like hot porridge, all the trapped moisture and combustible material trapped underneath escaping this burning mass. If I had been caught in that, they wouldn’t have been nothing left of me. Probably the steel toe caps in my boots. They would have put them in my coffin along with a lump of steel from the blow out. That was customary when steelworkers got burnt to death.
One man threw himself into one of the big gas fired soaking pits when I worked there, he lost all his holiday pay on the horses and he dare not go home. He stood on the gantry over-looking the soaking pits and threw himself into one of the soakers. They said he was dead before he hit the bottom of the soaking pit, as he fell in it he disappeared and turned into a whisp of smoke. The soaking pits were huge and there was a line of them maybe twenty or more. Cold ingots of steel that weighed six tons were put in them to hot them up ready to roll them in the cogging mill. They put a lump of steel in his coffin when they buried him, from out of the soaking pit.
Electric Arc furnaces were installed in the Templeborough melting shop in the 1960’s, the project was called “operation spear” before that they had open hearth furnaces.
After the Second World War, train load after train load of armaments arrived at the Templeborough melting shop from the fighting in Europe and elsewhere to be melted down. Rifles, bayonets, you name it and it came with a police or military guard.
My dad used to work on the ‘pit side’ this was the teeming stage in the melting shop. A huge crane lifted a ladle full of molten metal and poured it into six ton moulds. The teeming stage men or ‘pit side lads’ had the job of throwing aluminium ingots the size of a bag of sugar into the ingots full of molten metal. Aluminium got rid of the oxygen in the molten steel making it more- stronger. My dad had to put ‘lids’ on top of the ingot moulds when they were full. There was a ‘vacuum de-gassing tank’ in the melting shop where steel would be put in. The vacuum de-gassing tank was used for making extra-special steel for use in building submarines.
One day my dad told me a steelworker tripped and fell in between some white hot moulds, the man just melted and burnt to nothing, not even a cinder. The management took a piece of steel from one of the ingots later on when it was being rolled and put it in the steelworker’s coffin.
In the melting shop there was six electric arc furnaces named A, B, C, D, E & F going night and day. Above each furnace were giant graphite electrodes, big round and jet black. When the furnaces had been loaded up with scrap metal the giant electrodes would be lowered into holes in the top of the furnaces, an electric current was switched on and when they touched the scrap metal inside the noise was absolutely horrendous even with ear protectors on you could not hear yourself think. On the night shift when it was dark the glows emitted from the furnaces, the dust in the air and the noise made it an eerie sight, I can only describe the scenes as the nearest thing to hell
*Today the old Templeborough Electric Melting Shop exists as the “Magna experience” on Sheffield Road. Rotherham]