This is the story of one of the best explorations of my life, the closure of the vast Teesside Iron and Steel works at Redcar, Southbank and Lackenby. I'm an engineer by trade and always thought i understood the way steel is produced but this past year even i've had my eyes opened to quite what an amazing process it is. The sheer scale and complexity of the equipment has many times left me open mouthed in disbelief at how something this vast can be built in the first place let alone just be shut down and cut up for scrap! I feel immensely lucky to have had what is a quite possibly a 'once in a lifetime' opportunity to immerse myself this industry and really get to grips with nearly every part for the process from the Redcar stockyards full of raw iron ore, lime and coal to the red hot ingots of steel rolling off the end of the SSI production line at Lackenby.
Rails snake towards the Blast Furnace at Redcar
Back in September 2015 a 'pause in production' was announced at all SSI sites. In reality we all knew what that really meant. It swiftly transformed into a full blown mothballing operation and by the end of October the company was in liquidation. With the economic downturn in China sending steel prices plummeting it was inevitable really that without major changes in economic policy UK steel products would simply be priced out of the market. High energy costs forced on us by the EU and high wages and living standards simply make it too expensive to produce in this country. Everyone seems keen to blame the government's free market economy but in reality this is only one string to the bow of steels downfall. Successive governments have followed the path of spend now pay later and have spent not on investment for the future but to fluff the pillows of voters who will keep them in power for the next 5 years and to hell with the next 50.
Whatever the cause these photos are the effect, the closure of the vast majority of Teesside's steel industry in all likelihood never to restart.
Fluted chimney of the Sinter Plant at Redcar
The majority of the industry you will see here started life in 1917 as the Redcar Ironworks under the famous Dorman Long company. The company is probably most famed for supplying steel to build the Sydney Harbour and Tyne Bridges. It rapidly expanded across Teesside forming three main works at Redcar, Cleveland and Lackenby but in 1967 the company was nationalised and became part of British Steel. Shortly afterwards despite the new company facing serious political and business issues the decision was made to invest in Teesside by building nearly all of the equipment we see today.
Coke works At Southbank showing a concrete coking tower that still bares the Dorman Long name
By 1988 the company had been re-privatised and after a 1999 merger with a Dutch steel firm changed its name to Corus. In 2007 Corus was bought out by the Indian company Tata which ran the plant until 2009 when it was forced to mothball the blast furnace due to a loss of major contracts. In 2011 the works was sold again to new owner Sahaviriya Steel Industries which at great cost restarted production but alas three years later they too would be forced to close.
Part 1 - Southbank Coke Works
I will start at what is essentially the start of the steelmaking process. Coke is the fuel that provides the energy used to smelt iron. It is basically coal that is baked at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen to remove impurities that would otherwise taint the iron and unsettle the furnace. There were two coke works on Teesside one adjacent to the blast furnace at Redcar and one further west at Southbank on the former Cleveland works.
Southbank would originally have been surrounded by its own furnaces, rolling mills and sinter works but now it stands alone as the last remaining part of the Cleveland works. Infact even the coke works was once double the size or at least had double the amount of ovens! The iconic Dorman Long branded tower at Southbank is the remains of an earlier 1950s set of ovens that are now, apart from the tower of course, mostly demolished. The current ovens were built in the 1970s nationalised era but the gas byproducts side of the plant to the north was shared leaving us today with what is effectively a 1950s gas plant and 1970s ovens.
Although closed Southbank, like all the SSI sites, is still a relative hive of activity compared with the usual 'derps' or 'infrastructure' explores we frequent. We arrived here on our first trip north to see diggers bombing about on the stock yard and men wandering up and down the gas plant. We almost turned around and left it for another day but all of a sudden there was a pause in digger movements and we noticed some guys heading back to the front of site. It was luckily knocking off time! This gave us hour or so of daylight to get around the majority of the site with only security to worry about. A luxury! Heading in from the west we headed through various pump rooms adorned with great 50s signage and eventually made it over to the now 'cut' coal conveyor that looked like our most discreet way up the tower. The oven side of the site seemed to have been decommissioned already as all entrances were now barricaded in some way but with a little climbing it was easy to get around and inside the tower and ovens it felt virtually untouched. We headed up the conveyor, down the silo tower and onto the top of the ovens where the 'charging car' was parked up underneath. Then down in the ovens themselves and the basement level. When we eventually surfaced it was dark but we elected to keep going and ticked the older dorman long tower of the list too. Something i had been meaning to do for many years!
Heading out the site i couldn't help but notice how much further potential it had. Since November i have returned several times but nothing appears to have changed. Men are still on site doing decommissioning work and security still circle the largely intact site
The works viewed from the south
The long derelict Dorman Long branded silo tower
Cooling towers on the fringe of the gas refinery
Inside a 1950s pumphouse
Gas holder would have held 'waste' gasses from the coking process
Enamel signs in the dated 1950s section of the site
Refraction towers in the refinery section of the site
The view from the top of the 70s coking tower and a gas flare stack
Looking back at the site of the now mostly demolished 1950s batteries
On top of the later 70s batteries
Heading down in the the battery itself
Pedestrian entrance already blocked with heras fence and the control room entrance
'Beehives' in the battery
Battery Control Room
Inside the control room
Much grubbier outside!
Down into the cellars
Pipe clamp in the battery cellars
More details from the cellar level
Popping back outside the battery we find it's now getting dark
Back along the railway side of the ovens where coke would have been unloaded in to trains heading for Redcar
Finally we climbed the 50s coking tower for a view over the whole site.
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