A blast from the past with steel man Ray’s memories of Shelton Bar

Anyone who visits Festival Park to watch a film, enjoy a meal or do some shopping could be forgiven for not having a clue that they are mingling with the ghosts of generations of Potters who worked at the renowned Shelton Bar.

Indeed, there is very little evidence remaining of the enormous steelworks which, at its height, employed 10,000 men and was once a prime target for the Luftwaffe’s night-raid bombers.

Shelton Bar was a 400-acre plant which dominated the landscape around Etruria, and in its heyday, boasted five coal mines and its own railway system.

Iron and steel produced and rolled at Shelton went all over the world and was used in the making of everything from car tyres and railway lines to bridges.

Iron and steel production began on the site in the 1830s and continued for around 150 years.

But after a long and bitter struggle, iron and steel making at Etruria ceased in 1978 and with it went almost 2,000 jobs.

One of those who survived the cull was 75-year-old Ray Withington, who lives in Porthill.

Ray had begun his working life at Shelton Bar in 1953 and didn’t retire until 1992 with a title of shift manager in the rolling mill.

During that time Shelton Bar was nationalised, denationalised and nationalised again by various governments.

But it is the fight to save iron and steel making in the Potteries which Ray remembers vividly.

He said: “Being part of the management, I would be asked every day by the lads: ‘Have you heard anything, Ray?’.

“It felt as though the threat of closure was hanging over us constantly.

“I’ve said many times that if someone had treated a dog like they treated Shelton Bar workers then they would be sent to prison for cruelty.”

The closure of the main works left around 600 men working in the half-mile long rolling mill building.

Around 200 acres on the east of the site was reclaimed and landscaped as part of the 1986 National Garden Festival – the most successful of its kind and the biggest event in Europe that year.

Ray looks back on the late Seventies and Eighties as the period when Shelton was British Steel’s ‘lab’.

He said: “We used to do all sorts of research at Shelton into different types of rolling and casting.

“When all the jobs went in ’78 there was a real fear for what was left because we didn’t know how it would work with having steel brought down to us from Teeside.

“Then one day 18 lorries turned up carrying tonnes of steel and we unloaded it and got to work on it in about 45 minutes.

“That was proof to everyone that we could do it. In fact, the rolling mill was always extremely busy and profitable.”

But what was it like to work there during the Eighties?

Ray said: “Even though it was a great big site with people stretched right across it there was still a real sense of camaraderie because all the men would meet up in the same mess hall.

“Even in the rolling mill the conditions could be tough. You had hot steel going through at 1,100 or 1,200 degrees in some areas and then in the winter the water being used as a coolant would freeze in places and we’d have huge, great icicles a foot long inside the building.”

After Ray retired Shelton Bar was taken over by Anglo-Dutch firm Corus who shut the rolling mill in June 2000.

To this day its employees insist the plant was profitable and that the decision to close it down was purely political.

Ray was recently invited on a VIP tour of a steel plant in Scunthorpe.

He said: “It was 60 minutes of bliss and all of the memories came flooding back.

“When you’ve worked in a steelworks then you do find yourself going round places and pointing out things and saying: ‘We used to make them’.

“I felt privileged to work at Shelton and can’t believe there’s nothing left to show for all those years of work”.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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One thought on “A blast from the past with steel man Ray’s memories of Shelton Bar

  1. Great to capture Ray’s memories as an important part of our industrial heritage. Potteries artist John Shelton (1923-1993) visited Shelton Bar with his wife’s uncle who worked there at the time. He painted ‘Shelton Bar Steelworker with Bike’ (1960) as a result:

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