A brief history of steel in Port Talbot

Blast furnace number 5 at the Port Talbot steelworks are one of the main culprits of visible emissions.

The past, present and future of Port Talbot are inextricably tied to steel, so much so that the town has even been described as a miniature Pittsburgh.

Port Talbot takes its name from the Talbot family, who were the patrons of the steelworks when it opened in 1903, and played a crucial role in the development of the town.

The family rose to prominence in 1750 when Reverend Thomas Talbot inherited a vast estate in the area. The family wealth continued to expand and, in 1836, Christopher Talbot joined forces with the Vivian family to build a new set of docks on the southeastern banks the Afan River, adjacent to the Bristol Channel.

The Vivans had just inherited the local copper works and Talbot saw an investment opportunity. Expanding the docks allowed the town to cope with the increased industrial output brought by expansion of the copper works. Due to Talbot’s influence, the docks were unofficially dubbed Port Talbot and the name stuck.

By this time, steel was slowly replacing iron as a popular construction material. Rail companies switched from one to the other for their rails because steel is much harder and stronger. Struggling iron mills in the area slowly began to give way to steel manufacturing.

In 1850, the newly completed South Wales Railway, of which Talbot was the chairman and a major shareholder, terminated at the docks he had built just a decade before. The newly completed railway connected the docks and copper works to the rest of the country.

The end of the nineteenth century was a bumpy ride for steel. Demand increased and then sharply decreased. Several small steel companies established plants in neighbouring Cwmafan and Pontrhydyfen, but ran out of funding and had to close them down.

In 1901, William Gilbertson began constructing the Port Talbot steelworks with the financial backing of Emily Talbot, daughter of Christopher Talbot. Gilbertson had extensive industrial experience in the region working with copper. He chose Port Talbot as the location for his new sprawling industrial site because of its proximity both to the docks and railway.

At first, the steelworks met with mixed success. However, by 1947 they began to expand, becoming an industrial hub of international importance.

In 1951, under the auspices of the Welsh Steel Company, the works made a profit of £2m, which would be worth £40.4m today, according to the Bank of England. By 1960, their profits had increased tenfold to £20.5m (£439m today).

The population of Port Talbot soared over the course of the 1950s as people flocked to the town for the promise of high paying jobs, catered meals and five day work weeks.

This prosperity earned the burgeoning town the nickname of Treasure Island, after the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. The mayor and most of the local councillors were even employed by the works.

By 1966, lorries began replacing trains as the most efficient form of transport and construction of the London-South Wales Motorway, as the M4 was originally known, began. Today, it is the busiest road in Wales. The portion running through Port Talbot, which connects Swansea with Cardiff and Newport, is one of its busiest sections.

In 1967, the Welsh Steel Company was nationalised and renamed British Steel. A decade later, steel production began to wane. The steelworks were in the process of denationalisation and employment figures started to plummet. The works employed 13,000 people in 1980. By the end of the decade, they employed only 4,500.

Industrial strikes as well as increasing foreign competition drove the price of steel production up at the plant, while lowering the price of the finished product on the market. The economic downturn shut supermarkets, cinemas and nightclubs in the town.

Cheap Chinese steel imports continue to prevent the price of steel from fully rebounding and it is unlikely that the Port Talbot steelworks will again enjoy the type of success they did half a century ago.

The works reputedly are still losing £1m each week, according to Bleddyn Penny, a Swansea University historian who specialises in Port Talbot and its steelworks. The Tata Group, which currently owns the works, declined to comment on the plant’s finances.

However, since privatisation, the downward trend has slowed. In the past two decades, the works have only shed 1,000 jobs, one-eighth of the losses sustained during the 1980s.

Increased competition and decreased production were not the only source of concern for the works by then. The shadow of air pollution was ever-present during the 1980s, which was the worst decade for air quality in the town.

Smog, which comprised nitrous oxides and particulate matter, frequently billowed out of smokestacks. Local residents began to demand that British Steel do more to reign in these emissions, which were spiralling out of control.

Renewed pressure on emissions and other environmental issues compounded economic challenges for British Steel. The former industrial titan merged with Dutch manufacturer Koninklijke Hoogovens to form the Corus Group in 1999. Environmental conditions improved under the management of the Corus Group, but only slightly.

“The steelworks caused a huge problem with visible air pollution and had a tangible impact on human health,” said Neath Port Talbot (NPT) Councillor Anthony Taylor. “People were getting dust deposits on their lawns, cars and homes.”

Some of these dust deposits were even radioactive, according to contemporary reports from the South Wales Evening Post. The Tata Group bought out the Corus Group and assumed ownership of the works in 2007. India’s largest conglomerate has a good track record for corporate responsibility and was able to rein in most of the visible air pollution, but still struggles with particulate matter and other invisible emissions.

“In the industrial areas of south Wales — such as Port Talbot — we have very high levels of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” said Dr Dai Lloyd, a Swansea GP and Welsh Assembly member. “You name a chronic disease and we have more of it here. That’s a direct result of industrial air pollution.”

In spite of these hazardous emissions and decreased steel production, the town remains dependent on and well known for its works. They remain the largest in the UK and one of the biggest operations in Europe. The works still produce 3.5m tonnes of steel coil each year, almost half of the UK’s annual output, and directly employ 3,500 of the town’s 37,000 residents.

“There’s a balance. You’ve got a steelworks that still brings good jobs and income into the economy,” said retired NPT Councillor John Rogers. “But on the other side you have pollution and its cost on human health.”