© This Month - April

Dr Bleddyn Penny’s talk on Men of Steel at the Borough Theatre on 26 April starts at 7.30pm. Non-members may join on the night.


The following article can also be seen in the April edition of the Abergavenny Focus

From Treasure Island to Giro City

In post-war Britain, Port Talbot’s manual workers were among the best paid in the country. Helen Morgan  reports:

Steelmaking began here in the early 20th century. But it was the opening of the Abbey Works in Margam on the site of the Cistercian abbey in 1951 that sparked the halcyon era. Large areas of dunes were cleared to build the Sandfields housing estate for the workers. A decade later, the Abbey Works  was the largest in Europe and the largest single employer in Wales, providing work for more than 20,000 men. The money was good and, with labour in short supply, the works offered a comprehensive range of leisure and welfare facilities. In contrast to the depression of the 1920s and 1930s, unemployment was largely eliminated in Port Talbot during the immediate post-war period. Bakeries reported a staff exodus as their employees were drawn to more lucrative jobs in the steel industry. It was said to be impossible to get a painter because they had all gone to the steelworks.

“The steelworks was a treasure island. It paid high wages and you didn't need any qualifications. You just turned up, filled in your forms and they took you on,” one man told PhD researcher Bleddyn Penny who interviewed more than 40 former steelworkers. The first day at work “was like stepping into hell”. It was noisy, dusty and dangerous. Sulphurous smoke hung over the works. Yet the former workers claimed they had enjoyed their job. “There's a camaraderie in being a steelworker.”

Despite the prosperity, there were hard times. Ted was on strike for six months in the 1960s without pay: "Everyone wanted duffle coats, but the works wouldn’t give them duffle coats so we went on strike.”

The Margam works were nationalised in 1967. By 1980, when steelworkers went on strike, their position within the upper tier of the labour aristocracy had been undermined.  Margaret Thatcher was in power and concluded that to become competitive, the loss-making steel industry was overmanned and needed more automation and technology. This required harsh measures. Elsewhere other steelworks closed for ever. Margam survived but felt the pain as 6,000 jobs went. The impact was immediate. From its heyday as Treasure Island, Port Talbot became Giro City — synonymous with thousands signing on the dole.


Blast furnace man - photograph courtesy of Dr Bleddyn Penny

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