Exhibition: Celebrating Teesside’s Steel Heritage

Teesside’s historic steel archives are being made accessible to future generations thanks to a project led by Teesside Archives. Find out more about the project in the article below.

Redcar Blast Furnace 2021 

Conversations regarding the outcomes and preservation of the former SSI Teesside Steelworks have been ongoing for several years since the site was closed in 2015. A suitable home for the remaining records and objects was sought after by the Tees Valley Combined Authority with Teesside Archives and local museums included in the consultation. Discussions for acquiring the archive material began in Spring 2021 when it became clear that the steelworks buildings on the site, including the iconic Redcar Blast Furnace – were to be scheduled for demolition. 

Conservator, Helen, surveying the Teesworks Material on site in the Redcar Blast Furnace Canteen 

The Archives Manager and Conservator visited the Teesworks site in July 2021 to survey the amount and condition of the records left on the premises. The material, chiefly dating from the post-war era to the closure of the Teesside Steelworks in 2015, includes photographs of the site from across the decades, detailed plans of the complex, correspondence files, publications and works operational records.

Historic records of iron and steel companies in Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Stockton-on-Tees dating from the early twentieth century have also been discovered during the Teesside Archives-led collaborative work. 

The records were delivered to a temporary storage facility for sorting in early 2022 when the archives service was in the midst of moving the collections from their old building at Exchange Square to their new home at The Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough. Work on the Teesworks material began in Spring/Summer 2022 when our Archives Manager, Conservator and Archivist began weeding the material and sorting the plans into categories ready for listing by a project cataloguer, Grace, who began in September 2022.  

As Project Cataloguer Grace has been focussing on the listing of the technical drawings within the Teesworks material acquired by Teesside Archives. These drawings and blueprints are of details relating to the Cleveland, Lackenby and Redcar Iron Works in East Cleveland/Teesside from the start of the 20th century till 2015. They feature all the elements involved in steel production, from the smallest valves to the more recognizable feature of steel production, the Slag Ladle.   

When acquired, these technical drawings were in poor condition, crammed into cardboard map boxes, all tattered and torn, with little contextual information. In total Teesside Archives took on 300+ of these map boxes and there were upwards of 50+ A2 sheets in each roll. A very large volume of technical drawings to join the archive that required a quick and effective methodology to sort through! 

Scale drawing comparing the size of Redcar Blast Furnace to St. Paul’s Cathedral 

A personal favourite Grace came across during an initial sort out was a plan that places Redcar Blast Furnace (which was demolished in November 2022) next to St. Pauls cathedral, demonstrating the vast size of the structure. 

Some of the archival boxes stored in our new strongroom

These details were then captured in a spreadsheet so that they can be transferred to the archive service’s cataloguing system, CALM. Teesside Archives had archival acid free map boxes made especially for the Teesworks collection, to the exact dimensions for rolls of up to 50 sheets. Repackaging them into these boxes ensured the plans were better preserved for future use.  

File Cover for Coke Ovens and Coal Preheater Technical Drawings dated 20 April 1979

To the untrained eye these technical drawings can seem foreign. Very alien, but along the way there have been little gems found. Such as kitsch pointing fingers and a fish in a stream on a rough drawing sketch. These easter eggs amongst the drawings have kept staff on their toes when monotonously unrolling plans. Yet, there have also been plans along the way that have been so grand that they make you consider how draughtsmanship has become such a lost art form. Especially in a day and age where technical drawings can be drafted up on a Computer Aided Design (CAD) programme at the drop of a hat. 

Technical Drawing of Teesside Steelworks Boiler No.3

The biggest takeaway from this project, above anything else, has been realising that these boxes and boxes of scaled down drawings give perspective of just how large and vast the steel works are and were in the area. If you live in the Tees Valley you know about the works, and with the exception of those who have worked at the Iron Works, few have set foot on the sites and the only glimpse of them you have is at night when they’re lit up as you drive past in a car, light up like a futuristic city (its local trivia that Ridley Scott, who is from neighbouring County Durham, based the opening sequence of Blade Runner on the works at night). Teesside Archives are looking forward to having this collection made human by people who worked in the Steel Works and have them be able to identify elements of the machines that contributed to the production on Teesside once they are made publicly accessible in the future. 

A photograph of workers in Teesside Steelworks from our collection

In addition to cataloguing Teesworks material, Teesside Archives have launched an oral history project to sit alongside the official records retained. In November 2022, the archives appealed for memories, stories and responses to the changing industrial skyline after the demolition of Redcar Blast Furnace. The project’s aim is to turn attention to Teesside’s iron and steel heritage at a pivotal time in the area’s story as the last structures of the former iron and steelworks are demolished as part of regeneration of the site. Taking place during February and March 2023, the Teesside Archives team and partners – including former steelworkers – will be gathering memories through interviews with Teesside’s industrial communities to add to and enhance their collections as they capture experiences of this unique part of the area’s story. 

These oral histories will be made publicly accessible along with the Teesworks material in the near future. Building on existing Teesside Archives material, which includes the British Steel Collection, the newly-added iron and steel records will help shed new light on Teesside’s more recent manufacturing history.  

Staff also have ambitions for this key part of Teesside’s industrial heritage to inform new education resources and to showcase the area’s proud iron and steel heritage to communities through a range of outreach activities.