The British Steel Collection is a very significant business history archive dating from the mid 19th century to the late 20th century with the potential to become a key educational resource for both national and international academics, schools and the general public. Iron and steel-making have been central to the history and heritage of Middlesbrough for 175 years. At one time the largest iron manufacturing centre in the world, iron masters like Bolckow, Bell and Dorman remain central figures in the shaping of the town into the 21st century. Teesside steelworks were involved in supplying some of the world’s premier civil engineering projects, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Forth Road Bridge and the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle. Although the industry is much smaller today, an iron and steel making heritage infuses the people of the Tees Valley and has been fundamental in shaping local identity.
Many companies from this area were involved in the development of the industry over the years, including early public companies like Skinningrove Mines, Bolckow and Vaughan, Bell Brothers and the steel giant Dorman Long, which gradually acquired ownership of all other companies in the area by the late 1930s. These acquisitions by Dorman Long formed the core of British Steel Teesside and, as a result, a huge archive of material was amassed from numerous plants and works across the region dating back to the 1840s.
Following the introduction of a new Information Management System in the 1990s, British Steel sought to deposit their archive with relevant local and national repositories. A large part of the collection was donated to Teesside Archives, the archives for the old Cleveland region, which is joint-funded by the local borough councils of Middlesbrough, Stockton, Hartlepool and Redcar & Cleveland. However, although British Steel (and its successors up to the present owners, Corus) were willing to pass the material on to the Archives, a shortage of storage space, manpower and the absence of adequate catalogue data from British Steel resulted in only part of the archive being transferred to Teesside Archives. The balance remained with British Steel, partly at their HQ and partly in storage in South Bank. For over a decade the archive has been unusable by researchers or interested members of the public because of the lack of sufficient knowledge as to what was in the collection or where it might be located. At the beginning of 2006, the British Steel Collection was distributed over three sites and little was known of either its volume or content.
Academics from the University of Teesside have long been interested in accessing this important archive and, by working together with the Teesside Archives, created The British Steel Archive Project – a three year plan to preserve the collection and make it available to all interested user groups through various means, including an electronic catalogue. Digital images will also be made available through a web portal. The University has gathered, and continues to gather, support from national, international and local interest and user groups, linked through their desire to access the archive.
With the help of a grant from the University, a trainee archivist was employed for a short period in 2006 to map the contents of the Collection – which has now been transferred in its entirety to the Teesside Archives – to assess the scale of the deposit and, broadly, its content. Support from the Economic History Society was also received and a consultant from the Business Archives Council (Scotland) provided a plan for the most effective method of cataloguing and stabilising the collection for future generations.
In addition to consolidating the collection on one site, this process identified that the British Steel Collection comprises of approximately 600 linear feet of material in it current state – a very substantial deposit in archives terms. It is expected to grow to double that size once preservation and repackaging work has been carried out. It has also begun to reveal the type of material in the collection, including a substantial body of company financial and legal records. These records, dating from the 1840s to the 1970s, give insight into the history of around 40 separate companies ranging across ironstone mining, iron making, steel making, fabrication and, of course, engineering, especially bridge building. Additionally, a large collection of business organisation records exists, including the minute books of the Cleveland Mineowners’ Association and the Middlesbrough Exchange.
Together this offers one of the largest, most comprehensive sets of business records in the country and undoubtedly the most exciting collection relating to the iron and steel industry in the UK. As such, this archive is an excellent source for economic and business historians from around the world, as the size of the collection makes it of more than just local interest. However, it is also of central importance to the history of Teesside, with stakeholders including the local Industrial Archaeology Society, local Family History Groups, MA and BA students at the University of Teesside and Durham and research students at the various universities of the North East. Investigation by the University of Teesside and our consultant suggests that there is no similar collection available elsewhere in the country.
In addition to the expected business records, the collection is also very rich in visual material. There are thousands of photographs dating back over a century in printed, negative and glass negative forms. Pictures of the various works – inside and out – illustrate working conditions, industrial processes and practices of the iron and steel industry over the last century.
There are also hundreds of images of engineering projects, including photographic records of the building of such bridges as the Forth Road Bridge, the Dundee (Tay) Road Bridge, Auckland Harbour Bridge and the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, as well as such local landmarks as the Tyne Bridge, Newcastle, and the Newport Bridge, Middlesbrough.
These photographic records are supplemented by a large and important collection of plans of engineering works, and maps and plans of mines, steelworks and other locations in the Tees Valley. The engineering drawings in the collection include a substantial number relating to the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge which will be of interest to historians, engineers, scientists and a wide range of non-specialists. This material is of international significance and it would be highly beneficial if it was more widely available to researchers and the public. Such images can also be made available more widely through the proposed web site which would support the project and will be suitable for educational packs to support SET subjects as well as history and geography classes.
The third key group of records in the collection are those relating to employees and employee relations. Often employee records are lost as they are seen as ephemeral to the company in comparison to the legal and financial documentation which ensures their institutional status. This collection contains many types of employee records dating back into the 19th century, especially pension related material. We consider these to be of significant interest to family historians, local historians and to the general public.
These employment records are supported by a substantial body of material relating to working conditions – salaries, accident books, deduction records and welfare schemes. Again, such material could be utilised in teaching packs to demonstrate the changing experience of work over the last 150 years as well as providing evidence for academic and non-academic researchers interested in company welfare policy – for example in early twentieth century Middlesbrough, ironworkers and their employers funded the local voluntary hospitals. These records can be linked to other existing catalogued sources, such as hospital records and oral history archives, to create a more complete picture of working and social life in nineteenth and twentieth century Middlesbrough.
There are also a great many share certificates in the collection which could be of use both to historians of business in Middlesbrough and those researching the spread of share ownership.
Overall this is a rich, complex and internationally significant archive which links the identity and heritage of the Tees Valley community into the global world of engineering, technology and business. The Teesside imprint on the landscape of Sydney, Auckland or the Forth is something of which the people of this region are rightly proud and opening up the archives of this industry to both the local community and international academia is thus a very worthwhile cause.