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What do you remember about the days when they made steel in Sheerness?

By John Nurden

It is 45 years since Sheerness Steel opened a state-of-the art plant on the Isle of Sheppey. But the derelict building at Blue Town is now being pulled down to make way for a giant car park for imported vehicles.

The mill was dirty, smelly and noisy but it attracted professionals from across the globe to work there and provided many Islanders with skilled, well-paid jobs.

Dawn Cockburn, the driving force behind the Island-based Harmony Therapy Trust, was typical of many families who uprooted to take on the challenge.

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Aerial view of Sheerness Steel Mill November, 1972. Picture: Skyfotos, Lympne Airport
Aerial view of Sheerness Steel Mill November, 1972. Picture: Skyfotos, Lympne Airport

Her first husband, Dave Edwards, was working as a metallurgist in Scunthorpe when he saw a job advertised in his local paper.

Dawn admitted: "We had no idea where Sheppey was. We thought it might be an island off the coast of Scotland. We certainly didn’t think it was in Kent.

“The ad said it was using an ‘innovative way of producing steel in a mini-mill concept with scrap metal melted in arc furnaces, poured into ladles to produce continuous billets.’

“The traditional way was to heat iron ore in an open-cast furnace using a Bessemer converter.

Ghost mill: Inside Sheerness steelworks after it closed. Picture: Behind Closed Doors www.bcd-urbex.com
Ghost mill: Inside Sheerness steelworks after it closed. Picture: Behind Closed Doors www.bcd-urbex.com

“After an interview with steel works boss Malcolm Grundy, Dave was offered a job as a shift manager with ConCast. We moved to Sheppey late February 1972 with a toddler, Mark, and a black Labrador called Mandy. Oh, and I was heavily pregnant.

“Four weeks later our daughter Helen was born at Minster maternity unit just as the steel mill was producing its very first billets. Our new home was still being built so we spent our first six weeks on Sheppey in a holiday camp at Halfway. Key workers were arriving from all over the world.”

This led to a dramatic rise in house prices as workers were desperate for homes.

Watch it come down: only half of the main building is left standing
Watch it come down: only half of the main building is left standing

“The men worked the continental shift system: two days at 6am to 2pm; two days at 2pm to 10pm and a weekend of three nights followed by two days off. Keeping the children quiet while Dave was on nights and sleeping during the day was often difficult.

“But I remember those early years fondly. We forged great friendships and came to love the Island. The mill gave us a good standard of living and for many years the men received excellent bonuses and pay. But it was a dangerous place to work with all that molten metal and heavy machinery.

Fires of hell: Workers fuel molten steel with an oxygen lance at melting pot number three. Picture: Studio 137
Fires of hell: Workers fuel molten steel with an oxygen lance at melting pot number three. Picture: Studio 137

“There were some serious burns and accidents despite health and safety practice. Dave told me a group of miners toured and reckoned it was safer working down the pit.”

Dawn Cockburn shares Sheerness steel mill memories with Malcolm Grundy.
Dawn Cockburn shares Sheerness steel mill memories with Malcolm Grundy.

Last year Dawn went to a Sheppey Local History Society meeting where former manager Malcolm Grundy gave a talk. She later set up the Sheerness Steel 1972-1999 Facebook page and is hoping to organise a reunion marking the 45th anniversary of steel coming to Sheppey.

As a demolition team continues to pull the old plant down, Islanders acknowledge it marks the end of an era. With hindsight, the factory probably should never have been built so near to homes or the seafront. It was also dangerous work in tremendous heat which was often described as being "hotter than hell." But it also brought jobs and prosperity to the Island.

Sarah Davis said: “It should never have been allowed so near to a residential area. It was a constant source of air and noise pollution.”

Val Phipps recalled: “I lived in Berridge Road, Sheerness, for more than 20 years and I’m sure it contributed to my late onset of asthma. I remember thick dust constantly covering my washing and car.

The end of an era.
The end of an era.

“I had to close my bedroom window at night even in summer because of the constant crashing of metal.

However, John Moss said: “I worked there for 25 years and was glad to leave and try something new. But I met and worked with some special people who I will never forget. We all had a good living and for that I am grateful.”

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