A Brief Introduction to the Writing on the History of British Steel

IMG_0196Having spent the initial period of my PhD exploring the existing literature on the history of the British steel industry, I thought it might beneficial to briefly summarise what books and resources are available for those who want to explore the history of this industry further. The first thing that struck me when assessing the historiography of the British steel industry is how little there is of it! Despite the massive contribution steel made to the economy of twentieth century Britain, there has been relatively little written about this once vital national industry. The last comprehensive history of the British steel industry was John Vaizey’s The History of British Steel (1974) and that was published almost forty years ago! The fact that Vaizey’s history is still cited as the standard text on the subject shows how little historical research has been conducted on steel during the intervening period. If steel has somewhat fallen out of vogue among historians as of late, this was certainly not always the case. The three decades following the Second World War saw a proliferation of publications on the subject of steel’s history. To name but a few:

  • Dave Murray’s slim volume, Steel Curtain: A Biography of the British Iron and Steel Industry (1951)
  • Duncan Burn’s emotionally charged and highly partisan, The Steel Industry, 1939-1959 (1961)
  • Carr and Taplin’s authoritative History of the British Steel Industry (1962,)
  • David Heal’s clinical, The Steel Industry in Post-War Britain (1974)

The years immediately after the Second World War saw the rapid modernisation and development of Britain’s steel industry with projects, such as Port Talbot’s Abbey Works, projecting an image of steel as an industry of the future in the public consciousness. Steel was also an integral part of the national economy with steel production being seen as a measure of the nation’s economic vitality. Given the widespread sense of optimism and public interest in the industry during this period, it is perhaps unsurprising that this era saw something of a boom in writings on its development and history.

Most of the histories published during this period tend to dwell on the industry’s technical advancement and its economic implications, reflecting the chief interests of the age. Little consideration was given to the steelworkers themselves and their experiences within the industry are largely ignored, or at best marginalised. In many respects, these earlier historical works reflect the traditional whiggish ‘top-down’ approach to history; the development of Britain’s steel industry is typically seen as a continuous march of progress, driven by capital, technology and ‘great men’ –  industrialists, financiers and managers. As Britain’s domestic steel industry began to contract during the 1970s, so too did the number of academics researching its past. Fewer works were published with those that did emerge assuming an increasingly gloomy tone. Bryer, Brignall and Maunders’ Accounting for British Steel (1982), for example, was another predominantly economic and technically focused account of the industry, but one which sought to understand steel’s contemporary failings in the light of its recent past. On the whole, however, throughout the 1980s and 1990s very few new historical studies of Britain’s steel industry saw the light of day. Most historians interested in Britain’s industrial past tended to focus their efforts on the coal or ship-building industries where many innovative social history studies were undertaken.

Despite the dearth of studies in the history of steel over the last few decades, more recently there have been some encouraging signs that historians are starting to renew their interest in the industry. The formation of the British Steel Collection has given rise to some interesting and innovative new approaches to the study of British steel, such as Tosh Warwick’s work on industrial paternalism and philanthropy among Middlesbrough’s steel magnates. Elsewhere, historian David Bradley has utilised oral history techniques to explore the issue of occupational health and safety in Scotland’s steel industry. All of this points not only to a renewed interest in the history of British steel but a new stimulus to approach this industry from new historical perspectives, revealing new insights into this most historically overlooked British heavy industry.

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