‘Steel City’ – Port Talbot or Sheffield?

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(Steel City? Port Talbot c. 1960)

The coming of the Abbey Steelworks to Port Talbot in 1951 brought prestige and prosperity to the town and widespread praise for the plant’s proprietors, the Steel Company of Wales. Whilst the Steel Company of Wales gladly received most of the accolades for Port Talbot’s post-war success story, it was also confronted with the anxieties and controversies that accompanied it. For as well as providing immediate benefits, such as jobs and civic redevelopment, the Abbey Works was also associated with the more detrimental effects of rapid industrialisation. Pollution and traffic congestion, for example, were among the most pronounced problems facing Port Talbot during the 1950s and 1960s and the Steel Company of Wales was seen by some as partially (if not entirely) to blame. Perhaps the most bizarre controversy in which the Steel Company of Wales found itself in during this period, however, was not as a result of local grievances.

On 12 February 1963, the Western Mail, reported upon a speech made by the Lord Mayor of Sheffield in which he unleashed his opprobrium upon the Steel Company of Wales and Port Talbot more generally. The source of the Lord Mayor’s displeasure was a recent advertising campaign by the Steel Company of Wales which featured a photograph of the Abbey Works above the caption “The City of Steel.” In a hubristic outburst the Lord Mayor inveighed that this was an affront to Sheffield’s long held association as the ‘steel city.’ The Lord Mayor was further reported as saying, “Port Talbot has no right at all to usurp our name – I think it is shocking,” and added, “I shall be disappointed if every trade organisation in the city doesn’t rise up in arms and let everyone know how much we resent this… There is only one city of steel in the world, and we are proud and fortunate to live in it.” In the defence of Sheffield’s title the Lord Mayor argued that Sheffield’s gross steel output was still one of the highest valued in Europe. He also accurately noted that “Port Talbot is not a city.”

Fifty years on, it is difficult to comprehend how a seemingly innocuous advertising campaign could invoke such uninhibited disdain from a senior public official. The Mayor of Sheffield’s comments arguably, however, reflected a growing insecurity at the future of British industry – steel included. The affluence of the 1950s, engendered by the sellers’ market of the immediate post-war years, was already beginning to wane by the end of that decade. By the dawn of the 1960s, demand for commodities such as steel was beginning to stall and Great Britain was facing increased competition from international industries. Moreover, an existing trend in the British steel industry to concentrate plant in fewer more highly concentrated coastal locations, left older areas of production, such as Sheffield, appearing increasingly vulnerable. The Mayor of Sheffield’s determination to preserve the integrity of the city’s ‘Steel City’ moniker was, therefore, perhaps a reflection of this anxiety and the antagonistic rivalry it bred between different steel towns and companies. Sadly, there is no evidence to suggest the Steel Company of Wales publically responded to the city of Sheffield’s complaints, however, the company did defiantly continue to run adverts using the ‘City of Steel’ banner throughout the remainder of the decade.

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