East Moors Steelworks, Cardiff

Friday 10 May 2013, 11:05

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The steelworks at East Moors in Cardiff - "Dowlais by the Sea" as it was invariably known - began its working life in the late 19th century. The works closed in 1978 but before that, for most of the 20th century, East Moors was a major steel producing plant - and, more importantly, a significant employer in the Cardiff area.

East Moors was officially opened by Lord Bute on 4 February 1891, with production in the works commencing four years later in 1895.

Building and operating a steelworks in Cardiff was a realistic and far sighted enterprise. The directors of the Dowlais Company of Merthyr Tydfil realised that with its iron and steel plants located several miles inland, the company was at a serious commercial disadvantage when compared to other similar businesses across the world.

Iron ore needed to be imported and, once it had arrived in Wales, it needed to be transported to the various works around Merthyr - a costly and time-consuming process. Therefore the urgent requirement, it soon became clear, was for a port close to a steelworks and a railway centre.

The space to build a modern production plant was available at a green field site in Cardiff and so East Moors came into existence.

The plant itself, consisting of four large blast furnaces combined with a dozen open-hearth stoves, was modern technology at its best, putting East Moors at the forefront of steel production. It specialised in making heavy duty steel plates and sections for use in ship building.

The port of Cardiff was soon exporting steel to all parts of the world. At one time there was hope that the city would become a ship building centre to rival Belfast and the Tyne. It would have been a logical development as the steelworks that were producing the constructional sections to build the ships lay right next door to the port but, unfortunately, such hopes were never realised.

In the early 20th century the Guest Keen and Nettlefolds Company (GKN as it was soon known) was formed out of Dowlais and other steelworks in south Wales. This giant company established a virtual monopoly and made considerable amounts of money for its shareholders during the First World War when the production of iron and steel was essential war work.

The steelworks were closed for a brief period in 1930 and it became clear that, if steel working was to continue at Cardiff, some major refurbishment and re-building would be necessary. In 1935 GKN invested £3 million in the plant, a modernisation programme that soon enabled East Moors to produce three million tons of steel a year. It was a welcome move in the troubled Depression years, one that had a clear knock on effect for Cardiff Docks.

By the late 1930s, East Moors had begun to produce steel for the nearby rod mills of the GKN Castle Works and its place at the head of steel production in Wales was a matter of pride for the whole workforce.

It was inevitable that East Moors should become a target for German bombers during the Second World War. The place seemed to have something of a charmed life, however, with the only real damage to the plant coming in a late air raid during March 1944.

Despite the quality of its work and the almost revolutionary nature of its technology, in the years after 1945 East Moors began to suffer from the physical limitations of its site. There was, quite literally, nowhere to extend or develop - something that was essential if the works was going to survive and grow.

There was a gradual decline in heavy industry, right across Wales, in the middle years of the 20th century and it was no surprise when the decision was taken to close East Moors Steelworks in 1978.

The closure was a significant part of the de-industrialisation of Cardiff and, indeed, of the whole of the country that took place around this time.

Closure of East Moors was a sad day for many. It had given employment to men - in the plant itself and in the adjacent docks - for so many years and had become a familiar part of the Cardiff scene.

But once the decision was made there was no way back and by the end of 1978 East Moors Steelworks, which had dominated the Cardiff skyline for almost a century, was no more.

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