The date 17 July 1951 might not mean much to the majority of people in south Wales. However, for those living in the Port Talbot and Swansea areas it was a very significant date.
It was the date that the Abbey Steelworks in Port Talbot were opened, in itself a seemingly minor enough event. Yet by the mid-1960s the steelworks at Port Talbot had grown to be the largest steel-producing complex in Europe, giving direct employment to over 18,000 men and women from south Wales – not counting those whose livelihood depended on the works, people like shop keepers, transport workers and lorry drivers.
These days the works at Port Talbot are part of an integrated steel production company, Tata Steel, but with the capacity to turn out five million tonnes of steel each year it is still one of the largest plants in Europe.
Port Talbot steelworks. Photo: Anthony Hill from the BBC Wales Nature Flickr Group
The town of Port Talbot grew out of the medieval borough of Aberavon. The most notable building in the area was the magnificent Cistercian Abbey at nearby Margam. The abbey was dissolved between 1553 and 1557 but the monks used to mine coal on their land – a forerunner of the industrialisation that was to come.
The original steel production plant at Port Talbot was founded in 1901, lying to the south side of the present-day town railway station. It closed in 1961, being demolished a few years later.
The new Abbey Works had been planned in 1947, in the days immediately following the end of World War Two. Part of the Guest, Keen and Baldwin empire, the original plan was to produce tinplate on the site as well as steel, but this was later revised with production of tinplate being retained in the existing plants at Trostre and Felindre outside Llanelli.
Preparing the land on which to build the new steelworks at Port Talbot took time. Lakes and marshland had to be drained and the level of the site was raised by as much as 10 feet in order to produce a solid and effective platform on which to start construction.
Sand dunes had to be levelled and, in some instances, re-positioned. Thinking ahead, planners were quickly made aware of the fact that housing would have to be provided for the influx of workers who would soon be flocking to the area. Port Talbot had never seen so many “incomers” and, as a result, huge housing estates were duly built at Sandfields in the town and at places like nearby Pyle and Kenfig Hill.
The new steelworks were formally opened on 17 July 1951 but it was two years before the plant was fully operational. Right from the beginning, the works provided steady and well-paid employment for thousands of local people who were trained in the specialist business of steel production.
Port Talbot steelworks. Photo: Paula J James from the BBC Wales Nature Flickr Group
As the works developed in size and range, steel workers, fitters, managers and store men flocked to the area from all over Britain. Port Talbot was, it seemed, one of the great success stories of the 1960s.
Having been amalgamated, along with several other steel companies across the country, into one corporate unit, the steelworks at Port Talbot operated for several years as the Steel Company of Wales.
However, in 1967 the company was nationalised and became part of British Steel. The 1960s and 70s were a difficult time for the steel industry – a difficult time for all British industrial operations – and the history of the plant was often marred by strikes and industrial action. Yet the company survived, later being privatised and merged with other plants into Corus Steel. In March 2007 Corus was taken over by the Tata Steel Group who still operate and run the steelworks.
Today, it seems to the passing motorist or visitor to the town as if the steelworks at Port Talbot are as productive as ever. Despite recent redundancies, the impression is probably true.
A pall of smoke and steam invariably hangs over the town, along with the strong smell of sulphur, and the bright lights of glowing metal and raging furnaces still stain the night sky. It remains a thriving and important works.
These days the ore and coal needed in the production process are imported. The finished product is taken by rail to places like Shotton for coating and the steel plant is still an important employer, one that keeps alive the traditions and heritage of Welsh industry.
The steelworks dominate the southern side of the town. There is no doubt about it, Port Talbot remains a significant employer and an important part of Welsh social history.