Retro: Sheffield at centre of national steel strike

Hadfields Limited, Sheffield Steel Works, East Hecla Works - 11th May 1955
Hadfields Limited, Sheffield Steel Works, East Hecla Works - 11th May 1955
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Many people will have heard of the ugly scenes at Orgreave Coking Plant during the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5 but fewer will know of the battles outside Hadfields East Hecla Works during the Steel Strike of 1980.

Beginning on January 2, 1980 the steel strike was the industry’s first national strike in more than 50 years.

Hadfields Limited, East Hecla Works'Steel strike 1980'Picture shows police lines outside the works.

Hadfields Limited, East Hecla Works'Steel strike 1980'Picture shows police lines outside the works.

The nationalised British Steel Corporation’s plants were shut down in support of a claim for a 20% pay rise by some 90,000 members of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation,the largest steel union.

Management had offered 6% with unacceptable strings attached.

ISTC leader Bill Sirs said his members had helped improve the steel industry’s productivity by 8% during the previous year and 7% in the year before that. Now they were angered at having their pay linked to fresh productivity deals.

At the time of the 1980 steel strike Hadfield’s was still privately owned – acquired by the Lonrho group in 1977 – the MD being Tiny Rowland.

Hadfields had been a private limited company since 1888 when Attercliffe-born Robert Hadfield Jr became chairman at the age of 30.

He discovered manganese steel in 1882 and took out a patent in 1883/4. In time Hadfield also worked on the development of other steel alloys and became a well respected metallurgist.

In 1888 there were approximately 460 workers and this increased to 800 in the following decade.

By the mid-1890s, with business booming, the company bought 38 acres of open cornfield land in Tinsley from Earl Fitzwilliam for £16,000. On it they built new works, known as East Hecla Works, which opened in 1897.

By the turn of the century there were 2,481 workers on the Hadfield payroll.

One type of work the company became well known for was points and crossings for railway tracks.

And the ammunitions trade boomed; in August 1916, Hadfields were turning out 4,000 9.2 shells per week – and that was only one calibre. By 1918 the workforce was 15,000 of which 1,000 were women.

Robert Hadfield Jr was knighted in 1908, received a baronetcy in 1917 and died in 1940.

Whilst the 1980 steel strike was largely over pay and conditions within the nationalised BSC, private steel plants soon discovered mass picketing outside their gates.

Deciding to take a stand on all this was larger-than-life Hadfield’s chairman Derek Norton. A

t the time he was described as a man, a very big man, with a big mission – to make sure his company came out on top.

Whether his opponent was a union official, a fellow director, a tax collector or a government minister, his aim was always to get the best for private steel giant Hadfields.

On February 5, 1980 Derek Norton in cavalier style led around 120 Hadfield ISTC pickets, along with his directors, to London in an attempt turn the steel strike upside down by picketing the ISTC headquarters in Gray’s Inn Road.

Hadfield’s ISTC members threatened to call off their strike unless peace moves were speeded up by their union.

The steelmen who were ferried to the capital in a convoy of coaches handed out their ultimatum the union chief Roy Evans, second in command to Bill Sirs, and national officer Ken Clarke.

Derek Norton said: “We hope our picket is a first for British industry. I think it is a model for industrial relations.”

As they emerged from a meeting with union bosses, John Benton, works representative at the East Hecla Works, said they had told the union that if they had not got round the table in a week then the private sector workers would have a meeting and be asked to vote on a return to work.

In another move, Derek Norton offered to donate Hadfield’s profits to the strikers’ hardship fund if they would allow the firm to continue working.

He said that if they closed they would be sustaining weekly losses of half a million pounds.

On Monday, February 11 Hadfield’s staff defied jeering pickets and returned to work.

On St Valentine’s Day the situation reached a crescendo and there was a mass protest involving around 1,500 pickets outside the company’s works, aimed at shutting it down, and BSC strikers were joined by the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill.

The drama started shortly after 5am where Mr Scargill turned the corner into Vulcan Road at the head of a huge column of pickets, boosted by 300 South Yorkshire miners.

Police who had gathered in strength quickly formed ranks in front of the main gates of the East Hecla Works.

For some moments there was chaos as pickets filled Vulcan Road. Violence erupted when two squads of police linked arms and formed themselves into human wedges to drive pickets back on to the pavements.

At least five pickets were arrested.

For the next hour there were angry struggles as pickets pushed forward to hurl abuse at workers who turned up at the main gates.

Another 13 pickets were arrested but the police, now numbering 600, with another 100 in reserve, slowly took control of the situation.

Ultimately, the mass protest caused Hadfield’s to halt production for a short period but once more, when they returned to the works, further ugly picket line scenes were witnessed.

On March 20, 1980 at least 60 pickets were arrested following incidents.

The steel strike itself lasted nearly 14 weeks and plants reopened after the Lever inquiry recommended a package worth 16% in return for an agreement on working practices and productivity deals.

After the strike Hadfield’s losses were running at around £1 million a month. In April 1981, the 2,700-strong workforce was called to a meeting at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium by Derek Norton.

He told everyone that private sector steelworkers were “being sacrificed at the expense of the judge, jury and hangman attitude” of the Tories and British Steel.

In the wake of the meeting Hadfield’s axed 1,900 jobs.

It may be argued that the BSC didn’t take long to seek revenge for Norton’s barbed comments. The organisation subsequently combined its engineering and steels operations with GKN and Lonrho under the Tories’ Phoenix 2 steel privatisation programme.

Derek Norton resigned and Hadfield’s East Hecla Works began a phased closure from early 1984.

Part of the site is presently covered by the Meadowhall Shopping Centre.