11. John Summers & Sons
It is ironic that John Summers, the name that has become synonymous with Shotton, never saw the town or even the Dee marshes where the factory that bore his name was built. Born in Bolton in 1822, he moved to Dukinfield, thirty miles away, at the age of 20, and began working as a clogger. He married in 1848 and had eleven children. His business expanded rapidly. In 1851 he visited the Great Exhibition in London, bought a nail making machine, and commenced making nails with which to fasten the iron strips on to the soles of clogs.
In 1852 he moved into Sandy Bank Iron Forge, half a mile away, at Stalybridge, where he concentrated on the production of clog irons and nails. His business was so successful that he purchased land, known as Bayley Fields, near the forge, and built a new ironworks. Six years later, the "Globe Works," as it was known, was making an annual profit of £2000.
John Summers died on 10th April 1876, at the age of 54. Three of his sons, James, John and Alfred, carried on the business, and they were joined by another brother, Henry Hall Summers in 1869. Henry visited Shotton in 1894 looking for land upon which to build a new factory for sheet rolling mills. Space for expansion at the Globe Works had been exhausted.
At Stalybridge, the company had dealings with the M.S & L. Railway Company, the same company who, five years earlier had commissioned the building of the Hawarden Bridge at Shotton. It was probably through this connection that the Summers family came to hear about the Shotton site.
Henry made his way to a boatyard at Connahs Quay and asked for a boatman to take him up the River Dee. Bill Butler was given the job and he rowed Henry up river in the direction of Chester. When they returned to the boatyard, Henry gave young Butler half-a-crown for his services.
The Summers main requirements were for a nearby source of water and for the site to be within easy reach of Liverpool. The River Dee and the recently constructed railway adjacent to the land made Shotton ideal. The reclaimed marshland of the Dee was cheap and in 1895, Summers purchased 40 acres at the reputed price of 2s 6d per acre, a total of £5! A further optional 50 acres was negotiated and £610 was paid for railway sidings connecting to the M,S & L Railway.
Article in the County Herald, November 16 1895, announcing the arrival of John Summers & Sons at Shotton
In December of that year, as noted in the minutes of a meeting of the M, S & L Railway Company, John Summers and Sons had acquired part of the golf links of the Chester Golf Club. A platform built for the club had to be moved, at a cost of £190.
In 1896 the "Hawarden Bridge Steelworks" opened on a 6-acre site, and within a year 250 were employed. In 1898 the firm became a Private Limited Company. In 1908, on completion of new offices the company transferred its headquarters to Shotton. This elegant symmetrical building of polished red brick and terra-cotta is said to resemble the Midland Hotel in Manchester. It was designed by Henrys friend, James France, and is of Edwardian style. It consists of 5 storeys, and its imposing, castellated central clock tower still overlooks Shotton today, contrasting with the high-tech factories that surround it.
John Summers Headquarters Building in 1910
By the year 1909 the company was the largest manufacturer of galvanized steel in the country, and probably the largest manufacturer of steel nail strips and sheets. The site now occupied 60 acres and 10,000 acres of marshland had been purchased. Looking across the Dee from Shotton, the factory had the appearance of a town of small factories, and there were 26 tall chimney stacks. The workforce had now reached 3000 and the weekly wage bill was £6000. The capacity of the factory was 160,000 tons of steel per annum.
But all was not well at the works. Trouble started in November 1909 over what was known as the Contract System. On each mill, one man employed ten others on a piecework system and the Firm paid the contractor for each ton of finished steel sheets. Differences in pay and favoritism led many of the undermen to join the Steel Smelters Union in order to get the Contract System abolished. They then threatened the Firm with strike action if it did not meet their demands. To keep the peace, Henry drew up an agreement with the Union, and thought that would be the end of the matter, but the Iron and Steel Contractors were angered. They wanted to keep the System, refused to recognize the Smelters Union, and came out on strike.
Henry Summers attempted to keep the works running by drafting in workers from other areas. At the main gates men were posted on picket duty, and in an attempt to prevent any trouble on the picket lines, and to guard the Works, many policemen from a wide area were drafted in. But, as an eyewitness account explains, trouble erupted at Shotton station on the 17th and 16th March 1910.
Click here to see the full newspaper report.
On the Saturday morning following the riot, a special conference took place at the Head Office of the works. Representatives of all the unions involved were present and the situation was fully discussed. It was decided that a truce should take place immediately, that all the pickets on both sides should be removed, that no further attacks or demonstrations of violence should take place between members of the contending unions; that the workmen at that time employed at the works be allowed to travel to and from the works; and that a peaceable situation be restored pending the decision of the Parliamentary Committee of Trades Union Congress in Chester was made known. It was arranged that all the workers leave their weapons behind at the works, and should depart to their homes in the usual manner, as if nothing unusual had occurred. The workmen agreed to the requests and left the works at their usual finishing time for the weekend. There were no reports of any further violence from either side. The railway police left the area later in the day, but about forty men of the Cheshire Constabulary arrived by train to reinforce the Flintshire Constabulary men, as a precaution.
Although there was no repeat of the trouble, the dispute continued through the year, and the importation of workers to keep the works running did not prevent heavy losses. Between February and November the company lost £60,000, mainly due to the increased percentage of defective sheets produced by the unskilled labour.
On the afternoon of Friday 2nd December 1910, Henry Summers called a mass meeting of employees at the works, and nearly three thousand men assembled in the Galvanizing and Packing department.
Henry made it clear to the men that during his speech he wanted no applause or expression of opinions; he only wanted them to listen quietly to what he had to say. He told them that, as they left the works, each man would be given a full copy of the speech, and this would give them an opportunity to look over it and discuss it amongst themselves. The meeting was not the place for expressing the differing opinions of the men, and therefore he did not want the slightest expression of feeling there.
A full transcript of the speech given by Henry can be seen by clicking here.
In it Henry gives a full and detailed account of the dispute and a graphic description of the frustration he was experiencing in being caught in the middle of a Trade Union war.
Common sense prevailed, following the speech and the vast majority of men had returned to work by 29th December.
The crew of the No.8 Mill in 1910
By 1915 output had increased to 240,000 tons, and a second steel plant was under construction. In 1919 the Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company at Ellesmere Port was taken over by John Summers. They also bought the Castle Fire Brick company in Buckley. The next year they took over the Shelton Iron, Steel and Coal Company of Stoke-on-Trent. This company was Shotton's supplier of pig iron, a very scarce item at the time and this acquisition meant that the company had become very largely self-contained and self-sufficient.
This expansion was not continuous however. Traditional oversees markets for Shotton Steel declined during the Great Depression, between the wars. In 1929 the rolling mills at the Stalybridge plant were closed down, and two years later, this slump affected Shotton. By 1930 the workforce totalled 6000, but on 24th April 1931, a day that came to be known locally as "Black Friday," without any notice at all, 4,000 employees were handed an envelope containing a letter which read:
"The last few weeks have been the most unpleasant and anxious that the Directors have ever had to face. They realize that in the actions they are now taking they have to tell many of the firm's most loyal servants that there is no more work for them. They have studied every individual case and, whilst it is hard to dispense with those who have rendered faithful service to the company for many years, they feel that, in the interests of the firm, no other course is open to them. You will, however, be paid two weeks salary in lieu of notice."
Recovery began in 1937 when a continuous hot & cold strip mill was installed following negotiations with the Mesta Machine Company of Pittsburgh, U.S.A. The site of this strip mill covered 27 acres and was raised 17 feet above the existing land in order to provide a suitable foundation. This required the pumping of 750,000 tons of sand from the estuary.
Throughout the war the works ran at full capacity. One of the Hawarden Bridge Works most famous products was made in this period. It was a curved, corrugated steel sheet known as the Anderson Air Raid Shelter, which saved many lives during the Blitz. Fifty thousand were produced every week, but a shortage of zinc, used to galvanize the sheets, meant that the Morrison Shelters, designed for indoor use, superseded the Anderson Shelters.
In 1947 Dutch engineers, experts in land reclamation, were brought to Shotton. Another artificial plateau was created, this time 280 acres in extent, 15 feet high and involving the pumping of six million tons of sand from the Dee estuary. After draining, it provided a solid foundation upon which new blast furnaces, coke ovens and a larger melting shop were built.
Whilst the work was still underway, the Government Nationalised the steel industry. On 15th February 1951, John Summers and Sons became the Iron and Steel Corporation, and State property.
The Conservative Government, which followed, pledged to denationalise the industry, and did so on 1st October 1954. The steelworks were once again the property of John Summers.
An Anderson Shelter loaded with 75 tons of pig-iron to demonstrate
At its peak the works employed more than 13,000. In 1967 the steel industry was nationalised again and the Shotton Works became part of the Summers Division of the Scottish and Northwest Group of the British Steel Corporation.
In 1969 the Globe Ironworks closed down in Stalybridge, and following many years of speculation, the party finally ended in Shotton three years later. In 1972 B.S.C. announced a 10 year plan that would culminate in the loss of about 7,000 steel-making jobs. All 13 unions fought the closure but were unsuccessful. In February 1980, the most disastrous day in Shotton's history, 6,000 jobs were lost. The last cast of steel produced passed by virtually unnoticed, and without ceremony, for the works was on strike at the time.
The end of steel-making at the site was devastating to Shotton and the Deeside area, which relied heavily on the works as the main employer in the area. Shotton now takes its unenviable place in history as the community that suffered the greatest mass loss of job opportunities in living memory. The closure of the cold strip mill and an electro-galvanising line in 2001 saw the workforce reduced further. Shotton Steelworks now employs a mere 700 in what has become a state-of-the-art steel coating plant.
A walk along Chester Road West in Shotton will reveal the prosperity brought to the town by the Summers Steelworks in its first few years. Starting from near the Wepre Brook bridge, on the north side of the coast road, a row of terraced houses, extending right down to the Station Hotel were built in 1896. Each block was named and most of the name-stones can still be read on their walls. Amongst them are: "West View," "Hillside," "Filbert Terrace," "Cambrian View," "Avelon Cottage" and "Shotton Villa." "Claremont Villa" on the corner of Chester Close, and until recently a doctor's surgery, was also built in 1896.
The Ups and Downs of the Workforce 1900 - 1992
Copyright © Keith Atkinson 1998 - 2006
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