UK Steel- From Industrial Revolution to Modern Day

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This is part of our new UK Manufacturing series. Next post on UK Aerospace – here. Manufacturing in Birmingham. Automobile

Modern steel industry history dates back to the 1850s. It has always been important to the world’s economy and essentially caused Industrial Revolution. UK steel has had its ups and downs in the past. Britain used to be a steel giant in the 60s, exporting worldwide. With technological advances and more steel being manufactured in the US and Europe, prices began to fall. Competition and open market had an enormous impact on the UK steel industry.

Early advances in UK Steel

UK Steel - Bessemer Converter

Bessemer Converter © worldsteel (Flickr)

Steel used to have very limited applications. Before the Bessemer Converter it was very expensive to manufacture and it was only used for swords, armours and cutlery. Steel is made of iron with 0.2-2% carbon, which can be added to wrought iron. Other way is to remove carbon from pig iron to the required quantities. Bessemer process made steel production more efficient. Carbon could now be removed more efficiently by blowing air molten. This also made the process cheaper and product was primarily used for ship plates. Wrought iron was not as strong and robust as Bessemer steel and so it quickly got replaced. Bessemer product also had a competitive price and railway tracks made from it could be used for heavier vehicles. The industry was centred in Sheffield which exported to other parts of Europe and America. In the last decade of the 19th century, open-heart steelmaking started replacing the Bessemer Process. It completely took over by the mid-20th century. Originating in France and Germany in early 1900s, it allowed better control of steel composition. Pig iron, ore and scrap were used.

Industrial Revolution and beyond

Invention of steel had an enormous impact on Britain’s leadership in Industrial Revolution. UK steel experienced an extremely rapid growth. In 1875, 47% of pig iron and 40% of steel worldwide were produced in the UK. Steel was largely exported to the US to build its railways and infrastructure. Twenty years later UK contribution to the world market dropped approximately by a third. US became a world leader with Germany being close to Britain. US was now selling to the UK. British steel industry grew tenfold from 1840 to 1913, from 1.3 to 10.4 million tonnes produced. US industry started at 0.32 million tonnes, but grew faster and reached 31.5 million tonnes in 1913. Germany also experienced rapid growth. During war, there was a high demand for artillery and steel. Post-war Europe had steel in the heart of it and even European Union initially started as European Coal and Steel Community.

In late 1960s, 14 biggest steel organisations were nationalised. British Steel was created by Labour government. It was later privatised in 1988 by the Conservatives. It then formed Corus Group, together with a Dutch group. Corus Group was finally taken over by Tata Steel in 2007. Don Valley, which runs between Sheffield and Rotherham, once employed 150,000 people. It is now a heritage centre that shows how steel was manufactured. There are many old factories in Sheffield that were once used to produce steel. Steel is obviously still in demand but the number of people required for its manufacture is not as high as in the past. Computers do all the calculations once made by the workers. Developing countries need steel for their infrastructure, but since more is produced than needed, prices worldwide drop. China is an example of such a country. It now produces more steel than it requires and export the excess.

21st century problems

Up to this day, UK steel industry only employs 30,000 people. This number was 300,000 50 years ago. Tata Steel acquired Corus in 2007 and invested 300 million pounds in it. It happened just before the financial crisis when the world’s economy started slowing down. Port Talbot in Wales was essentially created on iron and steel. Workers are now uncertain of their future as Tata is looking to sell Port Talbot. The new rescue deal is required to save 11,000 jobs at risk. As Tata pension scheme faces huge deficit, it needs to be restructured. Steel prices have gone up since March and as British Pound has gone lower, UK steel may be more attractive for export. At the same time it may mean that it becomes more expensive for China to import their steel into the UK. But does it mean UK steel can still be rescued?

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