On a trail to find out more about The Wolverhampton Iron Company and the move to Ellesmere Port I go to visit Shotton Records based at the site for Tata Steel (Mentioned in an earlier post here ). I have also purchased a new pair of boots that I am still, with some anxiety, trying to break in. My plan is to do some research then walk back 8 miles along the river Dee. New boots on.
In a discrepancy between what a place looks like on a GPS map on an iPhone and actual terrain (the gap between them being something that I am finding more and more common as I walk more) I realise that strolling into Tata Steel is not really possible. Situated just a walk over the bridge that stretches over the river Dee, it’s pretty high on security. A clearly bemused security guard directs me vaguely along a path, which I soon realise is a disused railway, now cycling path, that goes all the way back to Chester. I phone the archives and crossing over a railway line (like looking down the barrel of a gun, awaiting the judder of a train) Dave swipes me in through a security gate. He explains to me that it used to be a lot easier to get in, but someone came and nicked a roll of steel, I naively suggest that this seems quite a lot of effort for not very much money. Apparently it’s worth quite a lot. He tells me a little of his family’s move from the black country following work in the Steel industry just as the workers of The Corrugated Iron Company. I am welcomed in, and signed in, given my own little room with boxes of the ledgers of the minutes from the Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company (WCIC). These boots are already hurting and I’ve only walked across a bridge and a car park.
Through a door, I get glimpse of the archives themselves: 7 shelves, 40 ft high, 120,000 boxes, space for 20,000 more. The shelves running, dissapear to triangular points in the distance. Back of the warehouse. A fantasy of what an archive should look like. Pickers on rails to look up and down the shelves. Hard hats worn. Day to day they mostly deal in insurance claims historic, and more recent. The details of steel workers stored in boxes.
Back in the room amongst the boxes that have been picked out for me, 6 music happily for me overflowing from the room next door, I spend the day carefully looking through notes in the ledgers. Squinting at prices spent on horses, boats, feed, transport, raking through handwriting to find the first mention, suggestion of a move from Wolverhampton to Ellesmere Port. As I often find in the transcription of handwriting (so used have we become to printed written word) it is impenetrable at first, with moments of reading what you want to see and what you think you see. ..Until spider ink forms words in to focus and reveals itself as a magic eye picture you suddenly understand. But think too much or look away and that ability can quickly vanish.
October 20th 1903. P Jones ‘the question of the availability of acquiring a site for new works at Ellesmere Port and it was agreed to call a special meeting shortly to discuss it‘
That first moment, or the first moment this suggestion of a move was documented (I am sure there were conversations between the members of this family based orginisation before being bought into the board room). The roots of a move that changed the landscape of Ellesmere Port and the where some of the workers of Wolverhampton would begin to call home.
The workers are not discussed with in the meetings for the minutes, it is a business proposition as land is bought, and plans put in place, a cost effective way of moving the factory closer to coastal access. (I note with interest the business the WCIC have in Australia; corrugated iron roofs of huts to house the gold hunters in the rushes for that metal. I imagine). The plans roll on, christmas packages mentioned for the workers, 1903, 1904, I see whispers on the factory floor of the plans afoot from Mr Joe and Mr Joseph. Worries as are as common these days of change, and choice, to stay employed but move your roots and family. Somewhere else, a mass migration from the centre of the country, and who can know what work will survive if you stay, a safer option and guaranteed wage is to stay faithful to the factory. Where ever it may go. Those black country accents merging over the years with wirral vowels and the company itself taking the name of it’s new residency and eventually becoming The Mersey Iron Works, no longer The Wolverhampton. But Wolverhampton and the Black Country tell their history in names of Wolverham, Dudley Road and Sutton Way.
Place yourself in that, the packing up your goods, your home, your family, walking to a new start. For work. How this country was built, founded and developed. And at least these migrant workers the journey is short with a guarantee of work, home, security at the end of their travel. A new town built for them.
Celia Webber of The Ellesmere Port Local and Family History Society has recently written a comprehensive history of the WCIC as part of her publication ‘Cromwell Road Memories’ which should be available to purchase and can be contacted through the Museum Archives .)
Back to Shotton Archive
I spend a happy lunch (I packed rolls I’m pleased to say much to the relief of today’s co-workers, there’s no place to nip out too here) chatting a little bit more about the work that I do, what they do, and the history of the site of Steel. I’ve been welcomed in and feel proper at home amongst stories of music, and walks, and how long they’ve worked here.
After lunch I get shown photographs of the old works, that I am on, as it was. From the early 1900’s WCIC became associated with this company as it was , John Summers and Sons and started a relationship which stretched right through the nationalisation and de-nationlisation of the Steel industry. Which is why some of the WCIC archive material is kept here. John Summers & Sons was once a huge site, I am shown pictures of houses, schools, crickets teams, and football teams, dinner dances, hospitals. Rolf (head of the archives) tells me it was once a site that encompassed 8 miles, to get around there was a fleet of 99 mini’s, number plates 1-99. The Directors was 99. I am seeing a whole town, community. Like a villains den in a James Bond film. But without the villainy.
Of course during the 80’s jobs were cut in the industry, and the site became smaller and smaller, but the archives becoming larger and larger. Pieces of paper essential to running of a business. Still now. I get asked if I want to go up in the picker. Yes. Yes, I do. In a hard hat, searching for a record, we speed past marbled books and stacks of paper.
Coming down from my picker experience it starts raining. Hitting down on the corrugated iron roof of this huge warehouse. I have told everyone that I will be walking back to Chester that afternoon. They stick their head to ask if I’ve heard the rain. I may have new boots on but I have failed to bring my waterproof. I just have a denim jacket. Stone washed. With holes in. Prepared walker. They have really welcomed me here and I am offered a lift back to Chester. It is still raining. I am insist on walking despite this. I think the rains clearing. Although I can’t feel my toes in the new boots.
One of the men drily comments ‘Well she’s in training, for her 90 mile walk, you can tell by the shoes’ Looks at my boots ‘Brand new aren’t they?’ Looks at my denim jacket ‘Will you be listening to Dire Straits while you walk?’
They insist on dropping me off a little closer so it is 7 miles to chester. In my denim jacket and my boots that I can’t feel my toes in.