Consett is a medium-sized town in the northwest of County Durham, England, and is the administrative capital of the district of Derwentside.
Consett is a town of 27,000 people, high on the edge of the Pennines in north-west Durham. In 1841, it was a village community of only 145, but it was about to become a boom town. Below the ground was coking coal and blackband iron ore. Nearby was limestone. These were the three ingredients needed for blast furnaces to produce iron and steel.
The town is perched on the steep eastern bank of the River Derwent and owes its origins to industrial development arising from lead mining in the area, together with the development of the steel industry in the Derwent Valley, which was initiated by immigrant German cutlers and sword-makers from Solingen, who settled in the village of Shotley Bridge (original home of Wilkinson Sword and now part of Consett) during the seventeenth century.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Derwent Valley was the cradle of the British steel industry, helped by the easy availability of coal from Tyneside, and the import of high quality iron ore from Sweden via the port of Newcastle upon Tyne. However, following the invention of the Bessemer process in the nineteenth century, steel could be made from British iron ore (which was otherwise too heavily contaminated by phosphorus), and the Derwent Valley's geographical advantage was lost, allowing Sheffield to become the leading centre of the British steel industry.
The Consett Iron Company was established in 1840 by a small group of entrepreneurs who introduced the first blast furnaces. Over the next 100 years, the town became one of the world's leading steel-making towns, and for decades the name Consett was synonymous with iron and steel. Consett was the town that made the steel for Blackpool Tower and Britain's most famous nuclear submarines.
Steel dominated Consett visually and the town was renowned for images of its cooling towers and steel mills looming over terraced houses, as well as the pall of red dust that hung over the town. The dust was actually airborne iron oxide from the steel making plant. The Consett steel works provided jobs for 6,000 workers at its peak in the 1960s. But there was intense competition in the 1970s from both local competitors on Teesside and from abroad. Moves to close Consett came in the 1970s, despite local opposition. For several years, there were rumours and heated discussions over the future of the plant.
In 1980 the death knell sounded for the steel furnaces, and the Consett works closed with the loss of 3,700 jobs. It was a devastating blow to the town, not least because the unemployment rate in Consett was double the national average at 15%, and the works had shown a small profit in the previous year before the closure was announced. This closure was part of the strategy of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government's strategy to 'modernise' UK industry. However, the decision taken in London ripped the heart out of the community. The steelworks had always avoided closure even in quite difficult economic times. The employees had pride in the work, and found it very difficult to cope with their loss of esteem and value. The social impact of the devastating decision from Whitehall cannot be underestimated. This was often characterised as "The Murder of a Town"
The town became one of the worst unemployment blackspots in Britain which hit 36 percent in 1981, and the demolition of the works led to a massive hole in the heart of the town. To this day there is no permanent museum to the history of the steelworks, and its influence on Consett and its families over the generations has been quietly glossed over. Even the development plan implemented to re-build the town - Project Genesis - has a 'Year Zero' name which suggests there was nothing worthwhile before.
The closure of the British Steel works at Consett in 1980 marked the end of the Derwent Valley steel heritage, and the decline of the town of Consett. Regeneration in the 1990s, through Project Genesis, went some way to repair the damage done, and unemployment is now down to the national average, although economic inactivity due to long-term illness is high.
The last steel ingot from the Consett ironworks was made into a cross and is kept at St Mary's RC Church, Blackhill.
Small and medium-sized businesses now provide most jobs in the area. Phileas Fogg Company (Co Durham), with its factory on the town's Number One Industrial Estate, were mildly famous for a few years from 1988 for their snack food "Made in Medomsley Road, Consett" television adverts. The Phileas Fogg Company is now owned by KP (United Biscuits).
Consett is well-known for its nightlife which attracts young visitors from all over the North East, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Although opinions differ as to whether this is a good thing for the town, the sight of revellers in T-shirts and mini-skirts has become as much a symbol of the town from the 80s to the present day as the cooling towers and red dust were in previous eras. Several pubs have at least taken names that reflect the town's steel-making past - The Works, The Company, and The Company Row.
With the steelworks gone, visitors and inhabitants are beginning to realise the beauty of the picturesque views over the Derwent Valley, and Consett is becoming a popular place to live for commuters from Durham and Tyne & Wear looking for a taste of the country. New houses are springing up round the town like mushrooms.The Derwent Reservoir is located just west of the town.
Since 2000 several new housing developments have taken place on the former Steel Works site and surrounding areas. Derwentside College has relocated to a new campus at Berry Edge and national retailers have moved into Hermiston Retail Park. There are plans for a new £20,000,000 sports complex, incorporating a swimming pool, regional tennis centre and new football stadium for Consett A.F.C. (The Steelmen). There are also plans to build a new hotel complex and a second Retail Park within easy reach (walking distance) of the town centre.
Consett is home to The Empire, one of County Durham's oldest theatres. Recently refurbished, the theatre stages variety acts, plays and a Christmas pantomime. The theatre also screens blockbuster films at times when there are no live performances.
Politically, Consett is dominated by the Labour Party although a grouping of Derwentside Independents has grown in strength and is now the official opposition on Derwentside District Council. The town is part of the North West Durham Parliamentary Constituency represented by Labour MP, Hilary Armstrong. Armstrong has held the seat since 1987 and "inherited" the position from her father Ernest Armstrong. Prior to 1983, the town had its own Member of Parliament.
In the 2005 General Election, both Labour and the Conservatives suffered a swing to the Liberal Democrats who are beginning to get a foothold in the middle-class Shotley Bridge area. The Liberal Democrats moved from third to second place, although Hilary Armstrong retains a 5 figure majority in this safe Labour seat.