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The Corby steel industry

Corby is perhaps best known for its iron and steel industry. After its expansion at the turn of the 20th century, the industry shaped the town and dominated all aspects of life until the steelworks closed in 1980.

Corby is located on a huge bed of ironstone. It was worked in Roman times, but abandoned in the Elizabethan era. When the iron ore was rediscovered in the 1800s, it transformed Corby from a quiet village to an industrial town.

As the iron and steel industry developed, Corby’s population grew from around 750 in 1881 to just under 4000 in 1891. After the construction of Stewarts and Lloyds’ Steel Works in 1933, the population rose to over 10,000. The new plant made steel tubes, as well as expanding the ironworks. It became the largest facility in Europe. By its completion, it employed 4000 people.

Steelwork was difficult and dangerous. Early on, fatal workplace accidents were common. There were also other effects on employees’ health: hearing loss caused by the noise from heavy machinery, eczema from handling lubricating oil, and lung diseases caused by breathing in dust, silica, and asbestos.

Listen to Brian Saunders talk about workplace accidents in the 1950s below:

Stewarts and Lloyds did not have difficulties attracting workers even with the dangers. As the Corby Works replaced sites in North Lincolnshire, Scotland, and the West Midlands, many employees came from these plants. The large number of Scots that settled in Corby to work led to the town becoming known as ‘Little Scotland’.

Stewart and Lloyds started a housing scheme to accommodate the rising population. They had built 2000 homes for its workers by 1938. East Carlton Park and Hall was bought to house managers. They also built leisure facilities, such as football pitches, tennis courts, allotments, and an indoor hall.

Listen to Brian Saunders talk about the jovial atmosphere in the 1950s below:

During the Second World War, women replaced men at the plant who left to fight. The steelworks boomed and made an important contribution to the war effort. Its tubes were used to build hangars, reinforce buildings, and complete project PLUTO. PLUTO stood for Pipe Lines Under The Ocean and was an undersea pipe that supplied fuel to Allied troops after D-Day.

Tubing made at Corby was coiled on a floating drum, then unwound onto the bed of the English Channel as the drum was towed to France. Over 120 million gallons of fuel was transported this way. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described PLUTO as:

 

a wholly British achievement and a feat of amphibious engineering skill of which we may well be proud.

The Corby steel boom initially continued post-war, but the industry began to decline in the 1960s. Worldwide demand for steel decreased and British steel was being out-priced. In 1979, British Steel (who had taken over the plant from Stewart and Lloyds when the industry was nationalised) announced the closure of the Corby Works. Steelworkers and town residents protested. However, the steelworks was closed in stages the following year. Over 10,000 people lost their jobs and local unemployment rose to 30%.

The steelworks’ buildings were quickly demolished and sites offered to businesses. With re-development and the attraction of new companies, employment rates recovered within a decade. Today, there is little that remains of the industry that shaped the town and dominated all aspects of life for over a century. 

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To visit - Corby Heritage Centre covers the history of Corby, including the iron and steel industry.
To see - Michael Grevatte’s statue of a steelworker was commissioned for Corby’s Golden Jubilee. Its plinth is made from local ironstone. It stands outside the Corby Cube.
To visit - East Carlton Countryside Park Heritage Centre covers the history of Corby's iron and steel industry. It also has pieces of machinery on display outside.
To watch - Our Corby produced a documentary about Project Pluto called ‘How Corby Men and Women Helped Win WWII’. You can watch it on their website.
Image acknowledgements:
 

Man working at the Corby Works, c.1970s © Corby Borough Council Collection

Man photographing molten steel at the Corby Works © Northamptonshire Archives Service

Blast tapping a blast furnace at the Corby Works, c. 1960s © Corby Borough Council Collection

Corby memorial plaque to workers killed at work © Northamptonshire County Council

Man in front of steelmaker  © Northamptonshire Archives Service

Audio clip extracted from an interview with Brian Saunders, recorded by Alan Dein on 21 February 1992, National Life Stories Lives in Steel, C532/053, © The British Library Board, used with permission

Workers © Northamptonshire Archives Service

Audio clip extracted from an interview with Brian Saunders, recorded by Alan Dein on 21 February 1992, National Life Stories Lives in Steel, C532/053, © The British Library Board, used with permission

Demolition of the Corby Works, c. 1984 © Northamptonshire Archives Service

Corby Heritage Centre © Corby Borough Council Collection

The Steelworker statue © Northamptonshire County Council

East Carlton Countryside Park Heritage Centre © Northamptonshire County Council

Laying the Project PLUTO pipeline © IWM (T 30), licenced under the IWM Non-Commerical Licence

If you have any comments or corrections, please get in touch:

If your question is research-related, please contact the Northamptonshire Archives.