It’s people who make history. People who change things. People who make memories.
The history of an area is how the people lived, what they did and how that shaped the environment, the economy and local life.
The history of Bilston is about making things. Coal. Iron. Steel. Enamels. A vast array of metal and other manufactured goods.
John Wilkinson loved iron so much he was buried in an iron coffin. His technological advances made Bilston a leading centre of iron making.
By the late 19th century Alfred Hickman was king of the local industry, working to turn Bilston from an iron making centre to a steel making centre.
These men’s names still live in the names of local streets, schools and even the park across the road from here.
By the 1920s the works were bought by Stewarts and Lloyds and you’ll know that the Stewart of that partnership came from Glasgow.
These are famous names associated with Bilston’s steel and iron industries. But this oral history project isn’t about their story. It’s your story.
The steelworks were a vital source of materials during the war and prospered until the 1970s when things got tougher and the battle to keep the works began.
Bert and Dennis Turner and many others played a full part in the fight to keep the steelworks open. There were trade union campaigns, marches and lobbies of Parliament, occupations, the study by Aston University and of ultimately course the steel strike itself. All making the argument about technology, profitability, viability and the huge social costs of closure.
The battle to keep the works open was ultimately lost and the town paid a very heavy price in terms of lost direct jobs, jobs lost in suppliers and also something that is hard to quantify but very important: the pride and identity that goes with a works this size and a tradition as long as steelmaking in Bilston. If what you are known for is closed down and no longer there it is very tough for an area and its people.
I very much welcome this oral history project -; “In the Shadow of Elisabeth” -; to record the story of the steelworks, the battle against closure and what all this meant to the area.
Thirty years on, you have to ask if Bilston ever really covered from the closure. Unemployment remained high for a long time, and today this constituency is still in the top 20 for unemployment in the whole of the UK.
Where people are in work their wages tend to be lower than the national average.
And the proportion of local people with long term sickness and difficult medical conditions is much higher than average.
The closure of the steelworks, and the other heavy industry that was also lost to the area at around this time, changed Bilston for ever. Thirty years on, the local and the national economies are very different.
It has not been a story only of decline for Wolverhampton is still an area that makes things and does it well. We have a strong aerospace cluster in the city and of course a new £500m engine plant for Jaguar Land Rover just a few miles away.
There are also new services and areas of work that simply never existed thirty years ago.
The challenge for us all today is to make sure that young people in the area can succeed in the job market as it is now and will be in the future. We have to avoid what happened after the steelworks closure which for many was years of unemployment and indeed some never worked again.
This project will play a very important role in recording what happened and how we can learn from it. And our resolve must be that whatever work is out there in today’s world, young people in Bilston have the education and skills that enables them to do it. Because if history tells us anything it is that the creativity and enterprise of this area mean its people are a match for anyone. What we have to do is to make sure they get the opportunities to prove it.