Planet excerpts

As the year begins with Port Talbot steelworks facing an uncertain future, Lynne Rees portrays through local history, memoir and haiku how the steel industry underpins her hometown.

More excerpts from Planet 221  

A black and white picture postcard from the early 1960s features the Steel Company of Wales’ (SCOW) Margam Steel Works as one of Port Talbot’s attractions, alongside Aberafan’s sandy beach and the Talbot family’s 19th century mock-Gothic castle. As incongruous as it might seem these days, to boast of the clatter and grime of heavy industry in a popular seaside resort, try and understand the pride at the time: it was Europe’s largest integrated steelworks upon completion in 1953 and the largest single employer in Wales with, at its peak, a workforce of 18,000.

Among them were crane drivers, fitters, foremen, welders, bricklayers and electrical engineers, the steelmen who lived on my street: all the fathers of my childhood who worked their Continental shifts in the shadows of Welsh mountains, from six till two, two till ten, ten till six. Their dark woollen Donkey jackets hung in the porches of our Wimpey-built houses; their empty boxes and milk bottles were between-shift fixtures on kitchen windowsills. They ate at strange times. Left the house when we were in school or asleep. ‘Be quiet,’ our mothers regularly admonished. ‘Your father’s on nights.’


shift-work knowing the scent of our fathers


Sebastien Boyesen’s Mortal Coil sculpture, outside the Aberafan Shopping Centre in Port Talbot, has classical references: Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is echoed in its design, the Shakespearean phrase, ‘When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,’ from Hamlet, in its title. But Port Talbot’s steelmaking heritage was Boyesen’s primary inspiration, the ordinary lives devoted to the industry, as well as those lost to it. A man holds a sample ladle of molten metal within a coil, literally representing the hot coil produced at the Port Talbot works, symbolically the circle of life.

Buy the issue or subscribe here