There's a new optimism in the steel town of Stocksbridge
There's a new optimism in the steel town of Stocksbridge as Chris Titley discovers<br/>Photographs by Elizabeth Savage
Stocksbridge takes its name from the wooden crossing which once spanned the Little Don River. But such was the influence of one man on its fortunes, it could easily have been renamed Foxbridge. Before Samuel Fox alighted here, there wasn’t much to see. The 1841 census details 34 people living in five houses in Stocksbridge. Even the wooden footbridge itself had gone, replaced by a stone carriage bridge 29 years earlier.
Fox transformed this sleepy valley into an industrial powerhouse. Taking over one of the corn mills in 1842 he brought labour from all around to produce steel, and lots of it. ‘This valley is all based on Sammy Fox’s works. Without that, I don’t know what there would have been in the valley,’ said Dennis Pindar, chairman of the Stocksbridge and District History Society. ‘He was doing cold rolled steel. He took out a patent in the 1850s for the paragon umbrella. All the umbrellas ever since have had the channel-shaped wire. That’s what made Samuel Fox, and made the valley.’
At its peak the steelworks employed many thousands. Today it still dominates the floor of the valley, but only a few hundred work there. Indian-owned Tata Steel has just invested a further �6.5 million in the plant, and thanks to modern technology the roaring furnaces of old have been replaced by humming electrical versions.
But it’s not just the factory where you can see the influence of fantasticMr Fox. ‘He built a lot of the churches, halls and schools,’ Dennis said. ‘Just like Titus Salt at Saltaire, Samuel Fox was the guy who literally put Stocksbridge on the map.
‘Most of the old buildings were done on the backs of Fox and his money – the company looked after the workers, built the houses, the garden village.’
The history society’s website contains a mass of documents, photographs and research charting the development of the town. Members used a grant to digitise the archive so you can delve into everything, from back issues of the Fox company magazine to old maps to histories of the school.
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The downsizing of the plant inevitably had an impact on the town. ‘When I was at a school, people just went into the steelworks. They employed virtually everybody, or you worked for a business that had some connection with the steelworks,’ said Martin Brelsford, Mayor of Stocksbridge. ‘It’s been painful at times. We all remember the steel strike of 1980 and shedding jobs through the 1980s and 1990s.’
Today many people who live in Stocksbridge work elsewhere.A bypass was opened in 1988, which not only took away the through-traffic but enabled commuters to reach Sheffield, Manchester or Leeds within 40 minutes.
Strangely, the bypass has a reputation for being haunted. Even before it opened, two policemen spied a robed torso on the road, which, rumour has it, was the ghost of a medieval monk. At the same spot security guards saw a group of children in antiquated clothing playing there, who promptly vanished.
After his investigation the presenter of Most Haunted Live, Richard Jones, described it as one of the scariest places in the UK. But to most Stocksbridge residents the road’s a lifeline, even if some of its travellers are on the supernatural side.
Back in the real world, more jobs are coming to the town with a �46 million project which will bring a retail park, including a Tesco supermarket, offices, shops, restaurants and houses to a former steelworks site.
‘The town’s been in the doldrums for a few years but the last couple of years have seen a real upturn,’ said Martin. ‘And the retail park is the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself now.’
What hasn’t changed is the friendliness of the people. Martin said he has to factor in an extra 15 minutes for every trip to the shops to account for people stopping to talk to him.
For Dennis Pindar, meanwhile, there’s nothing like it. ‘It’s an awesome place. I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve loved coming back here. It’s very close-knit. The people are the salt of the earth. I wouldn’t move anywhere else.’
Once Stocksbridge was only thought of as an industrial town. But today people view it as a desirable place to live thanks to the wonderful location and topography. ‘The town has changed from dark satanic mills to a lush green valley and a nice place to live,’ added Dennis. ‘What there is to see in Stocksbridge are the views on the top of the hills.’
At weekends walkers descend on the town from miles around, said Mayor Martin Brelsford. ‘We’re right on the edge of the Peak park. For outdoor pursuits, we’ve got a sailing club up here moved from the other side of Sheffield. We’ve got a thriving bicycle shop which set up its own cycling team this year. We have three reservoirs. There are always lots of cars, people coming out for walking, a bit of fishing or sailing. There’s lots going on, and it’s all going in the right direction; people starting groups rather than finishing things. There’s an energy about the place that’s perhaps been missing for a few years.’
He says the town’s cultural scene is blossoming too with a grant transforming the old miners’ welfare club into The Venue, a community hub which offers everything from cake decorating and scrap booking classes to music gigs.
So is he optimistic about Stocksbridge’s future? ‘At the last Remembrance Sunday parade, there must have been around 400 people turn up,’ he said.
‘There were about 150 kids from the scouts, beavers and junior firefighters. If you look at that and can’t feel optimistic about the future there’s something wrong.’
Getting there: Stocksbridge is only a short drive from the M1 via the A616
Where to park: There is some on-street parking, car parks at the supermarkets and off Edward Street
What to do: Visit the shops and The Venue. Go for on one of the wonderful walks, perhaps around Wharncliffe Craggs; the Stocksbridge Walkers site has plenty of ideas, see stocksbridge-walkers.org.uk