About 40 miles to the east of Sheffield lies another steel town, Scunthorpe. Its story must be told.
There wasn't much in Central North Lincolnshire before the 1850s. Escunatorp (as it was originally named, from the Viking meaning 'Skuma's village') gets a mention in the Domesday Book. In the 19th Century there were no more than a few dozen families spread through a cluster of five villages before that time: Ashby, Brumby, Crosby, Frodingham and Scunthorpe. The last would soon engulf its neighbours.
Just a few miles to the west, in Epworth, Charles Wesley first preached. Across the river, in Hull, William Wilberforce was born and went on to redefine the morality of the Western World. But here, atop the northern extremity of a pathetic ridge called the Lincolnshire Heights, would-be philosophers left no impression. Altogether, very little left an impression, unless you count the Devil's Toenails which had allegedly done so 450 million years earlier. At 200 feet above sea level, this was the highest point for miles around in a very low part of the world.
And then someone rediscovered ironstone. The Romans had injudiciously lost it, along with a few mosaics and the odd hypocaust that they'd dotted around the vicinity. Within a few years, there was an ironworks here. It was imaginatively named the South Ironworks, the North Ironworks being on the Lysaghts Road to the North of the town. It was the beginning of an industrial economy for a community hitherto still ploughing the three-field system.
The steel industry remains the lifeblood of Scunthorpe. Boasting one of the largest rolling mills in Europe, and the highest daily steel tonnage production in the country, Corus1 and subsidiary steel companies still employ 40% of the town's working population. Other industries sprang into existence due to the availability of cheap land in the 1960s - most notably Golden Wonder snacks (Nik-Naks and Wheat Crunchies were made in Scunthorpe for a long time), Citizen printers, and Ericsson switchboards.
On 1 June, 1974, the village of Flixborough suddenly became famous, as its Nypro cyclohexane oxidation plant exploded killing 28 people. Every Scunthonian knows what they were doing at 4.05pm that day, just like other people remember the sad demises of Kennedy, or Princess Di, or the World Trade Centre. Watching that mushroom cloud rise up, many honestly thought the world was ending. And then, in November, 1975, the Queen Victoria blast furnace was rocked in Nypro's wake.
In 1978, someone decided that it would be a good idea to place Scunthorpe in the county of Humberside, a decision created by the opening of the nearby Humber Bridge. This proved immensely unpopular with the Lincolnshire folk, mostly due to an unwanted merger with parts of the Yorkshire Ridings. Today, the name is kept only by the Services and the Scout Association; Humberside ceased to exist in 1995, giving it the honorific 'Shortest Lived County Ever.'
The privatisation of the steel industry in the late 1980s suddenly meant that Scunthorpe was becoming something of a des-res2, a culture shock to the inhabitants who had hitherto used the word 'mire'3 to describe it. John Leggott, the town's sixth form college, previously famous only for being joint-holders of the country's Boys' Football Championships, was suddenly attracting students from a 50 mile radius, and acquired a reputation as one of the best state-funded sixth forms in the country.
Queen Elizabeth II's visit to the town on 31 July, 2002, marked the first formal visit by a monarch to Scunthorpe town4. History was created that day as the Queen removed her shoes for her first ever visit to a mosque in the United Kingdom.
Scunthorpe has had its fair share of dignitaries who sensibly quit the town early in their careers. Perhaps the town's most notable exports have been football-based.
At the beginning of the 1970s, Kevin Keegan and Ray Clemence were playing at the Old Show Ground5. Fifteen hundred hardy souls knew with passionate certainty that the former was gifted. Somehow the latter never got a game. The rest is history: Keegan went to Liverpool for a modest £40,000, Clemence to Spurs for slightly more. Both captained England and forged outstanding international careers.
During the 1976 season, another future England Captain made six appearances in a Scunthorpe United shirt. This was the redoubtable Ian Botham, whose form was so abysmal he decided to concentrate on cricket, making this spell the subject of countless quiz questions ever since. Scunthorpe's footballing output has since continued through the likes of John Gregory, Matt Elliott and Mark Wilson. Oh, and Graham Taylor...
The region's other great sporting export is Tony Jacklin, the first European to win the US Open golf tournament in the modern era.
Stage and Screen
Joan Plowright, second wife of Laurence Olivier, was a great devotee of Scunthorpe's amateur dramatic tradition, and the town's theatre is named after her. Donald Pleasence also lived in the town as a child, giving him the honorary title of 'Poshest Voice Ever To Emerge From Scunthorpe.' In the musical world, Scunthorpe also boasts nativity of the folk/blues singer, Martin Simpson.
The Chuckle Brothers also both hail from the Scunthorpe region, but the bottom of the barrel of famous names is looming disturbingly close now.
Awards and Achievements
- Scunthorpe United were Division 3 (North) champions in the 1957-58 season.
- Scunthorpe was once awarded a 'commended' in Britain in Bloom. (For at least trying to clean up all the rubbish, cynics said.) The council were so impressed by this, that they promptly nominated Scunthorpe as 'The Industrial Garden Town,' erroneously giving all visiting motorists the impression that they can purchase large quantities of lettuce and tomatoes there.
- Bottesford Beck, comparable in quality to the Discworld's River Ankh, was awarded second prize in a 1985 competition to find Britain's most polluted waterway.
- The eponymous 'Scunthorpe Problem' became big news for a while online, as badly written internet filters chose to delete a large proportion of the town's name (or, even worse, instruct browsers not to access the page at all), thereby reducing all serious news reports to low farce.