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Steel in the 1920's
Despite the Great Depression of the 1920's, the lives of the workers and conditions at the works was said to be good compared to many of the industry’s competitors. During the General Strike in 1928 the company closed the works for nine days rather than see their workers strike, maintaining its much prized industrial relations record.
By 1928 Orb Mills were the largest of their kind to be found anywhere in the world, and the works employed 3500 staff, 300 of those were women. The Orb installed new mills in 1928 which produced the widest rolled steel in the world at the time. The wide sheet was highly sought after by car manufacturers.
An aerial view of the works
Workers on strike 1928
“One of my earliest memories is being in bed and listening to the tramp of an array of work clogs, marching to work along the streets. I lived near the bridge over the railway line, that took them to the steelworks. They worked 8 hour shifts, 2 'til 10, and 10 'til 6 and 6 'til 2. We would go to sleep to the sound of this marching array and then be woken at the shift change” Peggy
"My family ties are that my grandfather and grandmother moved to Newport to work at the Lysaght’s steel works. They were among the families that lived on “Brooke’s field” in wooden huts. When they came from the West Midlands they already had three children, during their time living in the huts a set of twins, another girl and another boy arrived. Later they moved into a house in Oliver road, where my mum, the last of the eight children was born in 1928."
"My grandfather was originally a cobbler and made the wooden clogs for the steelworkers.” Mary Lockyer
Women of Steel
For most of the working class women of Lliswerry and the surrounding areas, not much would have changed after World War One. A lot of young widows remarried and started new families. They quickly went back to being a stay at home house wives, sometimes bringing in a second income from doing the washing for other families, selling eggs or homemade produce. Going back to this way of life despite working for several years in the Orb Works during WW1 often in skilled jobs with shifts of 12 hours at times must have been quite a shock to the system for some.
Mrs French Lewis worked in the overhead gantry on the bar bank in 1917/18. It was a tough outside job, which involved a 12 hour shift. She was 19 years of age at the time.
Women working at the Works
W R Lysaght Institute in the 1920's
In the 1920’s peace had returned once again, bringing a new lease of life to Lliswerry and the surrounding areas of the Orb Steel works. Many felt a need to live life to the full after so many young lives had sadly been lost during the First World War (WW1).
A long walk from Wolverhampton
At this time many of the workers at the Orb Steel Works originally came from the Staffordshire area. They had walked over a hundred miles to Newport in the early 1900’s to find work in the newly established Orb Works. It is said that many wore clogs at the time. They didn’t have the steel capped safety boots available today and clogs were the common footwear for the workers in the hot mills.
“I remember the boots having thick wooden soles with hobnails in. My two Uncles would entertain with clog dances and were able to strike sparks on the pavement. The work was dangerous. Uncle Jack had a burning rod go through his boot and foot. He kept the boot on display” Peggy
“The Orb Ironworks at Newport opened in 1898, and by 1901 most of the machinery at Wolverhampton, and many of the employees, had transferred to Newport. For many years, copies of the Wolverhampton Express & Star were delivered regularly to newsagents in Newport, and the works football team formed the basis of what became Newport County AFC” Text provided by ‘This is not Gwent’.
“My Mother made the long walk down from Wolverhampton. They wore clogs at the time. She told me stories of sleeping in farmers barns and sometimes under bushes, it’s hard to imagine still that people walked all that way” Linc-Cymru Tenant
“Lots of the streets around Corporation Road and near the works were named after places from Wolverhampton, like Dudley street, our family definitely put their northern stamp on the area” Carol Thomas
“The Coombs family and my Father's maternal family, the Cross family, were among the thousands who migrated from Staffordshire to Newport in 1909, but two members of the Cross family (my grandmother's brother Jonathan and Stephen) arrived as early as 1888 so must have joined Orb very shortly after the opening. Apparently, it cost 8 shillings and 11 pence to travel by train to Newport which I believe the Coombs family did as they had young children...but many Staffordshire men and women walked down.” Alan Coombs
You can read more about the starting of the Orb works, the Wolverhampton Steel workers journey to Newport and Orb works during WW1 on the Steel Remembered Project website: http://www.steelremembered.org
Some of the men that went to war from the Orb Works
The workforce included many Catholics from the Wolverhampton area prompting the setting up of a parish mission in 1909 at 442 Corporation Road. This is now the Columba Club.
A Methodist Church was opened on Cromwell Road in November 1933, It was knocked down in the 1990’s to make way for flats. Linda Elwell donated the original plaque in 2019 to Lysaght Institute and Loving the Lysaght project.
“There used to be a Methodist Church on Cromwell Road. Sadly it’s now gone and flats have been built on the site, but it was built on land given by Lysaght company and there was a steel plaque in a wooden frame commemorating its opening... I would like to donate them to Lysaght Institute” Linda Elwell
It all started with a "wet canteen"...
The opening of a ‘Wet’ Canteen in 1919, meant that the men had a base within the works for a club to be started, separate to the workforce itself, and the Works Club Committee was born.
Photo credit: Scunny History
" ….the wet canteen was on site, you know that the wet canteen was used to provide beer for people who were actually working in the hot mills and when I joined in the early 1960’s I was astonished to see there was a canteen on site where the workforce could get beer, but only the people who worked in the hot mills were allowed in there. It was summary dismissal if you were found in the wet canteen, and that was closed in 1966 with a closure of the old hot mills.” Alan Coombs
It was the Works Club Committee that first proposed the building of a club premises. They bought the land on corporation road for £2500. It took 6 months to finalise and discussions commenced on financing the building 3 months after that. By July 1927 Fred Leadbeater had been appointed as contractor. Trustees were appointed to manage the building and elected by the firm and others by the club. John Lysaght and Company would pay half of the cost and loan the remainder over a period of seven years. W. D. Lysaght laid the Foundation Stone in February 1928.
Photo credit: Scunny History
The opening of the W.R Lysaght Institute
An invitation to Mr J Pearce to the opening ceremony of the Institute.
December the 7th 1928 saw W.R. Lysaght Institute on Corporation Road open its doors for the first time. It was opened as a memorial to W.R. Lysaght's fifty years as the company's chairman, and in honour of the Orb Steel Workers’ contribution to the success of the company.
W. R. Lysaght was said to have a good relationship with his workers, often supporting their social endeavours, including a grounds for their Football team, providing instruments for the Lysaght Orb Brass Band, and supporting seasonal events like the Flower show at Somerton Park, and an annual Community Sports Days held at Lysaght Institute.
The Institute was opened by Sir William E Berry Bart. Viscount Camrose, the chair of John Lysaght Company. He was said to have mixed feelings of joy and sorrow, as it was originally intended that his brother the Late Lord Buckland was to perform the Ceremony.
Mixed emotions for the late Sir William Berry
“It was owned by the men anyway, you know. So we were, in effect, shareholders”
“Everybody said, ‘We helped build that’ and we were so proud of it, you know”
“My dad took my sister and I to see it opened. And of course, there was crowds and crowds of people, all cheering like the Queen's Jubilee really. It was marvellous."
“There were men crying there! They were so excited”
“My father worked at the Orb for 42 years, when I think of the Lysaght Institute I think of him” Patricia Price
“This fine Institute was built by the joint efforts of the firm of John Lysaght, Ltd. and its employees, as a lasting tribute to the devoted beneficent leadership during a period of fifty years of Mr. W. R. Lysaght, C.B.E. It was opened by Sir William Berry, now Lord Camrose, on December 7th, 1928. It is unique for a memorial to be built during one's life and, we are happy to say, Mr. Lysaght is still with us.” The Secretary, T Crowther.
From left to right: Sir Gomer Berry Bart., Mr Reginald Clarry (MP for Newport), Sir William E Berry Bart., Mr W R Lysaght, Mrs W R Lysaght
Bringing together a community
The Lysaght Institute quickly became a central point for the whole community and meant that working class men and women could enjoy some of the luxuries often only afforded to the upper classes.
It stood in eight acres of grounds near the works entrance and provided a range of facilities for staff including Tennis Courts, Cricket Pitch, Bowling Green, and Ornamental gardens.
The building itself hosted a public bar, a smoking room, lounge, billiards room, skittle alley and a reading room. The jewel in the crown of the institute was the majestic ballroom with a Canadian maple sprung floor. There was also a live-in apartment for the stewards. The workers contributed to the building, upkeep and membership of the Institute, with a sum of around 1 to 2 shillings taken from their pay packet each week.
The billiards room
The Lysaght ballroom needs a special mention, as it features in many of the stories we collected. Many beautiful memories were made on the original dance floor, famous for its Canadian maple wood sprung floor. The wood for the floor was transported from Canada to Newport Docks. People travelled from miles around just to dance on it.
The dancing style of the time would have seen both the Tango and Waltz, and a bit of the Lindy Hop which later became known as the Jitterbug. The Lindy Hop was the original swing dance being danced at Lysaght.
Hair styles were getting shorter, and so were the dresses. The young men of the 1920s abandoned the clothing of their parent's generation and went for comfort and style.
“I met my late husband at Lysaghts, we called it the ‘Stute’ back then, it was such a beautiful dance floor, sprung, you know so it bounced slightly when you danced, it was the only one round for miles, maybe the only one in Wales at the time” Linc-Cymru Tenant
“People came from far and wide to dance on the floor at Lysaghts”
“To dance on this Canadian maple sprung floor was one of the biggest things – it was almost as popular as the revolution”
“Well you seemed to glide along better – you seemed to dance with more ease. An era, a big big era in my life. Because I lived to dance”
W R Lysaght Institute's famous ballroom
Social life at the Institute and the Orb Works
From Football to a brass band, the Lysaght Institute enjoyed a strong history of social activities from the start. A minute's book from the original workers club in 1924 to 1928 survives. The book shows what the social scene was like back then. In 1924 there were 800 members and they all contributed a few pence a week. The wages were low compared to now and the families large, there wasn’t money for the children like there is today for sweets and regular trips. The club was able to provide many pleasures to the children of the workers. There were outings to Barry Island which remained a favourite destination for many years. A treat day for the children was possibly held on the cricket ground at Lysaght in August 1925. Each child was given a mug, a ball and a bag of sweets, which would have been a memorable occasion for the children at the time.
On March 3rd 1928, a reception with dinner was held at the Lysaght Institute to celebrate 50 years of the John Lysaght Company.
Football 'A Transfer of Love'
Lysaght & Excelsior's AFC c.1909
1911 saw the formation of a football team known as Newport and Monmouthshire A.F.C. The club took a seven-year lease of Somerton Park and adopted the colours black and amber. This choice of colours was due to the fact that most of the Orb Men involved were originally Wolverhampton Wanderers supporters. The ‘WOLVES’ had virtually identical colours.
In 1919, the owners of Somerton park were at the point of selling the land for housing development. Several of the Orb Works employees, led by Jack Wardell, made an appeal to W. R. Lysaght and the land was purchased for £2,700. Ownership was then vested in the works Committee who leased it to the reformed football club, which from then on was known as Newport County A.F.C. William Lysaght became president, a post he held until 1940.
The “County” took on its own way, although support and interest from the Orb people continued throughout its life. Stephen Berry- Orb Works 100 years
Top row (L-R) G Groves, W Gaughan, W Delvin, W Edwards, J Lythgoe. Bottom row (L-R) J Cooper, E Collins, E Edwards, F Price, F Flanders
"My great uncle was steward of the Orb Club. My other uncle lived next door to the Orb Club. Uncle Joe worked in Lysaghts for years and years. They were all big County fans too. When Uncle Joe was dying the doctor visited and asked how he was doing. ‘Shut up, I’m listening to the radio … the County scores are on in a minute.’ he told the doctor. He was more interested in the County scores, than how ill he was." Jack Black
A big brass band
Lysaght Institute had its own brass band, as did lots of the industry works at the time. Mr. A. Leyshon was placed in charge in 1924, and the band was known as "The Newport Popular Band". Mr. W. R. Lysaght presented them with a generous Coronation gift of new instruments and uniforms.
“Lysaght's Orb Works Brass Band was formed under Bandmaster Jack Marsh when the men returned from the Great War, and the first parade was at the reunion at Somerton Park in 1919. Mr. A. Leyshon (late of New Tredegar and Cwm Prize Bands), who has a lifetime experience of first-class contesting was placed in charge in 1924, since when the band has been known as "The Newport Popular Band" and are regularly engaged for the important events in Monmouthshire and adjoining counties.
Their repertoire consists of the works of all the great masters and they can be guaranteed to give a programme suitable to any occasion. Mr. Fred Pugh and Mr. Brad. Shergold are the only members who were members at the time of its formation. As reward for perseverance and success, Mr. W. R. Lysaght has presented them with a very comprehensive Coronation gift of new instruments and uniforms." Report by Owen Davies, Band Secretary, 1937
“I remember playing on Remembrance Day 1953 in the factory grounds. We used to rehearse in a building just inside the gates on the right”. Keith Haslett
Lysaght's Brigade Dinner
The annual dinner of the St. John Ambulance Brigade, Lysaght Division, was held at the Lysaght Institute in March 1926. John Lysaght Limited recognised the merit of winning the Harrison Cup Competition in 1925, and the winning team was presented with a silver replica of the Cup at the event. Western Daily Press - Wednesday 3rd March 1926
"Lysaght Division, St. John Ambulance Brigade, was held at the Lysaght Institute, about members and friends being present. Corps Superintendent A. Cotton, A1.8.E., congratulated the Division on their success in the Harrison Cup Competition last year and wished to encourage them to further efforts. He was pleased to observe that the firm John Lysaght, Limited, had recognised the merit the winning team by presenting each of the five men with a silver replica of the Cup. Divisional-Superintendent M. R. Fair spoke of the reflected glory upon the whole Division reason of the success the team. The whole Division felt proud of the achievement..."