Portal to town’s past

IF you live in the Wellingborough or Irthlingborough area and have a Welsh, Italian or Polish surname it is highly likely that your grandfather or great-grandfather came to the county to work as a miner.

And it is also likely they would have been accommodated in one of the most interesting buildings in Irthlingborough, which was used as a hostel for migrant workers by steel firm Richard Thomas and Baldwin.

The Baldwin part of the company’s name was Stanley Baldwin who was Prime Minister at the time of the abdication crisis.

The company, founded in Wales in 1914, mined iron ore in Irthlingborough from 1935. After nationalisation of the steel industry mining continued until the 1960s.

The chequered history of the former hostel has been highlighted following a recent fire which caused 500,000 of damage.

The red brick building beside the A6 was opened in 1932 as a trade union institute for travelling manual workers.

The hostel users would be offered a bath on arrival, two nights’ free food and lodging and a snack of bread and cheese on departure. They would then be expected to walk to another institution at least seven miles away.

Many such institutions were built during the depression of the 1930s when thousands of men took to the roads in search of work.

The institution closed at the outbreak of the Second World War as all able-bodied men were drafted into the armed services.

During the war the building served a range of purposes and many people shared in its history.

It was used for assembling gas masks, sorting donations of clothing for victims of The Blitz and for storing emergency supplies and American Red Cross parcels. It was also used as accommodation, first for evacuees, then for land army girls and later for German and Italian prisoners of war working on farms. It then became a remand home for girls.

At the end of the war the facility was taken over by Richard Thomas and Baldwin which had moved to Northamptonshire from Ebbw Vale.

When the company moved to Irthlingborough a large number of Welsh employees moved too. This is why there are a large number of families with Welsh surnames in Irthlingborough and Wellingborough today.

During the 1940s the steel firm converted the former institute into a hostel to house Polish workers, most of them former servicemen.

Ten years later it was used to house Italian workers who had also come to work in the iron ore mine.

When the steel industry was nationalised the building passed to the ownership of the British Steel Corporation.

It was at the centre of controversy again in 1967 when it was proposed to use it as a borstal – a satellite unit to the Wellingborough Young Offenders Institution.

The Home Office intended to use the premises to house 100 young male offenders. It had been empty since 1962 and during the intervening five years a number of planning applications, supported by Irthlingborough Urban Council, had been submitted.

These included schemes for turning the site into a petrol station (twice), car auction centre, industrial units and housing.

But the planning applications were always thrown out – either by the county planning committee, the Ministry of Transport or the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

The application to turn it into a borstal was also thrown out after more than 2,400 local people objected to the plan.

British Steel (later Corus) decided to use the premises as a records centre and this is how it was used until it was sold to the WM Griggs Settlement Trust for 900,000 two years ago.

The trust is now planning to convert the building to offices and build factory units on the site.

Alan Pack, who worked for Richard Thomas and Baldwin for more than 47 years, said: “The building has played an important part in local history for the past 70 years.”

Mr Pack, who was company secretary, said: “The company was a major employer in Irthling-borough for most of the 20th century and was eventually swallowed up by the British Steel Corporation, later British Steel, after the industry was nationalised.

“The iron ore mine operated for more than 50 years and was unusual in that during the 1930s most of the miners were Welsh, during the 1940s they were mainly Polish and during the late 1950s and early 60s they were mainly Italian.

“The entrance to the mine was in the Pine Trees area of Welling-borough and it stretched underground all the way to Burton Latimer.”