‘Sisters are doing it for themselves?’ The effects of deindustrialisation on the lives of Teesside Women, 1970 – 1990


‘Everybody knew each other at Head Wrightson. It was a big family community…there were sons and fathers and grandfathers right through, and in every family’.

Dennis Longstaff in M. Williamson (ed.), Life at Head’s: Memories of working at Head Wrightson Thornaby- on- Tees (2013).

Teesside’s cultural identity has been established through the rapid rise, and decline, of its industry. In 1987 Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘walk in the wilderness’ occurred on the former Head Wrightson site on Teesside. The situation at Head’s was typical of the 1970s and 1980s, when major industrial sites across the region experienced decline and closure. The ‘family community’ was also dismantled through huge job losses. The preservation of industrial heritage in academic writing and the heritage sector has largely focussed on the male experience of workplace and deindustrialisation. This is due to the dominance of male labour in heavy industries, meaning that the female experience of deindustrialisation has been neglected. The decline of industry on Teesside also coincided with the national campaign for women’s rights in the workplace and the home. Therefore, this project will explore the cultural and societal impact of Teesside’s deindustrialisation in the 1970s and 1980s on women.

The project will use oral history as its main methodology. I will conduct interviews with women who lived on Teesside during this period, and worked, or had relatives who worked in its industries. By speaking to women across different generations, I hope to discover the similarities and differences between the experiences of grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. The inclusion of female workers will also highlight the position of women in the workplace.

The main research questions for this project are:

  • Did the family and community become more important as a way of dealing with the effects of deindustrialisation and mass unemployment? Were women leaders in the community and family?
    • Did deindustrialisation reinforce gender roles?
    • What prospects did young women have in this period, and how were these affected by deindustrialisation?
    • How have these experiences shaped external perceptions of the industrial north?

This study will build on work by Margaret Williamson on Cleveland Ironstone communities (2003), and the Teesside Industrial Memories Project. It will provide a broader image of industrial decline and its impact on the workplace, home life and the wider community. My research will address the current gap in the fields of modern British, regional, and gender history.

Oral history as heritage

Oral history is a beneficial tool for preserving heritage through individual and collective memories. I will draw on the theories of oral historian Alessandro Portelli to demonstrate the value of memory. Portelli (1991) argued that narratives which are not factually accurate still provide meaning, because people view the past subjectively through their own experiences and environment. This project will be steered by the women who offer to share their memories. Each interview will be tailored to the individual in the hope that this will allow for a richer collection of memories.

Oral history is also a vulnerable heritage; if these memories are not collected now they will disappear forever. I intend to work closely with local libraries, museums and community groups to encourage the people of Teesside to engage with their heritage. The findings of this research will be displayed through public events, and a travelling exhibition. The interviews I conduct will be deposited in an archive to enable future generations to gain a greater understanding of this time period.


I am an AHRC Heritage Consortium PhD student based at Teesside University. I gained my BA in History at Teesside University with first class honours in 2014. I was awarded a funded studentship by Teesside University in 2014 for an MA in Cultural History. My MA dissertation was an exploration of the preservation, and representation, of northern industrial heritage as a gendered process. For this, Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham served as a case study.

Since 2010, I have been employed by Stockton Borough Council in both the Library Service, and at Preston Park Museum. My academic work, and my experience in the heritage and leisure sector, has stimulated my interest in the presentation of the industrial past. I am also curious about the importance of museums as places to cement and promote regional identities. The recent closure of the SSI steel plant in Redcar has increased my interest in understanding how communities deal with industrial decline.

Supervisors: Dr Charlie McGuire, Teesside University and Dr Katy Shaw, Leeds Beckett University.

Twitter: @RSaunders111