A Herculean effort by volunteers to renovate a historic building has unearthed incredible features either forgotten or thought to be lost forever.
Work is already bearing fruit at the site of the Grade II listed John Summers Clock Tower in Shotton, Deeside, a year after its ‘keepers’ began clearing the vast complex.
Along with finding a surprise connection to the Titanic and finding intact stained glass, the volunteers identified a hidden room that no one on the team knew existed.
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“We had studied the architectural drawings and, based on the layout of the stairs, we suspected there must be a room behind a 6-foot steel door in the lobby,” said Vicki Roskams, director of the Enbarr Foundation. , a non-profit organization. organization put in place to renovate the clock tower and the general office.
“The door looked like something you see in old movies where thieves have to break through to get to the bank vault.”
Without destroying the gate and its surroundings, the team had to find another way to enter.
For help, he contacted Alan Rainsforth and Bill Duckworth of Tata Steel, who owned the site until 2006.
Incredibly, their deep dive into Tata’s archives yielded a pair of old keys.
With the help of two large crowbars, the door was finally opened to reveal its secrets.
“You could hear its mechanism go ‘clunk, clunk, clunk’ as the keys turned,” Vicki said.
“Inside, there was another door with steel bars. It looked a bit like an old prison.
The room turned out to be the building’s former vault, where employee salaries were once kept.
As the membership reached 12,000 at one time, the sums kept there would have been considerable.
“We recovered documents and photos from filing cabinets and which were transferred to the Tata archives. Unfortunately, there was no money left behind! says Vicky.
The Clock Tower building, on the banks of the River Dee, opened in 1907 and housed the general office of Shotton Steelworks.
Later it was taken over by British Steel, then Corus (now Tata) Steel before being sold to Pochin Developers in 2009.
In early 2021, Enbarr took over the site permanently after Pochin collapsed, having originally leased the site on pepper rent for 250 years.
In the long term, the goal is to open a community hub, a museum, a library and a heritage skills training center – and probably much more.
But a decade of neglect has left deep scars. Vandals started fires in the clock tower and wreaked havoc in its rooms, while thieves robbed the building of valuables.
In 2018, it was listed among the 10 most endangered Victorian buildings in the UK.
Volunteers have since cleared a six-inch layer of debris from the structure. The work soon revealed something thought lost – a set of discarded revolving doors in the main hall by the river.
While the mid-century plasterwork continues to be chipped away, to reveal the original masonry, more discoveries are in progress, including several masonry chimneys and an old poster of the entire site.
Further work uncovered a color-coded sample wall, once used by customers such as Ikea and MFI to choose colored steel for their retail stores.
Overall, the building stands out with its Art Nouveau interior, green tiling, and woodwork.
The centerpiece is a flying imperial staircase leading from the central hall, its molded handrails wrapped in cardboard to prevent further vandalism.
Enbarr’s research revealed another surprise. “We discovered that the staircase was designed by the White Star Line (operator of the liner Titanic),” Vicki said.
“It’s easy to imagine walking up the stairs and thinking you’re on the Titanic.”
More down-to-earth features include a rooftop smoking room for staff and two attic apartments — built for use by the Summers family — that retain their 1950s interiors.
Over the years, several panes of the building’s signature, its dial, have been shattered. Much of the clock mechanism has also been removed.
However, it is hoped that another outstanding piece of design, the Art Nouveau stained glass window in the tower, is intact.
Six windows were boarded up before the building was abandoned. So far, Enbarr volunteers have uncovered two of them and, to their relief, they found them intact.
See more in our gallery here:
Peel off the undergrowth
In 1937, on the 70th birthday of a member of the Summers family, a newly landscaped garden was gifted to senior management at the Shotton Point factory.
It included a tennis court, bowling green, sunken garden and outdoor swimming pool, all overseen by a brick pavilion with a wooden veranda in which coveted patrons could relax over a game of chess. or snakes and ladders.
Basic workers were barred from entry, although there were exceptions.
With Marie Dixon’s office overlooking the gardens, she was able to wander around once the senior brass had lunch.
A catering supervisor for senior management, based in the clock tower building, she had the kind of access that her husband, Gareth, a machinist in the engineering department, didn’t have.
Between them, the couple has racked up 71 years in the business. They met and married there, and somehow survived the biggest factory reform when, in 1980, 6,500 jobs were lost, the biggest industrial layoff in a single day in Western Europe.
So when they heard about the plan to restore the place, having not taken early retirement for a long time, they rushed to volunteer.
The return to the site was a shock to the system. The complex was abandoned. Vandals had settled in the fine woodwork and delicate Art Nouveau details.
The garden had disappeared. “When we first came back, we couldn’t recognize anything,” Marie said.
“The pavilion had disappeared. Weeds and brambles covered the site and where the trees had dropped seeds, new ones sprouted. Some were really quite big.
The task of the volunteers was difficult. Last year, through a huge collective effort, trees were felled and shredded, and vegetation was slowly scraped away to reveal traces of the garden’s former splendor.
“Where the pavilion had been knocked down, we dug up thousands of bricks,” Marie said.
“Each has been cleaned and neatly stacked so that they can eventually be used for some kind of replacement building, maybe even a new pavilion.”
Further excavations have confirmed the remains of the old tennis court, which has become a “mini forest” of fast-growing trees. To remove these, to restore the court was useless; instead, the area was turned into a small wood.
“Now there are little paths going through it,” Marie said. “Sounds lovely.”
Nobody expected to find an intact swimming pool: at the end of the 1980s, it was filled in, no longer used or needed. Its location has been confirmed and one idea is to create a reflection pond on the site. For now, however, the clock tower will take precedence.
For Marie and Gareth, both 61, bringing the resort back to life has been a labor of love. “It’s nice that when we retired, we ended up working together in a place where we spent our working lives,” said Marie.
From vandals to volunteers
In a beautiful twist of fate, the vandals who once caused so much destruction have now been enlisted to help restore the building.
Their heads were turned by Marie and Vicki, who decided it was better to work with the children than against them.
“We went out to talk to young people, some on their bikes,” Vicki said.
“We promised them a full tour of the clock tower in exchange for a bit of volunteering.
“We also asked them what they wanted to see happen to the building, and their ideas are now being incorporated into the design work.”
In addition to the traditional skills centre, for learning trades such as carpentry and dry stone masonry, suggestions have included ‘closed rooms’, similar to the escape room concept.
This idea is developed in a series of themed rooms, sponsored by companies like Tata, Toyota and Transport for Wales, giving the stories and aspirations of their respective sectors.
Before that happens, much more needs to be done in terms of cleanup, conservation and site preparation. At least the roof is now sealed, waiting to be replaced.
To move the project forward, a constant supply of volunteers is necessary. Many members of the community are already involved, with additional help from students like Deeside Round Table and Duke of Edinburgh. The oldest, a former employee, is 83 years old.
- Volunteer days take place every Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. You can just introduce yourself. For more details, follow the project Facebook page.