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How an Ironmaking Welshman founded Donetsk

Donetsk, Pittsburgh, Bochum, Sheffield. Four cities environed by water and coal - and made of steel. Today the whole world knows the type of steel they make in Donetsk.

But who amongst our non-ferrous trade knows that the town of Donetsk was founded by a Welshman? His name was John Hughes, born in 1814, and although he could only read capital letters and never learned to write, he probably achieved more for the world than many a literary soul. In 1869 with the decline of ironmaking in his hometown of Merthyr Tydfil, he travelled with a hundred ironworkers and coal miners, and eight shiploads of equipment, to a place where he knew it would thrive. This was amid the coal fields of the Donbas and by the mighty river Kalmius that runs into the Sea of Azov. His workforce, who had left the valleys because the local families did not want to convert their iron works to steel making, made this part of Ukraine home and both they and their descendants mostly stayed until the revolution.


Photo of John Hughes (1814-1889), Courtesy of Merthyr Tydfil History Society.

Astonishing to me, with the name of Donetsk on lips all over the world, was to discover that its original name was Yuzovka (Hughesovka) in gratitude for Hughes’ achievements. Of course, the Bolshevik revolution put an end to memories of foreign imperialist influence when the town was renamed Stalino before its present incarnation as Donetsk. Nevertheless, Hughes is still remembered in Merthyr Tydfil and, following Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a new statue was erected to Hughes. For all these reasons and more, we should remember him too.

Until the present crisis there were something like 200 working coal fields in Donbas and steel output has been the town’s DNA ever since Hughes. In the last few months, the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works located at the mouth of the Kalmius drew worldwide attention when Ukrainian steel makers and their families held out in the nuclear bunkers below the Kombinat.

Travelling to Ukraine in the 1990s, one of my formative experiences was meeting a coal miner from Donbas whose name was Nikolai Sokolov. At the end of the Soviet Union, it had occurred to him (with similar outrageous courage to Hughes) to buy one of the largest oil refineries in Ukraine. With no more qualification than the bravery required of a Ukrainian coal miner, he sat in the corridors of Eximbank in Moscow until they loaned him the money. He called the company Kalmius after the river and made his buddy (upon whom his life had depended underground) his second-in-command, despite the latter’s total absence of business nous.

By the time I met Nikolai, he was a friendly oligarch who had paid for the onion dome of Ilyinskaya Church on Pochaininskaya Street opposite his office in Podol in Kyiv to be gold-leafed, and was abundant in his generosity to staff, family, and friends - buying them cars, homes and paying for their medical bills. Naturally, after hearing of the events in Ukraine, I made enquiries as to how he was doing. It appeared that some years back he had fallen on hard times; an oil tanker he owned had been confiscated and he was now destitute. Such are the steep curves implicit in the post-Soviet world.

Last week, I travelled to Britain’s Donetsk, Sheffield, at one point passing along a road called Bochum Parkway, memorialising for those who notice such echoes another town transformed by the Bessemer process. I was there to take our new Ukrainian employee, Liliia, on a visit to see what our small company does in the metal trade and to see metal rather than paperwork. In just two days, we saw the processing of ferro titanium, the transformation of incoming turnings via crushing and degreasing, chopping of solids, making of charges, through to melting in the 1mt induction furnaces in which Sheffield specialises. From there we visited other yards with whom we have worked for three decades, to see various lots of our incoming metals being sheared, shot-blasted, or sorted. We saw the means by which our various types of super alloy blade scrap is acid treated to remove ceramic and then prepared for sale and reverting into new alloy. I was able to show her that while Sheffield’s river Don might not be as wide as the Ukrainian Don, Donets, Kalmius, or Dnipro, there is a world of metals here still to make the metal heart skip a beat.

Liliia’s parents are in Kyiv, in their 80s. She rings them daily just for a few minutes so as not to wear out their phone batteries, and they say cheery things like ‘we had an hour’s electricity today’. She herself came out under bombing via Warsaw and thence to my sister and now to our company. My impression is that she will learn our trade well and be an asset to our company.

Bravery, it seems to me, in Ukraine runs hand in hand with making steel – and it is the spine of who they are in Sheffield too.


By Anthony Lipmann

Published in Lord Copper (www.lord-copper.com)

16.11.22

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