Sheffield steel industry ‘colossus’ dies

Sir Robert Scholey, Chairman British Steel Corporation
Sir Robert Scholey, Chairman British Steel Corporation

Sir Robert Scholey, the Sheffield man who led the privatisation of the British steel industry, has died aged 92.

The former King Edward VII pupil, who joined the steel industry in Rotherham at 16, was hailed as a ‘colossus’ of the industry by former colleagues.

“He was a man of huge stature, who presided over enormous changes, from the early days of the British Steel Corporation to preparing it for privatisation,” said past Master Cutler Martin Howell.

Bluff, straight speaking and never a man to suffer fools gladly, Sir Robert became widely known in the industry as ‘Black Bob’.

Stories abound about the origin of the nickname, but it is generally accepted it came from his habit of wearing a black safety helmet.

After joining the industry, Sir Robert worked hard to gain a place studying engineering at Sheffield University, spending four nights a week at night school after working in the machine shop and then the fitting shop at English Steel Corporation.

He served with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers during the Second World War.

After the war, newly married to Joan, who survives him with two daughters, two grandchildren and a great grandson, he had planned to join Tube Investments.

However, the chance of a job in United Steel’s newly-launched engineering maintenance division proved more attractive.

Prior to nationalisation he held management positions at Samuel Fox’s Stocksbridge works and Steel Peech & Tozer’s steelmaking and primary departments.

He is credited with being the driving force behind the development of the Templeborough melting shop – now Magna Science Adventure Centre – to create the biggest electric arc furnace operation in Europe.

Sir Robert left Sheffield to join the British Steel Corporation’s London head office after nationalisation and became BSC’s chief executive aged 52.

For a man who was repeatedly landed with some of the British steel industry’s hottest potatoes, Sir Robert was remarkably modest about the part he played.

Speaking on his retirement in 1992, he told The Star: “Some people at the top of industry actually think they do it all. It’s not what you do yourself. It’s what others do for you.”

There had been a time when it looked as though Sir Robert would never get the chairman’s job at British Steel.

“I was jumped over three times, but it didn’t gall me. I enjoyed working with Ian MacGregor and Robert Haslam. I had plenty to do. With both, I ran the machine – what more do you want,” he said.

As chairman, Sir Robert steered BSC back to profitability and on to privatisation, at his own instigation, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s backing.