Tributes to former Corby mayor, steelworker and jobs campaigner Peter McGowan

He died at the age of 82 this month

Wednesday, 20th October 2021, 7:00 am

Tributes have been paid to a Corby-born steelworker and former mayor who fought the closure of the British Steel plant and oversaw the regeneration of the town and its industries.

Former borough councillor and father-of-three Peter McGowan died on October 4, aged 82, after living with vascular dementia for several years.

Such was his passion for the people of Corby that he was thrown into the dungeons in the Houses of Parliament after showering Margaret Thatcher with 'Save Our Steelworks' badges in the debating chamber.

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Kim and Peter McGowan in 1989

As a councillor, Mr McGowan's proudest achievement was to bring RS Components and 3,000 jobs to the town which became a 'springboard' for economic regeneration.

His son, also called Peter, said in tribute to his father: "He was a big union man and a Labour guy. He was one of the 12 men who walked to London to protest about the closure of the steelworks.

"He was put in a dungeon in the Houses of Parliament with John Wood Cowling (another future Corby mayor). Dennis Skinner, John Prescott and John Smith came to see them and brought them fish and chips.

"When they got out they went to his flat and caught the milk train back home. He became great friends with Dennis Skinner. My dad had lunch with him every year."

Peter McGowan (in waistcoat, kneeling second from the right) with the Corby marchers who walked to London

Mr McGowan was born in Corby to Scottish parents who moved back to Motherwell when he was three-years-old with his three siblings. He left school at the age of 15 to become a baker boy, then a plasterer before he was called up for National Service as a gunner in the army. He enjoyed service life so much that he signed up for five years spending a happy tour in Hong Kong.

Returning to Scotland in 1965, Mr McGowan was already engaged to his first wife and he hoped to join the fire brigade but was told that he couldn't due to his Catholic faith.

Bumping into a friend, he was told that there were jobs in Corby at the steelworks.

Peter Jnr said: "He said to my mum there's jobs in Corby and she said 'where's that?' He got on the 8am bus and started a job the next day."

Vanessa Redgrave meets the Corby campaigners including Peter McGowan (third from left)

They were married in 1966, with son Peter being born the following year.

First representing the Pen Green ward, Mr McGowan was elected as a district councillor, then to Corby Borough Council for Beanfield and then Danesholme in 2003.

Despite campaigning - even rubbing shoulders with Hollywood royalty Vanessa Redgrave - the steelworks closed in 1980 with the direct loss of 5,500 jobs but twice as many workers were affected in associated firms.

As the deputy leader of Corby Borough Council under Kelvin Glendenning, the former steelworker then sought to woo industry chiefs to replace employment opportunities in the town.

Kim and Peter McGowan at the unveiling of the Steelman statue

Peter Jnr said: "My dad was very proud to have brought RS Components to the town. It was between Cambridge, Oxford and Corby. They didn't think they would be able to get enough people for the warehouse in Cambridge so it was down to Oxford and Corby. The boss said that Oxford hadn't wanted them to paint the warehouse a certain colour. My dad said it didn't matter what colour it was. The boss said, 'if you are telling me that we can paint the warehouse any colour you like we will come to Corby'."

Mr McGowan was voted to serve as mayor in 1989, serving with his second wife Kim, who he had married in 1983, as his mayoress.

He turned his had to several different careers - tour operator, double-glazing sales, and the print industry at Quebecor. In the last ten years of his working life he was a delivery driver until he retired aged 76.

In 1995 Mr McGowan was one of the dozen sitting Corby councillors who were de-selected by Labour, forming a new Corby First Labour Party.

Son Peter said: "He was a big cheese in Corby, then New Labour came in. It left a bitter taste in his mouth. I think deep down he would have liked to become an MP.

"The myth was that Maggie Thatcher closed down the steelworks but it was Jim Callaghan who proposed it. Mrs Thatcher could have reversed that but she didn't.

The Corby marchers

"Deep down he was still a Labour guy."

Away from politics Mr McGowan was a keen football fan, following Celtic, and as a man of deep faith, worshipping at St Brendan's Catholic Church, he became big friends with Canon Cronin.

Peter said: "He was 100 per cent Corby through and through. He helped a lot of people in the town and embraced what it meant to be a councillor - he was committed.

"He put a lot of work and effort into Corby. He worked tirelessly to get Corby back on its feet. The 3,000 jobs at RS - that was instrumental and made such a difference. It was a springboard for the town.

"He was so proud when he unveiled the steel man statue that is outside the Cube. It's got his name on it and I'm very proud of him."

Mr McGowan is survived by wife Kim, children Peter, Emma and Phillip, and grandchildren Grace, Lily and Sebastian.

Kim, 60, said: "He left school at 15, but he was very intelligent, always standing up for people. He wanted everyone to be treated fairly. Our daughter was the first in our family to get a degree - he thought everyone should have the chance.

"He did a lot of voluntary work - Beanfield Community Centre, a governor at St Brendan's, a lay visitor at prison.

"He enjoyed the simple things in life. He was an avid reader. He helped people go on pilgrimage to Lourdes and would carry the bags.

"He always stood up for what he believed in. He used to go on a lot of demos and marches. He played himself in the Women of Steel play.

"He was very passionate that the people of Corby were looked after - he brought them Curver, Oxford University Press, RS Components.

"He was a people's person. When he was a councillor the phone rang, dinner would be on the table but would go and he would help people."

Current mayor of Corby Cllr Lawrence Ferguson, grandson of John Wood Cowling, paid his tribute to Mr McGowan.

He said: "It was with sadness that we found out that, Peter McGowan, past chair of Corby Borough Council and a prominent councillor during Corby’s troubled times after the steel closure, had passed away.

"My granddad used to speak highly of Peter and his strong trade union values. Peter, John and several of members of ROSAC marched from Corby to London to highlight how it was so important to save steel jobs that the town relied on.

"My grandad and Peter were sent to the cells below the House of Commons for throwing ‘Save Corby Steel' badges from the spectators gallery towards Maggie Thatcher. Dennis Skinner got involved and help get them released. My grandad would tell us of the massive marches to save steel jobs in the town and how Peter was one of the key people in the struggle.

"A few years later when there was a people's march for jobs, people from many coal, steel and dock towns came through Corby and Peter was part of the team to ensure the Festival Hall was available and all that marched were fed and had a good night's sleep.

"The great thing that showed Corby in its finest was an Orange band marched in front of the protesters with a Catholic priest walking in front of it."

Cllr Mark Pengelly also paid his tribute to his friend.

He said: "I'd known Peter since an early age and remember being in Italy with him when I was 17. He was a councillor for where I lived when I was younger and was really well thought of.

"He was chair of leisure and was pivotal in getting the Rockingham Triangle, Lodge Park Sports Centre and support for the many community centres in the town in place.

"I was really happy to see him at his 80th birthday party with his brilliant loving family and he will be missed by hundreds he helped in the town."

Peter's family thanked the staff at Peaker Park Care Village in Market Harborough and the team on Naseby B at Kettering General Hospital.

A Requiem mass will be held at St Brendan's RC Church in Beanfield Avenue, Corby on November 4, at 10am, followed by interment at Shire Lodge Cemetery.

Donations if desired are being received for Dementia UK. Flowers and all further enquiries to Co-operative Funeralcare,

One of the badges