Aubrey Brooks

Memories: Aubrey Brooks, who spent 38 years working at Newcastle's BHP plant, at a commemorative sculpture near the steelworks. Photo: Nick Moir

Aubrey Brooks started a new job the day after he and 2241 others marched out of the Newcastle steelworks gates for the last time.

He worked in security, guarding the same steelworks' train line he spent much of his 38 years working on for ''The BHP'', as Novocastrians call their old boss.

''I was 54 and happy for the job but didn't last a shift,'' Mr Brooks said. ''It was too quiet. All those years … busy men, noisy trains, the furnaces roaring and then silence. All I could see were ghosts. I was spooked and walked away. Haven't worked a day since.''

Taking heat for Australia's car industry closure, Prime Minister Tony Abbott offered the experience of the once-mighty industrial city as the rebound route, saying since the steelworks closed on September 30, 1999, Newcastle was now a ''different and, many would say, somewhat better city today''.

Perhaps not that many.

Nearly 43 per cent of respondents to a Newcastle Herald poll, published last week, disagreed with Mr Abbott.

And Mr Brooks, who heads the Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association and organises the annual September reunion, is not sure.

''Certainly, Newcastle is different,'' Mr Brooks said. ''But better? Blokes at the reunion say they're going great guns but you look into their eyes and wonder.''

While Newcastle's unemployment rate has dropped from its historic position above the NSW average, it is no longer the working man's paradise - heaven has shifted to the Hunter Valley coalfields - and what was once a private sector economy has changed into a public sector one, with health and education aimed at middle-class out-of-towners.

BHP was a workplace that primarily required muscle and nearly every Newcastle family had a connection. Mr Brooks' grandfather joined BHP the day it opened in 1915.

Thousands started apprenticeships, including Newcastle Knights hero Paul Harragon, yacht designer Ben Lexcen, rugby champion John Hipwell and world water-speed record holder Ken Warby. ''You didn't have to be a genius to work there,'' Mr Brooks said. ''Your mates showed you what to do and looked after you. So did the BHP. When it was over, you knew nothing else.''

He said in the years since, some had committed suicide, others had wives, unused to their presence at home, leave their marriages. Most, Mr Brooks said, were forced into early retirements of fishing or drinking.

Paul Cartledge, of Pathways Employment Services, a company set up initially by BHP to smooth the transition, said 15 months after the closure, about 90 per cent of the men had jobs or were getting educational qualifications. But BHP had been laying off people for years (11,448 worked at the steelworks in 1964) or outsourcing the workforce to private contractors - so the real impact of the shutdown remained hidden.

''Younger workers got jobs with One Steel or the smelters,'' Mr Cartledge said.

''But it was the older workers, the over 45s, who found it difficult. They still do.''