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An Illustrated History of the Haematite Steel Company
By Stan Henderson, Ken Royall
The History PressCopyright © 2015 Stan Henderson & Ken Royall
All rights reserved.
Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901 and she had reigned as Queen of the United Kingdom since 1837 when she succeeded William IV. During her reign massive advances were made in technology and there was a worldwide expansion of boundaries due to the development of railways, heavy engineering and telegraphic communication. Her long reign spanned the second part of the Industrial Revolution and locally the period of what was Barrow's greatest development. The most significant early effects of this progress were in the areas of the Strand and Hindpool. Hindpool became home to many local industries, and by far the largest and most significant was the iron and steelworks, aided in no small measure by the Furness Railway Company. From the excellent 1958 work of Dr J.D. Marshall we learn that the land at Hindpool, which became the site of the iron and steelworks, was bought by the Furness Railway Company from the Cranke family of Urswick.
The site was leased to Messrs Schneider and Hannay for the erection of blast furnaces. The first two were laid down in 1857 and put into service in 1859. By 1860 there were four, seven by 1862 and ten by 1866. With the forming of the Barrow Haematite Steel Company in 1864, Schneider and Hannay's partnership was dissolved, with their assets at Hindpool, together with the mining interests in Furness, incorporated into the new company, of which they became directors.
By 1870 there were fourteen blast furnaces and eighteen Bessemer converters deployed in iron and steel production. The steelworks, which occupied the site to the east of the Furness Railway's main line, had a frontage on Walney Road of almost 1 mile and covered a vast area.
To cater for the rapid expansion of the town and the influx of workers, Hindpool became like one large building site. A London firm was contracted to build an estate of terraced houses. The steel company engaged a Scottish firm, Smith and Caird, to build a block of flats using local sandstone on a triangular piece of land adjacent to the works. These flats, because of their resemblance to Glasgow tenements, became known as the Scotch Buildings. They housed about 950 people – more if they were well acquainted. Although an eyesore latterly, upon completion they must have looked quite impressive with their wide pavements of Coniston green slate around the external perimeter. These pavements were to survive for a few years after the original buildings disappeared. Demolition work began in May 1956 by John Binnell of Cameron Street, Barrow Island although the last vestiges managed to survive into early 1960.
The area known as Lower Hindpool had the largest concentration of ironworkers. These were the streets between Duke Street and Hindpool Road and in the early days of the works were occupied mainly by migrant workers. As iron and steelmaking was thirsty work this area boasted the most pubs and alehouses. The main watering hole of the ironworkers was the Hindpool Hotel, found on the corner of Hindpool Road and Blake Street and said to have the longest bar in the town. Steelworkers tended to favour the Queens Hotel, another large establishment with twelve bedrooms and stables to the rear, on the corner of Blake Street and Duke Street. Another popular venue was the Hammer and Pincers (later the New Inn) on the corner of Franklin and Steel Streets. Built by William Gradwell, this pub used to supply 'near beer' to the mill workers who, in those early days, could be working up to sixty hours per week. In later years the Wheatsheaf, on Hindpool Road, assumed the mantle of the area's best pub and was regularly frequented by steelworkers. Never before had there been such a coming together of wit, talent and characters, the pub could have easily been the last bastion of the Anacreontic Society in its celebration of wine, women and song!
Hindpool people referred to the flats as simply 'the buildings'. In 1933 the steelworks sold them to a housing association for £18,000.CHAPTER 2
The Hindpool Blast Furnaces
As originally constructed, the blast furnaces were 45ft in height, being raised in 1871 to 62ft. They were open-topped, allowing the hot gases produced to escape to atmosphere. The boshes of the larger furnaces were 21ft and the smaller ones 17ft in diameter. Each furnace was fitted with six tuyères. The blast, heated partly by Cowper and partly by Gjers stoves, (later upgraded to Whitwell) was originally 900°F, raised in 1890 to 1,270°F. The hoists were inclined planes, and fourteen furnaces were fitted with six inclines, each with a separate pair of engines (referred to later) and winding drums driven by friction gear and fitted with steam brakes. A high-level platform allowed the charge to be conveyed to each furnace by men known as 'barrow-wheelers'. The average weekly output of the furnaces was gradually increased as mechanical improvements were made, from a capacity of 500 tons in 1875 to 600 tons in 1890 and to 720 tons in 1898. The Hindpool furnaces were more than successful.
Later, the furnaces were modified by Josiah Smith, general manager, for collecting and utilising the waste gases. The furnace tops were closed off by incorporating the bell-and-hopper system invented in 1850 by George Parry of Ebbw Vale. The gas take-off was just below the hopper at what was called the furnace throat, and from here large pipes called down-comers directed the gases to ground level. Initially these gases were directed back to the foot of the furnaces to heat the blasts. Further developments saw these gases distributed to the steam-raising plant around the works – recycling before the term had been coined! From the mid-1870s the Hindpool blast furnace plant was deemed the finest and most modern in the country.
Initially the coke for use in the blast furnaces was brought in from Durham, 130 miles away, by wagons of the Furness Railway. The costs associated with this were more than compensated for by the benefit of having the richest of haematite ore on the doorstep. Years later, when the local ores became depleted and the basic method of steelmaking became established, these carriage costs became significant.
One day in early March 1880 the charging gang at No. 2 hoist had finished loading their carriage with coke, which was to be hauled up the incline and barrowed to No. 5 blast furnace. The engine driver, Bill Woodward, was given the signal and the four barrow-wheelers mounted the loaded car as it began its ascent. About halfway up they noticed their speed was faster than normal and, as they weren't slowing as they approached the top, prepared to jump clear. At the top all four men made a spring to gain the upper platform, but William Hartley, 46-year-old father of five never managed the leap and, as one of the winding ropes had broken, was now on a white-knuckle ride back down to the charging depot. The wrought-iron carriage smashed into the stops at the bottom, flinging Hartley violently forwards and trapping him between the barrows. He was removed to hospital where it was found his skull was fractured, his jaw broken, and his leg broken. He died the next day from 'severe concussion'. The Barrow Herald of 23 March 1880 carried a report of the inquest. Although very tragic there was overall a low number of fatal accidents at Barrow works, which at the time employed around three to four thousand men at Hindpool. The incident was deemed statistically insignificant.
After the First World War, when mechanical charging had become the norm, the blast furnaces were reduced to four in number (Nos 6, 8, 10 and 11). A Halberg-Beth gas-cleaning plant was installed. The gases for the steelworks were piped away in a mitred 36in-diameter pipeline, which became known as the zigzag main. This pipeline straddled the tract of land, a kind of no-man's-land that carried the Furness Railway goods line bisecting the works. In the late 1860s there had been reservoirs situated here and then later banks of coking ovens. From the 1890s it was just a mass of sidings alongside hundreds of tons of iron pigs. Just north of where No. 12 blast furnace stood was a wrought-iron footbridge, 17ft above the ground, enabling safe passage between the two sections of the works. The waste-gas system contained five stages of filters that removed unwanted particles, and the process could handle up to 5 million cu. ft of gas per hour. In addition to steam-raising for the mill engines, the gas was used to generate all the electricity required by the works.
Casting was almost a continuous and labour-intensive process. To the east, sloping away from the furnaces, were the sand pig beds. During the 1930s the first of two pig casting machines was constructed to the south of the pig beds, these were more compatible with the larger-capacity blast furnaces. Iron was tapped from the furnaces into ladles, which sat in sunken sidings, and then transported by rail to the casting machine. When in position at the base of the machine the ladle was tilted and the molten iron flowed along a short channel to the foot of the double row of mould pans. The moulds were attached to each other in a long chain and the chain moved along like a conveyer belt. As they filled, the line of pans moved up an incline; by the time they had reached the top the iron had solidified and, as the conveyer turned under to return, the pigs fell out of the mould, through a spray of cooling water, into a waiting railway wagon.
On the Walney Channel side of the furnaces were the hot blast stoves. These tall cylindrical structures stood to the west of the furnaces and were where the blast-furnace gas was collected and burnt. The heat produced was absorbed by a honeycomb of special bricks in each stove, and then stored until needed for the next blast. Additionally to the west was an array of service workshops including a brass foundry and boiler shop to support and facilitate production. The post-war furnaces were each capable of an output of over 2,000 tons per week. At least two furnaces were in blast at one time, and in 1949 a record of 5,340 tons of pig iron was produced in one week. The bulk of the iron ore at this time was imported from Scandinavia, Spain and North Africa, augmented by supplies from West Cumberland.
The Smelting Process
The ore, coke and limestone formed the furnace charge and was carried up the inclined planes from the charging depots alongside by the hoist engines and dropped into the furnaces. Air was blown into the base of the furnace through the tuyères (pronounced twee-airs), which caused the coke to burn fiercely. Heat and gas were generated. The coke burned and sank and the gas flowed upwards. The gas and heat acted on the ore and together caused it to melt. The iron sank downwards in molten droplets and trickled into the hearth of the furnace. The earthy matter in the ore, together with any impurities, was taken out by the limestone and formed a slag, which floated on top of the iron. Slag and iron were tapped from the furnace at different levels, the iron being tapped every 5 hours or so, and the slag every two. The raw materials – furnace burden – were charged continually by way of the inclined planes mentioned earlier. Not only did we get iron from the blast furnaces but also several by-products, namely gas and slag, which could be further processed into building materials and ballast, as well as fertiliser for agricultural use.
The ratios: to make one ton of haematite iron required 1.8 tons of haematite ore, 1 ton of coke, 9cwt of limestone and 5 ½ tons of air. The rich and pure nature of the local ore allowed the furnaces to be tapped more frequently than with other, lower grade ores.
The 1950s was a decade of modernisation, concluding in the early 1960s with sudden and unexpected closure. With the full co-operation of the British Transport Commission an ore-handling facility had been installed at Barrow docks so that iron ore could be discharged from ships' holds direct into receiving bins for onward transmission to either Barrow or Millom ironworks, and during 1956 a record tonnage of ore was received into the docks. Meanwhile, at Barrow a new Dwight-Lloyd sinter plant of 11,000 tons capacity had been installed together with a totally rebuilt blast furnace. In addition to iron smelting – and Barrow had carved something of a niche with its semi-phosphoric pig iron – production engineering facilities were expanded through an arrangement with an American manufacturer allowing the company to offer extended ranges of blast furnace and steelworks plant, specialised valves and other equipment. This arm of the business traded as Barrow-Kinney.
With the demolition of all the old steam-raising plant at the steelworks site in the late 1950s, its energy requirements now precluded the need for blast furnace gas, which for years had crossed the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) Railway (formerly the Furness Railway) goods line via the zigzag main. Gone was the Monday morning ritual of Ken Royall meeting with Jim McWhan to discuss gas-meter readings and negotiate tariffs. The resourceful Mr McWhan had successfully negotiated an arrangement with the British Cellophane factory at Sandscale. This factory, owned by the Cortaulds group, was set up on the outskirts of the town in 1959. Following the satisfactory agreement a 36in-diameter pipeline was fabricated and laid between the two works alongside the northbound railway line out of Barrow.
The Barrow News of 18 January 1963 reported that union officials representing the workforce had been told on the 16th that the works would close on 31 March 1963. Barrow works had been bought by Millom Haematite Iron Company. Millom ironworks were a part of the Cranleigh group and had secured the sale for £1,500.00 with the Iron and Steel Holdings and Realisation Agency.
The news that broke on that day in January 1963 was devastating for the town. The Ironworks was the town's oldest industry. Over 700 men would become unemployed. The reason cited for the closure was apparently an over production of pig iron that was building up throughout the Hindpool works.
In the meantime James McWhan had ideas for the engineering facility that had always complimented the blast furnace plant. He put forward a very strong case for retaining the large machine shop and running it as a 'stand-alone' business. His idea caught the attention of the Duple Bus Company of Blackpool who had the confidence to make the necessary investment. The initiative became known as the Barrow Engineering Company, which grew from a small focus to employing around sixty people. Jim McWhan stayed on in the capacity of managing director and the business traded successfully until 1984.
Following closure the works stood derelict throughout most of 1963 while officials scoured the country for potential buyers of items of plant still in working order. The North-Western Evening Mail of 2 November 1963 reported that items of plant were being dismantled and taken to the West Bromwich Company of C.C. Cooper, who were part of the Bromford Iron and Steel Company.
Among the plant purchased were three blast furnaces, eight water-tube boilers, gas-cleaning plant, turbo blowers, overhead cranes, water-mixing plant, pig casting machines and rolling stock. One of the blast furnaces had never been blown-in (used). Mr J. Scott, director at Barrow, said that the Midlands firm would be engaged on the site for another year, but the dismantling work should be completed before the end of 1964.CHAPTER 3
The Birth of Bulk Steelmaking
The Bessemer Plant: Final Remodelling
The ironworks of Schneider and Hannay were already up and running in 1863 when His Grace the 7th Duke of Devonshire visited Sheffield and witnessed an early Bessemer converter in action at Brown's Atlas steelworks. Within twelve months, following a successful pilot operation, work had started on the erection of a Bessemer steel plant at Hindpool.
By 1873 Sheffield had a Bessemer steelmaking capacity of a quarter of a million tons per year deployed in rail making and a further 100,000 tons directed at ships' plate. Even so, the Yorkshire city did not have things all its own way, since the 'Cumbrian' ironmakers had bought in.
The Workington Haematite Iron Company, with Sir Henry its principal stockholder, was part of the trend but by no means the main player. At Barrow a new holder of the world's largest steelworks title emerged, with fourteen blast furnaces and eighteen converters. The world steel capacity had doubled three times in the single decade of the 1870s and the two towns of Barrow and Sheffield were each making more steel at the end of it than the whole world had done ten years earlier.
At this point it seems fitting to paraphrase the words printed in the satirical magazine Punch on 5 October 1867: 'Barrow-in-Furness: from a barrow to a coach and four in ten years'. The skit was obviously aimed at Schneider and his burgeoning iron and steel empire.
Originally almost all the activity at Barrow steelworks was carried out in three large sheds with barrel roofs, built side by side and numbered 1, 2 and 3 from east to west. These buildings, each 700ft long and 110ft wide, were completed in 1865 and lay parallel to Walney Road. Once inside there was common access via bricked arches 16ft wide. Parts of 1 and 3 sheds were open to the outside, which ensured adequate ventilation for those working inside. The gable ends of each building were of local brickwork provided with pitch pine windows at the upper segment. No. 2 shed had, at its apex in the southern wall, a huge bell used for signalling the start to work of the mills. The Bessemer plant occupied the northern ends of the three steel sheds and the remodelling was confined to No. 1 shed.
Excerpted from Barrow Steelworks by Stan Henderson, Ken Royall. Copyright © 2015 Stan Henderson & Ken Royall. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
2 The Hindpool Blast Furnaces,
3 The Birth of Bulk Steelmaking,
4 Rolling Mills and Soaking Pits,
5 The Hoop and Bar Mills,
6 Open-Hearth Plant and Steel Foundries,
7 Boilers, Engines and Transport,
8 The Development of High-Speed Continuous Casting,
10 Fuel and Instrument Department,
11 Sport and Leisure,
13 Hoop Works Rundown and Closure,
14 Steelworks Closure and Demolition,
About the Authors,