Workington as an Iron and Steel Producing Centre 1908


In 1908, a booklet was published in Workington which reviewed and put in to perspective the contemporary economic outlook. There were a number of similar publications from this era, they were published annually. Literary experts and social historians might revel in the choice of words and the political bias, but cutting through the blatant bias of the author it makes for a very interesting snapshot commentary on the state of the local Iron & Steel industry at the time.

At a time so many of us are skeptic as to the future of Workington, a review of the history and conditions of the trade on which the life of the town at present depends should be of general interest.

Six centuries ago a Blastfurnace was a mere toy that only occupied the attention of Royalty and a few aristocratic statesmen We, in our turn, carried ore in baskets and made iron in spoonfuls, mostly for the manufacturing of cannon. We knew nothing of Ironclads in those days, or of iron and steel ships- railways bad not been dreamt of. During the middle ages no son of an artisan was allowed to enter the iron and steel guilds, which were for centuries exclusive and aristocratic.
Peter the Great built one of the first furnaces on the Continent, in the Ural Mountains, to get iron for military purposes. Louis the XV was in every sense an Iron 83

Master, although he could not get as many pounds of iron from a furnace in a week as we can now get tons. Sir Walter Raleigh, who I believe brought us the first potatoes and the wherewithal to get a consoling whiff when the brain feels exhausted, was the first to find iron in America on the Coast of North Carolina, in the year 1608 America was then a British Colony, and the progress of ironmaking is said by American Historians to have been one of the principal causes of the American Revolution A cry was raised in Parliament about cheap iron having been landed in England, and what was termed "John Taylor's cheap nails." Lord Chatham declared that he would not allow the Colonists to make iron, not even their own Hobnails, and English born ironmakers in America were declared to be outlaws. In 1750, Parliament issued an injunction against the Iron Trade of America When war broke out the trade supplied a large number of the officers of the revolutionary army. It was their proud boast that they had hammered out a declaration of independence before George Washington was born. There were no millionaires in the iron trade in those days, but the cream of British brain power, and energy seems to have found an outlet in the New World. Following the declaration of independence it got full vent, and has now reached a position that requires no comment What concerns us most is its future activities, and how far it may become a World Competitor, after supplying its own vast Continent

It is in America, and nowhere else, that iron ore is found in vast pockets, in heaps and ranges on the surface of the earth ready to be scooped and carried away, The Mesabe Range is one of the wonders of the World, the ore lying close to the surface in great heaps, in some places barely covered by a foot of soil. One tract of ore land in this region is two and a half miles long, half a mile wide, and from one hundred to four hundred feet deep, From the standpoint of competition it may be pleasing to know that one of the largest fleets of ships in the World is required to carry the best American ores down the lakes from the Lake Superior regions, and that most of it has then to be carried a long distance by rail before it reaches the furnaces; and that the furnaces are a long way from seaboard. The cost of carriage is, however much lighter per ton per mile than here, if their mineral rates had been as high as ours the trade would have made fewer millionaires. With our Belgian competitors the cost of fuel is their principal difficulty, being over 6d, per ton higher on an average at the pit's mouth than in this country. Most of the ore used in Belgium is imported, some from Spain, but larger quantities come from Madeleine, or from Esch, a distance of 75 to 125 miles. The redeeming feature of the distance is that the rate charged for its transport is low, between 0.35d. and 0.45d. per ton per mile compared with about an average of 0.35d per ton per mile here.
The average cost of coal at the pit's mouth in Germany is only slightly higher than in this country. Germany, like Belgium, imports most of its iron ores, the chief supplies of the Blastfurnaces of Rhineland and Westphalia are obtained from Luxembourg, the Moselle, and Alesace-Lorraine. In each of these cases the ores have a long transport, and as they are not by any means rich, they cost, on the whole, considerably more at the furnaces than ores of about the same quality consumed at Cleveland, Lincolnshire, and Northamptonshire, as they only contain about 30 per cent. iron. A considerable quantity of Hematite ore is also imported, principally from Spain, but a portion comes from Sweden; with these foreign sources of supply the Belgian and German works can have no advantage, in fact they seem clearly to be at a disadvantage. The future supply of minerals is likely to effect the prospects of both countries more than it can effect ourselves. Ten or twelve years ago we were behind these Countries in mechanical appliances and scientific production, but we have very little to learn from them at present The varied history of the trade in this Country is worth tracing, if space permitted. At one time centred in Surrey, where there is now not a trace of it, at another in the Clydach and Beaufort district of Monmouthshire. Merthyr dates far back, but its supply of local ores has long since disappeared, and Dowlais and Cyfartha are dependent on Spain solely for their ore supplies. Staffordshire had its turn but has seen its better days, unless so far as inland consumption is concerned.

Cammell Lairds Derwent Blast Furnaces from an old postcard.With all its large production Cleveland cannot claim seniority over West Cumberland. Less than a century ago its mineral resources were untouched so far as ironstone was concerned. It was generally believed by those then, engaged in the iron trade that the Cleveland stone contained very little, if any iron, and that it was not worth smelting. The late Messrs. Bolckow & Vaughan, and Sir Lowthian Bell were the pioneers in developing and exploiting the hidden treasures of the Cleveland Hills. The best mines have been worked, and it is doubtful if today the average Cleveland Ironstone contains more than 28 per cent. of iron. It has to be calcined, but it can be obtained cheaply and the fuel required for the furnaces is within reasonable reach. It is of course of an inferior quality when compared with Hematite. Steel rails produced by the Basic process in Cleveland have recently got some hold on the market. We are told by those who should know better that they are equal to rails made from Hematite. This chestnut will only last for a time. The ladle cannot go to the wrong furnace at Workington.

A district that is destined to play an important part in the future history of the iron and steel trade of this Country is Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, and portions the surrounding Counties. Although the ore is not of a rich quality, it extends scores of square miles in seams of from six to twelve feet deep, usually from one to three feet from the surface. Scunthorpe shows signs of more than ordinary development. No doubt encouraged by coal having recently been discovered in close proximity to the Ironworks. A large steel plant, with the necessary Blastfurnace, is about to be put down (or Messrs. Lycett of Wolverhampton, and Newport Mon, and there is a possibility of the Humber yet competing successfully with the Tees.

The manufacture of iron at Workington dates back nearly two centuries. We find that in the early forties of the eighteenth century, pig iron was being produced at Barepot from ironstone which was found outcropped at Curwen Moor, and the Winscales district. This continued until about the year 1850 but we have no record of the output, which must have been very small. It is significant that about this time Hematite ore was discovered and furnaces erected at Cleator Moor, there is however, no evidence that the erection of the newer plant caused the closing down of the old. These furnaces at Cleator Moor have continued in operation until the present day, of course they have been, from time to time, brought up to date, and are now a comparatively modern plant.

In 1855 some Workington gentlemen and others formed a company and built Blastfurnaces on the North side of the Derwent, on what was then a rabbit warren. This is now the Workington Iron Company, the prosperity of which the World has heard so much recently, and which we all sincerely hope will continue. The taking over of Lowther leaves them with no competitors nearer than South Lancashire, and they are in a good position for exporting.

In 1860 Messrs Fletcher of Brigham, inspired by the hopeful growth of the trade, and the spirit of enterprise abroad at that time, took the lead in starting what we now remember as "The old West Cumberland." They built Blastfurnaces and a few years later added Puddling Furnaces and Plate Mills, and in 1873 put down steel rail rolling mills. For many years The West Cumberland held almost first rank in the iron and steel trade of the Kingdom. The strain of the depression of 1901 was more than it could bear, but prior to then there were whispers that all was not well with it. Its failure has been attributed to many causes. Over capitalisation, bad material supplied by interested parties, bad management, hampering railway conditions, and labour disputes. Perhaps it was all combined that brought about the disastrous result.

About 1866, Messrs. Kirk and Valentine started the Quay Forge and New Yard Works, making Bar Iron for which there was then a great demand, and built their Blastfurnace in 1880. There is no need to chronicle recent events in the history of these works, which we all deeply regret. The collapse seems somewhat mysterious, as they were well situated for the Irish trade, and that of Barrow and Liverpool. There are a good many people with a knowledge of the trade who will be surprised if the dismantling process is carried out.

The Moss Bay Blastfurnaces were erected about 1871 and a Steel Rail and other Mills added in 1878. This works prosperous for a time, was nearly coming to grief in the same year as West Cumberland. It managed however to rise from its ashes, and is today one of the most up-to-date concerns of its dimensions in Great Britain,Derwent Hematite Iron Works (Charles Cammell & Co. Ltd.) circa 1882

The Lowther Ironworks were built about 1873, just prior to the arrival of Messrs. Charles Cammell & Co., the coming of which inspired great hopes for the future of Workington, hopes that unfortunately have not been realised, There are however, too many evil prophets as to the future of Cammell Laird & Company at Workington, This company has only been temporarily knocked out of the front rank of the trade. Reverses always bring their lessons, and usually stimulate and bring out the determination that is very seldom lacking in British enterprise. Cammells, as we are used to call it, will come into the front line again, and the Workington Wing may surprise some of the skeptics before the New Year has come to a close. The output of the furnaces in the early stages of making Hematite was very small, about 200 tons per furnace, per week, was considered satisfactory When over 300 tons. was made the managers were jubilant and everyone in the district heard of it. As late as 1880, the average make in the North of England was 417 tons, in 1900 it had reached nearly 490 tons, today the average make at Mossbay and the Derwent is well over 1000 tons. When they commenced to roll rails at the West Cumberland, if 50 tons per day were reached the press informed the world of the great achievement. Now we can roll well up to 4,000 tons of steel rails in a week and no special fuss be made about it-virtually a river of steel and yet up to about 1870 it was made in crucibles by the hundred weight, now it is made by the thousand tons.

While there is little immediate danger of Workington falling badly behind in the race, we cannot congratulate ourselves on holding a secure position. It will be the fault of those most closely interested if the manufacture of pure Bessemer Steel does not, in the long run benefit the district. We produce no inferior class of iron, and can therefore be trusted not to adulterate. There can be little doubt that time and experience will favour steel rails manufactured from good, hematite pig iron. The ore beds of the district are far from being exhausted, and may stand us in good stead when those totally dependent on Spain fall short of supplies. This may give us some hope for the future, but an examination of the fuel question affords little encouragement. The new process can only make a slight improvement in local coke, and the carriage from Durham is a severe handicap. It is believed there are seams of coal equal to that of Durham lying this side of the Pennine Chain. Old coal miners used to say that there is good coking coal lying between Distington and Moss Bay, but there are so many big "ifs" about these statements that we may leave them out of our calculations for the present

Shipping facilities are to the iron and steel trade what railways are to agriculture, part of their very life, particularly where most of what is produced is for export. This brings up the old, old, word again "dock" Ten years ago the man who shouted this word loudest was most popular, but to-day the mention of it only provokes a sceptical smile; but it must come. There is no standing still in the Commercial World. We must either go forward or backward, and progress is hopeless without better dock accommodation.

Whatever may be done in the matters referred to, many of us who are hale and hearty will make our exit before the trade which seems so shakey at present. Commercial tears have over and over again been shed on the imaginary heir of our iron and steel industries. The great prophets of the trade declared in 1878 that the final stage of irretrievable ruin bad been reached. This was repeated in 1885 and again in 1892 and 1904 yet we were then nearing the dozen years when greater fortunes were made than have been during any period in the country's history. When the whole condition that govern the future of the trades in question are carefully weighed up, there is little danger of the old country losing the leading position in the exports of iron and steel. There are bright specks in the commercial horizon that forebode the coming of the silver lining to the cloud that has darkened so many homes in Workington, during 1908

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