170 Years of Steel Making at Teesside in UK
Northern Echo’s Chief Features Writer Mr Chris Lloyd has gone down the mamory lane and penned 170 year long evolution of Teesside iron and steel industry in UK. Even though there is evidence of early bloomeries, the primitive furnaces used for melting the iron out of stone, on the North York Moors going back to at least Roman times. The ironstone was perhaps collected from the beaches beneath the cliffs of Cleveland, but it was regarded as being of too poor quality and too distant from a market to be worthy of serious exploitation.
1828, August 18
Mr Joseph Pease of Darlington sailed into the mouth of the River Tees and imagined a bustling seaport before him on the saltplains. He bought 520 acres, hung the world's first railway suspension bridge over the river and drove his Stockton and Darlington Railway into the new town of Middlesbrough.
To make his investment pay, Mr Pease needed other industrialists on board, so he offered some cheap riverside land, a dreary waste of mud on which sailors had discharged their ballast, to Mr Henry Bolckow and Mr John Vaughan. Mr Bolckow hailed from northern Germany, but had been dealing in grain on Newcastle's Quayside for more than a decade. Mr Vaughan, a Welshman, had been in iron all his life, and was working in the trade on Newcastle Quayside. He had the brains; Mr Bolckow had the money. They married sisters, moved to Middlesbrough, concocted a convoluted plan and opened a foundry on their dreary bit of mud at Vulcan Street, near where the Transporter Bridge would be built. The Stockton & Darlington Railway was bringing coal from the south Durham coalfield down to the seaport at Middlesbrough, so Bolckow and Vaughan shipped ironstone from Grosmont, near Whitby, into Middlesbrough and sent it back to south Durham in the empty coal wagons. In 1846, at Witton Park, near Bishop Auckland, they built a blast furnaces which, fired by coal mined at their new pit at Woodifield near Crook, turned the ironstone into pig-iron. They loaded the iron back onto the railway and returned it to Middlesbrough where it was rolled into bars in their foundry, ready for export.
1850, June 5
There is a story that on this day, Mr John Marley, the engineer at the Woodifield colliery who hailed from Middridge Grange near Shildon, was rabbit shooting with Mr Vaughan on the Cleveland Hills when his foot went down a burrow and he fell. His hand went down the rabbit hole and he found the purest ironstone he had ever seen. In reality, at Vaughan's instigation, Marley had been studying Cleveland's geology in the search for the Holy Grail of a seam of rich ironstone. Having developed a theory on paper, they walked into the hills that day and were immediately proved right, a 16ft thick layer. On August 13, they started mining at Bold Venture. On August 17, they started laying a tramway to the mouth of the mine. On September 2, the first seven tons of limestone came out of the mine, down the tramway, onto the railway and up to the Witton Park furnace. Mr Bolckow and Mr Vaughan opened their Eston ironworks in 1851 with Teesside’s first blast furnace. They were followed by Joseph Pease who opened a blast furnace at Eston in 1853. The Peases also opened an ironstone mine, at Hutton Lowcross, which was connected to their Middlesbrough to Guisborough railway. That year, Mr Samuel Bernhardson attended Cleveland Agricultural Show to sell the implements he made in his foundry in Oxfordshire. He bumped into Mr John Vaughan who persuaded him to invest, and he opened his first blast furnace in 1854 at Eston. Other pioneers of the early 1850s included Mr Edgar Gilkes, an engineer on the S&DR, who joined forces with CA Leatham, Mr Pease's son-in-law - to form Tees Furnaces. Two more S&DR men, William Hopkins and Thomas Snowden, formed Teesside Ironworks, and Isaac Lowthian Bell, the son of a Newcastle ironman, started mines near Normanby and built blast furnaces at Port Clarence. Also involved were the Cochrane family of Staffordshire who built the first furnace in Ormesby.
THERE were more than 40 blast furnaces producing half-a-million tons of pig-iron a year and pumping out so much smoke that the sun was blotted out. Middlesbrough's population had exploded from 154 in 1831 to 19,000 in 1861.
THERE were 90 blast furnaces on Teesside. Bolckow and Vaughan's first furnaces less than 20 years earlier had been 40ft high and 15ft in diameter, but the new giants were the biggest in the country, 90ft high and 30ft in diameter. Between them, they produced two million tons of iron a year, a third of the British output. The end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1874 caused iron prices to drop by 10 per cent. Wages plummeted more. Strikes broke out. Some ironworks ceased. Plus, other places like Sheffield were adopting Henry Bessemer’s new processes which blasted air through the molten pig iron to remove the impurities and to create steel, which was stronger and less brittle than iron. Teesside was in danger of being eclipsed. But in 1875, two men who had begun as puddlers in Stockton united to take over the closed West Marsh Ironworks in Middlesbrough. They were Arthur Dorman and Albert de Lande Long, and they enthusiastically adopted the new methods.
NEW open hearth furnaces on Teesside, using the latest advancements, produced more than 300,000 tons of steel and consumed 6.75m tons of rock dug out of the Cleveland Hills by 10,000 miners. The River Tees became known as the “steel river”, and Dorman Long gobbled up many of the old ironmasters to become the river’s biggest steel-maker.
THE mines of the Cleveland Hills gradually became exhausted – the voracious blast furnaces had consumed all they had to offer. Teesside needed to import two million tons of iron ore a year from Spain to keep the furnaces fed.
WITH the war causing an iron and steel boom, Dorman Long, which employed more than 20,000 men and specialised in making steel for shell casings, invested £5.7m in the first blast furnace at Redcar.
IN peacetime, demand dropped. To try to make financial sense of it all, in 1929 Dorman Long took over Bolckow Vaughan to make one super-company, the biggest iron and steel manufacturer in Britain employing 33,000 men.
ESTON mine closed after 99 years, during which 63m tons of ironstone had been removed and 375 miners killed. The Great Cleveland Orefield finally finished on January 17, 1964, with the closure of North Skelton Pit. The furnaces are fully fed on foreign ore.
NATIONALISATION by Harold Wilson’s government: Dorman Long became part of the British Steel Corporation, and survived the rationalisation of the industry as 14 steel producers were reduced to five. BRITISH STEEL built the largest blast furnace in Europe at Redcar, capable of producing 10,000 tons of iron a day, which went to the nearby Lackenby works to be turned into steel, and 3.3m tonnes a year. It was the only blast furnace on Teesside.
The end of time
MARGARET THATCHER privatised British Steel in 1988. In 1999, BS merged with a Dutch company to form Corus. In 2006, Tata of India took over, and in 2010 went bust. In 2011, Sahavirya Steel Industries of Thailand took over, restarted the blast furnace, and for a brief moment hope flickered into life, until 2015 when SSI collapsed and, after 98 years, the Redcar furnace, still the second largest in Europe, was extinguished. It would never be relit again, and this week demolition of the totemic structure
Exactly 171 years after John Marley (reputedly) stumbled down a rabbit hole to spark the industry which founded Middlesbrough, the last visible symbols are being erased: the steel river has found a new course.