This weekend, if readers can’t already tell, I’m busy with work and other matters, so I’m having a catch up on interesting stuff I’ve been sent by readers – it is, after all, about time I cleared some of the backlog.
I welcome contributions to the blog, and indeed, this ramshackle, rambling pile of chaotic verbiage wouldn’t be the thing it is without the learned, civilising and knowledgable submissions of the readers. I love everything sent, and will use it all in the end, but I get so much material – and it can take ages to prep, even from a text file – that sometimes folk may get dispirited by the delay. Please don’t, It’s all valuable, valued and will get used.
Some stuff I save for rainy days or winter weekends. In more than four years of doing this, I’ve learned that some stuff goes better on grim Sundays, when there are lots of folk indoors looking for stuff to read. Hence stuff like David Evan’s wonderful school log books and the like is saved for darker days when there will be a bigger audience. Nothing is wasted.
There is some method in this, but not much. If you think I’ve forgotten something you sent or left a thread hanging, please feel free to give me a prod. I get about 100 emails a day related to the blog at the moment (that’s after the spam is dumped), so it can be a bit hard to spot things.
Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler and David Evans in particular generate a constant stream of great research, and without their eagle eyes I wouldn’t be able to feature articles like the one below.
We have talked a lot recently about the Birchills Ironworks, Talbot Stead Tube Works (latterly Sterling Tubes), and have ruminated on the nature of metal bashing and other industry. In his initial perusal of The Graphic, Peter spotted the following article relating to metal production in Cleveland, and I think it’s worth a read. The language is as flowery as you’d expect, but there is real truth there, too.
Note the description of the machinery is similar to that at the Birchills Ironworks, whose auction sale notice was featured here a few weeks ago.
The recent articles concerning the Birchill’s Ironworks seem to have generated quite a bit of interest, but the advert for the sale was in the year of 1867. Just what would it have looked like at the time?
I recently stumbled across an amazing weekly paper in the Archives, called The Graphic, and here is one of the articles from Saturday 26 January 1878. Although describing Cleveland it could give an idea…
Although Vulcan takes a firm hold on any district in which he plants his standard, yet he frequently changes his place of grasp. Several considerations, such as the exhaustion of the fuel which gives him breath, the using up of the raw food on which he feeds, and the changing requirements of his patrons, force him to remove his hold now and again. And thus the seat of his his kingdom has moved northwards, irregularly and slowly; and now the seat is in what was only a score or two years ago, the unknown district of Cleveland.
Out of that type of the good land of old, who stones were iron, there has throughout that score of years been an increasing quarrying of Ironstone; black and costly indices of prosperity, smelting furnaces, have planted along the side of the nearest river; and the effect on the district and other trades has been incalculable. The coal trade has willingly contributed fuel in a vast proportions, and the lime quarries of Durham have given large quantities of their product to flux the iron. Shipyards have grown, wherein Tubal Cain’s descendants have replaced the constructors of the wooden walls of old; the olden industries have had to change their form and to extend their fields, or have paled there ineffectual fires; and the whole district has changed.
Over the greater part of Northern Cleveland mining villages are thickly strewn, and from these, in the early morning, there may be seen streams of men proceeding minewards. There is no mistake in the regard to their calling: it may be known from the colour of their dress, crusted at times with the clay and dirt of the mine, belted at the knee, and equipped with another belt over the shoulder to which the tin “sconce” for the candle and the powder flask are often attached. At the mine, entrance is made into the hill by a drift cut into its face, or into lower-laid iron strata by a descent.
From such a drift or passage way into the darkness of the mine there are narrower ways branching off at right angles, with others again diverging into deeper darkness to the working places, where the miners are now at work. Here a pair maybe seen drilling triangular shaped holes, into which by and by blasting charges will be placed and fired; elsewhere such a shot sends echoes reverberating throughout the gloom of the cavernous passages; yonder, the ironstone being just dislodged, and broken up, is being placed into mine tubs, which on narrow tramways are brought into the place. These filled, and the numbered token of the miner attached, the tub of ironstone is hurried to one of the main passages, attached to other tubs, and thence drawn out of the dim lights into the full blaze of day at the minemouth. Here by small tipping cradles it is shot out of the tub into one of the railway wagons, and speedily passed out of the region of mine land, and out of the valley, populated but comparatively isolated, into the region where other vassals of Vulcan claim it to work their will.
Roasted, or calcined in kilns, some of the deleterious ingredients are removed from the Ironstone, and then it passes to huge smelting furnaces, which bring it from the appearance of caked clay it has when it leaves the kiln to what we know as pig or crude iron.
Vast masses of masonry, roughly forming two truncated cones, united at the base, are erected, into which the calcined ironstone is placed, with defined quantities of coked-coal and limestone, and, aided by the hot blast of air poured in, the temperature is so raised that there is produced Metallic iron, a vitreous slag discharging itself therefrom.
People will lament that we don’t make anything anymore. That’s wrong, we make loads of stuff. This is Castings PLC, in Brownhills, employing a process based on the one described in 1878.
At intervals the furnace is tapped, and a white-hot stream of molten iron flows out, throwing out sparkles of carbon or metallic sparks. As the hissing steam flows along, it passes into a “sow”, or channel formed in the sand in front of the furnace, and thence into small trenches moulded in the sand, and called “pigs”, where it slowly changes it hue to red, and then dulls and fades into its dark grey or even duller hue, as it cools. Chaffered over into the market and sold, it passes from maker to consumer, still under the charge of Vulcan’s vassals. It may be destined for the foundry, and be melted down in the cupola, and take the shape of a railway chair, pipe, or other casting, or it may be destined for the forges, and have to endure many processes.
Heated until it ‘balls’ in the puddling furnace, beaten under the Titanic blows of the sounding steam hammer, cut by the shears, reheated, and then rolled by and between powerful rollers to its desired shape of rail, plate, bar, or angle, guarded and guided through the many phases and the fierce fires that attend its manufacture by some of the many vassals of Vulcan.
Now it is the charger at the blast furnace, throwing into the yawning mouth of the furnace his barrowful of ore, coke, or lime; now it is the furnace tender, guiding the molten stream along its sandy course; now the labourer throwing the heavy pig metal into the railway truck; now it is the puddler, exuding perspiration as he stands bare-backed before his furnace, and the works the paddle amongst the metal. Now it is the shingler, encased in panoply of leather and rude imitation of mail, holds the mass with tongs, whilst the thud of the hammer resounds; then there is the hissing of the saw as the puddled bar is cut through; now reheating furnaces; and now the roller has the long strip of metal under his guidance, whilst the cooled bar or rail, plate or angle, has yet punching, shearling, or similar processes to pass through before it is fit for its use.
Week in, and week out, you may hear in the North country Vulcan’s vassals at work. In the 162 blast furnaces, and in the rolling mills and forges alone, it is computed that over 5 million pounds invested, whilst the number of workmen employed in these two departments alone are numbered in the thousands.
All through the year, the great transmuters of earth into metal consume their ore, coke and lime, and yield their hundreds of tons weekly. A little more intermittently forges and furnaces are lit, and the halo is seen along the river side for miles. The mines yield ironstone valued then at between one and 2 millions sterling; the blast furnace transmutes this into iron which the lowest of the varying values must credit as worth £5.25 million; and its value when furthered changed into finished iron is greatly increased. The great industry has its ebbs and flows, and these movements of its vast tide affect whole districts, adversely or beneficially. When throughout the land it counts its miners and its iron workers by tens of thousands, it could not be otherwise, and when it consumes about a third of all coal raised in Britain, its influence also must be far-reaching.
Changing the location from place to place as fuel or ore fails to meet the extent and nature of the demand, now forsaking Gloucester for the Welsh Valleys, and now turning Staffordshire into a black country, now developing Scotland industries after the discovery of its “black band”, now peopling Cleveland, and then filling Furness with life, the iron industry wheilds the wand of Harlequin.
Alternating between periods of increased demand and times of depression, they are vassals of Vulcan, in which like Jeshurun, they wax fat, followed by others which inflict suffering upon those who follow that fluctuating industry. The years of plenty now have their historic successors, and distress reigns for a time in the haunts of Vulcan. But much as the God turned his hot breath from the river in the Odyssey, so will pass away that dullness which has supervened; and from many a mine the sound of the shot, and the rising of the blast flame from many a now idle furnace, shall form the Tributary offering made by his vassals to the God of metals.