Irons in the fire: Bolckow Vaughan

Bolckow Vaughan was the largest manufacturer of pig iron and steel in the world.

Bolckow and Vaughan establish the business
Henry William Ferdinand Bolckow (1806 – 1878) was born in Germany and emigrated to Newcastle upon Tyne. He made a fortune in the corn trade as a partner in C Allhusen & Co.

Henry Bolckow (1806 - 1878)
Portrait of Henry Bolckow (1806 – 1878), c.1860

Bolckow entered into partnership with John Vaughan (1799 – 1868), a Welsh ironmaker, from 1840. The two men established a cast iron works at Middlesbrough, consisting of a foundry, two rolling mills and an engineer’s shop. Bolckow supplied capital of £10,000 and Vaughan provided the technical expertise. Profits were divided equally.

The site offered reasonable shipping costs, allowing for the convenient importation of Scottish pig iron from Fife, and a ready supply of fuel from the Durham coalfield via the Stockton and Darlington railway.

Bolckow Vaughan initially constructed engines, and supplied the engine for the English Rose, the first steamboat built on the Tees in 1843.

Bolckow Vaughan established four blast furnaces at Witton Park near Bishop Auckland in 1846. Iron was produced from ironstone, which was mainly sourced from nearby Weardale.

Bolckow Vaughan used 62,400 tons of ironstone, 104,000 tons of coke and coal and 20,800 tons of limestone in 1846. The Middlesbrough works produced over 400 tons of iron rails each week.

John Vaughan, together with mining engineer John Marley (1823 -1891), discovered the main bed of ironstone at Eston in Cleveland in 1850. Blast furnaces were erected at Eston in order to smelt the ironstone deposits and manufacture pig iron from 1851.

Strong growth ensued as a result of this discovery, and the business employed 4,000 people and produced over 120,000 tons of iron in 1855.

Bolckow Vaughan had 17 blast furnaces by 1864. The business was largely responsible for the growth of the town of Middlesbrough, as people relocated to the area in search of work.

Bolckow spent over £20,000 to dedicate the 100-acre Albert Park to the town of Middlesbrough in 1864. A staunch Liberal, Bolckow became the first mayor of Middlesbrough in 1853, and served as its Member of Parliament from 1868 until his death in 1878.

Bolckow Vaughan is registered as a limited liability company
Bolckow Vaughan & Co Ltd was registered as a limited liability company with a capital of £2.5 million in 1865. At the time it was the largest company to have been registered, and employed over 9,000 people. 2,000 to 3,000 tons of stone were mined every day, and 160,000 tons of iron were produced per annum.

Portrait of John Vaughan (1799 – 1868), c.1860

Vaughan was originally a Wesleyan Methodist, but became an Anglican in his later years. He had a hard-working man with a keen intellect and a natural instinct for management. He died in 1868, and his only son, Thomas Vaughan (1836 – 1900), inherited his fortune.

At one point it was believed that the rise of steel and the declining importance of iron would ruin the prospects of Bolckow Vaughan. Steel could only be produced from iron that was free from phosphorous, and the Cleveland ironstone had a large phosphorus content. Fortunately the company discovered that it could import hematite, and make steel of equal quality and at lower cost than that imported from abroad.

Bolckow Vaughan established a steelworks at Eston in 1875. It was the first steelworks in the North of England to utilise the Bessemer process.

Edward Windsor Richards (1831 – 1921), who had previously been manager of the Ebbw Vale Co Works, was appointed general manager of the firm from 1876.

Bolckow Vaughan produced 300,000 tons of iron a year with 20 blast furnaces in 1877. The company employed a workforce of 12,000 people.

Bolckow Vaughan had twelve collieries and produced one million tons of coal annually by 1878.

At the initiative of Edward Richards the Thomas-Gilchrist process for steel manufacture was discovered. The process allowed steel to be made using the local iron ore, which had previously been unsuitable due to its high phosphorus content. The new method was introduced at Bolckow Vaughan from 1878, and resulted in lower production costs.

Henry Bolckow served as chairman of the company until his death in 1878. He left an estate valued at nearly £800,000.

Bolckow Vaughan acquired eight furnaces at the Southbank Iron Works in Eston from Thomas Vaughan & Co, which had entered into liquidation, for £125,000 in 1879. The deal transformed the company into the largest manufacturers of pig iron in the world, with 28 blast furnaces, several of which were among the largest in the world. At full capacity the the company could produce over 11,000 tons of pig iron a week. Bolckow Vaughan possessed one sixth of all the furnaces in the North of England.

Bolckow Vaughan was one of the largest iron and steel-making companies in the world by 1881. The business regularly employed 10,000 to 12,000 workers in County Durham and Yorkshire. The Cleveland Works were the largest steelworks in the world, capable of producing 4,000 tons of steel rails every week. Per annum the company manufactured 500,000 tons of pig iron and mined 1.5 million tons of ironstone and two million tons of coal.

Bolckow Vaughan ranked among the largest commercial enterprises in the world, and Teesside was the principal site for British iron production.

Bolckow Vaughan established two steel plate mills at Eston in 1885. The company could produce 1,000 tons of steel plates and 3,000 tons of steel rails per week.

Edward Windsor Richards resigned as general manager in 1888, but returned to Bolckow Vaughan the following year as chairman and managing director.

Bolckow Vaughan was one the largest iron and steel company in Britain by 1891. The company had a capital of £4 million and employed 10,000 people.

Bolckow Vaughan had the largest number of blast furnaces in the United Kingdom for pig iron production, and was the largest producer of steel rails in 1898. The company employed 16,000 people.

The Clay Lane Iron Co of Middlesbrough was acquired in 1899. Its six furnaces were dedicated to the production of foundry iron (used to make cast iron).

Bolckow Vaughan was the largest British iron and steel producer in 1915, and employed 18,000 people. The steelworks had a productive capacity of 220,000 tons per annum. The company had 23 blast furnaces on South Bank and a further two in Middlesbrough. There were four ironstone mines in Cleveland, 13 collieries in County Durham and limestone quarries. An average of two million tons of ironstone were mined per annum.

Decline and sale to Dorman Long
Darlington Rolling Mills was acquired from George E Sisterton in 1920.

Redpath Brown & Co, constructional engineers of Glasgow, was acquired in 1923.

Bolckow Vaughan closed five uneconomic coal pits in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, with the loss of 2,500 jobs in 1926.

Bolckow Vaughan entered into serious financial difficulties following the post-war boom. It lost a total of £2 million between 1920 and 1927.

Bolckow Vaughan was acquired by its Middlesbrough rival Dorman Long in 1929. The acquisition established Dorman Long as the largest steel, iron and engineering company in the British Empire. The combined business had a capital of over £17 million and employed 32,000 people.

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