Category Archives: Iron & steel

Ring their praises: Bell Brothers

Bell Brothers was the second largest producer of pig iron in the North of England.

Bell Brothers
Thomas Bell (1774 – 1845) was born at Lowhurst, Cumberland. He entered the business of Losh & Co of Newcastle upon Tyne, a firm of merchants which was branching out into the manufacture of alkali and iron, in 1808. He became a partner in the firm, which became known as Losh, Wilson & Bell.

Thomas Bell’s sons, Isaac Lowthian Bell (1816 – 1904) and John Bell (1818 – 1888), established Bell Brothers in 1844. They leased an iron smelting works at Wylam on Tyne.

Isaac Lowthian Bell (1816 – 1904) by Henry Tanworth Wells. Image used with permission from Middlesbrough Town Hall

Lowthian Bell was the senior partner. Educated in the sciences at the Sorbonne in France, he spoke fluent German, Danish and French. Bell would later be heralded as the first scientifically trained ironmaster.

John Vaughan discovered sizeable deposits of ironstone (from which iron ore could be extracted) at Eston in the Cleveland hills near Middlesbrough.

John Bell made his own ironstone discovery at Normanby, and leased the land from the Ward Jackson family. Two blast furnaces were erected at Port Clarence, Cleveland in 1853. Three more were built the following year.

Bell Brothers was registered as a limited liability company in 1873. The company remained entirely family controlled.

Two new blast furnaces were opened in 1874, and the company announced plans to increase capacity to 750 tons of iron per day.

Bell Brothers pioneered the Teesside salt industry. The company began to bore salt from 1882, and by the end of the year had a productive capacity of up to 400 tons of salt a week. The salt was sold to Tyneside chemical manufacturers, who used it to produce alkali. By April 1883 the company produced 860 tons of salt a week.

By this time, Teesside was the largest producer of iron in the world.

Bell Brothers operated twelve blast furnaces at Port Clarence by 1877. The company also operated ironstone mines, limestone quarries and collieries. Around £1 million in capital was invested in the business. The company was second only to Bolckow Vaughan in pig iron production in the North of England.

Thomas Hugh Bell (1844 – 1931), the son of Lowthian Bell, was responsible for managing the business by this time.

Thomas Hugh Bell (1844 – 1931) in the 1910s. Image used with permission from the National Portrait Gallery

Bell Brothers announced plans to develop a steel works at Port Clarence in 1887. The works would use the Siemens-Martin process, instead of the established Bessemer process, to manufacture steel from Cleveland pig iron. The strategy allowed the company to exit the increasingly competitive iron market.

Bell Brothers employed 4,500 men in 1898. The company had an authorised capital of £825,000.

Bell Brothers divested its salt interests to Salt Union and Brunner Mond in 1899.

Merger with Dorman Long
Dorman Long acquired half of Bell Brothers from Thomas Hugh Bell in 1899. The remaining half was acquired from Lowthian Bell in 1902.

Lowthian Bell became chairman of Dorman Long. With a capital of £1 million, the merged company was the largest iron and steel manufacturer in the North of England.

Bell Brothers produced 360,000 tons of pig iron in 1903. The number of blast furnaces had been reduced to eight by 1905.

Bell Brothers blast furnaces at Port Clarence in 1917

Lowthian Bell died with an estate valued at £768,676 in 1904.

The Bell Brothers subsidiary was formally liquidated in 1923.

Steely resolve: Consett Iron Company

The Consett Iron Company was the largest steel manufacturer in the world.

The Derwent Iron Works were established Consett, County Durham, in 1840. The works were the largest in England by 1860, with eleven blast furnaces on a site of over 70 acres and a workforce of nearly 4,000 men and boys.

A view of the Consett steel works in 1979 (Credit to Wayne Phillips)

Despite its scale, the company was notoriously unprofitable. When the Northumberland and Durham District Bank failed, the Derwent Iron Works owed the bank £960,000.

The works were acquired by the newly-formed Consett Iron Company for £295,318 in 1864. Capital was £400,000. The company was controlled by John Henderson (1807 – 1884), and two Quakers, Joseph Whitwell Pease (1828 – 1903) and David Dale (1829 – 1906). The company had 18 blast furnaces, only seven of which were in use.

The Consett Iron Co employed 4,000 to 5,000 men in 1865.

William Jenkins (1825 – 1895), a Welshman, was appointed general manager from 1869, having previously managed the works of John Guest. Jenkins was largely credited with the turnaround of the Consett works.

A political Liberal, and a staunch churchgoer, Jenkins was a humane and kind man, and generally retained his workforce, even during slack trading periods. He had a keen commercial mind and was a strong judge of character.

45,038 tons of iron were produced in 1869. Company share capital amounted to £352,732.

The Consett Iron Co operated the largest iron plate works in the world by 1875. The company employed 5,000 people by 1878.

The Consett Iron Co manufactured 1,600 tons of iron plate every week by 1880. 132,085 tons of iron and steel were produced in 1890, and the company had a share capital of £736,000.

The Consett Iron Co was the largest steel manufacturer in the world by 1894. The company was remarkably profitable, a testament to its strong management.

The Consett Iron Co had a share capital of £3.5 million in 1922.

The Consett Iron Co established a steelworks at Jarrow, Tyneside from 1940.

The company’s seven collieries were nationalised in 1947.

The Consett Iron Co had an authorised capital of £19 million in 1955. 6,300 people were employed at the Consett and Jarrow sites.

The Consett Iron Co employed 7,337 people in 1965.

The Consett Iron Co was nationalised in 1967 and became a part of British Steel.

The Consett steel works were closed due to overcapacity in the industry in 1980. Almost 4,000 jobs were lost.

Building bridges: Dorman Long

Dorman Long was the largest steel and iron manufacturer in the British Empire, but is best known for its large structural engineering projects, such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Arthur Dorman
Arthur John Dorman (1848 – 1931) was born in Ashford, Kent, the son of a tanning yard owner. He relocated to Middlesbrough in the North East of England to serve an apprenticeship to E G Johnson of Richard Johnson & Co, iron producers, in 1866.

Arthur John Dorman (1848 – 1931) in 1918

Dorman was not afraid to get his hands dirty, and although his spectacles and Southern accent caused great amusement to his fellow puddlers, he earned their respect in undertaking their strenuous work. A straightforward and likeable man, he rose to the position of assistant manager.

Dorman Long is established
Dorman partnered with Albert de Lande Long (1844 – 1917) to acquire the West Marsh Ironworks at Middlesbrough in 1876. With 20 puddling furnaces and three rolling mills, the business specialised in producing wrought iron bars and angles for the shipbuilding industry.

Developing trade led Dorman Long to acquire the Britannia Works from Bernhard Samuelson (1820 – 1905) and steel production commenced on a large scale.

Dorman Long became a limited company with a share capital of £350,000 in 1889. It had an annual output of 100,000 tons of steel.

Albert de Lande Long retired from active interest in Dorman Long in 1891.

A half share in Bell Brothers of Middlesbrough was acquired from Sir Hugh Bell (1844 – 1931) in 1899. Bell Brothers held extensive collieries, ironstone mines and limestone quarries.

Company capital was increased to £1 million in 1902 to purchase the remaining half of Bell Brothers from Sir Lowthian Bell (1816 – 1904), who became company chairman. The firm was now the largest steel producer in the North of England, and the only one that was entirely vertically integrated.

The merger made logical sense as the result of increasing co-operation between the two firms. It was also a response to the formation of United States Steel, the largest manufacturer in the world, in 1901.

The North Eastern Steel Company was acquired in 1903.

Dorman Long was the first non-armaments company in Britain to dedicate itself to shell production during the First World War.

The six blast furnaces of Walker Maynard & Co at Redcar were acquired in 1915.

A £2 million steelworks was established at Redcar in 1917.

Sir B Samuelson & Co of Middlesbrough was also acquired in 1917.

Dorman Long was the largest iron and steel business in Britain by 1920. It had an annual production capacity of 1.25 million tons of pig iron and one million tons of steel.

The Redcar steelworks covered 150 acres and employed 2,500 men by 1923.

Richborough, the state-owned Kentish coal port which had been neglected since the war, was acquired in 1924.

Dorman Long enters the bridge-building industry
Dorman Long entered the bridge-building industry from 1924. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was their first contract, constructed at an estimated cost of £4.5 million.

Construction of the Tyne Bridge in 1928. Source: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Dorman Long acquired Bolckow Vaughan in 1929. The merged company had an annual capacity of three million tons of steel (25 percent of British production) and two million tons of pig iron. The merger was motivated by a trade slump following the post-war boom, and neither company had issued a dividend since 1921.

Arthur Dorman died in 1931. His obituary in the Yorkshire Post heralded his strong relationship with his workforce of 25,000 people. By this time Dorman Long was the best-known bridge-builder in the world.

A keen Anglican and Conservative, Dorman was also a generous benefactor. He built Dormanstown garden village to improve the living standards of his workforce, and donated the Dorman Museum to the people of Middlesbrough.

Dorman Long struggled during the Great Depression, and entered into receivership in 1933. The board of directors was reconstituted, and managerial control was returned to Middlesbrough.

Dorman Long opened the second largest coking plant in Europe at their Cleveland Works in 1936.

Dorman Long employed 39,889 people in 1937, with the vast majority working in County Durham and Yorkshire. The wage bill for the year amounted to nearly £7 million.

Dorman Long built the second largest bridge in the world at their works in Middlesbrough in 1937. It was erected in Denmark and still stands.

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Sydney Harbour Bridge

Dorman Long controlled collieries with an annual output of four million tons, and ironstone mines with an annual capacity of 2.5 million tons by 1938. The South Bank works contained the largest coking plant in England.

By 1949 Dorman Long held 60 percent of the structural engineering industry in South Africa, and owned the largest structural engineering company in South America, British Structural Steel of Buenos Aires.

Relative decline of the business
Dorman Long entered into relative decline, and was the 38th largest steel manufacturer in the world by 1963, with an annual output of 1.745 million metric tons.

Dorman Long was responsible for 22 to 25 percent of British structural steel output in 1964, and employed a total of around 25,000 people.

Dorman Long merged with South Durham and Stewarts & Lloyds to create British Steel & Tube in 1967. The merged company was the largest steel producer in Britain, and one of the largest steel manufacturers in the world, with an annual output of over five million tons.

British Steel & Tube was nationalised later that year under the name British Steel. Redpath Dorman Long was formed as the heavy engineering and bridge-building subsidiary.

Dorman Long reduced its workforce from 9,000 to 3,000 in the early 1980s, in response to large profit losses.

British Steel sold Redpath Dorman Long to Trafalgar House for £10 million in 1982. Trafalgar House merged the business with its own Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Co to form the largest structural steel fabricator in Western Europe, with 7,000 employees.

Dorman Long Technology was demerged from Cleveland Bridge in 2000. It specialises in the construction of bridges. It has company headquarters in Northamptonshire, and maintains its North of England headquarters in Darlington.

Cleveland Bridge continued to operate from a 22-acre site in Darlington, where it employed 250 people. The business entered into administration in 2021.

Thomas Vaughan & Co of Middlesbrough

Thomas Vaughan of Middlesbrough was the largest manufacturer of pig iron in the world.

Thomas Vaughan (1836 – 1900) was the only son of John Vaughan (1799 – 1868), a partner in Bolckow Vaughan & Co, iron manufacturers of Middlesbrough, North East England.

Thomas Vaughan worked at Bolckow & Vaughan. His father gifted him half of his shares in the firm, to the value of £200,000. Using these funds, Thomas Vaughan established works at South Bank and Clay Lane, Eston, Middlesbrough.

Thomas Vaughan & Co was the largest manufacturer of pig iron in the world by 1869.

T Vaughan & Co opened two new furnaces in 1869 which could each produce 400 tons of pig iron per week. There were 16 blast furnaces by 1871.

700 blast-furnace workers went on strike in 1871, demanding an increase in pay. All of the strikers were dismissed.

In 1872 the firm had nine furnaces (7.5 of which were in use) at South Bank and six at Clay Lane. The firm had 36 puddling furnaces at Whessoe, Darlington and 30 at Bishop Auckland.

George Neesham, the general manager, was brought in as a junior partner to reflect his long service to the firm.

The loss-making business entered into administration in 1876. The gross liabilities of the firm amounted to over £1 million.

Vaughan was dismissed from his business in 1878. He suffered from ill-health in his later years.

Eight furnaces of the South Bank Iron Works were acquired by Bolckow Vaughan & Co for £125,000 in 1879.

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.

Cleveland ironstone is discovered
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 dedicated the 100-acre Albert Park to the town of Middlesbrough at a cost of over £20,000 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. Over 9,000 people were employed, with 2,000 to 3,000 tons of stone mined every day, and 160,000 tons of iron produced per annum.

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

Vaughan had been raised as 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 phosphorus, and the Cleveland ironstone had a high 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, on the outskirts of Middlesbrough, in 1875. It was the first steelworks in the North of England to utilise the Bessemer process.

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

Edward Windsor Richards (1831 – 1921) c.1894

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 Richards the Thomas-Gilchrist process was used from 1878. It allowed steel to be made using the local iron ore, which had previously been unsuitable due to its high phosphorus content. Utilising the new method 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 manufacturing 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 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 purchase 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.

Marching orders: Palmer of Jarrow

Palmer’s of Jarrow was the largest shipbuilder in the world throughout much of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Jarrow became nicknamed “Palmer’s Town”.

The Palmer brothers establish a shipbuilding works
Charles Mark Palmer (1822 – 1907) was born in South Shields, the son of a merchant and shipowner.

Charles Palmer partnered with John Bowes to establish a coke-making business. John Bowes & Co grew to become one of the largest colliery concerns in the North of England, producing one million tons of coal per annum.

The growth of the railway network meant that coal from the Midlands could be supplied to the large London market at a lower cost than coal from the North. Palmer believed that coal could be shipped to London at a lower cost if steam-powered vessels were used instead of wooden sailing ships.

Together with his brother George Palmer (1814 – 1879), Charles Palmer leased a shipyard at Jarrow on Tyne from 1851. It had previously been used to make wooden frigates for the Royal Navy.

Palmer Brothers launched the John Bowes, the first successful iron-built, steam-powered, screw-propelled, water-ballasted collier, in 1852. The John Bowes became the first steam ship to transport coal from the North of England to London.

The launching of the HMS Queen Mary from Palmer's shipyard in 1912
The launching of the HMS Queen Mary from Palmer’s shipyard in 1912

Palmer Brothers soon became known for the quality of its ships,and received its first Royal Navy contract in 1856. The HMS Terror was the first rolled-iron, armour-plated ship. The Royal Navy association would remain throughout the history of the company.

Four blast-furnaces were built in 1857, and rolling mills in 1859.

Palmer Brothers was the largest shipbuilder in the world by 1859.

The business employed 3,500 men, consumed 18,000 tons of iron, and produced over 22,000 tons of shipping every year by the early 1860s.

George Palmer retired from business in 1862.

Charles Palmer opened a Mechanic’s Institute for the education of the men of Jarrow in 1864.

Palmers is registered as a company
The business was registered as Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company Ltd in 1865.

The Jarrow works covered nearly 100 acres of land by 1869. Four blast furnaces had a capacity of 60,000 tons of pig iron per annum. Around 5,000 men were employed.

Rolling mills were established from 1874.

Sir Charles Mark Palmer (1822 – 1907) in 1899

Charles Palmer was appointed as a Member of Parliament from 1874. However the business suffered without his presence, and he was forced to return in 1876 to save the company. Various members of management were dismissed.

Palmers broke the record for the largest shipping tonnage (61,113) produced in a single year in 1883. Palmer was largely producing cargo-carrying steamships for the coal and iron industries of the North of England.

A steel works was established from 1885.

Charles Palmer employed over 20,000 people by 1891, and was one of the largest employers of labour in the country.

The shipbuilding works employed 7,600 people in 1893. The majority of the workforce consisted of Irish immigrants.

The works began to make a loss, and Palmer, facing bankruptcy, resigned as head of the company in 1893.

Palmers was the sixth largest shipbuilder in Britain, as measured by tonnage, in 1899. Just under 10,000 men were employed by the company by 1900. Between 1852 and 1900, nearly 1.25 million tons of shipping were produced, more than any other company.

A steel-producing plant, the third of its kind in England, was opened in 1903.

The company employed 7,500 people in 1908, and was amongst the top thirty largest British manufacturing employers. In 1910 the Jarrow works covered nearly three quarters of a mile along the River Tyne, and about 100 acres. The works included five blast furnaces.

Lord Furness, a local industrialist, became chairman of the company from 1910. Furness planned to extend and consolidate the firm. Under his impetus, in 1911 the firm acquired Robert Stephenson & Sons, with a shipyard at Hebburn. The Hebburn site included the largest dry dock on the East coast; the only one capable of accommodating the new dreadnought battleships. Hebburn would take on merchant work, and Jarrow would be largely dedicated to naval contracts.

Following a reluctance of shareholders to contribute further capital to the company, as well as his ailing health, Furness resigned in 1912. The national coal strike of 1912 cost the firm £30,000.

Palmer’s shipyard in the early twentieth century. Courtesy of the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

The San Hilario was launched in 1913. Built for the Eagle Oil Transport Company, it was the largest oil tank steamer afloat.

By 1913 the firm had built 76 battleships at its Jarrow yard.

During the First World War Palmers docked and repaired 347 warships and merchant vessels.

Palmers built its thousandth vessel in 1930.

Palmers enters into receivership
Palmers shipyard entered receivership in 1934. It was taken over by National Shipbuilding Securities Ltd, a government company which acquired redundant yards.

Thomas W Ward Ltd of Sheffield, a dismantling firm, acquired the Jarrow blast furnaces and steel works in 1934. The company acquired the yard in 1935.

Vickers Armstrong Ltd acquired the Hebburn site in 1935, which continued to be operated under its old management.

The poverty that ensued among former Palmers workers led to the Jarrow March of 1936.