Ancestors forged in iron!

The only sounds now are the calls of the Jackdaws in the swaying rustling trees and the gurgling of the River Duddon just 50 metres away. Once, these woods reverberated to the pounding of hammers, the squeaks of wheelbarrows, the swish of a water wheel, and the roaring of an early Industrial Revolution iron blast furnace. This is a wonderful site of industrial archaeology, Duddon Furnace in South Cumbria, UK and part of my own ancestry and heritage. Built in 1736 it operated until 1867 as a charcoal burning iron blast furnace. By the 1950s it was overgrown with weeds and brambles and I used to play here as a child. Today however it has been cleaned up and is managed by English Heritage, preserved as a reminder of how our ancestors toiled and lived mostly under conditions we would never accept today.

Duddon furnace, Cumbria, English HeritageDuddon furnace, Cumbria, English Heritage

In The Beginning, There Was Iron!

Two centuries ago these woods around Duddon Bridge in Cumbria provided charcoal and water for the furnace, with iron ore being added from the richest seam of ore in the world only a few miles away at Haverigg. The pig iron made here was shipped to Chepstow and Bristol to manufacture chains and anchors for ships before closure in 1867. But the iron ore mine would continue production in more modern blast furnaces and it was just 10 more years before my great grandfather migrated from Cornwall and entered the Haverigg Hodbarrow pit, as did his son my grandfather. The employment that began at this ancient furnace site would now continue 5 miles away and transform the lives of 4 generations of my family, “all of us forged in iron”.

“Earthly power may arise from the possession of gold, but iron once radiated celestial power. Lumps of it fell from the sky –they still do. These iron meteorites, gifts of pure metal handed down from the heavens, held an instant sacred appeal….. However iron today brings to mind not venerated meteorites or magic swords, but the engineering achievements of the Industrial Revolution. The Romans had made good use of the metal for weapons, tools and construction, but it was not until 1747, when it was found how to use coal with iron to make steel, that the metal really took over. In that year, Richard Ford, who had inherited Abraham Darby’s pioneering iron foundry at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, showed that it was possible to vary the amount of coke or coal added to the ore in order to produce iron that was either brittle or tough. The greater control of the metal’s properties achievable by the addition of small amounts of this carbon allowed iron to be manufactured for very different uses, from the structural beams of great bridges to the cogs and wheels of steam engines and spinning machines. (Periodic Tales: The curious lives of the elements; Hugh Aldersey-Williams)

The iron industry that began locally at that small Duddon furnace continued at Millom and Haverigg in Cumbria was much more than the economic furnace of the town, it was the heart and soul of the community. And when the fire of the last blast furnace was extinguished in 1969…… the community died too!

A Century of Iron

My great grandparents with their son migrated to Haverigg towards the end of the 19th Century from Cornwall, a tin mining family who sought work, a new life, survival, as the tin mining industry declined and died. They brought their mining skills, their work ethic, their Methodism, and their moral values to Haverigg’s Hodbarrow Iron Ore Mine and lived at 10 Concrete Square where I was born. After WWII when my father was demobbed from the Coldstream Guards, he started work at The Ironworks, firstly on the blast furnaces, then in the foundry. After leaving school at 16 I began working there too in the laboratories performing chemical analysis on everything associated with iron making: the iron ore, coke, limestone, water, gases, then the pig iron itself. Four generations bound together by an industry that in those days could look like the fires of hell had been let loose.

Tipping slag at Millom Ironworks, Cumbria

Foundryman at Cumbrian ironworks

At night time the whole sky for miles around would glow an orange-red as the slag was tipped along the new sea wall. If you actually worked at the Ironworks the sight of a blast furnace being tapped or of a tropenas converter removing unwanted carbon, phosphorus, manganese and silicon either scared you rigid or excited the socks off you! The bubbling molten iron or metres long tongues of flame never scared me, I was utterly fascinated by what was happening chemically as well as the physical display and wanted to know and understand more.

Despite leaving school at 16 with only 3 O Levels or GCSEs, thankfully one of them was Chemistry in which I scored a Grade 1, probably getting 90%+ in the exam. All I ever wanted was to work in a laboratory, to learn more, to become a scientist! I had grown out of wanting to be a train driver or a fireman years ago and 10 years later would grow out of wanting to be a scientist, but working at Millom Ironworks, going to Whitehaven college for one day plus two evenings per week set me on the path to a PhD some 10 years hence. It also propelled me into being the analytical chemist assisting the scientist/manager of the research project into Spray Steelmaking that should have saved the Ironworks from total closure in 1968/69.

“This process had been conceived and experimentally proven by the British Iron and Steel Research Association, and a pilot plant had subsequently been installed alongside the Millom blast furnaces. Longer term plans even included a revolutionary continuous casting machine, to which the molten steel, instead of being cast into ingots, could be directly transferred for immediate and continuous further processing into semi-finished solidified sections. Far ahead of its time, this concept was much later to be successfully deployed in niche-market ‘mini-mills’ involving electric-arc steelmaking furnaces feeding directly adjacent continuous casting machines.” (Quoted from Norman Nicholson: A Literary Life, by David Boyd)

Sadly our success with this scheme had no effect on the government of the day and the Ironworks was closed down, but not without some stinging words from Lord Royle in the House of Lords:

“A works, a town can be saved; and at the same time a revolutionary process can be expanded for the wellbeing of the industry and the nation as a whole. It is important to notice in our arguments for nationalisation that this has happened under the old regime. It is a strange commentary that the new regime, nationalisation, could save Millom and others like it from the old so-called independent regime. Ye Gods! They talk about competition! It looks as if they are terrified of it.”

Millom Ironworks, Cumbria, blast furnaces

The Death of Cumbrian Iron

And now, 50 years later, there is nothing left above ground of the Ironworks or of Hodbarrow Mine, and nothing left of the old community. Wellington Street is like a windswept street in an old western movie, Concrete Square was bulldozed away and is now a barren area of grass. At least the Millom Discovery Centre tells the whole story in a sympathetic way, but the opportunity for some marvellous tourist attractions of industrial archaeology have long gone. The short sightedness of government, both national and local, was a disgrace as the people and whole area were discarded. Norman Nicholson, the local poet, had a great social awareness and was a champion of the working class especially in his home town, though the local council and “officianados” of the town seemed to have little care for him when he was amongst them or for the importance of his old house to this day. He wrote mostly about industry, the mines, the Ironworks, Windscale, and the tough life of the people who lived and worked in this area. If he were alive today and living in Millom he would sadly have very little to write about at all!

“It was largely elemental work -with fire, water and earth and [this author’s perception is that] it tended to shape the characters of those who undertook it -and lots of blast furnace workers were more than a little alarming to encounter at first meeting, but few were anything but totally transparent, moral, straightforward and, above-all, kind, caring and sociable individuals. Quoted from Norman Nicholson:A Literary Life, by David Boyd.”

The elemental work of iron making

And so began a new migration, including my own, away from Cumbria into the more prosperous Cheshire and North Wales, but only to be part of The Ultimate Death of British Steelmaking


Categories: 1800s, 1900s, Ancestry, Cumbria, Family History, Industrial Rides, Metters, Waters

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9 replies

  1. Fascinating, with many echoes of my own upbringing in the once famed ironstone mining area of Cleveland and the North Yorkshire Moors. I grew up, as the son of a blacksmith and farrier, in a forge, and found the local mines around me slowly dying. Grammar school educated, I almost ended up as a metallurgist at Dormans Longs, but, as a result of my experiences during National Service, was side-tracked from the sciences into the arts, and left the area. But it has never left me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some good parallels Roland. I also went to grammar school but despite being a failure got a masters and doctorate in chemistry. Sponsored by British Steel I worked for them for 5 years after my PhD. Then changed to get educated as a psychologist which made me/us wealthy and wise …. I hope. But I owe everything to my iron and steel upbringing. It’s why I visit so many industrial museums, Sheffield next and Abbeydale. 👍👍🍷🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿


  2. Yes, the only constant in life is change! The last photo reminds me of a former steel plant in our area that was active 30-40 years ago…now they’re trying to clean up the site to build luxury condos and strip malls. Oh my!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tragic, it should be turned into a heritage site like our Ironbridge Gorge area, a stunning place to visit over a whole weekend. Do you know it?


  3. It’s hard to see old ways of life and industry go by the wayside. I’m sure those foundries were quite exciting (and dangerous).

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    • I know for a fact that they “forged” me, educationally and professionally. I worked in steel for 13 years as a scientist before I realised just how much I’d developed in business terms. 25 years later I’m using steel industry experiences on the boards of several finance companies as a psychologist. The sense of community, pride, work ethic, comradeship in the 60s and 70s is actually scoffed at by younger generations in England today! We’re lost!

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  4. Your post reminded me of the Stanton Ironworks near Ilkeston in Derbyshire. When I moved there in 1979 it was a massive works that employed thousands. So many that the Stanton & Staveley Steelworks Company had its own housing estate to house the workers. I used to cycle through the plant on my way to work. I remember the flames and the steam and the pride. It was privatised in the 1980s and ended up in French ownership who managed a rapid period of decommissioning and it ceased production in 2007.

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    • They were places and communities that just don’t exist anymore. You have experienced Millom as a ghost town, but it grew from 300 to around 10,000, I think, all because of a mine and ironworks. Houses, shops, schools, associated industries and trades. It’s all there ever was there and although I’ve blogged some of this before, doing my ancestry stuff reminded me of how much I owe that industry, how much it’s in my blood. It was the steel industry that PAID me my full salary to go and do an MSc, then to stay on and do a PhD! I owe that industry my whole subsequent career, even though I switched and became an organisational psychologist it was working in ironworks and steelworks that began my interest in organisation systems.

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