The Low Furness Iron and Steel Company

by Peter Sandbach

Soulby’s Ulverston Advertiser, 16th August 1855

The Puddling process

Puddling was the process of converting pig iron to wrought iron. Like the finery forges it replaced, the process consisted of heating the iron to a near-molten state and beating the slag out with a trip hammer. As in the finery and chafery, the process was repeated twice. The difference was that instead of a charcoal fire the puddling hearth used a revebratory furnace fired by coal but not in direct contact with the fire, preventing contamination form the phosphorous and sulphur in the coal.   Puddling furnaces were very common, the Journal of the Iron & Steel Institute reported in 1873 that there were 7264 puddling furnaces in Britain, of which 2046 were in South Staffordshire. Locally their effect was largely negative as Harrison Ainslie closed their fineries at Nibthwaite and Spark Bridge so both charcoal pig iron and coke pig iron produced in Furness were sent to the Midlands or South Wales for refining. The soft haematite found in many of the Furness mines, particularly in Whitriggs was used to line the hearth and was sold to the puddlers at a premium. A description of one company using the process is given below. Click here to find out more about iron puddling in general.

The Low Furness Iron & Steel Co

It was announced in February 1844 that the Low Furness iron Company had bought a 7 acre field containing a waterfall near the iron ore pits at Marton and that it would be used for smelting iron by means of Mr Clay’s patent. Oregrave mill was much older. The land to build a corn mill had been given by Roger Oregrave to the abbot of Furness Abbey about 1234 and it remained a working corn mill until 11 October 1845 when it was leased to H W Schneider, James Davis and Edward Hurry and rebuilt as a rolling mill. The site was bought by the company from the executors of John Slater in April 1851 for £1200. Hurry and Schneider had left the partnership by then.

The company advertised for skilled puddlers in the Birmingham Daily Post but the ironworkers seem to have been an undisciplined lot. In April 1845 Thomas Brockelbank and Robert Tomlinson were summonsed for leaving their work without giving a month’s notice and two months later in what was described as a dreadful outrage, a waller passing the works at midnight received a savage beating. On 14 June the Kendal Mercury reported “should the parties be apprehended, such a wanton and murderous assault will be visited with the utmost rigour of the law, and not with the usual fine, which, with the class of men brought into the neighbourhood by the railway and ironworks, has no effect at all.” The same article goes on to say that Hart, Worthington and Colton had since been apprehended and fined £5 each.

Clay’s patent may have been a variation of the puddling process whereby pig iron was melted in a reverberatory furnace (ie not in direct contact with the fuel) and stirred to reduce the carbon content. The usual product was wrought iron but a skilled worker could produce steel by stopping the process while some carbon was still present. The work of the puddler was described in Griffith’s Guide to the Iron Trade: “Some think the collier and the miner have a trying and a severe physical task in the bowels of the earth. This may be so; we are of the opinion, however, that the physical power and endurance exercised by the puddler to make a “heat” of good iron is greater, and taxes the muscle and strength of the operator to a much greater extent than the shingler, the roller, collier or any other workman engaged in the coal and iron trades……for three quarters of an hour the puddler has to face the molten metal, continually agitating the same in consecutive order over this boiling sea of metal and silica, which is so bright with the high state of calorific fluidity necessary for the successful process, and the workman being within a yard of the stopper-hole of the furnace, that and the meridian sun-like glare of the metal upon the eyes are almost overpowering…… His final operation is to take the “heat” in four, five or six pieces, called “balls”, previously formed in the furnace, to the hammer, where the iron is compressed and consolidated by heavy blows, which at the same time, drive the dross or cinder out of it, and in this way it is prepared for the rolls.”

A voucher book of 1857 indicates that the most frequent expenses were coal, freight on coal and Scotch pig iron. It was dangerous work. A boy was killed in the spindles of the rolling mill in 1848. Then in 1849 a carter trying to calm one of his horses stepped onto slag which was not yet solidified. He died from his burns five weeks later. Another accident occurred in 1858 when William Newby, a 21 year old turner at the rolling mill missed the red hot bar with his grippers and it caught him about the leg causing serious burns.

New works in Ulverston

In September 1850 James Davis sought to consolidate his works on a single site and applied to lease 12 acres beside the Ulverston canal. Advertisements for mining gear made at the new site begin in 1855 but the firm was still in difficulties and converted to a limited company in 1857. James Davis was still managing director and the chairman was the shipbuilder and shipowner, E J Schollick. The new company advertised rivets and iron and brass castings. Six thousand £10 shares were offered which promised a dividend of 12 ½ %. The company was barely 10 months old when an exciting extraordinary general meeting, was recorded in the Lancaster Gazette.

Petty & Postlethwaite were bankers, shipbuilders, shipowners and wine merchants. In 1846, according to the Kendal Mercury, they built the Augusta, a schooner of 101 tons “for Messrs Schneider & Co of the Low Furness Iron Works”. She was named for Mrs W Schneider but H W Schneider held no shares. James Davis had 27/64ths, the remainder were held by the builders and a London sharebroker. In 1860 they were pursuing the Low Furness Company over an unpaid debt of £1200, possibly the mortgage on Oregrave Mill. The company was voluntarily wound up in 1861.

About 1862 somebody drew up a list of mills on Poaka Beck in preparation for the Dalton Gas and Water Bill and the construction of Poaka Beck reservoir. These were:

1 Powka ironworks at Bridge End, Marton
2 Thrashing machine driven by a waterwheel at Scalebank
3 Oregrave ironworks Nr Dalton
4 Iron ore washing machine and other machinery, property of Joseph Rawlinson
5 Tan yard at Yarlwell, Dalton
6 Corn mill called Little mill Nr Dalton
7 Thrashing machine and other machinery at Parkhouse Nr Dalton
8 Corn mill called Roose Mill Nr Barrow in Furness.

The ironworks at Poaka and Oregrave were both owned by Petty and Postlethwaite at this time and Poaka was “nothing but a waterwheel, the buildings having been removed or fallen down”.

The contents of the canal side works were bought in 1866 by Mr Woodall of Dudley and then auctioned.

Although pig iron from Furness was sent to the Midlands for puddling and Whitriggs ore was valued for fettling the furnaces, James Davis’s works is the only instance of puddling furnaces in Furness and it existed in the interval between the closure of Spark Bridge finery forge in 1848 and the start of Bessemer steel making at Barrow in 1865.

With thanks to Jonathan Wignall for information.

Purchase of Oregrave Mill, BDKF 117/2/2
Voucher book, 1857 to 8, BDX 209/7/2/1/1
Lease of Canal side site, 1850 BDKF 124/17/1
Lancaster shiping registers on microfilm
List of mills c.1862 BDKF 379/18/6

(Page created 14/10/17. Last updated 7/12/17)