Wortley Ironworks about 1900
C Reginald Andrews
This Page is an extract from the book ‘The Story of Wortley Ironworks’ first published in 1950.
The Old Ironworks half a century ago.
Arriving at Wortley Station [closed in 1960s] you could see the old Tinmill with its dam, also the stepping stones and little bridge making a very picturesque corner; in fact the whole scene had little in common with the typical industrial environment, it was far more likely one of those wooded valleys beloved by the monks as a site for abbeys.
Walking along the road which was a continuation of the Finkle Street of Roman days, you soon came in sight of the ‘Low Forge’ with its two tall chimneys, and quite a forest of furnace stacks belching forth volumes of flame and smoke. The steady thump of the great shingling hammer and the deep rumble of the rolling mills filled the air, broken now and then by a clear bell-like note, a signal that the iron was ready to be drawn from the furnace. I will attempt to describe the lay-out of the works and how the iron was made half a century ago.
Coming down the forge lane you would have noticed the piles of pig iron, the great heaps of ‘scrap’, and the immense stacks of coal, which formed the raw materials of the iron-maker. On your left was a large shed for special kinds of scrap, beyond which was the warehouse where the finished bars were prepared for dispatch, weighed and invoiced. On the end of this building was the stone bearing the carving of the old hammer and the date 1713. On the right stood the puddling-forge [where pig iron was turned into wrought iron] consisting of a number of puddling furnaces clustered around the shingling hammer, a heavy iron helve driven by a waterwheel.
But I am forgetting that few people today have ever seen a puddler at work! So let me explain his job as well as I can. The puddling furnace made of iron plates and lined with firebricks, had two chambers. At one end was a firebox in which barrow-loads of coal were fiercely burning, the flames being carried by a draught into the second chamber [at 1500°C to 1800°C] which contained the charge of metal to be converted into wrought iron. After melting, the bath of molten metal began to ‘boil’, the carbon and impurities being oxidised by the flame. After some time the pure iron began to form flakes [wrought iron has a higher melting point than pig iron] and the work of the puddler was to keep the bath in motion with his ‘rabble’ [iron pole], and gradually collect the ‘sticky’ flakes into three large balls, much as you make a snowball. When this was done the furnace door was opened, and the iron withdrawn in the form of white hot soft lumps dripping with molten cinder. These were carried to the shingling hammer and quickly reduced to short oblong blocks called ‘blooms’. Needless to say this made the sparks fly [hot slag being forced out of the iron by the hammering], and the shinglers were protected by armour-like leggings, a strong leather apron, and a gauze visor over their eyes, though strangely enough they always had bare arms! Nor would the puddlers protect their eyes from the glare with blue glass as do furnace men today . The puddlers worked in trousers and a thick woolen vest open at the neck, but it was a hot, fatiguing job, and you could tell a furnace-man by his more than ‘sunburnt’ complexion. Yet they were a fine healthy lot of men, and needless to say produced some mighty hitters on the cricket field. Most Wortley men were robust, and lived to a good old age.
The still red-hot bloom was carried by an endless chain (called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’) to a higher level where stood the cogging mill in which the blooms were rolled out into flat bars from 4″ to 6″ wide, laid aside to cool, and weighed.
Beyond the cogging mill stood the great beam-engine of about 150 i.h.p. which supplied the motive power to the whole works. Steam was provided by two large Raistrick boilers heated by the waste heat from four furnaces.
Next came the rolling mills, the ‘big mill’ and the ‘little mill’. The puddling bars described above were cut into suitable lengths and built up into square piles, which were heated to a welding heat [about 1300°C] and then passed through the groved rolls, growing longer and more slender at each pass until the final shape was reached, round, square or flat, or maybe an angle or small rail.
There was a ‘roller’ at each side of the rolls, and quite small boys ran backwards and forwards, guiding the rods as they came from the mill. Large bars were sawn to length whilst still hot, and smaller ones cut by cold shears.
In those days two shifts were worked, normally of 11 hours each, but actually considerably less, as after each shift the furnaces had to be ‘fettled’ [special sand thrown in that melted and built up the firebrick surfaces], machinery greased, and rolls changed. Beyond the rolling mill was the engineering shop where the rolls were turned [on a lathe to correct any wear] and general repair work carried out.
There was also a small department for the manufacture of chains.
About half a mile up the valley stood the ‘Top Forge’. Here were forged railway axles for which Wortley at that time had a great reputation. The Top Forge remained apparently much as it had been in the early 18th century. The American metallurgist Professor H.M. Howe said it reminded him of some of the old iron forges in Sweden which he had visited.
Here the motive power was supplied by two waterwheels each driving a heavy helve hammer. Of these the one nearest the dam wall was the older, and was typical of the hammers used for centuries in the old Sussex forges and elsewhere. The helves in my time were of wrought iron, but originally they were of wood strengthened by iron hoops, and one of these still lay in the yard when I was a boy. The waterwheel shafts were also formerly made of wood with spindles. The other hammer was of a some-what later type and considerably heavier.
The axles were made from faggots of 16 square bars heated to welding heat, and forged to shape, one end at a time, the journals being forged by swages. Under these hammers some of the first railway axles were forged, including some for the famous Broad-gauge stock; but not I think, as some folk imagine, the famous cannon-balls, which were found at the other forge [Low Forge].
In the yard stood the tall tripod from which a ton-weight ball descended upon the test axles, and where so many of my father’s [Thomas Andrews Junior] experiments on the strength of railway axles were made.
On the opposite side of the yard stood the blacksmith’s and joiner’s shops – happy haunts of my boyhood, also a large shop called the ‘old foundry’ but used then as a store for patterns, etc. Beyond the forge was the large reservoir which regulated the supply of water for the wheels. Across the road was the Grange where my grandfather [Thomas Andrews Senior] lived, and behind this the farm buildings and the old stag paddock. The farm had long been part of the Wortley concern and grew hay and oats for the horse transport, besides supplying us with milk and butter, some of which was sold at a low price to the workmen’s families. In the summer pleasant sounds of haymaking mingled with the distant noise of the hammers, whilst an iron wain changed its usual load to carry in the Harvest Home. Four or five large stooks always stood in the stockyard.
The works were always a scene of animation, but the best time to see them was on a winter’s evening when they were lighted up by the ruddy glow of the furnaces, and the sparks from the shingling hammer flew like fireworks, and the men moved about looking like figures in Dante’s inferno.