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British Industrial History

Ebbw Vale Steelworks

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The Ebbw Vale works was the site of a major producer of steel, the first in the Britain to integrate both iron and steel production.

1789 The first Ebbw Vale Ironworks emerged out of a partnership established in 1789 between Walter Watkins (of Danygraig) former High Sheriff of Breconshire, his son-in-law Charles Cracroft, a capitalist in a small way (residing at Sunny Bank, Crickhowell) and Jeremiah Homfray, an iron master, who had connections with Penydarren Ironworks at Merthyr. Watkins was the owner of a forge at Glangrwney. The lack of an adequate supply of pig iron for the forge led the partnership to lease land from John Miles at Pen y cae farm, Ebwy Fawr, in the parish of Aberystruth; they also had permission to erect furnaces.

Situated on the northern outcrop of the South Wales Coal Basin, the raw material for iron-making could be found in abundance in the Ebbw Valley and, at first, was easily accessible. Coal and iron ore were obtained by ‘patch’ workings and by drifts and levels. Limestone was transported by mules from Llanelly Hill, near Blaenavon. A single blast furnace and casting shop was constructed against the hillside near the river with a weekly output of between 25 – 30 tons of pig iron per week. That led the local inhabitants to call its emergence (and the community which grew with it) ‘Pen y cae’ after the farm. But from manorial times the locality was referred as ‘Ebby Fawr’ then later ‘Glyn Ebbw’. But the usage and anglicised reference by the ironmasters to their enterprise as ‘The Ebbw Vale Furnace’ brought acceptance of the name by which the Works and township was to develop.

1793 The original partnership was dissolved. Homfray was joined by the Harford, Partridge and Co, Quakers from Bristol[1].

1796 The entire operation was taken over by the Harfords.

1805 A second furnace was constructed

1818 – 1820: The forge, and extensive iron bottom puddling furnaces for refining iron were introduced, and rolling mills for bars and plates were built. The single furnace operation was expanded and four blast cupola furnaces were subsequently built. The Sirhowy Iron Works and Collieries, which had been in operation since 1760, was acquired by James Harford of Harford, Partridge and Co of Ebbw Vale and, from this date on, were operated as part of the Ebbw Vale Ironworks in the valley to the east. Sirhowy supplied Ebbw Vale with pig iron and there it was worked into wrought iron and, from the end of the 19th century onwards, into steel.

1823 A third furnace was built

1829 – 35: These years heralded the start of the railway era. Ebbw Vale Works was well equipped to supply rails for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and the Stockton and Darlington Railway. A tunnel for a horse tram road was driven for over a mile under the hillside to the Sirhowy Works enabling iron to be brought to the Ebbw Vale forge speedily. The Works also introduced steam locomotives on its own tram roads.

1839 A fourth furnace was built

1842 Messrs Harford’s business in the southern states of the USA was in commercial difficulty. The Ebbw Vale Works was taken over by Trustees.

1843 Messrs Harford and Davis - the Ebbw Vale Co - failed with the prospect of making 2000 - 3000 workers redundant, which caused much concern locally[2].

1844 The Company was bought by Abraham Darby (1804-1878) and others of Coalbrookdale. The partners were Abraham Darby, Henry Dickenson, Joseph Robinson, J. Tothill and Thomas Brown, the latter being designated managing partner. Total workforce of about 1600.

1848 The lease of the Victoria Iron Works (Ebbw Vale) was acquired from Lord Llanover (Sir Benjamin Hall). The works, which was located two miles south, consisted of three blast furnaces and puddling mills built in 1836 by the Monmouthshire Iron and Coal Co

1850 Great economy in blast furnace practice was achieved at the works. George Parry, Darby’s chemist, was the first successfully to adopt the cup and cone on blast furnaces.

1851 Ebbw Vale Co: award at the 1851 Great Exhibition. See details at 1851 Great Exhibition: Reports of the Juries: Class V.

1852 The Ebbw Vale Co bought the Abersychan Works (British Ironworks) consisting of six blast furnaces.

1853. Iron ore fields were purchased in the Brendon Hills, Somerset, followed by the acquisition of ore fields in Bilbao, Spain and the Forest of Dean.

1855 The Ebbw Vale Co expanded, acquiring extensive interests in Pontypool consisting of four furnaces, a forge, tinplate works and collieries.

1857 George Parry of Ebbw Vale conducted experiments in converting iron into superior wrought iron or steel. He was one of a number of chemists who successfully produced a process. It was Henry Bessemer who patented one which was commercially viable and afterwards it was adopted at Ebbw Vale. The Steel Age had arrived.

1857 Bought Pentwyn Ironworks

1859 The Pontypool Iron and Tinplate Co works were purchased by Messrs. Levick, Brown, Darby and Robinson of the Ebbw Vale Co Ltd.

1863 Approximately 100,000 tons of rail and merchant bars were being produced per annum. Apart from the Iron Works and Collieries at Ebbw Vale, Sirhowy, Victoria, Abersychan, Pontypool and Abercarn, the Company also had six wharfs at Newport, the Hematite mine in the Forest of Dean and Spathic ore mines in the Brendon Hills. There were 19 blast furnaces, 192 puddling furnaces, 99 heating furnaces and 1200 workmen’s houses. The colliery leases comprised 7500 acres of land.

1864 Bought Pontypool Ironworks

1864-1871 Darby converted the whole enterprise into a limited Company - the Ebbw Vale Co Ltd - under the general management of William Adams, before later restructuring it to form the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron and Coal Co. He also erected a new blast engine (see below), the most powerful blowing engine in the world to serve four of the Ebbw Vale furnaces, new rolling mills and a Bessemer converter shop which produced the first steel ingots. It was also the first time ‘spiegel-eisen’ (mirror iron) was successfully manufactured and commercially produced at Ebbw Vale for use in high carbon steels.

1865 Massive blowing engine installed, built by Perran Foundry, designed by Loam & Son. See below for further details [3]

1873 Abraham Darby (1804-1878) retired.

1880-1883 The Coppee system of coking ovens became fully operational. The Sirhowy furnaces were blown out and two large modern furnaces were erected at Victoria.

1884 An article in ‘Engineering’, 8th August 1884, described a visit to the works. Worthy of note was the furnace blowing plant at the older ‘Ebbw Vale’ furnaces. Two blowing engines had been erected c.1879 by the Coalbrookdale Co. These beam engines had steam cylinders 45" dia, air cylinders 90" dia, stroke 6 ft, and were fed by fourteen Cornish boilers fired by furnace gas. Reference was also made to the massive beam blowing engine built about 18 years previously (see above). It had a steam cylinder 72" dia, air cylinder 144", stroke 12 ft. The flywheel was 30 ft dia and weighed 90 tons. Speed 12 rpm. The original cast iron crankshaft broke after just two days, and was replaced by a wrought iron crankshaft which lasted until about 1879, when it failed, and was replaced by a new shaft made from Whitworth’s compressed steel. The new Victoria furnaces were served by two blowing engines, one by Daniel Adamson and Co, the other by Galloways.

1892 The business ran into difficulties. Changes were made to the Company’s Board and to local management. The head office of the company was also switched from Manchester to Ebbw Vale.

1897 A spring-making plant was set up in Ebbw Vale, one the few in South Wales at that time.

1898 In order to make use of the scrap made in the Bessemer department and to meet the demand for ‘Siemens steel’ (largely used in the manufacturing of tinplate), two Siemens open hearth furnaces were erected.

1900 A new blast furnace on the most modern American lines came into service at Victoria with a weekly output of 2300 tons.

1905-17 Eight railway locomotives were built, some with parts from Peckett and Sons

1907 Irthlingborough Ore Field was acquired.

1911 Despite working to full capacity and with little warning, the works was closed. The chief reason given was cheap foreign imports.

1912 The works was reopened and a new sheet mill erected. This provided a regular market for part of the output of steel bars for the manufacture of galvanised steel sheets. Output was 600 tons per week. On May 25 the foundation stone was laid for the new general offices. The architect was F. J. Veall of Cardiff.

1914 With the outbreak of the war the company was the first of the bigger employers in Great Britain to grant an allowance to the dependants of all those who joined up.

1915 A shell factory was established in the fitting shop which employed mostly female labour.

1918 At the instigation of the government, work commenced on two additional furnaces at Victoria both capable of producing 2,750 tons per week.

1921 The post war boom was at an end. The heavy capital investment expected between 1918–1921, in expectation of continued prosperity, did not materialise. The Company made a profit of £399,388. It was the last time it would do so.

1922 The restructuring of the steel industry in Europe, following the devastation of the war, enabled continental countries to undercut Britain’s world markets. Prices for pig iron and steel fell sharply.

1925 The iron and steel plant at Ebbw Vale was working at 75% of its capacity. The Siemens furnaces closed.

1929 In the year to March 1929, the Company had produced 6,000,000 tons of coke; 364,871 tons of pig iron; 248,379 tons of steel, nearly reaching the production level of 1920. Investments in new machinery included new electrically-operated rolling mills, replacing use of steam, and a new hot metal receiver capable of holding 1,500 tons, the world’s largest, installed in the Bessemer department. Despite the optimism, the steel plant was closed, this time permanently. A number of departments were left in operation, for example, the sheet mills and collieries but 4,000 men found themselves out of work causing great distress in the community.

1930s The Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron and Coal Co took control of the Newport Abercarn Black Vein Steam Coal Co Ltd and the Powells Tillery Steam Coal Co Ltd. These and other assets were disposed of between 1936 and 1938 partly to Richard Thomas and Co and the rest to Partridge, Jones and John Paton Ltd[4].

1935 Following a period of intense speculation, Sir William Firth, Chairman of Richard Thomas and Co announced that his company had purchased the assets of the Ebbw Vale Iron and Steel Works and that the first continuous hot strip mill outside the USA would be located there[5].

1938 The new works was commissioned. The continuous hot strip mill with a capacity of 600,000 tons per annum and facilities for sheet and tinplate manufacture was the first integrated Steel Works in Europe.

1945 The fusion of Richard Thomas and Co and Baldwins was finalised. It created one of the largest companies in the UK Richard Thomas and Baldwins.

1947 The first electrolytic tin-plating line in Europe was commissioned at Ebbw Vale.

1950 The Government of the day nationalised the steel industry.

1953 onwards: The Steel Industry was denationalised although Richard Thomas and Baldwins and Ebbw Vale Works remained in state ownership.

1961 The first UK top blown LDAC process was introduced at Ebbw Vale.

1967 British Steel was established. Richard Thomas and Baldwins Ebbw Vale Works formed part of the South Wales Group.

1970 British Steel announced a 10 year development plan which included a statement on Ebbw Vale that proposed the cessation of iron and steel making operations at the works.

1972 The Coke ovens closed on 16/03/72. Work commenced removing a 19th Century tip (Drill ground) containing nearly 500,000 tons of material. This work enabled the extensions to be built to the cold mill.

1973 As part of a restructuring of the steel industry, a new tinplate complex was announced for Ebbw Vale Works.

1974 A new hydrochloric Pickle line commissioned, a feat of modern engineering - straddling the calley floor from easy to west.

1975 The Converter shop closed on 19/07/75. The Blast furnaces closed on 17/07/75 having produced 16,916,523 tons of iron on A, B & C furnaces. 1976/7 - Tinplate Development Phase 1 commenced.

1977 Effluent Plant Commissioned August (the works won a clean river award). 4&5 Hallden Shears commissioned September. 4 E.T.L. commissioned December. 5 cleaning line commissioned December. The continuous hot strip mill rolled its last hot rolled coil on 29/09/77. It has rolled, from slab, 23 million tons of steel. F5 (the fifth mill of six) was erected at the north gate.

1978 The final cast was made at the open hearth department and the last ingot was rolled at the slabbing mill. The Hot Mill Slabbing Mill closed on 22/05/78. It had slabbed 24 million tons of steel. Final Cast at the open hearth on 19/05/78. Single Stack Annealing A. Commissioned. Double Reduction (DR.) mill commissioned March 1978. No. 4 Coil Prep Commissioned December 1978

1978 Saw the official opening of the New Tinplate development on 15/06/78, by Derek Hornby, The President of the Food Manufacturing Federation. Costing £57 million, it increased the output of Tinplate at Ebbw Vale by 35%. This was the completion of phase 1 of development but after a Government white paper on "The Road to Viability" was published, phase 2 was suspended, never to materialise.

1980 A National Steel Strike from January 2nd to April 3rd. An expensive 5 stand upgrade was completed and commissioned mainly comprising computer controlled settings for each of the 5 rolling mills, leading to automatic gauge control. Also a new automatic roll change system was put into place.

1981 The demolition of the iron / steel making end of works were well in advance, also a new southern boundary was now in place.

1983 A Plan was put before the local council to apply for the site of the 1992 National Garden Festival, on the site of the former iron / steel making end of the works. (In November 1988 Ebbw Vale was named as the winner)

1988 A new automatic Warehouse was announced costing £11.9 million. (It was commissioned in 1991)

1991 An extensive refurbishment of No. 2 Temper Mill took Place, costing £8.5 million. Comprising computer control plus a new automatic roll change system.

1995 No. 2 E.T.L. closed down is August, initially planned to be demolished and redeveloped, however, this plan was found to be too costly with the result that the unit was effectively mothballed and kept as a very useful source of spares for the 2 remaining tinning lines until their demise later on.

1999 On 06/10/99 a merger was announced with Hoogovens (Holland) and British Steel plc. to become a new company called CORUS.

2001 On 01/02/01 the total closure was announced of Ebbw Vale works with a final loss of 780 jobs.

2001 On 01/06/01 - No. 2 Galv Ceased production, subsequently the line being dismantled and sold to an Indian Company. (With India also buying the Lurgi plant. Double reduction mill (DR Mill) ceased production - this mill was dismantled and re-assembled at Ijmuiden (Holland)July - No. 4 Electrolytic Tinning Line ceased production - this line was dismantled and is now No. 6 ETL at Trostre (Llanelli).

2002 On July 2002 - Ebbw Vale Works Officially ceased production. Although a stockpile of finished products were shipping out by a skeleton staff until December 2002.

2002 A Scottish firm of demolition experts (Morton) were brought in to demolish the works whilst leaving the site fit and ready for future development. Demolition commenced in August 2002.

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. In the Footsteps of the Iron-makers 4 - The Darby Trail [1]
  2. The Times, 21 June 1843
  3. 'The Cornish Beam Engine' by D B Barton (D Bradford Barton, new edition, 1966)
  4. Papers in Gwent Record Office [2]
  5. The Times, 2 March 1936
  • [3] Blaenau-Gwent Web Site
  • British Steam Locomotive Builders by James W. Lowe. Published in 1975. ISBN 0-905100-816