Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,422 pages of information and 245,908 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Bedlington Ironworks

From Graces Guide

18th Century

1757 Much of the very early history of the Bedlington Ironworks is extremely uncertain, but Thomlinson's company established and developed until 1757 when the concern was advertised for sale in every weekly edition of the Newcastle Courant from the 29th January to April 2nd 1757. The advertisement throws some light on the state of expansion during the first twenty years: To be sold to the highest bidder on May 5th. The Slitting Mill and Warehouses, at Bebside near Blyth. With workshops for about fourty nailers, now employed in an established trade and with all manner of tools suitable, also dwelling houses for the workmen, together with a large and commodious dwelling house, fit for a gentleman's family. Consisting of ten fine rooms, four of which are hung with genteel papers, with good cellars, a stable, large garden and other conveniences together with thirty acres of land, well fenced and mush improved; The whole held under a lease, of which about eighty years are unexpired and subject to the yearly rent of 28 pounds. Also another lease, of which about the same time is unexpired, of a place called Watson's Quay, near the said works, with a dwelling house, stable, and a warehouse for landing and shipping goods together with a piece of ground of about three acres, the whole subject to a rent of 13 pounds. N.B. There is a convenience of erecting a forge or other ironworks on the said premises. The works is well situated for coals and water, within a mile of that part which is navigable of the river Blyth. An account of what the slitting mill is capable of performing in one year, also the incumbent charges may be seen by enquiring of Thomas Simpson at his house in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle.

It is seen that a quay and other buildings had been erected on the Bedlington side of the river and the lease for this land had been acquired shortly after the Bebside land. In later years this land was the site of the main furnaces, forges and workshops of the ironworks and hence from being known in its early years as Bebside Mill, the concern was given the given name or official title of Bedlington Ironworks

Those first twenty years had seen rapid development of the industry and although nail making was the predominant occupation, early historians noted that forgings were made for "general purposes", as well as for the Slitting Mill.

The auction of 5th May 1757, resulted in Malings and Co of Sunderland taking a lease and further steady progress was made during this firm's stay in the Dene.

It was during the time of the Malings that the first axle tree for a forge was brought from Winfield Park in Westmorland. The axle was of oak and it took nine of the biggest wagon horses to draw it to Bedlington. This gives us some idea of how big the water wheel would be.

1767 The Northumbrian historian, Wallis, a contemporary of the Malings, wrote in 1767: "The only ironworks with us at present of any eminence is at Bedlington. The ore is digged out of the hanging banks by the river, with great labour and pains, of various degrees of texture and hardness, some as soft as common clay till hardened by the air. The heaviest and richest in metal is mostly of a liver colour or a very deep brown."

Once this ore was obtained the Malings calcined (or roasted) it on the north bank of the river before tipping it into the blast furnace between layers of coke (or charcoal) and limestone for smelting. Huge bellows worked by a water wheel provided blasts of air, which heated the furnace. The ore melted and descended to the bottom of the furnace where it was tapped as pig iron. The pig iron was then taken through another sequence in the forge whereupon it was made up into malleable (or wrought iron) iron forgings. This process can be probably severe as a commentary on how iron working all over England was being carried out at this time.

1782 The works were advertised for sale in February 1782 - Hawks and Longridge, brothers-in-law from Gateshead, both accomplished ironmasters, took over the ownership in that year. Once again the state of the works is shown in the following advertisement: "To be sold, the splitting mills, warehouses, smith's shops, dwelling house and warehouse situated at Watson's Quay contiguous to the Blyth river, all of which premises are held for a term of years of which fifty-three will be unexpired on May Day next. These works are capable of executing 500 tons of rod iron and iron hoops in one year, and are well situated as to coal and the receipt and shipping of iron, being only one mile from the navigable port of Blyth, to which port iron may be brought from London on the most reasonable terms."

No mention is made of the previous sale of any smith's shops and it appears that the land at Watson's Quay was also developed during the time of the Maling's. It is also interesting to note that the works were using the port of Blyth and making contacts as far away as London.

This contact with the ports of Blyth and London was continued under Hawks and Longridge. The works were extended under the new owners and from the making of nails and simple forgings, Bedlington Iron Works became noted for their heavy forgings for the Blyth shipwrights, and also for the anchors made at the ironworks.

1783 The introduction to the iron industry of Henry Cort's puddling (or reverberatory) furnace in 1783 showed a sudden need to build furnaces near coal beds rather than woods and so the Bedlington furnace with its neighbouring coal seams from that time prospered, whilst many others in the Sussex Weald for instance closed down. Bedlington's connection with the puddling furnace is shown by the fact that until recently there was a "Puddler's Row" barely a hundred yards from the site of the ironworks.

1792 A fruitful trade in iron goods was carried on with merchants in London and many workmen were employed in working up scrap iron into rods and hoops. This latter occupation seems, from the advertisement of 1792, to have developed during the period that the Maling's owned the works.

It was during the time of Hawks and Co that an innovation, the rolling mill, was introduced into the trade. It will be shown how the successors to Hawks and Longridge extensively used the rolling mill but to Hawks and Company must go the credit for first building the mill at Bedlington. Hodgson mentions the fact that the works were extensively developed under Hawks, and many men were employed in the "rolling iron and making a great variety of iron implements for home and foreign consumption".

1800 Nail making was still a profitable industry and the slitting mill obviously employed many men even in 1880, just before the ownership of the ironworks changed hands again. At this time, Edward Charlton employed twenty nail makers; William and Henry Smith, employed fourteen and William Kirkup about twelve. These men were the master-nailers of the town of Bedlington and of course they received the split rods from the Bedlington works to manufacture the nails.

During the first quarter of the nineteenth century the splitting mills became disused at the Bedlington works, and soon after that all the nailers shops, apart from one, disappeared from the town.

The last shop belonged to the Gibson family and can be traced back to the beginning of the last century. Mr. Gibson says he was forced to finally pull down the shutters of his shop in 1930. He has since been known in Bedlington and district as "The last of the Nailers".

19th Century

The dawn of the nineteenth century saw Hawks and Longridge still in command of the Bedlington Iron Works. The discoveries by Abraham Darby, the introduction of the puddling furnace and the rolling mills were all contemporary happenings of the early Bedlington iron workers. The "ironmen" of Bedlington undoubtedly established their trade well into the eighteenth century, by expanding business and spreading the name of the firm.

1808 There were already four shipbuilding companies, namely Manners and Bates, Debord and Morrison, Munroe and Davidson and Wrights. These were joined by Davidsons in 1802 and Clarke and Taylor in 1810. With such an obvious demand for anchors it seems certain that the Bedlington works supplied the shipyards' needs.

1809 The works changed hands again. This time the new owners were Gordon and Biddulph, a London based company. It was during their term of ownership Michael Longridge, nephew of the previous co-owner came to Bedlington. The exact date of Longridge's arrival at Bedlington is not known

Daniel Gooch, in his diaries, states that he was born in Bedlington in 1816 and that his father brought the family to Bedlington to join his cousins, the Longridge's, at the ironworks about a year before that. Longridge's family name became synonymous with Bedlington Ironworks and shortly after this date he was made a partner.

In the early days of Gordon and Biddulph's ownership, the rolling mills were used extensively and the main products were rolled iron bars, iron sheets, hoops, anchors and chain cables. Anchors, especially, were in greater demand than had been the case with previous owners, as Blyth was the centre of an expanding shipbuilding trade at this time.

Gordon and Biddulph, being a London company, had a good market in the capital city for Bedlington iron, and large quantities were conveyed down the river in lighters and shipped at Blyth for London. However, Michael Longridge's popularity was not only based upon an increase in trade. Shortly after his arrival, the Blyth Dene was a hive of activity with a great number of workmen employed, not only in manufacturing iron, but also erecting new buildings to cater for the social and educational needs of his workmen. These buildings carried the mark of Longridge with the arms of the Longridge family displayed on the gable of a cottage.

Despite these early developments under Michael Longridge, all other work and production was to become overshadowed by Bedlington's part in the revolution that was taking place in Britain's transport. The development of the railways and locomotives in the country during the nineteenth century was to mean more extensions to the Bedlington Iron Works, dealing with famous men, trade in foreign parts and fame to the town and ironworks of Bedlington.

From the official History of the North Eastern Railway (W. W. Tomlinson, 1914): "The Bedlington Iron and Engine Works will be remembered in industrial history more for the contribution made to the development of the early railways than for any other single reason. It is no coincidence that the company's peak of production and fame was paralleled by the excitement of railroad and locomotive development in this country and abroad."

1809 A 16 line poem: "Upon the starting of the engine, at Bedlington Iron Works July 28 1819" begins 'This powerful Engine, we are told...'. The verses refer to a steam engine (presumably a Trevithick type) used in iron forging on the river Blyth, Northumberland, almost certainly at the Bedlington Iron Works[1]

Michael Longridge was the business brain behind the thirty-odd years that the company enjoyed comparative success in the cut-throat world of pioneer railway development; also deeply involved in the early days was his close friend George Stephenson, and the principal agent at the works, John Birkenshaw who took most of the credit for establishing the name of Bedlington.

In 1819 an agreement was made with Thomas Mason, lessee of the Engine Pit near Willowbridge at Choppington, approximately two miles from the works, whereby reduced price coal would be provided, if a wagon way was built, at the work's expense, between the Dene and the colliery. The pit would derive enormous benefit from this, as easy access would be provided to the quay where all local coals were keeled. The type of rails, cast or malleable iron, to be laid caused some debate, but Longridge came down on the side of malleable iron. He was greatly influenced by a report on the Tindale Fell malleable iron railway in Cumberland and on malleable rails in use at Ayr and Pinkie in Scotland. This report, made by an engineer named Robert Stevenson of Edinburgh, was for the directors of the proposed railway from Edinburgh to the Midlothian coalfield. Stevenson reported that "malleable iron is not only considerably cheaper in the first cost than the cast iron, but is also much less liable to accident".

In later years Longridge wrote to George Buchanan, civil engineer in Edinburgh, telling him how he had came to his decision.

"Mr. Robert Stevenson's remarks in favour of the malleable iron rails attracted my attention.

"I was convinced of the superiority of malleable iron over cast iron, as a material of which a railway bar ought to be made that I resolved upon laying down malleable iron railway bars upon the road, which Bedlington Iron Company intended to make."

John Birkenshaw suggested the idea of making these railway bars "wedge form", by which means the same extent of surface as the cast iron rail was preserved for the wheels to travel upon, and the depth of the bar increased without adding necessarily to its weight.

"By the recommendation of John Buddle Esq, we afterwards made the rails with a swell or curvature in the middle"

In fact the finished wagon way was built much more cheaply than this mainly because laying it directly on the staithe, a distance of 3,162 yards with a branch to the works of 400 yards making the amount of rail laid 3,562 yards.

Longridge also saved on the estimated cost by making the rails from tons of old scrap iron, bought out of Blyth harbour, this having been brought into the port as ballast.

In December 1820, Birkenshaw took out a patent on his invention. The original drawings show that seven different section shapes were submitted and in his specification Birkenshaw wrote:

"I do not claim the invention of this mode of operating upon iron bars, by which they are moulded into any shape. But I confine my claim to the exclusive right of manufacturing and vending the wedge form of bars or rails of malleable iron of any length, for the purpose of forming or constructing railways or railroads".

1821 George Stephenson was tremendously impressed with Birkenshaw's work. He wrote in 1821,

"Those rails are so much liked in this neighbourhood that I think in a short time they will do away with the cast iron railways. They make a fine line for our engines as there are so few joints compared with the other."

The Birkenshaw invention was important for another reason. It took the making of iron rails out of the hands of the blacksmith and founder and passed it on to a power driven machine which was able to produce the vast quantities that were soon to be needed.

This was the dawn of the Railway Revolution and soon authorities from this country and abroad were speculating as to the most reliable rails and engines to use.

George Stephenson himself was, in 1821, surveying for the proposed Stockton and Darlington Railway and was faced with the "task" of recommending a suitable rail.

As he was, with William Losh, of Walker Ironworks, co-partner in the best cast iron rail product (according to James's letter), it would seem only natural for Stephenson to promote his own product.

However, such was his regard for Birkenshaw's malleable iron rail that he suggested the Company adopt this in preference to his own patent. Such uncommon honesty was much appreciated at Bedlington, but Losh was not convinced of Stephenson's candour. In a letter to Edward Pease, virtual head of the Darlington Railway Company, he accused Stephenson in November 1821 of ulterior motives in recommending the Bedlington rail.

In June 1819 the following announcement had appeared in the local press:

TO BE DEPOSITED OF - A share of the Willow Bridge Colliery near Bedlington in the County of Durham. This is a new winning and two shafts have been sunk to the first seam at a depth of seventeen fathoms. There are two other seams (the same that is now working at Cowpen and Netherton) both within twenty-five fathoms of the one that is recently sunk. The above colliery is in a most favourable situation being within one and a half miles of the river Blyth to which leave is granted for a railway and a quay which is already built for the shipment of coal.

Stephenson took up the partnership, and he invested 700 pounds in the venture. The mine was thereafter known as Mason, Stephenson and Co, later the Barrington Coal Co

It was this interest that formed the basis of Losh's attack.

He suggested that Stephenson's recommendation was due to the fact that Longridge, apart from being a very good friend, was the best customer he had for coals, and that Longridge's iron works were important to Stephenson as they provided parts for his rails and engines.

Losh also suggested that Longridge was paying Stephenson commission on procured orders. He wrote:

"In the long intercourse I have had with the world, I have found most people to be lean to their own interests, and I most certainly do not think that George Stephenson an exception to the general rule. I do not state this as an objection to his general character, but these engagements in business being strictly contrary to the rules of the employers, to whom he owes his success in life, and his opposition to those who have most materially assisted him are at least a proof that interest has more influence over his mind than gratitude.

When Longridge learnt of this letter to Pease, he wrote to that gentleman in defence of Stephenson:

"I am sorry to learn from my very honest friend Stephenson that another person has been attempting to injure him in your estimation. I trust you have sufficient knowledge of him to form a true and just opinion."

Longridge went on to deny any link between Stephenson and the profit made from malleable iron rails; "Stephenson can have no share in the malleable iron rail belonging to me nor have I offered him any commission or premium on the amount of rails sold".

Losh's letter had also included detrimental observations of the Birkenshaw rail, and whilst the men at the head of the Stockton-Darlington Railway Company had already formed a favourable opinion of Stephenson's character, they did not ignore Losh's observations of the Bedlington rail.

Besides, the cast iron rail was cheaper and some of the shareholders that had interests in cast iron rail companies demanded that a certain amount of cast iron, as well as malleable iron rails, should be advertised for.

However, Stephenson treated this lightly as is seen from a letter to William James in December 1821. "With respect to the Stockton-Darlington Railway Company advertising for cast iron rails, it was meanly to please a few subscribers who have been bought over by the cast iron founders, but they have only advertised for one third to be cast iron rail.

In fact the sub-committee recommended that two thirds of the line be laid with malleable iron rails and the rest with cast iron and, even though the full board later passed a resolution that the whole line should be laid with malleable iron rails, the finished line was composed of seven-eighths malleable iron and one-eighth cast iron."

By January 1822, George Stephenson had been officially appointed chief engineer of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company at the salary of 660 pounds per year, out of which he "was to provide for services of assistants"

And work had begun on the building of the railway - Bedlington Iron Company, recipient of a massive contract, had taken its first big step in what was to be the international world of railways, with delivery of 1,200 tons of malleable iron rails at 12 pounds and 10 shillings a ton.

As with most innovations, the Bedlington rail had its fair share of criticism, possibly only because it had challenged, and broken down the monopoly of cast iron rails, but it weathered the storm, and was used in most of the great early railway developments in this country and abroad.

We now know that the Birkenshaw patent rail stood the test of time. The following comes from Bedlington's most famous son, Daniel Gooch, who had spent his boyhood days playing in and around the works; "I found on making an inspection of the Great Western Railway at Stratford on Avon, those rails on an old line …. ………. were all obtained from Bedlington Iron Works in 1830.

"The line is worked by trains and the rails are all still in very good order (1867).

"I have had a sample sent to me as a relic of the early history of railways.

Since long before the malleable iron rail saga, George Stephenson and his brother Robert had been frequent business and social visitors to the Dene. In 1814, the works made the boiler-plates, axles and wheels for Stephenson's first locomotive the Locomotive: Blucher and in succeeding years-made boilers and parts for many of the early railway companies in this country.

The Stephenson's were much in demand in the early 1820s and the Bedlington Company reaped the benefit of the many orders for iron parts that these two required.

A typical example is seen in the letter from Robert, written in Cork in 1823 asking Longridge for " a small boiler".

"You will receive the order by George Marshall or some of our people in a few days. I hope that Mr. Birkenshaw will see the plates nicely cut as we want it neatly finished".

1823 Whilst in later years Longridge seems to have had the Midas touch at Bedlington, he received his fair share of criticism in an early venture with the Stephenson's and Edward Pease of Darlington.

The four men had formed in June 1823 a locomotive works at Forth Street, Newcastle but shortly after this the Stephenson's were called away on business, George an engineer to the Liverpool-Manchester Railway and Robert to South America.

Longridge, whilst trying to run the Newcastle concern had enough on his plate at Bedlington. Writing to Robert Stephenson he mentioned "… we continue to be overwhelmed with business at Bedlington Ironworks."

By 1827 Richardson was openly showing his dissatisfaction with Longridge, writing to Robert in April of that year he stated:

"I can assure thee that thy business at Newcastle, as well as thy father's engineering have suffered very much in thy absence and unless thou soon return the former will be given up as Mr. Longridge is not able to give it the attention it requires and what is done is not done with credit to the house"

Robert returned to England in late 1827 to cool heated emotions and relieve Longridge of much of the anxiety attached to his position. Longridge was to remain with the Newcastle works until 1836.

In 1830 and the years immediately following, miners were showing militant dissent, especially with the rules binding them to employers.

Locomotive Construction

All of the early railway work at Bedlington was carried out in the forges - there was no locomotive factory there until 1827.

Biddulph and Gordon, the proprietors, has acquired in 1829 the lease of the land south-east of the existing works, on the Blyth side of the river opposite the work's quay, and in 1836 began the task of building a locomotive works on the site.

When Longridge announced his intention to build a locomotive factory (named after his sixteen year old, fourth son Michael Bewick Longridge) {see R. B. Longridge and Co}, the news caused a great deal of agitation to the company members of the Robert Stephenson works in Newcastle, of which Michael Longridge was an original partner, as naturally this new company would be working in direct competition with the Newcastle works.

It is apparent that Longridge had long contemplated building a rival locomotive factory at Bedlington, but, no doubt, conscious of his connection with the Newcastle works, had dropped the idea. However, his early intentions had become concrete by early 1836; writing from Newcastle on the 12th of April that year, Robert Stephenson told Joseph Pease of Longridge's plans.

"I had considered from previous communications with Longridge that he has given up the intention of building engines at Bedlington, on my arrival here however, I was surprised to learn that he had resumed the intention, and from what I can hear, it is more than probable he will carry this intention into effect…………. If he has made up his mind I have little hopes of changing his views…. The concern is now, I believe, doing tolerably well, but the high prices which we are getting is bringing others daily into the field, and though I do not doubt that we may keep some little ascendancy over others for a few years. I am not sanguine as to expect anything like extraordinary profits, and rather than allow Mr. Longridge to proceed in raising a similar establishment for Bedlington Iron Company, I think it is worth considering whether Forth Street may not be offered to the Bedlington Company…"

The younger Stephenson certainly tried to get Longridge to change his mind shortly after writing this letter but the Bedlington man went ahead with his plans, and it seems was only waiting for someone else to take over as manager at Newcastle.

In a further letter to Joseph Pease in the September of 1836 Stephenson referred to Longridge's request to be released.

" I had a letter from Mr. Longridge the other day, in which he asks if I have found anyone to take his situation. I informed him in my reply that I expected to do so very shortly…"

"Rivals are now coming into the field who have not to begin by expensive experiments. There is no groping around in the dark, or at least there ought not to be."

Certainly Longridge appeared to have a ready market for his locomotives and shortly after the new building was erected he produced his first loco ………………. in 1837, predictably the "Michael Longridge", for the Stanhope and Tyne Railway.

The whole town had been waiting for the "launching" of his first engine and hundreds littered the banks around the Dene to see the new loco hauled out of the factory by horses in traces, up the banks from the valley, to the turnpike to Newcastle.

The local newspaper covered the spectacle and the reporter seemed most impressed by this first locomotive of Longridge's company.

"This is one of the most powerful engines of this description manufactured, having six wheels all coupled, and it will actually draw a load of 300 tons. It is allowed by several eminent engineers, and other competent judges, that these engines are upon the best construction, and the workmanship reflects the greatest credit upon the local manufacturers…."

1839 A boom year for the engine works with seventeen locomotives being produced for different companies in Europe and Asia.

The first locomotives was numbered 104 and although many of the records of the company were lost, it is evident that few, if any, locomotives were built after 1852 (the factory closed in 1855) and the last locomotive traced was the "Prince Albert", No. 309 of 1852.

From this it would seem that over 200 locos were built, but in fact, the number is nearer 155 - 160. There are no records from the latter part of 1842 to 1845 and some historian's believe that production ceased during this period.

Certainly evidence seems to point to this. Many men were paid off at the works in July 1842, and the local press told "it is no uncommon circumstance to see groups of men, sitting about unfrequented parts of the tow, playing cards."

For the enthusiast, the records of locomotives built and companies built for, as have been to hand, are listed at the end of this chapter.

The "Prince Albert" was almost certainly the last engine to survive.

This broad gauge 0-4-0 tank was originally built for J. and C. Rigby, contractors on the Holyhead breakwater, and worked at least until 1910, on the Isle of Anglesey.

During the best years, locomotives were built for many new railway companies, both in this country and abroad.

The very first train to run from King's Cross was pulled by a Bedlington engine, as were Holland's and Italy's first trains.

Replicas of these continental locos are preserved in museums in those two countries: De Arend and De Snelheid in Utrecht and Bayard in Rome.

An agent in the works' employ, named Starbuck, made the European trade connection.

All the early successful contracts with railway companies in Italy, Holland and Germany and Belgium were made through Starbuck, but in 1840 he became a freelance agent, obviously believing his talent was worth bargaining for. Continental connections, of which Starbuck had plenty, were extremely important, and no sooner did he break with Bedlington than Stephenson stepped in.

"You have probably heard." Robert wrote to Joseph Pease, "…that Longridge and Starbuck no longer carry on business together.

"The latter intends commencing a commission business on his own account, and has applied for me to allow him to act for Robert Stephenson and Company, more particularly on the continent, where he has already been instrumental in establishing a connection for Longridge and Company in their locomotive department.

"I am of the opinion that I cannot do better than arrange with Starbuck without delay in order that he may go at once abroad to appraise his correspondents personally of the change which has taken place and introduce himself as acting for us………it is most essential that we should cultivate our continental business, and I cannot conceive a better opportunity of doing so than that which has occurred through Starbuck."

The Longridge's loss was the Stephenson's gain and, after this break in 1840, Bedlington's trade with the continental countries never resembled what had gone before.

1855 The locomotive factory was closed down. The cost of transport was far too great, and competition was too much to contend with. The Stephensons were practically sitting on a railway at Forth Street, and this made transportation costs of locomotives simple, in complete contrast to the task facing the Longridges in the Dene - locos, heavy forgings, and boilers all had to be conveyed on trolleys drawn by draught horses, the twelve miles to Newcastle where they were delivered, shipped or placed on the railway to their destination. Bedlington Locomotive Works closed after a comparatively short time in production.

Despite this, Longridge's Company had in a short time made a decided contribution to the development of home and continental railways.

In fact it is amazing the number of railway engineers who were connected with the Bedlington Iron Works. Apart from Michael Longridge and Birkenshaw, there was Thomas Gooch, manager of the first Carlisle Railway, and Nicholson of the Dundee Railway, Thomas Gooch's brother, Sir Daniel Gooch of the Great Western Railway and John Dixon (Bedlington born) who laid down the very first railway track in China.

These men and many hard working, unknown, lesser lights made certain that Bedlington would always be remembered whenever the early history of railways is discussed.

The years 1819-53 were predominately the railway era at Bedlington. Yet all of this time the works had remained under the same manager, and had expanded in other directions catering not only for the excessive demands from iron, but also for the welfare of the ironworkers themselves.

Ironstone and Coal mining

1820 Longridge acquired the lease from the Earl of Carlisle of an ironstone mine at Netherton village, previously worked by the Heaton Iron Company. From the coal measure outcrops in the area, the ironworks obtained quantities of Remilite iron ore and mixed the ore with ironstone, sent from the Cleveland area of Yorkshire, and mill cinder.

Many furnaces on the North East Coast at this time were using the stone, which became known as "Whitby Stone".

In order to smelt this mixture two new furnaces were constructed on the north bank, where the river turns for Blyth, but these were not long in existence, and soon fell into disuse.

1828 A lease of the Purvis and Errington coal seams at High Cowpen granted the royalty mentioned in the report.

Longridge had a bore hole put down near the river, in the vicinity of the present railway viaduct, but this scheme to open a mine opposite the works never matured, and in 1840 Longridge gave the lease over to Carr and Jobling of Cowpen Colliery.

1840 Longridge secured a lease of coal from Lord Barrington and established a winning known as Barrington "Henry" Colliery. This was connected to the ironworks by an extension to the wagon way and was carried on partly in conjunction with the works and partly as a sea sale colliery. This same year, Longridge suggested to his chief agent, John Birkenshaw, who was also a partner in the colliery at Netherton, that the iron works pay for rail to be laid from the pit to the river. Birkenshaw's pit supposedly produced the best quality steam coal in the North and Longridge's intention was to obtain this coal at a cheap price, in return for laying the rail. The suggestion was taken up and the rail was completed in 1841, joining the existing wagon way at Bedlington Station, finishing up at Granary Point Jetty, East Sleekburn.

All the social innovations of these years were due solely to the energy of Michael Longridge, whilst he was devoting most of his time to the running of the ironworks. His former agent-inventor, John Birkenshaw, was travelling the length of the country assisting, as engineer and advisor with many of the new railways. He eventually settled in Bedlington, buying a piece of land at Hollymount and building Hollymount Hall there in 1844. Eventually he left the Bedlington area for the south, leaving his coal interests to his son John Cass Birkenshaw.

Michael Longridge bought Hollymount Hall from Birkenshaw and it was there that he died in 1858.

The works were at their peak in 1850 and two historians, Bergen and Craster, state that nearly 2,000 men were employed in the iron works at this time. No definite proof can be found to verify that number and it certainly seems very high. It may be that the 2,000 men were in Longridge's employ at the works and at the local collieries, but whatever the answer, the four to five years after 1850 saw more men unemployed in the Dene than ever before.

The rolling mills, blast furnaces and forges were worked day and night producing rails and forgings for the Crimea War effort. Finished products were sent down to Blyth in keels and then shipped at Blyth to the Crimea.

The fame of the works was such at the time that Longridge was asked in 1851 to provide an exhibit for the Great Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in that year. The Newcastle Journal described it thus:

"An immense anchor of most beautiful finish and construction, weighing five tons two quarters has this week been forwarded to the Great Exhibition from the ironworks of Longridge and Company of Bedlington. It was viewed by a great number of persons whilst lying on the truck at the Gateshead Goods Railway Station previous to its being sent down to London. After it has been exhibited it will be consigned to the Admiralty for use of the Royal Navy."

In 1853 after approximately 40 years as "ruler" in the Bedlington Dene, Michael Longridge retired from Bedlington Ironworks, but continued to reside in the town. It is fair comment to state that, when he left, the heart was torn from the ironworks and the business was never ever the same again.

That the following line of owners were not so successful was part due to the lack of personality, but not to the absence of ability or courage; rather, reasons can be found in the changing industrial trends of the time.

It is fitting that the iron works were advertised and sold in 1853, not as "Bedlington Ironworks" but as "Longridge and Company", Biddulph and Gordon having sold out to Michael in 1850. The new owner in 1853 was a Mr. James Spence. Very little is known of his term as proprietor, but he was not particularly successful and after two years he sold his stock in a ten-day sale on 21st May 1855.

After Spence left, the works were abandoned for six year and during that time, at the death of Michael Longridge in October 1858, the Bedlington Coal Co bought Barrington Colliery from Michael's sons, James and Henry, who left the Northeast to devote their time to their assurance company in Manchester.

In 1861 production was recommended, under the ownership of Messrs. Capper, Mounsey and Dixon. They made a valiant and an energetic attempt to regain some of the iron works former glory, but were forced to abandon their aims in 1865. Capper, apparently soon left the ironworks, for no mention is made of him in any connection after 1861. If the ownership of Mounsey and Dixon was remembered, it would, no doubt, be due to the ill luck which befell Mr. Mounsey and his family. The local newspapers tells the story of how Mrs. Mounsey was so tragically killed.

The Bedlington Coal Co purchased the iron works in 1865 and traded as Bedlington Iron Co. The intention was to manufacture iron mouldings for their own use and for outside sales. But little was made of it and the iron works were finally abandoned in 1867. Bedlington Coal Company did sell one possession of the Ironworks in 1867 and that was the famous wagon way, which went from Blyth to the Tyne Railway Company.

Shortly after this Mr. Robert Stanley Mansel, who owned the nearby Bebside estate, purchased the land on the north side of the river, where the engine factory stood.

1867 Generally a bad year for iron companies, which had relied on local outcrops. Newspapers of the that year continually ran stories of companies failings and such headings as "Coal Owners and the Iron Trade Depression" and "Reduction in Iron Trade". Were common in the Midlands, Scotland and in South Wales.

Bedlington's failure was brought about mainly through the discovery of the Cleveland bed of Ironstone in North East Yorkshire in 1846.

By 1863 this mineral was taking over from all the sources of this supply, and bringing into focus big and better new furnaces, which were being built near the source of the ore.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. I. Mech. E. [1]
  • Pitwork website [2]