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The Drinkfield Iron Company grew out of disruption resulting from a lock-out of workers in 1866, and was motivated by a desire to avoid such catastrophic conflicts between capital and labour.
It was constituted as a limited liability company, though often described as a co-operative, 'projected by a number of working men scattered over the Cleveland iron district after the prolonged disastrous strike in the iron trade...'. Eight of these workers made up its board of directors. The company had been registered within weeks of the strike's end, and negotiations to buy a site were already well advanced. The directors proposed buying ten acres of freehold land on the east of Whessoe Lane, near other engineering works and the railway, and building malleable ironworks at a cost of £15,000. The site, a part of the Drinkfield estate owned by John Henry Garbutt, would be served by its own railway line, to be laid free of charge to the company. It also had a plentiful water supply. It was yards outside the boundary of the Darlington Local Board of Health, in Whessoe township, and thus escaped 'a considerable amount of local taxation and interference'.
Within weeks of the company starting in business, serious problems had become evident. The first annual meeting of shareholders in February 1868 appointed a committee to investigate the finances and operations. Their conclusion, two weeks later, was that the concern had not been managed satisfactorily. It was suggested that 'the expenses of management have been on a comparatively lavish scale'. While the trade generally in the north-east was said to be improving, Drinkfield suffered from its lack of capital and 'co-operation would appear to have received a check'.
Within two months the company was in voluntary liquidation, and wound up in December 1869. The final meeting of shareholders was chaired by Spark, who took pains to emphasise his lack of involvement in having formed or promoted the company. Despite the collapse of Drinkfield, the two-hour meeting was described as 'unanimous and enthusiastic', for Spark told the disappointed investors that they could be repaid if they approved the sale of the business. Garbutt, previously criticised by Spark, was now said to have acted 'in the most creditable and handsome manner', for he had taken a lease on the works at six per cent of their cost, and would conduct the business on his own account. Spark recommended that shareholders accept this offer, although there came a suggestion from the floor of the meeting that better offers may have been available. It was reported shortly afterwards that the works and estate of the company had been sold to the Whessoe Iron Co for £5,180, to be paid in shares in the new company.
Like the Drinkfield, the Whessoe scheme did not survive long. An order to wind up came in March 1873 and the company was finally dissolved in August 1881. Thomas Vaughan and Co had taken over from Garbutt by 1873, when they were reported to have 36 puddling furnaces and two forges. They were out of business by 1878, at which time it was claimed that the sheds had fallen in.
A sale of the whole of the fixed plant and material took place in January 1879, designed to 'altogether obliterate the works'. Just over £3,000 was realised, the leading buyers were Putnam and Hodgson of Darlington Forge, and the site levelled but for three small buildings.
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