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The Basic Industries of Great Britain by Aberconway: Chapter VIII

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CHAPTER VIII. CUMBERLAND COAL, IRON AND STEEL


Introduction

It is well known that many of the higher qualities of iron ore in England and Scotland are exhausted, and the same is true of Spain, from which the great bulk of our steel-making ores, other than basic, is obtained. The only British ores of the finest quality are those on the Northwest Coast, and it is commonly believed that these, which are almost indispensable to Sheffield steel-makers, are approaching an end. It is only since the invention of the Bessemer process that the ores of Lancashire and Cumberland have been drawn on to a very large extent, though iron was made there many centuries ago. There are still traces of the Roman and medieval iron-maker in these parts. Furness appears to have been a metallurgical centre of importance in Plantagenet days, for it is on record that, when the Scots entered the district in the tenth year of Edward II, they seized all the manufactured iron they could find and carried it of in preference to other plunder. Mines were opened near Egremont early in the seventeenth century, at Fizzington in the middle of the eighteenth century, and at Cleator Moor before the end of that century. The metal was, as in other districts, smelted with charcoal. The surplus was exported to North Wales and other coast localities to which the carriage by sea was cheap and where wood was plentiful, but where no local ores were to be found.

The Cumberland hematite ores are chiefly found in pockets and are irregular in distribution. Sometimes they appear almost stratified, where they occur amongst the beds of carboniferous limestone which they have displaced. Many theories have been formed and published on the origin of these ores, which are certainly not beds or strata, as in other districts. In one place the red hematite is worked under what was the sea - namely, at the Hodbarrow Mine, where the ore is very near the surface and where an embankment was extended over the Duddon Sands, cutting off part of the estuary once covered by the sea. The best samples are known as kidney ores. They are remarkably free from impurities and are rich in iron. The analysis of Cleveland ore shows 33.6 per cent of iron, of Staffordshire ore 35.9 per cent, while Cumberland ore gives no less than 66.8 per cent. A hundred years ago the greater part of this rich ore was shipped away. In 1857 there were only five furnaces in Lancashire and Cumberland in blast, making about 25,000 tons of pig metal yearly, but the quantity of ore exported was 500,000 tons. This condition of things went on till, in 1870, the exports reached 860,000 tons, which went to South Wales, Staffordshire and Scotland.

The firm of Harrison, Ainslie and Co, who were then also iron-masters in a small way, held the leading position as exporters in the fifties of last century. The names of Ulverston, Hodbarrow, Cleator, and other places familiar to buyers of ore to-day were no less familiar then. During the latter half of this period many of the best-known mining firms became producers of iron at Whitehaven, Carnforth, North Lonsdale and Barrow-in-Furness. The effect of this growth of trade on the population and wealth of the district was so rapid that the 325 inhabitants of Barrow in 1847 had become 47,000 in 1881, and are now nearly 70,000 in number, while railways and docks give an impetus to every kind of metallurgical and engineering industry. Whereas in 1857 only 57,000 tons of ore were consumed locally, in the year 1870 1,235,000 tons out of the 2,093,241 tons raised were used in the blast furnaces of the district. In 1880, when the production of ore had reached its maximum, the whole of it was consumed in local furnaces. Curiously enough, however, in the year 1905, when the local furnace consumption was nearly the same as in 188o, almost one million tons of the whole quantity consumed were imported from Spain. This shows how rapidly exports can be transformed into imports.

The market for this increasing output was found in Yorkshire and the Midlands, and particularly in Sheffield, where the demand for railway material had stimulated inventions for the supply of a steel suitable for springs, buffers, axles and tyres, at a less cost than steel made from Swedish iron. The London and North-Western Railway Co. had already pushed into the district, and enabled Sheffield to supply itself with a hematite pig of remarkable purity, almost wholly free from either sulphur or phosphorus. Moreover, it was found that the iron made from these hematite ores, either alone or mixed with other kinds, gave a certain character to the metal which could not be produced from other materials. This was of great importance in the tests to which high-class Sheffield steel was subjected. While Staffordshire iron shows 0.04 per cent. of sulphur, and Cleveland iron 0.03 per cent., sulphur can scarcely be traced in Cumberland iron. The relative proportions of phosphorus are 1.07, 1.24 and 0.04. Of the Cumberland hematite mines to-day the largest is the Beckermet Mine, belonging to the United Steel Co of Sheffield, of which Mr. Albert Peech is Chairman, producing 275,000 tons; the Florence Mines, belonging to the Millom and Askam Hematite Iron Co, which was formed sixty years ago, and of which Mr. G. Mure Ritchie is Chairman, producing nearly 400,000 tons; the Hodbarrow Mines, belonging to a company of that name, of which Mr. Greenwood is Chairman, producing over 150,000 tons; and the Ullcoats Mines, producing 150,000 tons, jointly owned by the Millom and Askam Hematite Iron Co., the Barrow Hematite Steel Co and the North Lonsdale Iron and Steel Co, of which also Mr. G. Mure Ritchie is Chairman. It may appear surprising that the West Coast iron mines have not attracted a larger proportion of the British steel trade to those localities, following in this respect the example of Lanarkshire and Cleveland, where the trade has either gone to the coast or near to it. The coal of the Cumberland district is, however, not well suited for furnace use, and Durham coke has to be brought across the country for smelting and for many steel-making purposes. The Yorkshire and Midland firms also had the control of patents for the economical manufacture of railway and other material, in addition to high technical skill; and so long as steel-making followed the old lines of cementation and conversion, the West Coast was compelled to remain the mere producer of a raw product. But the advent of the Bessemer and Siemens processes changed the face of affairs. Persistent experiments in Sheffield made by John Brown and Co showed that these inventions were of real value, and then the West Coast iron-master, with his pure iron, seized his opportunity. The Barrow Hematite Steel Co, at Barrow-in-Furness, was the first to introduce the Bessemer process on the West Coast. It was closely followed by the West Cumberland Iron and Steel Co, near Workington. The Siemens or open-hearth process came into the district for practical purposes somewhat later than the Bessemer, and had at first only a moderate success.

The district nevertheless remains an iron-producing centre, supplying a quality of hematite pig iron which, from its nature, is indispensable in the manufacture of all fine steel. This characteristic gives to West Coast iron, as compared with that made in Middlesbrough and the East Coast, the advantage of between 5s. and 10s. a ton through every fluctuation of the market. The seven iron-making firms on the West Coast consume the hematite ore in their furnaces, but large quantities of Spanish and Algerian ores are added to the local supply.

The following are the ascertainable particulars of these firms and of their outputs, as well as of the general output of Cumberland ore.

  Issued capital in pounds sterling  
Ordinary Preference Debentures Total
Barrow Hematite Co. (The Chairman is Mr. G. Mure Ritchie, and on the Board are The Earl of Midleton and the Hon. Robert James) £675,000 £241,965 £780,393 £1,697,358
Carnforth Hematite Iron Co, owned by John Brown and Co of Sheffield and the Darlington Forge (Sir T. Putnam and Sir William Ellis are chairman and deputy-chairman, respectively) £72,000 £72,000 £122,800 £266,800
Millom and Askam Co £750,000 £350,000 £110,177 £1,210,177
Workington and Distington Companies. Owned by the United Steel Co - - - -
North Lonsdale Iron and Steel Co £246,827 - - £246,827
Whitehaven Hematite Co £49,050 £29,840 - £78,890

The total output of ore, pig iron and steel ingots and castings in the district for the years 1913, 1916 and 1925 is as follows:—

  1913 1916 1925
Output of iron ore 1,767,100 tons 1,608,400 tons 951,900 tons
Production of pig iron 1,162,600 tons 1,129,900 tons 632,700 tons
Total number of blast furnaces 57 - 45
Average in blast 26 War year 10
Average annual output per furnace 44,010 tons War year 58,403 tons
Production of steel ingots and castings 397,900 tons 342,500 tons 184,800 tons

Cammell, Laird and Co

Historically speaking, the district owes a great deal of its success in the steel rail trade to the firm of Charles Cammell and Co. of Sheffield (now Cammell, Laird and Co), who, in the year 1882, abandoned the steel rail trade in the Midlands, and established an extensive plant at Workington, which has held a leading position down to the present day. This firm came to the coast with a full order-book and enjoying trade connections second to none in the railway world. It must also be remembered that until comparatively recent years there was little shipbuilding of importance on the Cumberland coast, that plates and angles were largely the monopoly of the North-east Coast and of the Glasgow district, and that therefore the tendency of West Coast steel-makers was to push the manufacture of rails, on which their footing was already so firm. Whether this state of things is altogether to the advantage of the district is doubtful, for the output of rails is always larger than the possible demand, a fact never more in evidence than to-day, and at a moment when, in other branches of the steel trade, the world's demand is overtaking the supply.

The development of the trade of the West Coast has been traced from the extraction of ore to the manufacture of iron, and from the production of iron to the making of finished steel, but it is also interesting to note the development of the mechanical means by which the special characteristics of this iron and steel have been obtained. In the year 1857 there were only five blast furnaces in the district, each producing an average of 1,070 tons of iron a year. In 1865 there were forty furnaces, with an average production of 10,000 tons. In 1885 there were fifty-two furnaces, with an average output of 26,610 tons. In 1905 the number of furnaces had fallen to thirty-five only, but these produced an average output of 41,525 tons, or more than four times as much as the type of furnace in blast in 1865.

With regard to the financial success of the industry, it cannot be said that large fortunes have been made by investors on the West Coast in the trades under review, though the high wages earned by the men employed, and the handling and haulage of large outputs, have added enormously to the prosperity of the whole district. Many of the companies have had chequered careers. Some have passed their dividends for several consecutive years. The firms who confine themselves to iron are believed to have made more money than those engaged in steel production. The idea of establishing a self-contained undertaking — that is, one possessing its own resources in iron ore, fuel and so forth — has not always met with practical encouragement on the West Coast. Some of the firms have received rude shocks in connection with the supposed value of their mining properties, and none of them has been able to show that there is any more certainty of profit in the case of a metallurgical concern owning its own fuel supplies than in the case of one that buys its coal and coke elsewhere.

The known Cumberland coalfield is over 180 square miles in extent, partly on land, partly under sea. The exposed land area is 92 square miles in extent from Whitehaven to Maryport, a distance of 14 miles, with an extension inland from Maryport towards the north-east covering an area of 15 miles in length with an average width of 3 miles. The undersea area, which is opposite the coastline from Whitehaven to Maryport, has been proved for a distance of about 5 miles from the coast for 68 square miles. Undersea workings in some seams of coal are already at a distance of no less than 4 miles from the coast. In this respect the Cumberland coalfield is unique in the mining area of Great Britain, though in Scotland the Fifeshire and Midlothian workings run for some distance under the Firth of Forth, and in Durham there are similar undersea extensions. According to expert opinion, there may be extensions of the proved coal in the undersea area to a distance of perhaps 12 miles from the coast. This would give an additional 85 square miles of coal beyond the 5-mile limit mentioned above. The Sub-Permian area, lying to the north of the exposed area from Maryport to Bolton Low Houses, has been proved for 20 square miles. Collieries at Brayton work the Yard Band coal of about 5 ft. in thickness at a depth of 550 ft. A further extension is also probable of the concealed coalfield under the Sub- Permian area on the northern side, which would give 10 or 15 square miles more in addition to the area above mentioned. To the north of Allonby, and extending to Silloth, near Carlisle, there is a possible extension of the coalfield of some 30 or 40 square miles underlying the Keuper Marls, but this area has not been proved, and still remains a question of great interest as a geological speculation.

There are thirty-four existing collieries in Cumberland, mostly with small outputs, working under seventeen separate owners, both limited companies and private concerns. They employ over 12,000 persons, all of whom are wage-earners, with the exception of about 160 persons on the clerical staff. The output of coal in 1924 was 2,188,795 tons, and in 1925 about 2,000,000 tons, or about that of two first-class Yorkshire collieries. It is used mainly for local manufacturing, and over the northwest of England for household and gas-making purposes. A certain amount is exported to Ireland and the Isle of Man. Some of the seams give good coking coals, and these are used for the furnaces in the district. The largest colliery is a private company — the Whitehaven Colliery Co. Mr. Herbert Walker is Chairman. The output is 750,000 tons, and 2,900 men are employed. The Allerdale Coal Co at Workington has an output of 300,000 tons. Sir A. Mitchelson is Chairman. The St. Helens Colliery and Brickworks at Workington has an output of 350,000 tons. It is a private company, of which Sir Samuel Kelly, C.B.E., is Chairman.

The remaining collieries are the United Steel Co, Workington; the Moresby Coal Co, Whitehaven; Joseph Harris; Brayton Domain Collieries; the Risehow Colliery Coking and By-Product Co, Maryport; the Allhallows Collieries, Mealsgate; the Naworth Coal Co, Brampton Junction; Oughterside Coal Co, Bulgill; the Camerton Coal and Firebrick Co, Workington; and six other concerns employing less than 200 persons.

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