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Walter Neilson

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Walter Neilson (1807-1884)

Walter was one of the sons of John Neilson (1779-1855), ironmaster of Glasgow.

His sons included John, William and George Neilson, all of whom had roles in Neilson companies.

1884 August 18 Death of Walter Neilson, ironmaster of Summerlee[1], brother of Hugh Neilson. Other executors included John Neilson, William Neilson, George Neilson, Walter Neilson (1842-1896), etc.


1885 Obituary [2]

WALTER NEILSON was the son of John Neilson, of Oakbank Foundry, Glasgow, a thoroughly proficient millwright and engineer and he was a nephew of James Beaumont Neilson, M. Inst. C.E., whose name will ever be closely identified with one of the greatest inventions in the manufacture of iron, that of the hot blast in the smelting of iron in the blast furnace. He was also a brother of the late William Neilson, of Mossend Iron and Steel Works.

Walter Neilson was born in March 1807, and after spending some time in the University of Glasgow, went into the works of his father and passed through all the branches of the mechanical engineer’s calling as it was then practised ; and by the time that he had attained his majority he was installed in the management of the works.

Mr. Neilson became an accomplished engineer, and was familiar with many excellent devices for economising labour, and for producing mechanical structures of great efficiency. It was during his connection with his father’s works that the Fairy Queen was turned out, a vessel which was one of the earliest iron steamers built in Scotland, and it is worthy of note that she was fitted with oscillating engines, which were probably the first engines of the kind ever employed in a steamboat.

The same establishment turned out general engineering work in great variety, together with pumping and winding machinery for collieries, blowing engines for blast furnaces, &c. In the year 1836, Mr. Neilson’s services as an all-round practical engineer were called into requisition for the management of a new blast furnace establishment, that of Summerlee, Coatbridge. He was the junior partner in the firm formed to start the works, and the other members of the firm were his father (John Neilson), and Messrs. George and John Wilson, of Dalmarnock and the Hurlet Alum Works.

The firm, which was long known as Wilsons and Co., ceased about fifteen years ago, and the works have since been owned by the Summerlee Iron Co, consisting of the deceased Walter Neilson, his brother Hugh Neilson, and Messrs. John and William Neilson, sons of the former; and the active manager for a number of years has been Mr. George Neilson, another son.

At first the works were commenced with two blast furnaces, the blowing-engine for which was made at Oakbank Foundry. From time to time the works were extended until they eventually embraced eight furnaces, all of which have been so much improved that they now bear very favourable comparison with the most efficient blast-furnaces in Scotland.

It was the constant aim of the deceased to adopt every new improvement in blast-furnace practice that was certain to increase the yield of pig iron, and improve its quality, and economise the fuel required in its production. Many years ago, he made experiments with the view of taking off the so-called waste gases of the blast-furnace.

In the year 1868, he was successful in adapting the Addenbrook system of collecting a portion of the combustible gas and turning it to account in heating the air of the blast, and in getting up steam. Further progress was subsequently made in the way of adopting other scientific appliances about the furnaces. Up till the present, three furnaces have been adapted to the Addenbrook system, with open tops, and four have been closed in at the top and are worked on the bell and cone system, in much the same way as many of the furnaces in the Cleveland district.

The Summerlee Iron Co, guided by the excellent business tact of the late Mr. Neilson, now own coal and ironstone mines in four or five different counties, the chief supplies of minerals, however, being obtained from pits in Lanarkshire. They have long devoted much attention to the product,ion of hematite pig iron, on which they have at present two blast-furnaces employed.

During the past seven or eight years they had in almost constant use the steamer named the Summerlee, bringing hamatite ironstone from the mines in Spain. The Summerlee Iron Company have also a large trade in coals, amounting to about 5,000 tons per week. Two or three years ago, the company determined to carry out a course of experiments with the view of collecting and utilizing the ammonia contained in the gases emitted from the blast-furnaces, and the experiments were attended with such an amount of success that the production of sulphate of ammonia has now become a regular branch of the company’s business.

After the death of his brother William, Mr. Walter Neilson became the senior partner in the Mossend Iron and Steel Co. He took the liveliest interest in the welfare of his work people, by whom he was generally and sincerely respected, as also by his many business and personal friends.

Though of a very quiet and retiring disposition Mr. Neilson was a very genial companion, and withal a high-minded gentleman. He rarely mixed in public affairs in any way, but from the very first he took an exceedingly keen interest in the welfare of the Iron and Steel Institute, and did not hesitate to travel great distances to attends its meetings. Mr. Neilson was predeceased by his wife, but he is survived by a family of four sons and three daughters.

Mr. Walter Neilson was elected an Associate on the 5th of May 1868. He died on the 18th of August 1884.


1885 Obituary [3]

WALTER NEILSON was justly entitled to be regarded and described as one of the fathers of the Scotch iron trade. The son of John Neilson, of the Oakbank Foundry, Glasgow, he was born in that city in the year 1807, six years following Mushet's discovery of the blackband ironstone, which was afterwards to exercise so prominent an influence on the careers and fortunes of both. After being educated, first at a local school, and afterwards at the university of his native city, Walter Neilson entered his father's foundry with the view of qualifying himself to follow the business of an engineer and ironfounder. In this he succeeded so well that before he had reached his twenty-first year he was occupying a prominent position in the management of the works. The operations of the Oakbank Foundry were not, as might erroneously be supposed, limited to the production of ordinary castings. They were of a much more general and ambitious character, and among other things embraced the construction of the Fairy Queen, one of the earliest iron steamers built in Scotland, and one, too, which even at that early date was fitted with oscillating engines.

(According to Fairbairn, an iron barge had been built as early as 1787, and iron canal boats were employed in Staffordshire about 1812, while the Horsley Company built the Aaron Hanby in 1822. The Vulcan had also been built on the Monkland Canal, near Glasgow, some time before the Fairy Queen.)

At that time, also, much scope was afforded to the few works like the Oakbank Foundry then in existence in the West of Scotland, to furnish pumping and winding machinery for the many pits that the development of the iron and coal industries was calling into operation, and blowing engines and other appliances to be used in blast-furnace working.

The most important step of his life was taken in 1836, when the late Mr. Neilson was called in to co-operate in the construction and ownership of the Summerlee Ironworks. At that time there were very few works of the kind in existence in Scotland. The Calder Ironworks had, it is true, been constructed about the year 1795, by a company of Glasgow stocking-weavers, but the partnership turned out an unprofitable one, and within a few years the works were sold for an almost nominal sum to a company, which included William Dixon of Govan, and David Mushet, of blackband celebrity, who became their manager. The then condition of the resources for making pig iron was, in truth, very unsatisfactory. Nor did even the famous discovery of Mushet help matters very far for a considerable time after it occurred. For a number of years the use of blackband was limited to the Calder and the Clyde ,Ironworks—the latter having meanwhile come into operation—although it ultimately became the principal source of supply of all the ironworks in the West of Scotland. A revolution was, however, created in the iron industry in 1830, when Mr. J. B. Neilson - a nephew of the subject of this notice - discovered and applied the hot-blast in iron-smelting. At this era the smelting-works already existing in the West of Scotland were those of Calder and Clyde, already referred to, Govan, and Chapelhall. Messrs. Baird soon afterwards commenced the works at Gartsherrie; and these were followed by new works at Calderbank, Summerlee, Carnbroe, and Langloan.

When Mr. Mushet discovered the blackband ironstone in 1801, it was only believed to extend over a very limited area. In 1835, however, additional discoveries were made of considerable importance. Of this last-named area, the owners of the works of Calder, Calderbank, Gartsherrie, Dundyvan, and Summerlee, each took a section on lease. Of the committee to whom the carrying out of these arrangements was intrusted, the late Mr. Neilson was one of the most prominent members. To economise production, joint working was carried on by the several firms named, so that fewer shafts required to be sunk, and the outlay on machinery, &c., was less considerable. The supply of the blackband from this field to the four works named commenced in 1838 and concluded in 1852, during which period 305,000 tons of calcined ore was supplied at an average royalty charge of 7s. 6d. per ton. It is stated that the lord of the manor realised from this source about £115,000, being at the rate of about £1000 per acre.* Among the gentlemen who were associated with Mr. Neilson in the construction of the Summerlee Works were Mr. John Wilson, who was born in Glasgow in 1787, and, after serving as assistant colliery manager to Mr. Colin Dunlop, was ultimately made manager of that gentleman's Clyde Ironworks. When Mr. Neilson took out his hot-blast patent, Mr. Wilson was asked to become a partner in it, to which proposal he readily agreed, the other partners being Mr. Dunlop of the Clyde Ironworks, and Mr. Mackintosh of Crossbasket. During the fourteen years existence of the patent these gentlemen are said to have divided between them about £300,000 of profits.t The original partnership under which the Summerlee Works were built was fixed at twenty years' duration. In the meantime, however, two of the partners - John Wilson and his brother George - died, leaving the works entirely in the hands of the Neilsons, by whom they have since been successfully carried on.

The late Mr. Neilson was actively alive to the importance of adopting every possible improvement in the smelting of iron. At the time when he built the works of Summerlee, most of the works then engaged in pig-iron smelting were still using cold-blast, producing only four or five tons of iron per furnace in twelve hours, and consuming at least five or six tons of coal to the ton of pig. In the successive improvements and economies whereby this was altered to an average production of 200 to 300 tons per furnace per week, and an average expenditure of under two tons of coal to the ton of iron smelted, no one bore a more useful part than the deceased. At a comparatively early epoch in the history of the trade Mr. Neilson made elaborate experiments designed to take off and utilise the waste gases of the blast-furnace, now so generally followed in all iron-making districts.

About 1868, he successfully applied at Summerlee the Addenbrook system of collecting a portion of the combustible gas and using it in both heating the blast and raising steam under the boilers. At the present time, three of the furnaces at Summerlee are worked on the Addenbrook plan, with open tops, while four others are worked with the bell and cone system of closed tops. The Summerlee Company were among the first of the Scotch firms to undertake the production of haematite iron, and they have now for a considerable time had two furnaces employed in producing that description from Spanish ores. More recently the Company have exhibited their wonted enterprise iu expending a large capital upon the laying down of a plant for the collection of the by-products contained in these blast-furnace gases, but as this process is fully described elsewhere in this volume, it need not here be further referred to.

Mr. Neilson was an original member of the Iron and Steel Institute, and in 1870 was elected one of its Vice-Presidents. He frequently attended the meetings of the Institute, in which he always took the greatest interest, although his retiring disposition did not allow him to put himself into anything like conspicuous prominence. He died on the 18th August 1884, leaving a family of four sons and three daughters.



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