At the turn of the 19th century, Tipton and its neighbouring Black Country towns were in an ideal situation for the production of iron. The vast local deposits of coal, iron ore and limestone, and cheap efficient transport on the canal network meant that the appearance of ironworks was almost inevitable, especially because of the country’s growing appetite for products made of iron.

Tipton’s iron industry began in a relatively small way with the production of items such as hinges, wood screws, awl blades, edge tools and nail rods for the nail makers. At the time, around one quarter of the local workforce were involved in the production of nails. Whole families, including several generations, from children to the elderly, made nails.

Things began to change with the development of steam engines, large machinery, iron bridges, and the building of the railways.

A 19th century blast furnace which produced pig iron.

Charging a blast furnace.

Tapping one of the furnaces at Willingsworth Ironworks. The molten iron was run into channels cut into sand to produce iron ingots. This was known as a pig bed. The iron was called pig iron because during casting, the ingots were likened to a piglet suckling milk from a sow.
The most common method of producing wrought iron from pig iron in the 19th century was puddling, invented by Henry Cort in 1784. Pig iron or scrap cast iron was melted in a puddling furnace and stirred with a long pole, which reduced the carbon content by bringing it into contact with air, in which it burned. The puddling furnace heated the iron by reflecting the exhaust gases from the fire down onto it. In the drawing below, the iron would be placed in the central section. Because it was not in contact with the fire, cheaper, poor quality fuel could be used. After puddling, the iron was hammered and rolled to remove the slag.

A puddling furnace.

A puddler at work.

Puddlers at work.

Some of Tipton's Ironworks

Daniel Moore had a water-powered slitting mill, with two undershot water wheels and a steam engine. The firm produced a wide range of nails and tacks, especially horse nails, as well as shovels and tongs. Around 40 people worked there.

Edward and James Fisher and James Bate employed around 100 people in the manufacture of iron hinges. Zachary Parkes and Company at Dudley Port had a single furnace that produced between 20 to 25 tons of iron per week. They also had a forge and a slitting mill.

George Parker & Company had two furnaces that produced 20 or 25 tons of pig iron per week at Coneygre Ironworks, Dudley Port, established in 1794 by Zachariah Parkes. They had three forge hammers and a rolling and slitting mill. One of their products was boiler plates. Another furnace was added and the business was acquired by the Earl of Dudley. The three furnaces then produced around 200 tons of iron per week. George Parker & Company also owned Tipton Furnace, also known as 'Parker's New Furnace'. It was later called Coseley Moor Furnace.

Read, Banks, and Dumaresq had a forge and a single furnace producing around 25 tons of iron per week. Richard Hawkes and Company also had a single furnace which produced around 20 tons of iron per week. At Toll End was Taylor's Foundry where heavy items such as parts for steam engines, whimseys and machinery were cast.

The Great Bridge Iron & Steel Company Limited was founded by James and Neal Solly, who traded as Solly Brothers and were one of the oldest and largest suppliers of puddled steel. There were two forges, two merchant mills, and two sheet mills that could produce up to 320 tons of iron and steel per week. Another successful enterprise was the Crown Iron & Galvanising Works at Toll End, run by Edward Bayley, who also operated two blast furnaces at Eagle Works. Crown Works were established in 1870 and were later extended with the addition of two sheet mills and a galvanising factory. There were ten puddling furnaces and three mill furnaces, with a total capacity of nearly 100 tons per week. The factory employed around 200 men and produced best quality black sheet iron and galvanised corrugated iron sheet.

The two blast furnaces at Willingsworth Ironworks that produced good forge iron. From an old postcard. 

Eagle Works, founded in about 1800 by Richard Hawkes, once stood on a site that was later occupied by Great Bridge Railway Station, alongside Eagle Road. Around 1844 Eagle Works were put-up for sale and the site was acquired by the South Staffordshire Railway, in readiness for the building of the railway station. The factory had two blast furnaces, a double refinery and a large foundry capable of producing 100 tons of castings per week. There was a boring mill, capable of boring cylinders ten feet in diameter, blast and boring mill engines, a smiths shop, a fitting shop, a carpenters shop, plus a manager’s house and three workmen’s cottages. There were also collieries mining Heathen Coal, New Mine Coal, and New Mine Ironstone, with two winding and pumping engines, and three winding engines.

Other large concerns included the Portfield Works near Dudley Port, owned by James and Charles Holcroft, which could produce almost every size, shape, variety and section of iron, and had a large galvanising department. Another sizeable ironworks was the Church Lane Works run by George Gadd & Company. There were 14 puddling furnaces, 2 mill furnaces, and one ball furnace, with a total capacity of 180 tons of bar iron and 200 tons of puddled iron per week.

The Hope Iron, Steel and Tinplate Company Limited at Summerhill had 4 mills. Plant and Fisher at Dudley Port Works produced 250 tons of iron per week from 20 puddling furnaces and 3 mills. The Gospel Oak Iron & Galvanised Iron & Wire Company had 24 puddling furnaces and 6 rolling mills, and the Dudley Port Furnace Company, run by James Roberts and Fred Deeley had a single blast furnace with a capacity of 250 tons of pig iron per week.

The Gospel Oak Iron Works, which was founded by Samuel Walker and William Yates in 1817, began making cannon in 1822, but the business failed. The sons of the owners took over and started to produce ironwork for all kinds of building projects, including Hammersmith Bridge, in London, in 1825, and the cast iron columns for the Albert Dock, Liverpool, in 1846. Similar columns were later produced for the Gladstone Dock, also in Liverpool. In 1848 the business was taken over by John and Edward Walker, who employed around 350 people, producing large amounts of wrought-iron cannon and tinplate. The business failed for a second time in about 1860 and cannon manufacture was taken over by three ex-employees who founded the Hope Company. Around 1900 the Blackwall Galvanised Iron Company acquired the Gospel Oak Company and exported galvanised sheets to many parts of the world using the product names Poplar, Blackwall and Gospel Oak.

Tubes were produced in Great Bridge by Wellington Tube Works Limited at Wellington Tube Works. The firm, founded by Joseph Aird started making tubes in 1861. Products included mild steel and wrought iron tubes and fittings for gas, water and steam, along with coated and wrapped tubes, loose flanged tubes, grilled metal tubes and special pipe work of all kinds.

Other locally made iron products included cast iron grates and stoves produced at the Moat Foundry, Summerhill by Charles Lathe & Company, established in 1877. There were also boiler makers, hurdle and iron fencing makers, anvil makers and manufacturers of vices and hammers.

Bloomfield Ironworks

It all began when a local Tipton man invented a process that revolutionised puddling, throughout the country and much of the world. His name was Joseph Hall, who was born in 1789. In about 1811 he noticed how his employer, carefully saved old scraps of iron for use at the refinery, where large quantities of iron were lost in the wasteful process of making it into wrought iron by refining and puddling. He began to follow his employer’s example and saved all the odd bits and pieces of iron that were lying about the works. Around 1816 he noticed that the cinder from puddlers' boshes (the water tanks where the puddler cooled his tools) contained a quantity of iron, and so he began to save this also.

Some time later, he tried adding some of the bosh cinder to a puddling furnace and found, rather to his alarm, that a violent boiling occurred, the contents of the furnace running out in all directions. He feared that the furnace would be damaged, but the boiling ceased and when he looked in the furnace he saw that pieces of iron were present. When he gathered them into a ball and hammered them together, he was surprised to find that iron was the best he had ever seen.

He had accidentally discovered an ideal method of working a puddling furnace. The cinder that he used consisted of small pieces of iron, brought out of the furnace by the tools, mixed with a rich iron oxide. When heated, the oxygen had united violently with the impurities in the iron, making the contents of the furnace boil, leaving behind, high quality wrought iron.

He formed a partnership with Thomas Lewis and in 1830 they bought a piece of land at Bloomfield, where they built a small ironworks with three puddling furnaces beside the canal. The site was later connected to the main railway line by sidings. Hall continued his experiments to improve the process. There was a serious problem with the cast-iron bottom plates of his furnaces, which were attacked by the bosh cinder. He overcame the problem by roasting the cinder, which became known as bull-dog and was used for the furnace bottoms. Bull-dog was patented in 1838.

Bloomfield Ironworks in 1884.

He also discovered that a small addition of some hammer cinder and mill scale (the iron oxide that breaks off the surface of the iron as it is rolled and hammered) fully protected the furnace bottom plates. His process was now perfect. Pig iron was charged into the furnace in the usual way, the fettling or lining of bull-dog and scale being repaired before charging as required. The metal was then melted down and in due course it began to work, as the oxygen from the fettling united with the carbon in the iron. The reaction was violent, and for about half an hour the surface of the metal boiled, with bubbles of carbon monoxide breaking through, and burning with little blue flames or puddlers' candles. Because of this violent reaction, the process became known as pig boiling or wet puddling.

Hall's patent greatly reduced the amount of waste from puddling furnaces so that by 1900, only 21 cwt of pig was needed to make a ton of wrought iron. Since the furnace bottom was formed of oxide, the supply of oxygen for the elimination of carbon was assured. The amount of silica was strictly limited to that in the sand adhering to the pigs, plus the silicon in the pigs themselves, so there was no build-up of an acidic slag. The slag remained basic; as this combines with phosphorus, the removal of that unwanted element was facilitated. Furthermore, the violent reaction of the oxides with the carbon in the pig iron, by agitating the charge, helped to ensure a thorough mixing and reduced the time required to complete the process, which also reduced the amount of manual labour needed.

Thomas Lewis soon left the firm and Joseph Hall was joined by two new partners, Richard Bradley and Mr. Welch, who left in 1834 and was replaced by William Barrows. The firm became Bradley, Barrows and Hall. The factory was greatly extended and the iron was sold under the brand name B.B.H.

Bloomfield Ironworks in 1872.

Richard Bradley retired in 1844 and was succeeded by Mr. Bramah, who lived at Kingswinford. Mr. Bramah died in 1846 and the firm became Barrows and Hall, William Barrows and Joseph Hall being equal partners. In 1851 the firm employed 1,000 men.

In 1849 Joseph Hall moved to Bloomfield House, in Holyhead Road, Handsworth, where a Farmfoods shop now stands. He died there on the 18th January, 1862 at the age of 72 and was buried in a family vault at Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham.

Joseph Hall's family vault at Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham.

Joseph Hall's memorial stone, on the family vault at Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham.

From Griffiths' Guide to the Iron Trade of Great Britain. 1873.

In 1848 two men were killed in a boiler explosion at the ironworks. They were Mr. Millington and William Perry. Several people were injured. The boiler, weighing 7 to 8 tons was thrown about 70 yards across the canal.

After Joseph Hall's death the company became W. Barrows & Sons. William Barrows was born in Birmingham in 1800 or 1801. In the 1830s he lived in Hampstead Row, Handsworth, before moving to Springfield House, Dixon's Green, Dudley.

In 1861 he was living at Himley House, Himley, (now a pub and restaurant) with his wife Martha and four servants. Their sons Thomas and Joseph were both ironmasters.

William Barrows died on 10th December, 1863 at Stafford Railway Station. In 1867 the firm had 58 puddling furnaces and eight mills.

By 1872 there were 100 puddling furnaces and 10mills and forges. There were around 800 employees producing approximately 800 tons of iron sheets, plates and bars per week. Their iron was second to none.

W. Barrows & Sons, Bloomfield Ironworks.

By the late 1870s the industry was in decline. Bloomfield Ironworks closed in 1902 and were offered for sale in local newspapers. By that time trade was bad and so no one offered to buy the site. Joseph Barrows, the principal partner, died in 1903, and the works were again offered for sale, but again no purchaser could be found. In 1904, the site was sold privately for the coal which was plentiful there. The factory was demolished to clear the way for mining operations at what became known as Bloomfield Colliery.

The final sale catalogue shows a large site, covering just over 18 acres, but only a small part of the site was occupied by buildings, which had all been erected in a fairly haphazard way. The various rolling mills lay clustered together and were at all angles, as were the puddling furnaces. The rolling mills were under cover and roofs were provided for departments that had valuable machinery, such as lathes. Quite a number of the puddling furnaces had no protection from the weather at all. There were bull-dog kilns, foundry and fitting shops for maintenance purposes, and extensive roll-turning equipment. Several of the puddling furnaces still had their little individual chimney stacks, and were not connected to a boiler. There were several boilers of the cylindrical egg-ended type, which were coal-fired. It was in every way a typical 19th century factory, which probably couldn't have survived much longer without being modernised.

Bloomfield Colliery was purchased by British Rolling Mills Limited and their subsidiary, Brymill in the 1930s. Rolling mills and a steelworks were built on the site. Later Corus Steelworks constructed their Firsteel Cold Mill and Service Centre there. Most of the site is now occupied by houses.

Brymill in 1938.

Wednesbury Oak Ironworks

The business was founded in 1820 by Philip Williams and Sons, who were from an old Shropshire family who moved to the area in 1776. Philip started in business in about 1800. After working for several companies, became a partner in Gibbons, Whitehouse, and Williams, who built their first furnace at Wednesbury in 1814. His partners soon left the business and he purchased the foundation timbers for a forge and mill from the Government authorities at Woolwich, in 1818.

In 1820 the forges and mills were built at Wednesbury Oak Ironworks and manufacture of ‘Mitre Brand’ iron began. The factory was extended and modernised in 1847 and 1880 for the production  of cold-blast pig iron. In 1829 Philip Williams and his family founded and ran the Union Furnaces at West Bromwich and also acquired the Albion Works, and the Union Works at Smethwick, along with Birchills Collieries and Furnaces, Mabbs Bank Colliery, and Bunker's Hill Colliery. By 1846 they were employing over 5,000 men.

Philip Williams died in 1864 and the business continued to be run by members of his family. One of his nephews, Walter Williams became honorary secretary to a scheme that encouraged ironworkers and colliers to keep their children at school in the days before School Boards were formed. He also anonymously wrote about the value of education to the labouring classes and was Chairman and President of the Mining Association of Great Britain, Chairman of the local Mines Drainage Commission, and Chairman of the Birmingham, Dudley, and District Bank. He was also a Justice of the Peace for Staffordshire and High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1880 to 1881. He lived at Sugnall Hall, Eccleshall.

Around 1875 Wednesbury Oak Ironworks were managed by George MacPherson who became a partner in about 1890. The other partners at the time were Philip A. Williams, Walter Williams, and Joseph W. Williams. There were 3 blast furnaces, 32 puddling furnaces, 5 mills and forges, extensive collieries, saw mills, carpenters and pattern makers' shops, foundries, millwrights, engine fitters’ shops, blacksmiths’ shops, and boiler makers' sheds. Finished products included bar iron, angle iron, strips, nail rods, sheets, etc.

Summer Hill Iron Works

Summer Hill Iron Works was founded by Thomas Millington in about 1820.

Summer Hill Iron Works.

An advert from 1872.

The firm was run by several generations of the Middleton family, beginning as Thomas Middleton, then Thomas Middleton & Son, followed by T. Middleton & Sons, William and Isaiah Millington, and finally W. Millington and Company.

By the 1870s it was run by Samuel Millington.

There were 16 puddling furnaces, 4 mills and forges, an annealing furnace, a forge and up-to-date machinery.

Products included boiler plates, merchant bar iron, plates, strips, angle iron, shoe tip iron, horseshoe and rivet iron, cable and chain iron of nearly every size, shape, and variety.

The average production was around 200 tons per week and 150 men were employed at the factory.

Tipton Green Furnaces

The original two furnaces were built in 1808 by Bradburn, Scott, and Foley, and in the 1840s were let to Benjamin Gibbons, junior, of Corbyn's Hall, who started to operate them in 1847. He also rented the adjoining Tipton Green Colliery. In 1848 he was joined by William Roberts who became an equal partner in 1851. The furnaces originally produced about 30 tons of iron per week using cold blast, but they were enlarged and hot blast stoves and winding engines were added to increase production to 100 tons of iron per week. 

In 1848 there were three furnaces, which gave their name to a public house in Wood Street. The old furnaces were demolished and replaced by two new ones in the late 1850s and a further two in 1860. In 1858 Benjamin Gibbons left the firm, and in 1869 Alfred Roberts joined William Roberts, and Mr. E. A. Spurgin joined in 1882. Cowper stoves were added in 1889 and one of the furnaces was rebuilt to include all of the latest developments. The firm’s main customers were steel works at Wednesbury, Bilston, and Round Oak. By the 1890s only two furnaces were in operation producing 200 tons per week of ‘Roberts' Tipton Green Iron’.

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