Retro: A city built by striking while the iron was hot

Albert Noble in his Blacksmith's shop at Thorncliffe Ironworks.
Albert Noble in his Blacksmith's shop at Thorncliffe Ironworks.
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Today’s A to Z of jobs looks at ironworks, something that is a little overlooked in Sheffield’s industrial story that owes so much to steel.

Iron-making has been taking place for thousands of years, which is where the Iron Age got its name from, once mankind realised that iron is harder than bronze and started to make tools and weapons with it.

Blast Surface and pig iron beds, Thorncliffe Ironworks.

Blast Surface and pig iron beds, Thorncliffe Ironworks.

By the industrial age iron workers could heat the metal to higher temperatures using a blast furnace, enabling them to make iron which is stronger and far less brittle.

Pig iron was refined in puddling furnaces.

The mass production of steel only took place when metallurgist Sir Henry Bessemer discovered in 1856 how to blast air through molten pig iron to increase its carbon content and convert it into steel.

The Kelham Island Museum website explains: “The egg-shaped converter was tilted down to pour molten pig iron in through the top, then swung back to a vertical position and a blast of air was blown through the base of the converter in a dramatic fiery ‘blow’.

General view of Thorncliffe Ironworks in 1915, showing the two blast furnaces built in 1873-1874.

General view of Thorncliffe Ironworks in 1915, showing the two blast furnaces built in 1873-1874.

“Spectacular but dangerous flames and fountains shot out of the top of the converter.

“The converter was tilted again and the newly made steel was teemed or poured out.

“The first converters could make seven tonnes of steel in half an hour.”

The huge Bessemer Converter that stands outside Kelham Island Museum is a testament to Bessemer’s breakthrough and its importance for Sheffield.

Park Gate Iron & Steel Company'Pouring hot metal from transfer ladle into Kaldo furnace - 1967

Park Gate Iron & Steel Company'Pouring hot metal from transfer ladle into Kaldo furnace - 1967

Several pictures on these pages show Park Gate Iron and Steel, which first stood on Parkgate, Rotherham in 1823.

In 1854 the firm became part of Samuel Beale and Co, which produced iron plating for ships, including some of the plates for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s famous SS Great Britain.

By 1908 the works went entirely over to steel production, producing mainly steel ingots to be turned into products, plus mining arches and props.

It was nationalised in 1948 and the site finally closed in 1982.

Park Gate Iron & Steel Company - twin blast furnaces at Parkgate, part of the British Steel Corporation's Aldwarke complex nearby.  This is one of five steel plants throughout Britain affected by closure plans - 1971

Park Gate Iron & Steel Company - twin blast furnaces at Parkgate, part of the British Steel Corporation's Aldwarke complex nearby. This is one of five steel plants throughout Britain affected by closure plans - 1971

In 1789 George Newton and Thomas Chambers became partners in what would become one of the giants of local industry, Newton Chambers and Co.

Chambers was an iron craftsman and his new partner had a keen business sense.

Their Thorncliffe Works near Chapeltown was set up when they bought the mining rights to the Thorncliffe valley from the Earl Fitzwilliam.

By the end of the 19th century the company was mining coal and ironstone and building blast furnaces, coke ovens and a chemical plant.

Heavy section iron cast in the foundry was used in two iconic structures, Tower Bridge and the Eddystone Lighthouse.

A sideline from the firm’s chemical processes that became hugely profitable was the Izal brand of disinfectant, including the famous Izal toilet rolls.

Park Gate Iron & Steel Company - 1967

Park Gate Iron & Steel Company - 1967

During World War Two the Thorncliffe works came under the control of the Admiralty.

A new workshop was constructed at Warren Lane, a short distance away from the Thorncliffe works.

That site became the 
largest manufacturer of Churchill tanks for the war effort.

The infamous traitor, William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw), in one of his radio broadcasts aimed at attacking British morale, threatened to “dot the I” on the Izal name with a bomb.

It was intended to destroy the source of the Churchill tanks. A near miss followed but the tank works remained intact.

In 1970 the firm finally closed its loss-making iron foundries.

Pond Street Bus Station looking towards Joseph Rodgers and Sons, Sheaf Island Works and F.J.Brindley and Sons, hammer manufacturer, with the slums of the Park District in the background. '05/02/1955'copyright: J.E.S

Pond Street Bus Station looking towards Joseph Rodgers and Sons, Sheaf Island Works and F.J.Brindley and Sons, hammer manufacturer, with the slums of the Park District in the background. '05/02/1955'copyright: J.E.S