The advent of the Black Country’s steel industry predates actual steel manufacture, going back to the opening of the Birmingham to Wolverhampton Canal in 1770, writes Molly Forsyth. The first blast furnaces were in use by 1780.
The Bilston Steel Works was situated in Springvale, Bilston and was acquired by the Hickman family in 1866. Between 1866 and 1883, six new blast furnaces were built at Springvale.
The furnaces were hand-fed and the molten iron was run off into pig beds, producing iron of good quality in large quantities. By the early 1880s, five blast furnaces on the site produced 24,944 tons of iron a year.
The company had a policy for securing their supplies and they bought ironstone and limestone quarries in Wales, Derbyshire, and, most notably, at Corby. After long periods of boom and bust in the iron industry, Sir Alfred Hickman was the only one of the ironmasters left in the trade in Bilston.
Steel, and iron for turning into steel, usually came from Sweden, where there was not only iron ore of a high grade but also plentiful wood for charcoal and plentiful water power. This remained the case until the invention of the Thomas Gilchrist method of steel production.
In 1882 Hickman set up the Staffordshire Steel and Ingot Iron Co. Ltd. for the purpose of local manufacture of ingot, iron and steel by the Thomas Gilchrist process. This gave him the edge over other manufacturers and turned Bilston from an iron town into a steel town.
As well as taking up this method, Hickman also employed Gilchrist himself. These works had the capacity for turning out 400,000 ingots and 30,000 tons of finished steel plates and bars in a year.
In 1883 Hickman bought all the equipment from the Mersey Iron and Steel Company, which had gone bankrupt and installed it at Bilston with modifications and improvements suggested by Gilchrist to form a Bessemer plant. The Bessemer Process would continue in Bilston until 1925.
In 1897 the Springvale Furnaces and the Staffordshire Steel & Ingot Iron Co were amalgamated to become Alfred Hickman Ltd. The site continued to expand, being about 200 acres; connected by sidings to the main line of the London and North Western Railway and of the Great Western Railway; and having extensive wharfage on the Birmingham Canal.
The works provided employment for about 1,500 people and round-the-clock labour usually took place. The output of pig iron averaged 2,000 tons per week, some of which was used by Hickmans, and the rest sold to other manufacturers in the district.
Hickman was able to use the pressed phosphate left over from production to form slag for agricultural use. The ‘Bilston Basic Phosphate’ earned praise for its uniform quality and high concentrations of phosphoric acid, as well as for its high percentage of fine meal.
The Hickmans found another use for slag – Tarmac production. The demand for slag, both for agriculture and roadworks, eventually outpaced the amount coming from Bilston furnaces and was thus imported from elsewhere to meet demand.
In 1903, Alfred Hickman was made a baronet, and lived at a stately residence on Tinacre Hall on the outskirts of Wolverhampton. He also became an MP for Wolverhampton. For all his personal success, his firm was also looked after its workers. In 1910 they built a canteen for the workers and they also had a full-time welfare officer. In 1919 they started a works magazine called “The Ingot”. Disputes and strikes did occur, but provision was made for the wives and children of employees on strike to have a plate of soup should they want it. Alfred Hickman also gave Hickman Park to the public of Bilston and half the land of East Park to Wolverhampton residents.
Gas engines were installed towards the end of the nineteenth century, to provide electricity and power the blast furnaces. Supplied by the Premier Gas Engine Company of Sandiacre, Derbyshire, it was the first two cylinder positive‑scavenge engine ever built to be put to industrial use.
In 1907, a 36‑inch cogging mill was installed, the largest to be installed at the time. It was powered by a Ward‑Leonard Ilgner set supplied by the Electric Construction Company of Wolverhampton, and proved its longevity by rolling around 22 ton ingots of steel for the production of shells for the Second World War, nearly three decades after it was first installed.
During the First World War, an extensive refrigeration plant was installed to remove the moisture from the blast of the furnaces, to greatly improve efficiency during colder months and prevent damage to the valves. In 1919, the “A” Furnace at the works was reconstructed to increase capacity to 55 tons. The most innovative feature was a Radex basic roof, fitted to accommodate the switch to open hearth steelmaking, the main reason behind the reconstruction. This roof helped the works achieve a world record output of steel, bringing production back up to pre-war levels at an unmatched pace. This record was broken again on three separate occasions by the works.
Now an attractive company for investors, Stewarts and Lloyds Limited acquired the works from Hickman in 1921 to provide a source of steel for tube making. Stewarts and Lloyds were an amalgamation of Samuel and Edward R. Lloyd in Birmingham in 1859; and Andrew Stewart in Glasgow in 1861.
In the early 20th century the company adopted a policy of securing its position by acquiring companies which would enable them to control all of their supplies, manufacture and distribution. Alongside Alfred Hickman Ltd., they got the Hickman-owned company Ernest N. Wright Ltd. of Monmore Green and Millfields. By the time of the takeover in 1920. Wrights were mainly constructing furnaces for the production of iron and steel and this they continued to do after the takeover.
After the acquisition, a Morgan Skelp Mill was installed in 1921 for the production of strips for tube making. Following this, the 26‑inch billet and bar mill was extended to a 28‑inch mill, this time electrically-powered with the additional ability to produce slabs. It was a serious expense to the company, particularly for the labour needed, but the investment proved itself to be justified as the years went on.
Tubular structures produced ranged from the small to the large. At one end of the scale were aeroplane service platforms, which were designed and constructed to service planes on the sides of the airfield. Tubes were also used for ships masts, derricks, davits, conveyors, service huts, gun mountings and a myriad other things.
During the 1930s , Stewart and Lloyds became heavily involved in special war work. At the time the company had 22 works around the country, but Bilston was relied on the most, thanks to its reputation in the previous war. The level of work achieved during the Second World War caused nearly unbearable strain on the operators, especially during the summer months. Temperatures in some of the hot metal crane cabins often exceeded 60℃.
Post-war, in 1954, ‘Elisabeth’, a new blast furnace, replaced three smaller blast furnaces. Elisabeth alone produced 275,000 tons of steel a year. In her lifetime she produced more than 5.5 million tons of pig iron. The furnace was named Elisabeth after the daughter of the chairman of Stewarts & Lloyds Ltd. Workmen who worked the new blast furnace called it ‘ Big Lizzy’.
Production carried on as normal until Labour won the 1945 General Election. Committed to a programme of nationalising many basic industries, the government’s first priority was coal. It was not until 1949 that they brought forward the Iron and Steel Act. The Iron and Steel Corporation of Great Britain did not come into operation until February 1951.
Instead of acquiring the numerous iron and steel companies, the Corporation only acquired the share capital of the firms concerned. This gave them effective control, whilst allowing for many companies with ancillary activities outside the production of iron and steel to continue those operations privately.
Almost as soon as the Labour Party lost a General Election, the new Conservative government repealed the nationalisation of iron and steel, and they proceeded to privatise and sell off the share capital of all the companies they controlled.
It was not until 1966, when a new Labour government under Harold Wilson renationalised the industry, that Stewarts and Lloyds finally became part of a fully nationalised industry as part of the British Steel Corporation. With re‑organisation, the Bilston, Wolverhampton and Birchley Works became part of Special Steels Division, Carbon Group, of the British Steel Corporation.
Bilston became the centre of ultrasonic testing of material that left all of BSC’s works. To increase the speed of inspection, the Divisions Research Laboratories of Swinden at Rotherham created a method known as M.I.D.A.S., which was developed at Bilston’s site.
Despite the change of hands, life carried on as normal for the workers at Bilston. Shift working in teams meant that many had worked essentially with the same people for ten years or more, with several generations of families employed at the same works. It was considered a job for life with the ability for career progression, but BSC soon revealed that they had other plans.
BSC adopted an expansionist policy and centralised production and business within five super plants. This lead to underinvestment in existing smaller units such as Bilston. BSC’s plans were timed with a generally worsening economic climate. Initially projecting a target of 30 million tons per annum, this was revised to the much lower 16 million tons per annum. Shortages of scrap also caused trouble, driving up the cost of the essential material. Increasing competition also caused market pressure.
Part of this came from the UK, as the unorthodox structure of the nationalization had no clauses saying new private manufacturers couldn’t start up. The other part of the competition came from abroad, including powerful industry-led nations such as Germany, France and Sweden. The political right emphasized that BSC’s problems also arose as a result of the bureaucratic nature of nationalized industries, and the lack of commercial flexibility that caused. The structure of the BSC meant that they could not make major decisions without getting the approval of central government, and all the delays and uncertainties created further problems.
In this poor climate for the whole industry, many felt that Bilston was in a vulnerable position for many reasons. In 1970, the Bilston works were directed into the Special Steels Division of BSC at Sheffield. Bilston was accused of being technically obsolete, being based on open hearth methods rather than electric furnaces, which were operating in Sheffield and Rotherham.
Although Bilston had developed a scheme to completely modernise its processes, this development was immediately shelved by the new Divisional management in favour of developing Rotherham and Sheffield works. The only developments permitted at Bilston were those necessary to keep the works functional.
In 1972, the Special Steels Division was reorganised into an Alloy Steels Group and a Carbon Steels Group, Bilston being placed in the latter works category. Bilston’s alloy tube steels order book was then transferred to Sheffield. Bilston countered the drop in order volume by developing a wider range of products.
While customers were allowed to order from individual works, Bilston continued to thrive, but in 1976 a Divisional Order procedure was introduced whereby customers ordered centrally and the Division allocated the producing works. The Divisional ordering procedure was based in Sheffield, and Bilston lost its power of competition. Concurrent with this centralisation, inspection equipment requested for tube billet production was installed in Sheffield, not Bilston.
Bilston’s economy depended on liquid iron for steelmaking being available from the “Elisabeth” blast furnace. In November 1977, the Division ordered the closure of “Elizabeth”, resulting in steelmaking productivity being almost halved. Once a consistently profitable plant, Bilston immediately became a loss plant. The Clean Air Act of 1968 was also a threat. £4.3 million pounds were allocated for measures to deal with air pollution from the Bilston works, but the project was cancelled, and this raised many doubts for the future.
Eventually, the works were ordered to close. The closure was fought against by local people. Letters and protests were fired off in all directions. Some tried to deal directly with the Government. The trade unions confronted BSC and had innumerable meetings with them, arguing that the works were still profitable.
BSC’s response was that Bilston had not invested in new and lower cost steelmaking capacity upon some of the older and less efficient works, and proffered that the profitability of the Corporation as a whole would be improved by around £12.5 million per annum if iron and steelmaking in Bilston were closed. This argument was not well-received in Bilston. BSC’s policy was viewed as cheap and profit-driven rather than based on manufacturing quality, for which Bilston had one of the best reputations.
Another key argument against the closure was its social cost. The closure would result in mass unemployment and the total cost of thrusting hundreds of people onto unemployment benefit, plus all the other costs involved, was something that Bilston would have to pay for. The trade unions, locally and nationally, fought the closure, emphasising the economic issues.
They commissioned a report on the works from Aston University which showed, amongst other things, that the works were held in high regard by it customers; and predicted that, if the works were closed, then their orders would not go to Rotherham, as BSC supposed, but would go abroad. BSC were unable to accept that finding, being heavily committed to electric furnaces and believing them to be better long-term.
Suggestions were made to keep only the mills open, reducing the workforce to about 600. Another was to invest in an electric arc furnace to replace the old fashioned open hearths, but none of the alternative proposals suited BSC’s plans.
On 12 April 1979 the last steel billet was cast at Bilston, ending more than 200 years of iron and steel production on the site. 18 months later, on 5 October 1980 Elisabeth was demolished. There was a national strike in which Bilston participated. About 500 workers went on to occupy the works, which BSC had closed without consultation, but the fight against the closure failed.
The closure of the steel works in 1979 was one of the heaviest blows ever to strike Bilston. The only comfort that Bilston people might have got from all of this was that the redundancy payments negotiated by the unions were the best for any plant in the UK.
It was a time of economic decline and Bilston was particularly hard hit. Many of the steel workers never found work again. Several retraining schemes were set up, but this did little to alleviate the problem as a whole. Higher levels of employment in the area had to wait for the coming of better economic times many years later. The social club was sold off to a consortium of ex-workers, and the Springvale Club flourished.
The majority of the site was handed over to the National Coal Board, who carried out an open cast coal mining operation. The upper seams of coal were riddled with the remains of bell pits and other old small coal workings. These pits remained full of wood of all shapes and sizes that had been used as props and shorings. The NCB had to devise a system for passing the newly won coal through a large water tank, so that the wood floated off and could be removed to make the coal fit for sale. The restored land was then used for housing.
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