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Driving -  Midlands Metal Works


Iron smelting is an ancient process that has been in existence for over 3000 years. The basic method is to convert iron ore, found in the ground and mainly consisting of iron oxide, into a workable metal by a process of reduction. When the iron oxide is heated in the presence of carbon, the oxygen in the iron combines with the carbon, and the malleable iron is left.

The earliest furnace used by the iron maker was a shallow hole dug in the ground. In it was placed a layer of iron ore with a layer of charcoal on top. The charcoal fire was started and the iron maker helped increase the temperature by blasting air into the furnace with his hand-operated bellows. The carbon in the charcoal reduced the iron into a black soft mass known as a "bloom", and hence this type of furnace was known as a "bloomery".

The smelting of iron probably began in China and India around 2000 BC and then moved westward. Widespread use of iron for weapons and tools began around 1000 BC, the start of the Iron Age.

Although the size and design of the bloomery furnace improved, the basic method remain the same up until the 13th century when the use of waterwheels to power the bellows meant that a much higher temperature could be reached in the furnace. These became known as "Blast Furnaces" because of the increased force with which the air was injected into the process. At this high temperature the carbon and iron formed an alloy, and this liquid iron could be run off from the base of the furnace into furrows made from a bed of sand. The main furrows were known as "sows" while the lesser tributaries were called "pigs" - hence this cast iron was known as "pig iron".

The number of furnaces increased, and they were producing on a more commercial basis. The use of limestone in the furnace was also introduced, which helped remove any non-metallic impurities from the iron.

By the 17th century a serious problem was developing. Large areas of Britain's forests were being cleared to provide more farmland and timber, which was particularly in need for shipbuilding. Wood became too expensive as a fuel for the iron industry and a cheaper and more plentiful form of carbon was needed. The vast deposits of coal in Britain seemed an obvious alternative.

Dud Dudley, son of the Edward Lord Dudley, was one of the first to try smelting iron with coke (coke being coal that has already been burnt, rather like charcoal from wood). However, the high sulphur content of the coal made the iron too brittle. It was at Coalbrookdale, in Shropshire, that the method of smelting iron with coal was perfected which gave rise to the great expansion of iron making that made the Industrial Revolution possible.

1. Ironbridge Gorge Museums

Coalbrookdale and The Museum of Iron

Abraham Darby was the born in Dudley in 1678, the son of a farmer. He served an apprenticeship in Birmingham to a maker of malt kilns, used in the brewing industry, after which he married and moved to Bristol. He went into partnership in the malt kiln business and later added iron and brass foundries.

Darby had experimented with smelting iron with coke, but it was actually his apprentice, John Thomas, who first succeeded with the technique. In 1708 Darby and Thomas moved to Coalbrookdale and leased a disused charcoal furnace where they carried on experimenting with the method. Unlike Dud Dudley, Darby used a low sulphur coal and in 1709 successfully smelted iron with coke in the furnace.

The original furnace was excavated in 1959 and can be seen at Coalbrookdale, one of the seven sites that make up the Ironbridge Gorge Museums. Behind the furnace is a pool that was part of a sophisticated water system. A series of six pools were created from the two small streams flowing through into the Coalbrookdale valley. The water was used to turn the wheels that power the bellows of the furnace, and continued to be used long after steam engines had taken over on other foundries.

The Museum of Iron at Coalbrookdale, tells the story of Abraham Darby and the generations of his family that continued to run the Coalbrookdale Company into the 20th century. During the 18th century the company was at the forefront of engineering, the first cast iron engine cylinders, the first iron railway wheel, and the first iron rails where all made there.

In 1779, under the management of Abraham Darby III the company cast the first ever iron bridge which was erected in the gorge. The success of the bridge increased industrial activity in the valley because now raw materials could be moved about faster by road, rather having to be transported across the river by ferry. The bridge stills stands today and is the focal point of the whole valley. In the following years the company exported bridges to Holland and Ireland.

Around the turn of the century Richard Trevithick,the Cornish engineer, visited Coalbrookdale and in 1802 he had his steam locomotive built - the first in the world. A working replica of the locomotive can be seen at Blists Hill Victorian Town.

As the 19th century progressed, the Coalbrookdale Company concentrated on its foundry work under the management of Francis Darby. It produced a wide range of goods from fine art castings, like statues and fluted columns, to fire ranges and lamp posts. By 1850s it was the largest foundry in the world, with an output of 2,000 tons a week and about 3,000 employees. An excellent collection of castings from this era can be seen in the Museum of Iron, and at Rosehill, the house lived in by Abraham I's son-in-law Richard Ford, situated behind the original furnace.

Blists Hill Victorian Town

A few miles down the river is Blist Hill Victorian Town were some of the ancient methods of iron making are still demonstrated in the foundry. Small foundries like this one were common in many towns in late Victorian Britain and their products ranged from statues to door-stops.

The pig iron is produced in a blast furnace at the side of the foundry and the molten metal released into ladles carried by two men and then poured into moulds made of sand. When the casting is finished the bottom of the furnace has to be "dropped" to release all the waste materials, which would otherwise set hard in the furnace. A hole is made in the base and it is quite a spectacular sight, as the molten material drops out of the furnace and is cooled down with water. Back inside the foundry, when the iron is cooled, the moulds are broken open and the castings removed which are put on sale to the public. Casting is demonstrated once a week, while on the other days the sand moulds can be seen being prepared.

By the 18th century, mining was well established at Blists Hill and one of the original shafts can be seen, along with a working steam winding engine and cage that have been reconstructed from another local colliery. The shaft reached a depth of 183 m (600ft) through varied seams of clay, coal and iron ore. The iron ore and coal were used at the Blists Hill Blast Furnaces and the clay went to the Brick and Tile Works, both of which can also been visited on the site.

The majority of the other buildings at Blists Hill are ones that have been dismantled from elsewhere and rebuilt on site, and with all the staff in period costume, it helps to give the atmosphere of a busy Victorian Town. The buildings include a printing shop, carpenters, bank and public house, as well as a wrought ironworks. The works were originally part of Walmsleys Atlas Works in Bolton, which closed in 1976.

The wrought iron was made from cast iron using the "puddling" process. The cast iron was heated in a furnace to remove the carbon and other impurities then formed into a sponge like ball and removed from the furnace. It was then placed under a hammer, which expelled slag, and reduced the ball to a dense billet. The billet was transported on a trolley to the rolling mill and passed between the rolls several times to produce a long flat bar. The bar was then cut into short sections ready for further re-heating and re-rolling to increase the strength further.

Blist Hill Victorian Town and Coalbrookdale are two of the seven sites spread over six square miles.

Ironbridge Gorge Museums Ironbridge, Telford, Shropshire. TF8 7AW. Tel: 01952 433522 http://www.ironbridge.org.uk Open: Every day 10-5, July and August till 6. Some sites close in winter.

Directions: By Car: There are brown and white signs from the M54 and on all main routes into Telford. Within the gorge the are signposts for individual sites. By Train: Telford Central Station is five miles north. By Bus: Buses run from the station and the town centre to Ironbridge. Call Shropshire Travel Line on 0345 056785 (local rate)

2. The Black Country Living Museum

Dud Dudley had tried to smelt iron with coke without much success, but his father's estate was the site of a far more successful venture. In 1712 Thomas Newcomen built his first steam engine near Dudley Castle, to pump water from the coal mines on Lord Dudley's estate.

Dudley and the surrounding area was a centre of industrial activity based on coal mining and iron working. It was known as the Black Country and gained its name when thousands of furnaces and chimneys filled the air with smoke, and the mining of coal, ironstone, fireclay and limestone turned the ground inside out, creating large expanses of dereliction. Beneath the Black Country lay the "Staffordshire Thick Coal", a seam averaging 30ft in thickness and often only a few feet below the surface. Large amounts of coal were extracted and the ground above subsided dramatically. Large amounts of small coal left underground caused fires that turned large areas of the Black Country into smoking wastelands.

The Black Country Living Museum shows how people lived and worked in the area from the beginning of the 18th century to the present day. It has constructed a full-scale working replica of Newcomen's engine using an engraving produced in 1719 by Thomas Barney of Wolverhampton. The engraving shows Dudley Castle in the background and the museum has rebuilt the engine house in the same relative position.

At the time the original engine was constructed, the Black Country was already a centre of iron manufacture, mainly of small items like nails, horse shoes and agricultural tools. It was estimated that there were around 20,000 smiths and ironworkers within a 10 mile radius of Dudley Castle.

Nailmaking was one of the Black Countries longest established trades, and records show that the Royal Courts of both King John and King Edward III both purchased nails from the area. The museum has a working nailshop that is a replica of one built in Halesowen in 1880, and the craft of nailmaking is demonstrated regularly.

All types of nails were manufactured in the area, from large nails for boat making to the smallest tacks for upholstery. At its peak in around 1820 there were an estimated 50,000 nailmakers in and around the Black Country, but with the introduction of machine made nails in 1830 this number plummeted. The hand-nailmaker could not compete production or the price of the mass produced nail, and by 1891 the number of workers had dropped to only 6,800.

As the trade in nails declined, the Black Country turned to the production of chains for which it was to develop an international reputation. In fact, the anchor and chain for the Titanic were made in the Black Country !

The number of anchor and chainsmiths rose from around 800 in 1841 to 5,100 in 1891, with 2,000 of these being women. The museum has a working chainshop in the Castlefields Ironworks which demonstrates the craft regularly.

The best metal for chain making is wrought iron because of its malleable and ductile qualities. Next to the chainshop is a rolling mill, which originally came from the Birchley Works in Oldbury, where the wrought iron would have been made by the "puddlings" of cast iron (the same process described at Blists Hill Ironworks).

Black Country Living Museum Tipton Road, Dudley, West Midlands. DY1 4SQ. Tel: 0121 557 9643 Open: March to October, daily 10-5. November to February, Wednesday to Sunday 10-4. http://www.bclm.co.uk

Directions: By Car- Three miles from junction 2 of M5 Motorway.

3. The Birmingham Railway Museum

The iron and steel produced in the Ironbridge Gorge and Black Country was used across the country in a wide variety of industries. One of these was railway locomotive manufacture, and just the other side of Birmingham is one of the foremost centres of locomotive construction that continues the great metal working tradition of the area.

Tyseley Locomotive Works is a highly capable workshop owned by the Birmingham Railway Museum. It is situated on the site of the former Great Western Railways main locomotive depot at Tyseley, about four miles from Birmingham city centre. The museum's origins date back to 1966 when its founder, pioneer preservationist, Pat Whitehouse bought the last remaining Great Western Castle Class locomotive "Clun Castle" from British Railways, and found temporary accommodation for it at Tyseley. The idea of establishing a stronger base then took root, a shed was rented, and LMS Jubilee Class Locomotive "Kolhapur" was bought.

By 1970 the Trust, as it had become, had taken a lease on Moor Ground and had built a huge workshop building to house its growing collection of locomotives. Alongside the locomotives, the museum's farsighted engineer Jim Kent, had acquired many specialist tools which were vital to ensure the long term repair and maintenance of the locomotives. In particular, much effort was put into acquiring and installing several very valuable machines, including a wheel drop for removing wheels from engines and a wheel lathe for turning worn tyres, were acquired and installed.

The whole thrust of this effort was to ensure that adequate facilities existed in order to be able to carry out heavy repairs to steam locomotives for many years to come. The provision of such facilities was very farsighted indeed, and it took over 20 years before the railway preservation industry had become sufficiently commercial to require such engineering contract facilities.

The level of business which Tyseley Locomotive Works now enjoy leaves no doubt as to its founder's philosophy, it has become just about the largest constructor and repairer of steam locomotives in the UK. Tyseley can undertake literally anything from minor overhauls of cylinders and boilers to the complete rebuilding of engines which have lain in scrap yards for many years. Tyseley has also been involved in the manufacture of several new locomotives most notably building the frames and cylinders of the increasingly famous LNER A1 Pacific "Tornado" which is scheduled for completion sometime early in the next century. The "Tornado" is being constructed by the A1 Locomotive Trust in goods shed adjacent to the Darlington Railway Centre and Museum.

Tyseley engineers have played a major role in helping to formulate the policies and standards necessary to ensure that the steam locomotives can continue to work on Railtrack's national network for the foreseeable future. In 1998 alone, no less than three locomotive overhauls to Railtrack's standards were completed within the works.

Along with the growth in facilities the museum's own collection of locomotives, has grown considerably. It possesses three GWR "Castle " class locomotives, one GWR Hall, an LMS "Jubilee" class engine, and no less than three GWR Pannier tank locomotives, together with several industrial locomotives, carriages and wagons. In addition, several privately owned steam locomotives are based at Tyseley including a Southern Railway "Merchant Navy" class engine and "Kinlett Hall", a GWR Hall class locomotive.

The Museum is also playing an increasing part in operations on Railtrack, particularly in its pursuit of setting up regular steam tourist excursions between Birmingham and Stratford Upon Avon. It is currently building up and overhauling a growing fleet of coaches for this operation with the assistance of Forward Trust Rail Ltd, and has completed the overhaul of its own GWR "Hall" class engine No. 4965"Rood Ashton Hall". This loco has been restored to the highest standards and has won many accolades including the 1998 Heritage Railway Association Award made to the talented group of young engineers who played a major part in its overhaul.

The museum is open to visitors at weekends and by appointment during the week. The major visitor activity on the site is the "Drive a Loco" activity, which the museum pioneered almost ten years ago. Members of the public are able to take part in structured one day courses which give instructions in the finer points of driving steam locomotives. They are given hands-on experience in the handling of a variety of engines from small industrial shunting engines right up to the mighty GWR "Castle" class engines. Almost 11,000 people have taken part in this activity since the courses first started.

The final facet of Tyseley is its diesel business. After 30 years of resolute steam preservation, Tysely gave a home to the new locomotive hire company, Fragonset Railways, during 1997. Fragonset now owns some fifteen line diesel locomotives many of which have been re-registered for operation on Railtrack, and can be seen working express passenger trains for leading train operating companies such as Virgin Railways. Tyseley Locomotive works staff are deeply involved in the maintenance and repair of these locomotives and it is an interesting fact to note that there is hardly a day during the year when a Tyseley Locomotive, be it diesel or steam, is not out and about on the Railtrack network hauling express passenger trains.

90 years after the GWR built the depot, and 30 years after British railways closed it, Tyseley is still doing the job it was built for on a daily basis, mending engines and moving main line trains.

Birmingham Railway Museum 670 Warwick Road, Tyseley, Birmingham B11 2HL Tel: 0121 707 4696 Open: All year, weekends 10-5, week days by arrangement.

Directions: By Car - On the A41 Warwick Road, four miles east of city centre. By Train - BR Midline's Tyseley Station is five minutes walk away. By Bus - West Midlands travel bus route 37 passes the Museum's entrance

4. Forge Mill Needle Museum, Redditch

Another use for the steel produced in the Black Country was in needle making, and Redditch, just south of Birmingham, was world famous for its needle industry.

Up until the 16th century, needle making had been carried out by local craftsmen like the blacksmith, to meet with the local demand. Needles would be made from sheet iron cut into lengths which was hammered and rolled into the thickness required. The points were filed by hand and the eye created by first flattening the head and then punching a hole through it. The result of this slow process was a poor quality needle.

At this time the best quality needles were being made abroad from high quality steel. However, political unrest in Europe meant that some of the foreign needle makers emmigrated to England. The new skills they brought into the country meant that the industry began to grow. In the Redditch area the first needle made was recorded in 1639 and the craft soon spread to neighboring villages and reached Redditch itself in 1700.

In the 17th and 18th century needle making had developed into a cottage industry. Some workers carried out all the stages of needle production, whilst others specialised in certain areas. By 18th century new machines were introduced to increase productivity to meet the demand from a growing population and a world wide market. By 1850 these machines were incorporated under one roof - the factory system.

By 1866 there were nearly 100 million needles produced in Britain, and by the end of the century the Redditch district had a virtual monopoly on production. Also, because of the access to the British colonies, it had also become the world's centre for needle manufacture. In fact, the story goes that when the Japanese started making needles they named a suburb of Tokyo "Redditch", just so they could legitimately print "Made in Redditch" on their needle packets.

It seems that the use of water power to polish the needles since the early 1700's, had given the Redditch area a technical advantage over the competition. The needles they produced were inexpensive and of a higher quality than were produced anywhere else. The other manufacturers were unable to compete and eventually closed down, some even moved their whole firms, and workers, to the Redditch area to start again.

Redditch was renowned world wide for its high quality needle production, and one story says that a foreign manufacturer once sent a hypodermic needle to Redditch claiming it was smaller than any they could produce. It was sent back to the manufacturer with a Redditch needle threaded inside it !

Forge Mill Needle Museum tells the story of Redditch's needle history. The mill itself started life as an iron forge, but by 1730 had been converted to needle scouring. In 1828 a major rebuild was undertaken and a Barrelling Shop and Stone Crushing Mill were added. In 1870 a steam engine was installed to aid the water wheel in times of drought.

The Needle Museum shows all the processes of manufacture, which began with the steel wire from the Black Country being cut and strengthened. Needles were, and still are, produced two at a time with both ends of the wire being pointed before being split into two needles.

Up until the introduction of the automatic pointing machine, in around 1870, needle pointing was done by hand. This was the best paid job in the factory, but it was also the most dangerous. Slivers of metal could fly up and blind the pointer, or the grindstone itself could shatter and cause fatal injuries. Not only that, but the pointer was always inhaling dust from the needles and the grindstone, and would often contract a crippling lung disease called "Pointers Rot". It is not surprising that the life expectancy of a pointer was no more than 35 years.

After the double pointed needle left the pointer, it would have two eyes punched in it, before being split in half. The needles were then hardened in a furnace before being polished in the scouring mill. The mill is still powered by a waterwheel which is fed from a stream once known as "Red Ditch", for which the town got it's name. It was called Red Ditch because it flowed through, and was stained by a thick red clay. After scoring the needles were glazed and dried in sawdust in the Barrelling Shop.

The tradition of needle making in the area continues, with Britain's only manufacturer producing over 400 million needles a year in Studley. The museum has a large collection of needles which is brought up to date with a Redditch surgical needle, used to stitch some of the thermal barrier tiles on the space shuttle Columbia.

Forge Mill Needle Museum Needle Mill Lane,Riverside, Redditch, Worcestershire. B98 8HY. Tel: 01527 62509 Open: Easter to September, Monday to Friday, 11-4.30. Weekends 2-5. February to Easter and October, Monday to Thursday 11-4. Sunday 2-5. Regular demonstrations.

Directions: By Car - North of Redditch off the A441 Birmingham to Evesham Road. By Train - Nearest station Redditch BR. By Bus - Services from train station and city centre pass Museum.

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