Butterley blast furnaces

1791 – circa 1913

A Report by Tim Castledine

November 2020


1.0   Introduction

2.0  The 1st Generation Furnaces

3.0  The 2nd Generation Furnaces

4.0  Datestones and the ‘Disappearing’ Furnace

5.0  The 3rd Generation Furnaces

6.0  Potential Sites for further investigation

7.0  Conclusions

8.0  References


Tuyeres – The pipes through the furnace lining which directs the air blast into the furnace’s melting zone.

Bosh – The widest internal part of the furnace situated directly above the level where the air blast enters the furnace via the tuyeres.

    Butterley Blast Furnacemen in front of a 3rd Generation Furnace circa 1900

1.0 Introduction

In recent times (2018/20) the heritage of Butterley Ironworks has come under more intense local scrutiny than it had previously as a result of a hybrid planning application by Aquarius Estates Ltd and Godkin Holdings to develop the site for housing and light industrial and commercial uses. One particular aspect of this increased interest has been centred on the Blast Furnace Wall, a sandstone structure approximately 400ft long by 40 ft high. This now forms the eastern demarcation line between the Works site and the new housing estate (Cromford View) located above, on what was originally an area of the Ironworks land known as the ‘Top Plain’. In 2013, Historic England (formerly English Heritage) designated the wall as a ‘Scheduled Ancient Monument’, this being jointly applicable to the Cromford Canal’s Wide Hole, a unique canal wharf lying some 40ft beneath it. As the name implies, the Wall is inextricably linked to the Ironworks blast furnaces, the first of which began operation in 1791, approximately one year after the formation of Outram & Co by Benjamin Outram and Francis Beresford.

Over the past few decades, during which time several books have been written about the history of the Company, there has been a considerable amount of speculation by interested parties as to when, where and how many blast furnaces were built at Butterley in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

To some extent this matter was summarised in the English Heritage’s report entitled ‘Desk-Based Assessment of the Ironworks and Underground Canal Wharf’ by Rebecca Pullen, which noted that ‘there appears to be a degree of confusion surrounding the subsequent sequence of furnace construction’ and suggests that ‘further research is required to piece together a definitive account of furnace construction and upgrades at the Butterley Ironworks site.’

 In Appendix 1 of my book ‘Butterley Ironworks and Codnor Park Forge 1790 – 1986’ published in 2014, I wrote: —

These comments have been borne in mind during the writing of this latest work on Butterley’s history and whilst there has been a certain amount of difficulty in finding new information about the furnaces, a definite pattern has emerged from both new and existing data. This identified a feasible furnace timeline which to some extent has clarified the technical development of the furnaces. It is a reasonable assumption, based upon available evidence, that a total of five blast furnaces were built at Butterley at some time in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Modifications may have been carried out to any of them but if so, it is impossible to say to what degree they were modified before they were eventually de-commissioned. It is also reasonable to suggest that the first furnace was commissioned in 1791, the other four being built at various times during the remaining years of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. 

It must be stated that Appendix 1 in the book was a genuine attempt to try to shed some light on the development and timeline of the furnaces. Since the book was written, there has been until recently very little to add about the furnaces’ development until the beginning of 2020 when a certain Mr Chris Tasker of Stanton by Dale contacted Ripley & District Heritage Trust for a copy of the aforesaid book. Mr Tasker was a blast furnace technical assistant at Stanton Ironworks in the 1960’s After they were closed he went on to be a metal controller on the large cupola melting furnaces on the Company’s Central Melting Plant, daily producing huge tonnages of iron for Stanton’s famous pipe works.

Following his retirement he and another blast furnace colleague made a study of the history of the Stanton Furnaces, followed by similar studies of the Moira Furnace at Moira on the Ashby Canal and the two Morley Park furnaces lying close to the A38 just south of Ripley. It was simply unavoidable that the subject of Butterley’s furnaces would eventually arise. Thanks to Chris’s enthusiasm and knowledge of furnace design and operation, it is believed that it has been possible to determine with a fair degree of accuracy the development of Butterley’s blast furnaces. It has now been established that a total of seven furnaces were built during the time that blast furnaces were in operation at Butterley, between 1791 and approximately 1910. The seven furnaces can be grouped into three specific generations. These will be identified in the following text as 1B1, 1B2, 1B3, 2B1, 2B2, 3B1 and 3B2. The first number indicates the generation, (first second or third), the ‘B’ signifies Butterley and the final number, the order that the particular generation was built.

 2.0  The 1st Generation Furnaces  

 The first generation consisted of three furnaces identified as 1B1, 1B2, 1B3. They were all built by 1806 and it is now believed that no further construction took place until 1838 when the first of the 2nd generation was built, replacing a 1st generation furnace.     

The engraving, below, is a depiction of the Works in 1800. It shows a single ‘Egyptian pyramid shaped furnace’ with the cast house in front and Butterley reservoir with water intake in the foreground. The furnace shape closely resembles those built at Moira and Morley Park, both still standing in 2020.

The fact that three furnaces were built by 1806 is confirmed by the visit to Butterley by George Mushet on Sunday January 5th 1806. He was the brother of David Mushet, the manager of Outram & Co’s main local competitor, Alfreton Ironworks, later known as Riddings Ironworks, owned by three Derby businessmen, Messrs. Saxelbye, Edwards and Forester and later by James Oakes.  Whether or not this visit was an early form of industrial espionage is not clear, but it is suspected that the journey would not have been undertaken as a gentle Sunday afternoon stroll. As a result of the visit, young Mushet wrote:

‘Gratified my curiosity by taking a peep of the interior of this extensive works where ruin, confusion and desolation seemed to exist in this rude mass of architecture. The works consists of three blast furnaces two of which are presently at work. The casting houses run out in front of the furnaces. They are filled from a level coke yard. Their burden of cokes, 16cwt to the charge and 14 cwt of ironstone. Two barrows containing 8cwt each formed one charge. The new furnace went 11 to 12 of these in one shift, the (older) furnace 7 to 8. The rest of the buildings are moulding shops, smith shops etc. and various workmans cottages struck in the form of a circle around the blast furnaces having in front of the casting house a square piece of ground for a pig iron yard. I gave the helper a shilling to drink.’

The three black dots within the red circle are firmly believed to be the three 1st generation furnaces. The lower one lies against and north of the near horizontal line of the Cromford Canal Tunnel. On the basis of further evidence, this furnace is designated 1B1, being built / lit in 1791. The other two are designated 1B2 and 1B3. It can be seen that these are aligned in a more or less straight line but approximately 250 east of north. Sadly, very little visual evidence remains of the 1st generation furnaces except perhaps a tuyere arch of 1B2 located in the north facing section of the wall.

1936 aerial photo of the foundry and cupola furnace stockyard showing the alignment of the three first generation blast furnaces
2010 Google Earth photo showing the furnaces’ alignment relative to Cromford View housing estate and the blast furnace wall
Left: close up of the North wall arch circa 2015 with (right) a close up internal view
Circa 2000 view of the North facing section of the wall showing a small tuyere arch of 1B2, and substantial cracking of the wall above and to the right of it.

In 1834, approximately 20 years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the French iron industry had been having mixed success with the implementation of new hot blast technology on their furnaces and so the French Director of Roads, Bridges and Mines dispatched a certain Monsieur A. Dufrénoy to visit ironworks in Britain. Eventually arriving in Derbyshire he reported that one of the ironworks he visited belonged to a certain Mr Jessop (William Jessop Jnr), whom he described as ‘one of the most intelligent ironmasters in England’.

About Butterley he wrote: ‘This works consists of three blast furnaces. The pigs produced are applied to castings whether of the first or second fusion. One furnace alone was working when I was in Derbyshire.’ (note – second fusion probably relates to pig iron being remelted in a cupola furnace).

It seems that since none of the 2nd generation furnaces had yet been built (1838) it suggests that the one in operation was a hot blast modified 1st generation furnace but unfortunately it is impossible to establish which one he referred to.

3.0  The Second Generation Furnaces

It is believed that the second generation furnaces were built between the late 1830’s and the early 1840’s. By this time, the first generation’s age ranged from 47 years (1791) to 32 (1806). Between 1791 and 1838, blast furnace practice had dramatically changed resulting in higher outputs, lower operating costs and better metallurgical quality. Without doubt it can be said that improvements would have been made to the 1st generation furnaces. This is substantiated by George Mushet’s 1806 comments regarding the size and number of charges on the ‘new furnace’. Further improvements would most certainly have been made under the guidance of William Jessop Jnr after 1814. These changes would have included improved internal design, new methods of charging the furnace and perhaps the most significant change being the introduction of hot blast technology (invented by Scotsman James Beaumont Neilson in 1829) with Jessop designing his own heating stoves. Hot blast practice significantly improved output and reduced costs particularly by substituting the use of coke with raw coal, eliminating the coking process.

Dufrénoy’s 1834 Butterley report gave a table comparing cold blast / coke with hot blast /coal, producing 1 ton of iron. The economic benefits can clearly be seen by comparing coal and ironstone requirements.

In 1830 With cold blast and cokeIn 1833 With hot air and coal
Coke                                    5 tons 16 cwts Mine (ironstone)                  3 tons  0 cwts Limestone                            1 ton   0 cwts Raw Coal                     2 tons 18 cwts ** Mine (ironstone)          2 tons  11 cwts Limestone                    1 ton    0 cwts ** including consumption of the apparatus

By the mid 1830’s, Jessop and his team would no doubt have realised that the three 1st Generation furnaces had become well and truly obsolete, resulting in the need for a new generation able to take full advantage of the new hot blast technology. It is an interesting fact that, whilst the technical improvements were adopted, the basic external shape of the furnaces remained very much the same, i.e. the ‘Egyptian Pyramid’ shape.

2nd Generation Furnaces  (2B1 and 2B2)

It is fairly certain that only two 2nd generation furnaces were built and the location of both is believed to have been identified but it is not entirely certain as to which one was built first. The photo below shows the position of one in relation to the Wall itself and has been nominated as the first to be built i.e. 2B1.

The section of wall immediately above the red ring is the north facing section shown with the 1B2 tuyere arch — ref. see bottom photo, page 6). The strip of land between the Cromford View houses and the south facing face of the Wall is currently ‘no man’s land’. The present owners do not appear to have any plans to develop it.

The photo above, taken circa 2010, clearly shows the furnace arch in front of 2B1 with an electrical substation within it. This was installed to provide power for the foundry’s light fettling and grinding shop built in the late 1950’s.  It is believed that the back face of the arch is the front face of the 2B1 furnace.

The photos below show the interior of the arch. The upper one particularly highlights the fact that the arch increases in size towards the rear of it. The lower one clearly shows the fire marks on the brick roof and wooden beam, presumably caused by tons of liquid iron being tapped at over 13000C over many years from the furnace tap hole situated below them.

4.0  Datestones and the ‘Disappearing’ Furnace

Another significant visual feature on the right hand external side of the arch is that of two datestones. They are positioned as shown in the left hand photo below. The right hand photo shows a close-up of the two stones. The upper stone, although considerably weather worn, reads ‘Rebuilt 1838’. The lower one clearly shows a date ‘1791’, although the two characters preceding the date are fairly indecipherable.

The questions then arise – what is the significance of these stones, what do they represent and do they relate to the structure they are located in?

The stones are indeed significant as they most probably identify two important dates in the Company’s blast furnace history. The 1791 stone more than likely commemorates the commissioning of the first furnace i.e. Furnace 1B1. The 1838 stone obviously records the rebuilding of a furnace but does not indicate which one (2B1 or 2B2). When studying the stonework (and brickwork) around the datestones, there is a certain amount of suspicion that they may not relate to the structure they are embedded in (cast house wall of 2B1), but possibly relocated there to ensure their existence for future generations of employees.

The Penny Magazine – February 1844 (Published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge)  ‘A Day at the Butterley Ironworks Derbyshire’

The article, which accounted for nine pages of small print accompanied by many etchings and sketches, gave a very comprehensive review of operations at Butterley and Codnor Park including mining operations. A small section described the smelting operations at Butterley which are of particular interest in relation to this report.

Firstly it is worth noting that the visit took place in 1844, six years after the rebuilt furnace was presumably completed in 1838. Upon the arrival at Butterley, the visitors noted:

‘When within the gates of Butterley Works we find an area of many acres filled with the various buildings incidental to the manufacture of iron.Of these, the most important are three large blast furnaces with all the arrangements for producing either the hot blast or the cold blast. They are huge and clumsy erections, forty or fifty feet in height and formed so as to possess great strength and great power of resisting heat. At Butterley they have a square horizontal section and partake in their general appearance and construction much of the character of Egyptian buildings, especially in the opening which forms the lower mouth of the furnace. The furnaces are about forty-five feet in height: they are built of stone quarried in the neighbourhood and are lined internally with firebricks and cement capable of resisting heat.

When we walk round these furnaces, we find that all three are bounded on the eastern side by an embankment nearly as high as the furnaces themselves and on ascending this embankment by a flight of steps, the surface of this embankment presents itself as a nearly level road terminating at the furnaces at one end and the mines and collieries at the other.

(Note: Bold italics- emphasis by the author)

It is quite fair to say that the embankment refers to what became known in the 20th century as Top Plain’, later to become the ‘Cromford View’housing estate. The ‘nearly level road’ refers to the area of land stretching eastwards down to the collieries and (iron ore) mines around Golden Valley and Codnor Park.

A further reported visit to Butterley was made by the British Association in 1866 and was extensively reported in The Times Newspaper on September 1st and less so in the Derbyshire Advertiser on September 7th. Unfortunately, although they give a good overview of activities at both Butterley and Codnor Park, little is written about Butterley’s blast furnaces except that after a comprehensive description of charging raw materials into the furnaces it stated –

No less than three of the furnaces were tapped in succession that the visitors might witness the process of casting pig iron. At the Butterley Works this is again melted * and made into castings for machinery, bridges and other purposes.’  (* Remelted in cupola furnaces in the foundry)

This then seems to confirm that three blast furnaces were in operation but which ones were they? It is believed that the two main ones would be 2B1 and 2B2 with extra backup from one of the remaining first generation furnaces. It is known that demand for pig iron and castings was exceptionally high in the 1860s as the Company was fulfilling some large orders, for example St Pancras Station, hundreds of deck beams, and thick bulkhead plates for the Royal Navy and the huge Dordretch Bridge over the River Maas in Holland.

This immediately raises the question as to where the second of the 2nd generation furnaces was located. In order to answer this it is necessary to fast forward to 1886 and another visit to Butterley, this time by a team from the ‘Machinery Market’ magazine. A comprehensive article written from notes made by the magazine’s ‘Special Commissioner’ appeared in the March edition under the heading ‘Notable Establishments – No.15 – ‘A Visit to the Works of the Butterley Company’.  But first it is considered best to compare two sections taken from maps relating to the Works in 1880 and 1900.   

The map section below left is from the 1880 OS map. It distinctly shows three furnaces, two as small circles and one marked within the red ring being a small circle within a square box. This is considered to be a furnace with a square base i.e. of Egyptian pyramid design and has been designated 2B2. Furnace 2B1 is shown additionally added as the yellow square and circle. The design of the other two small circles will be considered further in in the report.

The map section shown below right is taken from the 1900 OS map. Whilst the two small circles still remain, the red ringed square and circle has disappeared. A good explanation for this is given in the Machinery Market’s article.

The article states:

‘The plant originally consisted of three furnaces. These small furnaces are now replaced by two of greatly increased capacity being 52 ft high and 15 ft in the boshes. One of the old furnaces which was square, built entirely of stone and standing about 40 ft high, bearing the date 1790 was taken down quite recently. It had not however been in blast during the last 15 years’.

From this, it can be deduced that it was last in blast around 1870 / 71 and so could have well been one of the three furnaces described as being tapped during the 1866 British Association’s visit. Although it was reported to bear the date 1790, it is difficult to accept that it was the first of the 1st generation furnaces (1B1) built above the canal tunnel as this would have made it 80 years old and as stated earlier, furnaces 1B2 and 1B3 built by 1806 were technically more advanced. This then leads to the assumption that 2B2 was in fact rebuilt on the 1B1 site, probably in 1838 and had a working life of around 30 years before being superseded by the 3rd generation furnaces,

Considering earlier comments about the significance of the two datestones, questioning what do they represent and do they relate to the structure they are located in, the answer may be that the 1838 stone was originally set in the rebuilt 2B2 and the 1790 (1791) stone had been transferred from 1B1 to 2B2 when 1B1 had been pulled down to make way for 2B2.

It can be also argued that the error of one year between that stated in the article and the stone was perhaps an error on the part of the Machinery Market’s author but that will now forever remain a mystery. These facts do however give some credence to the suggestion that the stones are unrelated to the construction of 2B1 at the back of the arch and its cast house but related to the construction of two furnaces, 1B1 and 2B2, being eventually set in the cast house wall to ensure, as stated earlier, their existence for future generations of employees.

5.0 The Third Generation Furnaces

The 1900 OS map section clearly shows the two 3rd generation furnaces, 3B1 lying just to the south of the canal tunnel, 3B2 situated in front of the cast house arch of 2B1.

Repeating the relevant text in the Machinery Market article – ‘These small furnaces are now replaced by two of greatly increased capacity being 52 ft high and 15 ft in the boshes. The new furnaces are of modern construction built in the form of a truncated cone with massive base.’

Whilst their height is given at 52 ft, it is believed that 3B1 was initially built approximately 10ft less at around 40 ft, being similar in height to the 1st and 2nd generation furnaces.

The 1908 photo shown below left is a general view of the Works with the upper part of the furnace 3B1 in the centre of it, to the right of the central chimney. The right hand photo is a close-up view of the furnace, showing ancillary equipment such as the engine house, charging runway and hot blast stoves. It also shows an extension built on top of the original furnace.

It is also believed that furnace 3B2 was built to 52 ft and probably performed better than the shorter 3B1.The photo below, taken in the Works yard in 1913, shows the top section of Furnace 3B2. Note the difference between that and 3B1. The building behind the wall-mounted lamp is the new No.2 Foundry built in 1911.

The reason for the extension was believed to improve the performance of the furnace, primarily its output or melting rate of iron.

The demand for pig iron at Codnor Park was high due to the start-up of steel production in the early 1880’s, beginning with two 20 ton open hearth Siemens Martin furnaces which, due to demand, expanded to four by 1889, hence the extra demand for pig iron. Each furnace required 7.5 – 10 tons of pig iron and scrap which became melted in 4 to five hours.

The photo below, believed to be taken in the mid- 1880’s in the Works yard shows, in addition to the Butterley built locomotive, a covered structure in the background.

It is considered probable that the extension to 3B1 was being undertaken beneath it.

A short newspaper article appeared in the Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald – Wednesday 07 November 1888

Blast furnace lighted at Butterley Works.

‘One of the blast furnaces at the Butterley Works which has been lying idle for years was lighted last week by Miss Wright, daughter of Mr Fitzherbert Wright, J.P. who is now the Managing Director of the Butterley Company (Limited).’

This most certainly relates to the newly extended 3B1 furnace.

A further article appeared in the same newspaper on Wednesday 3rd of April 1889 commenting upon the iron trade and the blast furnaces in operation at Butterley and Codnor Park.

The Iron Trade at Butterley and Codnor Park.

‘The improvement in the iron trade at the extensive works of the Butterley Company at Butterley and Codnor Park which was manifested some months ago is now more pronounced. The Company has in hand some very large orders which will take a considerable time to execute. At the Butterley works two stacks are in operation and at Codnor Park two furnaces which have been idle for a long time are to be blown in this week.

The two stacks at Butterley would certainly be 3B1 and 3B2. The relighting of the two Codnor Park furnaces coincides with the increase in steel production in the Siemens Martin furnaces. 

6.0  Potential Sites worthy of further investigation

It is believedthere is considerable potential to expand the ‘heritage’ knowledge of the blast furnace wall and its hidden secrets by carrying out some archaeological work on selected sites. It is suggested that the four places detailed below are considered for investigation. Two of the sites (see 6.1 and 6.2 below), are located outside of the area currently designated for house building. Sites 6.3 and 6.4 are in the area designated as the access road running in front of the Wall.

6.1 The Back Wall of the Cast House Arch    

As indicated earlier, this could possibly be the front face of Furnace 2B1. The entrance to the cast house is currently blocked by a modern brick substation which was vandalised several years ago and stripped of its heavy duty cables. The remains of these (naturally, less the copper content) are visible against north wall tuyere arch (see R.H. photo below). Given adequate access to the back wall (preferably by demolishing the substation after determining it is safe), the task of digging down several feet would be relatively simple. The aim of this work would be to try to reach / uncover stone work which would identify itself as the furnace tap hole through which the liquid iron would flow. The L.H. photo shows quite clearly that the substation has been broken into. It also gives some indication of the total depth of the cast house arch.

6.2  Excavating in front of and inside the tuyere arch in the North facing wall

The small arch in the North facing wall is believed to be one of possibly three tuyere arches, the other two now being buried deep within the wall as one would have been positioned in the furnace’s back wall and the other in the side wall directly opposite the visible one, (see the drawing below). Tuyere arches were usually smaller than the main cast house arch. Since only the upper portion of the arch is visible and it is known that the ground in front of it has been considerably built up over the 100 + years, and so quite a depth would have to be excavated in front and inside the arch to establish its true identity. Only examining the stonework of the excavated back face will reveal this but it would help to prove the existence of a 1st generation furnace.

The illustration below left shows a Butterley furnace cross section drawing of the three tuyere arches and tuyeres and the main cast house arch. The photo below right is of Moira furnace again showing the tuyere arch. Butterley’s 1st  and 2nd generation furnaces would have been to the same design.

6.3  Uncover the steel plate covering the blast furnaces’ shaft for the return of tuyere cooling water to the canal

The position of this cover is reasonably accurately known as indicated on the photo and map section below. It is located in front of the back face of the Engine House, again easily located as part of the Wall, lying a few metres south of the furnace arch. Close by and closer to this part of the Wall, is another small shaft which had a pump installed within it. This pumped water from the reservoir into the fish pond from where it gravity fed to parts of the Works requiring it.

It is believed that the main shaft was covered with around one metre of aggregate after No.1 foundry was demolished after closure in 1986. 

6.4   Search for the remains of the bases of Furnaces 1B1, 2B2 and 3B1

The photo below shows the approximate locations of furnaces 1B1, 2B2 and 3B1 in relation to the Wall, the canal tunnel and the shaft for returning the blast furnace tuyere cooling water to the canal.

The ground was raised with aggregate by around 2ft after closure of the foundry in 1986. It is not known however how far below the remains of the bases would be, although it is speculated that it would only be a few feet at the most. The ‘Egyptian Pyramid’ stone foundations of 1B1 and 2B2 would be approximately 40 ft square and, as such, would probably be more traceable than the 3B1 foundations which were of more modern design. If found, it is suggested that they would be measured and photographed etc. before being refilled before the site development takes place.

7.0 Conclusions

It is fair to conclude that this ‘desk based’ work carried out to more accurately determine how many furnaces existed and their location at Butterley Ironworks has considerably improved previous knowledge about them. Furthermore, thanks to Mr Chris Tasker’s excellent work, much more is now understood about the design, development and operation of these early blast furnaces. Unfortunately this valuable information lies outside the original remit for writing this short report, but it may be very useful in future investigations and reports.  The primary aim was to raise awareness of the heritage of the Blast Furnace Wall in order to ensure that the relevant authorities dealing with the planning application take it fully into consideration when deciding the site’s future. It is hoped that this has been achieved!

8.0   References

Through Five Generations – by R.H. Mottram and Colin Coote 

The Butterley Company – Through Nine Reigns   – Unknown author

The Penny Magazine 1844‘A Day at the Butterley Ironworks Derbyshire

The British Association ReportThe Report of a visit to Butterley in 1866

Machinery Market Magazine –  March 1st Edition 1886

Hot Blast Report 1834  by Monsieur A. Dufrénoy. France.

Butterley Company ‘Ad Rem’; In House Magazines (Ripley Library + Derbyshire Local Studies in the DRO at Matlock and Private Collections)

The Butterley Company – Yesterday and Today by Ann Castledine   (1962)

A Brief History of Butterley Foundry in the 20th Century by Tim Castledine (2012)

English Heritage – Desk based assessment of the Ironworks and underground Canal Wharf  ISSN 1749 – 8775 by Rebecca Pullen

Butterley Ironworks and Codnor Park Forge – 1790 – 1986   by Tim Castledine (2014)


(Copyright  – Tim Castledine & Butterley Ironworks Trust, but ‘Open’ for private use only with due acknowledgments)