Steel Works

Steel Production  ( From T.J. Castledine’s book – Butterley Ironworks & Codnor Park Forge 1790 – 1986)

Today, in most peoples’ minds, the relationship between the Butterley Company and steel was its use in the Wagon Works and Constructional Departments for the production of wagons, bridges, cranes and other structures made in the late 19th and 20th centuries. What has been little appreciated in the past was that for three decades around the turn of these centuries, beginning in the early 1880’s and ending in 1907, Codnor Park was a major manufacturer of steel as well as wrought iron. Blast furnace pig iron was converted to steel in Siemens-Martin open hearth furnaces, being cast into ingots and then rolled into plates and beams. Contrary to some belief, steel was only made at Codnor Park and never at the Butterley works. (Steel production restarted in 1941, when the government ordered Codnor Park to build a new steel foundry to make manganese steel tank track links and spindles).

The first reference indicating that the Company had managed to produce steel was in a letter from George Jessop to Charles Francis dated November 29th 1841 saying that ‘our Mr Brown had taken out a patent for making steel from our Codnor Park iron which promises great things.’ Mr Brown was probably Peter Brown, the Forge Superintendent. The letter suggested that the steel could be made for approximately half the price of that currently being paid at that time. It went on to say that it was intended to be used to upgrade the valves in the Company’s Cornish pumping engines, and that Mr Brown had given instructions for some of the material to be sent to the London Mint to be made into ‘bits’ (a ‘bit’ was an 18th and 19th century name for certain coins which continued into the 20th century as the ‘thru’penny bit’). Unfortunately no further evidence has been found to suggest that the steel was made in any significant amount or of acceptable quality.

Henry Bessemer (1813-1898), was an English engineer and inventor, chiefly known in connection with the Bessemer process for the manufacture of steel. His interest in steel arose as a result of trying to improve the construction of guns. In 1856, having melted 700 lb of iron in a stationary converter, Bessemer was confident enough to deliver his famous paper, ‘On the Manufacture of Iron and Steel without Fuel’  before the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Cheltenham on 11th  August 1856.

In 1856, Butterley was granted a license by Bessemer to use the process for the production of steel although it is possible that the Company was perhaps more interested in using the equipment as an alternative method of refining pig iron prior to puddling it. The converter was basically a giant egg shaped vessel which rotated on a central axis. Liquid blast furnace iron was poured into it when in the horizontal position. After rotating to the vertical, air was blown through the tuyeres in the base of the unit, removing carbon and silicon in the pig iron, converting it to steel.

An early Bessemer steel converter

In Bessemer’s obituary, the problems he’d had and the consequences of them were well stated:
However, all was not well with the process. Experiments made using pig iron from South Wales were failures because the steel lacked ‘malleability’. A Swedish ironmaster, using purer pig iron smelted with charcoal rather than coke, was the first to make good steel by the process, but even he was successful only after many attempts. Bessemer then tried purer pig iron obtained from Cumberland haematite ore, but this also failed. Eventually a famous metallurgist of that era, Robert Forester Mushet, remelted some of Bessemer’s iron and showed that the addition of a certain quantity of ‘spiegeleisen’ had the effect of removing the difficulties which he found had been due to ‘over-blowing’ (over – oxidation) of the iron. Spiegeleisen (German for ‘mirror iron’) is a ferromanganese alloy containing approximately 15% manganese and small quantities of carbon and silicon with low levels of phosphorus and sulphur. By adding this to Bessemer’s steel he effectively recarburised and re-nucleated it, correcting the problems of over-blowing.

‘Five firms applied without delay for a license to work under his patents, success did not at once attend his efforts; indeed, after several ironmasters had put the process to practical trial and failed to get good results, it was in danger of being thrust aside and entirely forgotten. Its author, however, instead of being discouraged by this lack of success, continued his experiments, and in two years was able to turn out a product, the quality of which was not inferior to that yielded by the older methods. But when he now tried to induce makers to take up his improved system, he met with general rebuffs, and finally was driven to undertake the exploitation of the process himself.’

In spite of all the setbacks, in the end he succeeded and the process was adopted worldwide, the license fees making him a very rich man. The invention of the process was of extreme importance for the developing industries as it lowered production costs allowing steel to replace already lower cost but inferior materials.

The government of the day was also concerned about the inferior quality of steel used in armament production but fortunately for British industry, most of the steel had been manufactured abroad. Concern at the Admiralty about boiler failures in their ships led them in 1874 to ‘request’ that Butterley should supply boiler steel instead of wrought iron. Three years later, the Company began a £100,000 investment programme lasting over ten years to install steel manufacturing facilities for plates and beams. However, instead of opting for the Bessemer process, they chose the newer Siemens – Martin Process which was a combination of Siemens’ recuperative gas producers and Martin’s open hearth steel furnace.

Sir William Siemens (1823–1883) was born Carl Wilhelm Siemens in Germany but by 1847 he had moved to England becoming ‘a naturalised subject of Queen Victoria’ in 1859.  One of his many ideas was based on saving waste heat in industrial furnaces. He realised that in many industrial applications, much heat was lost by hot gases being exhausted to the atmosphere and that if they were made to pass through chambers of heat conducting materials, the heat could be transferred to new combustible gas entering the furnace. The early work involved using solid fuel in the body of the furnace, but this proved to be very inefficient compared to his later idea of the solid fuel being converted into gaseous fuel in a separate ‘gas producer’ This idea also allowed far inferior solid fuel to be burnt which in turn improved the economics of the process. This also greatly increased the power to the furnace and reductions in fuel consumption of up to 50% were achieved. In 1861 Siemens took out a patent on his design for a regenerative furnace; the patent stated that the furnace was applicable to the melting of steel on the open hearth. Throughout the early 1860’s various other trials were carried out with only with limited success. In 1865 he took the matter into his own hands by building an experimental works in Birmingham known as the ‘Siemens Sample-Steel Works’ where he resolved the processing problems to his own satisfaction.

But Siemens was not the only one who had been turning his attention during those years to the manufacture of open hearth steel. Messrs. Martin, of Sireuil, in France, had also been experimenting with the use of the Siemens furnace and gas producers for the same purpose, but had chosen a somewhat different mode of operation, which eventually became known as the ‘Siemens-Martin’ process. No sooner had the success of the new process been proved than it was taken up by manufacturers on a large scale, and as early as 1869 some thousands of tons of first-class steel had been made by them.

By the late 1870’s the Siemens – Martin process had grown worldwide and so it was obvious to Butterley that this was the route to be taken if they were to be competitive on the open market. The disadvantage of the Siemens – Martin process was that it was much slower than the Bessemer process, but this fact held some hidden advantages as well. Although it was slower, it was far more controllable. The operators had more time during the operation to test and correct the composition and quality of the individual melt which resulted in more consistent quality overall.

The ‘Machinery Market’ report of 1886 contained an excellent description of Codnor Park’s Siemens – Martin plant and the production of steel ingots.  It first described the gas producers and the furnaces as follows:

‘The gas producers are in four blocks with four fires to each, back to back or 16 fires in all. The depth of the fire is 2ft 6inches with 1 ft of green coal on top. All the fires are top fed. Two hundred tons of coal are used per week for these producers from the Company’s own pits and the gas is carried to the points required by means of large tubes 5ft square.’

‘These ‘producers’ generate the gas supply for the steel melting furnaces not many yards distant. These furnaces are charged with 7½ to 10 tons of pig iron and scrap. The furnace having been charged and heated – the metal becomes melted in four or five hours. When it has arrived at boiling point, certain proportions of iron are thrown in (for this purpose the Company use Spanish ore, of which , by the way, a cargo of 800 tons had just arrived) in pieces of medium size which cause the metal to boil more fiercely. At this point of melting, it is impossible to view with the naked eye the interior of the furnace, on account of the great brightness and fierceness of the flame and heat; consequently special coloured glasses are used for this purpose.’

The report then described tapping the furnace into a ladle after which it was poured into (cast iron) ingot moulds:

‘The tapping is effected by making a small hole in the lower part of the furnace and allowing the steel to run along a chute into the ladle on a carriage which runs on a line of rails over a pit the entire length of the steelmaking department. From this ladle, the steel is teemed into the ingot moulds of various required sizes which stand upright in the body of the pit immediately below each furnace as it is run off. When each ingot mould is filled, the top is covered with sand and a thin plate, which is wedged down by a cross bar.’

‘Running alongside the pit and working its entire length is a 12 ton steam crane which is used for lowering the ingot moulds and lifting the steel ingots. The ingots are then placed upon trolleys and piled together for reheating as required. There is a laboratory in which samples of all the materials used and manufactured are subjected to rigid analysis.’

A description followed of the cutting off and machining of test bars taken from rolled plates. This operation was carried out in the Roll Turning Shop where various large size rolls were also being turned, noting that ‘one which was 14 tons in weight was for the new plate mill’.

The testing shop was visited next, the report describing the tensile testing machine ‘as being made by Messrs. Buckton of Leeds being capable of testing samples with a breaking power of 50 tons. The work is carried out by an attendant whose duty it is exclusively to test the steel and iron in the works before being sent out. The samples are subject to severe strain, increasing in power until it breaks after which the breaking limit and the elongation of the sample are thus ascertained, thus proving the quality of the sample.’

The early days of steel making   1880 – 1887

In spite of Machinery Market’s glowing report covering the steel making operations, the early days were not without major technical and economic problems. Butterley’s Chief Engineer, Sir John Alleyne had retired in 1880 although his son, Reynold Alleyne, carried on as Manager of the Codnor Park Works under Mr Hollis until early in 1882. The Partners then advised him that his ‘services would be dispensed with’ and operations would be put under the complete control of Mr Hollis. A similar fate awaited the Steel Manager, Mr Upton, although he was still around in 1885. The reasons for these changes were based upon economic and financial problems related to steelmaking operations rather than personal ability, particularly so for Mr Upton as he certainly was a very capable and well qualified steel metallurgist.

In 1882, the Company had entered into an ambitious project by buying Silverdale Ironworks (blast furnaces, forge and collieries) from the Sneyd family. Silverdale was a small mining village near the market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme on the edge of the Potteries and some 40 miles from Butterley. Pressure was put on Codnor Park to make steel using Silverdale pig iron by producing ‘basic’ steel rather than using pig iron produced by using expensive imported haematite ore from Spain to produce ‘acid’ steel. (This is primarily achieved by using a different ‘neutral or alkaline’ furnace refractory material than for acid steel, where an ‘acidic’ lining is used, producing slags of a quite different analyses).

Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be as simple as the Partners expected. By February 1885 the situation reached ‘boiling point’ with them demanding the dismissal of Mr Upton, this being strongly resisted by Mr Hollis who wrote a sixteen page letter to Mr Francis Beresford Wright (Chairman) in favour of retaining Mr Upton’s services. The main points of the letter dated February 25th 1985 which defined the problems facing Mr Hollis were:

My Dear Mr Wright,

‘Although you do not ask me to reply to your letters of the 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th until I meet you in conference Friday next, I think it desirable, indeed absolutely necessary that I should address to you the following remarks upon the subjects of these letters in order that you may deliberately and fully consider them and by so doing be enabled to form a judgement and arrive at a decision such as the circumstances truly demand and such as will conduce to the present and future prosperity of the Company. He went on at some length to warn against making impulsive decisions which ‘whilst they appear to be consistent with a wise and prudent defence against the adverse circumstances of the moment, are really fraught with disaster in the conduct of our business in the future.’

He continued:  ‘To proceed then to the consideration of your wish that our steel furnaces should in future be worked by a foreman under Mr Cook, I have no alternative but to tell you that the proposal is impracticable and without fear of your displeasure I should ill discharge my duty to you if I did not also express my conviction that if practicable, such a mode of management would be most unwise, would almost invite disaster and would end in failure and disappointment. I ask you to believe most implicitly that I have succeeded in entirely dissociating the son-in-law from the steel manager (his son- in law?) – that my remarks would equally apply to any other man in the position of Mr Upton and that I am not in the slightest degree influenced by consideration for him, or any consideration other than the real interests of the Company.’

‘The proposal is impracticable for this reason if for no other that I am certain Mr Cook would not assume responsibility for which he is altogether unqualified. The management of regenerative gas furnaces and their producers is a sufficiently momentous undertaking at any time but when the furnaces are applied to the production of Siemens-Martin steel the charge of them can only be assured with success by those who have had special training in that work. Mr Upton is qualified for his duties by the expenditure of four years actual work as a furnaceman with the Steel Company of Scotland – work with his hands, night and day, and one year in the laboratory there followed by three years as a Contractor.’

‘If we dispose of his services, who is to give us the benefit of the information which he alone possesses? Who is to advise us upon the different brands of haematite pig iron and the blending of them so that the defects of one kind may be balanced by the excellencies of another? Who is to select the pig most suitable at the time on account of the constantly varying prices of the different brands among themselves? Who is to alter the minute details of the working of the furnaces so that any required grade of carbon to the second place of decimal per cent may be obtained at will? And this is what we have to do every day. Can Mr Cook do this? Most certainly not. Can I? I regret to say again, most certainly not. Can a working foreman at £2 or £3 a week? I need not say once more. Most certainly not. No one, I say it emphatically and I say it without fear of contradiction can properly manage a set of Siemens furnaces who is not a metallurgical chemist of sufficient attainments to know the ‘why and wherefore’ of the process he is conducting, and this is a qualification which we should not find either in Mr Cook or in any foreman however intelligent.’

 Mr Hollis wrote that ‘if the Company worked the steel furnaces at all, then they must be in charge of an ‘officer of the Company’ to be called what the Partners liked, Manager or Foreman, but must be qualified in scientific and practical attainments equal to those possessed by Mr Upton.’  He quoted the instance where a steel plant in the North of England had been run by a Works Manager and a foreman which resulted in ‘scores of tons of useless metal now, if I mistake not, lying on the Works and likely to remain there.’ He also quoted another example when he had relied upon an intelligent foreman to run the regenerative gas furnaces of the New Plate Mill which resulted in a series of explosions in which the gas flues and chambers were ‘scattered’ and several men had the narrowest escape with their lives. He continued: ‘I do not say that the same thing must happen with the steel furnaces under similar conditions, but I do say that both Mr Cook and myself would most respectfully ask you not to require of us any responsibility for the safety of the furnaces and the gas plant and the lives of those employed if we were required to work three or four furnaces under the charge of an imperfectly qualified foreman.’

Whether Sir John Alleyne had been consulted on this matter is not clear but Mr Hollis went on to strongly disagree with Sir John’s observation that the furnaces could be safely operated if someone observed Mr Upton’s ‘mode of proceeding’, in other words, ‘that three months looking on would convert the failure of previous experiments into the success resulting from seven years of arduous application to that occupation alone. I can only say that I am deeply thankful that the assertion was not carried into effect.’

He strongly argued was that if Mr Upton was dismissed and obtained alternative employment, then Mr Upton’s leading hands would also leave the Company, naming in particular Robert Carr and John Niven, greatly increasing the dangers and difficulties by having ‘strange hands and strange heads in charge.’  Towards the end of his letter he wrote that he was not prepared to advise carrying on making steel at a loss, and suggested that after completing current orders, prices must be increased even if that resulted in loss of orders, requiring only one furnace to be worked. He also proposed ‘to use our utmost energies to make the production of steel from our own Silverdale pig by the basic process a success. Mr Cook agrees with me that this is the question of the day with us and that it is impossible to overstate its importance. Indeed as long as the steel trade remains in its present condition it is almost correct to say that that the measure of our non-remunerative steel production is the amount of success which we can attain in the basic process.’

He stated that in the week previous to writing the letter they had achieved for the first time the manufacture of steel ‘of the very highest class from our Silverdale pig iron alone’. We have now only to secure equal permanency of the furnace itself in the basic process with that which is obtained in the ordinary mode of working and our commercial success in the production of basic Siemens steel becomes a matter of certainty. This last difficulty is in the course of being overcome by us and I have every reason to believe that by Lady Day I shall have the satisfaction of reporting that we can make boiler plate steel, not only good but of extraordinary excellence from Silverdale iron without any scrap or other admixture at from 20/- to 25/- per ton cheaper than that made from haematite.’

He stressed that this success was entirely due to the expertise of Mr Upton and cited a particular incident which had occurred during the test production when  two melts would have been lost due to unforeseen circumstances only to be saved ‘by Mr Upton’s energetic action at the critical moment when his men had all but lost their heads and this under circumstances of no small danger when his men would not approach the furnace but could not hold back on his taking the lead with a “Come on my lads”.’

His point about having successfully made test melts and having now to ‘only to secure equal permanency of the furnace itself in the basic process’ is usually easier said than done and is something which foundry metallurgists over the ages have had to face. There is a huge difference between successfully producing test material and establishing a reproducible production process capable of being operated by shop floor personnel. The production of ‘basic’ as opposed to ‘acid’ steel is quite different as, apart from the different types of furnace lining, the success really depends upon the control of the composition of the slag. It is reasonably certain that the production of basic steel did not go ahead as failure to adopt this process was cited by Mr Cook in his letters to Mr Leslie Wright in 1905 as one of the reasons why steel had been made at a loss which resulted in closure of the plant at the end of 1907. Another factor which may have contributed towards the failure to use Silverdale pig for basic steel was that the Company was having major problems with the Silverdale mining operations which would have impacted upon their pig iron output. It would have meant that there would not have been a constant supply to Codnor Park to maintain the basic production. It is also worth considering the possibility that the Partners may have run out of patience and decided to carry on with the established but more expensive production of acid steel. Finally, it is known that Mr Hollis left Butterley in 1888; it is not known what happened to Mr Upton.

The Company did however produce quality steel for four product groups each having individual mechanical property requirements:

Ship, Bridge and Girder Quality …….  Butterley Steel

Boiler Quality ……………………….   Butterley Steel Boiler

Rivet Quality ………………………… Butterley Steel Rivet

Chain and Cable Quality …………….  Butterley Steel Cable

The demand for steel increased throughout the last 15 years of the 19th century as wrought iron products were replaced by steel, a typical example being ship’s deck beams. This extra demand required increased pig iron production, but unfortunately as has been mentioned earlier, this had to be produced from high quality Spanish and Cumberland hematite ores which were low in phosphorus and sulphur. This requirement naturally had an impact on the Company’s own ore mining activities which eventually went into serious decline. The increased demand for pig iron resulted in the relighting of three blast furnaces as reported in the ‘Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald’ and ‘Derby Mercury’ newspapers.

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).’

 Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald – Wednesday 03 April 1889

 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 other iron and coal companies in the district are also doing good trade.’

Derby Mercury  – Wednesday July 3rd 1889

‘According to the Iron and Coal Trades Review, the Butterley Company Limited are at present engaged in remodelling their Siemens – Martin steel plant and the new furnaces will shortly be at work and will enable them to more than double their present output, which has proved quite inadequate to supply the demands made upon it for mild steel boiler plates, deck beams, sheets etc. In the bridge and roofing yards several large contracts are in hand both for this country and abroad. The demand for pipes and other castings has made the foundry exceptionally busy and has necessitated blowing in another blast furnace. The rolling mills are working full time, orders being very plentiful for plates, sheets, angles bar iron etc.’

The ‘remodelling’ involved increasing the number of open hearth furnaces from two to four 20 ton capacity hearths and upgrading the gas producers with respect to the fire bars in them by installing ‘Duff Patented Water Sealed Grates’ to increase their life.

Siemens Martin Steel Production – The Final Years  (1900 – 1907)

Although the Butterley Company overall was very profitable at the turn of the century, the steel trading situation at Codnor Park was far from satisfactory, which, had started in the early 1880’s with a huge capital investment of around £100,000. The Company was beginning to feel the effects of external competition from manufacturers such as ‘Parkgate’ and ‘Steel, Peach and Tozer’ in Sheffield, companies which at the turn of the century had made huge investments in new plant and had introduced new production methods as they became commercially available.

To have to consider closure of the plant would have given the Owners and Management considerable headaches and to take the decision to actually close it would have been heart-breaking especially for those losing their jobs. In many cases, no job meant no roof over their heads as their homes on the Cinder Bank at Ironville were Company tied houses. Whilst in the early 19th century the Company had always appeared to look after their employees, it was far more ruthless when things turned bad. Up to the turn of the century, the Company had continually expanded in some form or other and had managed even in bad times to survive with the workforce generally intact. Closure of a significant part of the Company was unheard of and such action would have created shockwaves throughout the community.

The situation was well described in correspondence between the Codnor Park Manager Jos. Cook and Managing Director Mr A. Leslie Wright. To fully describe and understand the problems I have decided to include three reports, the first being written on the 6th September 1904, the second on February 4th 1905 and the third on January 31st 1907, leading up to the plant’s closure on December 31st 1907.

Reports from Jos. Cook to Leslie Wright 1904 to 1907  re. Steel plant closure

To A Leslie Wright Esq,                                                            September 6th 1904

Dear Sir,

‘The orders received in the past month were slightly in excess of those for July and amounted to 2029 tons 9cwts. There was a falling off of nearly 120 tons of steel plates and an increase of 150 tons of bar iron but there is no life in the trade and everybody is buying from hand to mouth. In the boiler trade the same condition of things applies with the result that we are not able to work the mill more than four days a week. In the Bar Mills the average has been a little under half time for four months past. Under these circumstances the cost of making iron and steel is much enhanced and considering the prices at which we have to sell, we might reasonably expect the cost a/c’s to show worse results than they do.  I am trying to meet the circumstances as far as possible by stopping every man whose services are not absolutely necessary whenever the Works have to stand, but even so these dead charges are a great burden to carry in this time.

At the present moment we are working all four of the Steel Furnaces and shall probably continue doing so for several weeks in order to get a stock of ingots. A fortnight ago we were reduced to the last ingot and the mill suffered in consequence for one day.’

He concluded this report with a list of orders, before signing off in his usual way:

I remain, Dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,

Jos. Cook. 

By February 1905, the situation was becoming more serious and seeds were being sown for the eventual closure of the steelworks. The report below gives a clear indication of this and Manager Cook wrote strongly about the causes of the problems facing them.

To A Leslie Wright Esq,                                                             February 4th 1905

Dear Sir,

‘Referring to the conversation on Wednesday last upon the subject of the recent unsatisfactory results of the working of the Plate Mill and your request that I should go carefully into the question of what saving would be effected on the staff in the event of the Steel Furnaces and Plate Mill being closed down, I beg to say that in this event we should dispose of the services of:

               Ian Wilkinson – Steel Furnace Foreman       £280. 0 .0

              A.F Watson – Mill Foreman                               £200. 0.

               J. Rudd – Analyst                                                  £100. 0. 0

              Three or four office clerks, say                       £300. 0. 0

                                                                                                  £880. 0. 0  

But I cannot content myself by giving you this information in all its baldness as it appears in cold ink, as it is my duty to lay before you my opinion upon the effects of such a course of action as they appear to me so that you may have all the information I am able to supply when considering so important a matter.

In the first place the closing of this Department would potentially close also the two sheet mills and the 2 ton hammers. Since we could purchase foreign bars for the furnace and blooms for the latter, it would be probably be at such an enhanced cost and accompanied by such difficulties as regards quality as to render it not worthwhile keeping them going. The fuel used in these two Departments amounts to about 37,800 tons per annum and in the Sheet Mills and 2 ton hammers about 3,700 tons per annum, or a total of about 41,500 tons per annum for which other markets would have to be found. Probably one third of the houses in the Village would be empty.

The Cost a/c’s as you know have not shown an accurate a/c of the working in the several Departments particularly up to the last year or two when discounts and commissions and payments into the Pool of the Plate Association were first taken out of them, but they afford a sufficiently satisfactory basis to show in a rough sort of way what each is doing in the way of profit and loss. I have therefore gone into the whole of these for the past ten years ended 31st December last and give you the figures arrived at etc.’

Year Output tons Gross Profit

£ . s.  d

Gross Loss

£ . s.  d

Profit / ton

s.  d

Loss / ton

s.  d

1895 11,545 2,261. 9. 9   3. 11  
1896 12,206   1931. 8. 9   3. 2
1897 12,775 2,634. 4. 10   4. 1  
1898 12,940 2,774. 7. 8   4. 3  
1899 13,888 12,902. 5. 11   18. 6  
1900 13,237 3,490. 3. 10   5. 3  
1901 12,598   5,529, 1. 9   8. 9
1902 10,409 1,565. 4. 10   3. 0  
1903 10,779   1,584. 2. 9   3. 0
1904 13,028   7,216. 14. 6   11. 1
Totals 123,411 25,627.16. 10 16,261. 7. 9    
Deduct loss   16,261. 7. 9      
Net Profit   9,366. 09. 1      

 

£9,366. 09. 01  ÷ 123,411 tons = 1s. 6d  /  ton profit

‘I know this is an altogether an inadequate return for the Capital and energy expended but in my opinion it is due primarily to our small capacity of makes and secondly to the fact that we have been content to go on working with a plant which is 20 years old and have not spent money to keep it up to date. I believe that if the scheme of extension which was contemplated and which was so nearly being adopted 8 or 9 years ago had been carried into effect it would long since have paid for itself and our position today would have been very different from what it is.’

The case of Parkgate, 8 or 10 years ago was exactly similar to ours of today, but they, not content with making both sides of the a/c balance, went in for large extensions and improvements and have brought their Works fully up to date, the result being, as you were told on the occasion of your visit to their Works, they were making a very decent profit. So far as I can see, their geographical position is not worth one penny more than ours while they labour under the serious disadvantage of having to buy outside every ton of iron that they use.

Of course, they make basic as well as acid steel and so should we have done if the schemes above referred to had been carried out. And besides all this, there is another and important factor to be considered in connection with our future with an enlarged output and that is the quality of the material and the reputation for it, and for the way in which our business is conducted which we enjoy throughout the length and breadth of the country, a reputation which any other Plate Maker would give anything to possess.

I do not wish you to understand that if our output of steel ingots was materially increased it would all of necessity go into Boiler Plates or even Bridge Plates, for the increased output with the necessary cogging mill arrangement would so cheapen the cost as to allow us to compete for the new larger requirements in steel which are such an important feature of the present day. It is unwise to shut our eyes to the fact that the Finished Iron industry is a vanishing one, growing less and less every year which for competition for such orders as there are to give out, grows more keenly as the work to be done grows less and less and the opportunity of making a profit becomes increasingly difficult.

If the Steel Works are closed, it is reasonably certain that the time when it will be necessary to close down the Iron Works, also will be within measurable distance, but if a general reorganisation and extension were made and everything brought up to date, there is a future before this Department of the Company’s possessions which the present generation has not seen.’

I remain, Dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,

Jos. Cook. 

By 1907, the situation was becoming extremely serious and on the 31st January, Mr Cook sent Mr Leslie Wright an eight page report about his increasing concerns, further analysing the reasons for the problems and suggesting a radical solution for the Board to consider. Obviously being of such a length, the report is not quoted in full below but relevant sections have been selected so as to try to convey the full extent of Mr Cook’s concerns and frustration. He wrote:              

‘Referring to the many discussions we have had in past years and more particularly to those of five or six weeks ago on the subject of the unprofitable nature of the steel trade and to the several returns which have been got out from time to time purporting to show over longer or shorter periods how much has been lost or how little has been gained by it, my mind has been much exercised about it lately because I felt that such returns were only partial in their extent pertaining to one Department of the Works, only the Plate Mill and ignored altogether the financial results of the working of steel in all the other Departments. As I dwelt on the subject and considered from day to day the importance of it, it seemed to grow upon me and I have therefore diverted all my spare time during the past three to four weeks to analyse the cost a/cs for  a period of twelve years ending on 31st December 1906 for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not the results in the other Departments were as poor as those in the Plate Mill and I have given you the figures I have arrived at in a series of tables attached to this Report.’

He suggested that whatever the general state of trade may have been, they had always received a better price for steel products than for iron in the other departments and had never sold at a loss. Furthermore, the accounts distorted the true picture concluding that the overall profit for steel was several thousand pounds greater than that shown in the accounts. He continued:

‘I am not writing this Report with the idea of proving that the financial results of the business in steel are satisfactory or at all adequate to the capital outlay expended upon the Works, or to the time, trouble and energy devoted to their management but having taken out the figures with a view to proving or otherwise, the opinion I had formed that such financial results on the whole were not as bad as we were accustomed to think they were when looked at only from the partial results of the working of the Plate Mill,  it is my duty to lay them before you in sufficient detail to enable you to thoroughly understand them.’

He goes on to outline more practical reasons why the profitability of steel production was too low

‘On the question of the policy of continuing or abandoning the making of steel, I would like to say that in my mature opinion the poor results we obtain from it are due more to the smallness of our output and the obsolete nature of our plant than to our geographical position and that if the works were enlarged and brought up to date in every respect a handsome profit could be made from the capital expended. Have you ever realised how seriously we are handicapped by the fact that the Plate Mill is today just as it was when put down in 1884 notwithstanding the enormous strides which have been made since then in labour saving appliances, in the methods of heating and dealing with the steel slabs and generally in all the machinery and appliances about the Plate Mills? That the one pair of engines should have gone on working all those years without any serious mishap and without being practically rebuilt is very wonderful but they are expensive and out of date. The steel furnaces, though not quite as ancient as the Plate Mill  are yet out of date and cost much more in repairs and use nearly 50% more fuel than modern furnaces do and of course much increase the cost of production. The steam hammers do their work very well with only four furnaces to feed them. If there was sufficient steel to keep a cogging mill going, the work would be done much cheaper, not only for the Plate Mill but to an increased extent for the other Departments of the Works.’

‘With an increased number of steel furnaces and with a cogging mill and finishing mills brought up to date we could make basic steel as cheap as Parkgate, Steel Peach &Tozer, Frodingham, Sir Alfred Strickland or any other maker in the Midland Counties and could not only supply our own Bridge Works with material, but could also by reason of our geographical position supply the bridge builders within a radius of 100 miles as cheaply as any other maker in the country.

To carry out such a reconstruction as I have outlined fully and completely and when carried out to make it independent of outside sources for its supply of basic pigs, it would be desirable to build here at Codnor Park a couple of modern blast furnaces in which not only all the Basic Pigs which would be required will be made but also Forge Pigs for the supply of the Puddle Forges. All this I know would mean the expenditure of a large amount of Capital, but it seems to me that you have to consider and determine whether or not these Works shall become altogether obsolete  and shall be beaten out of the race altogether by Makers who have taken advantage of every method which has been invented to cheapen the cost of production and be ultimately dismantled for scrap or whether they shall be remodelled and brought up to date and become more prosperous even than they were in the old days when such Works were but few in the Country and when the B-Co had a world wide reputation for its productions. You must remember, Sir, that there is no standing still in business for if we are not advancing with the times, if we are not changing our methods and machinery and appliances according to the latest practice we are deliberately falling out of the race and the time will soon come when we shall have to abandon it altogether.’

‘The B-Co has a reputation of which we are proud and which hitherto has given it an advantage over most of its competitors. But we cannot live upon our reputation only. The work of our hands and of our brains or in other words the products of our Works must be of such a quality and such a quantity and of such a variety as will meet the requirements of the world and then the old B-Co will be rejuvenated and become like a giant in the land as it formerly was.’

‘Among all the Iron and Steel Works in the country that I know, ours is the only one where the owners have been content to go on in the old way without adopting any of the new and better ways of making iron and steel which have been invented so extensively in recent years and it has been a constant source of wonderment to me, not that we have made some profit but that we have been able to hold our own.’

‘I have said above that a large capital expenditure is necessary if the Works are to maintain anything like the position which is commensurate with the dignity and importance of the B-Co, but it may be that you are not inclined to make such expenditure. Well! (and I hope you will pardon me for the suggestion I am going to make), why not float a separate and independent Limited Liability Co. with some such title as the Codnor Park Steel and Iron Co. yourselves taking a controlling number of shares?. The B-Co and the steel made by them have such a reputation in the commercial world as would bring any reasonable amount of capital and you would only have to write to obtain whatever is necessary.’

‘I did not intend writing at this length or to this purport, but I have long had this in my mind and as I have written on and on it became clearer to me that this was an appropriate occasion for me to communicate my opinions to you.’

I remain, Dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,

Jos. Cook.

As the reader may have by now surmised, the report was, in addition to it being a reasonable analysis of the situation, rather critical of the owner’s failure to invest in Codnor Park. Whether the Board of Directors seriously considered Mr Cook’s comments and ideas is not known. How much the Report affected his future with the Company is also not known, but by 1912 all correspondence and reports were being signed by ‘James A. Martin – Manager’.

It is however certain that sometime after the report was written, the Board decided not to follow up Mr Cook’s proposals and decided instead to close the Steel Furnaces and Plate Mill. After the decision was made, Mr Cook set about informing some of his more favoured customers about the decision. Not surprisingly, the reasons given for closure were more related to ‘worker problems’ than with the failure of the owners to keep the plant up to date and to install modern metallurgical practices to remain competitive. One such letter written by Mr Cook to a Mr Marshall of Gainsborough is given below.

 ‘Private & Confidential

24th October 1907

Dear Mr Marshall,

Some time ago a large number of our men, 300 to 400 I believe, joined the Gas Workers Union of which Mr W. Thorne is the secretary and since then their demands for increased wages, lesser hours and other privileges have been on an ascending scale and their insubordination in the Works makes it difficult to carry them on, indeed, the worries and troubles which have ensued are more than those which are naturally incidental to the business and as I have tried and failed to convince Mr Thorne that his views are diametrically opposed to the interest of the workmen, also the Steel Plate trade, with us for some considerable time has been of a non remunerative character and so we have decided to cease making steel altogether and to close down our Steel Furnace Plant and Plate Mill at the end of the year.

I am exceedingly sorry to have been compelled to this course but the prospects of doing better in these socialistic days are very remote. I say we have decided to close down on the 31st December but we may be forced to do so earlier because I should not be surprised to receive any day a notice from a body of men working in the Plate Mill who have asked for an advance of 1/- per day and which I have refused to make. If they do give notice it will have to be 28 days and at the expiration of the time we shall close down.

Not the least of the regrets I shall feel as a result of this action will be the severance of the pleasant business relations which have existed for as many years between you and us, a relationship which in its closeness and in the kindly feeling which has always characterised it has been very dear to me and the memory of it will cling to me as long as I live. I need to add that whether we work a month or longer, any orders you may favour us with will be attended to up to the last day.

With Kind Regards and many good wishes,

I remain, Dear Mr Marshall,

Yours faithfully,

Jos. Cook.

P.S. We are not making it known at present that we are closing down.’

In 1911, the Board requested Mr Cook to resign his position of Manager of Codnor Park Forge. Results throughout the first decade had been generally poor but during his 29 years at the Forge he had proved himself to be a good manager and a ‘proud Company Man’, as is clear from his reports, but being 70 years old, age was not on his side.  When Leslie Wright took over from Fitzherbert in 1902, he had authorised a £3500 capital investment in the Codnor Park brickyard which was situated alongside the Forge and Mr Cook was responsible for it. Mr Cook was however an engineer and was somewhat out of his depth regarding brick production, although he did put forward plans for the modernisation scheme. After several changes of mind by the Board and a report by Eustace Mitton, the new Company general manager, the scheme was finally abandoned and the brickworks was fully closed by 1915. Instead, Waingroves brickworks were modernised and opened for production.

Although steel production ceased in December 31st 1907, Codnor Park continued to forge and roll steel ingots bought in from external sources such as Sheepbridge. In ‘Through Five Generations’ Coote and Mottram state that the First World War gave a further great impetus to the modernisation of the ironworks and intensified a previous tendency to switch over from the manufacture of iron to that of steel.’  Steel continued to replace wrought iron after the end of WWI.  The manufacture of deck beams also declined and in 1913 the long deck beam shops were converted to wagon production, allowing a production line system to be set up.

Concerning the overall success of Butterley Co’s steel making venture, it must unfortunately be concluded that even after 25 years of operation and many tens of thousands of pounds invested in the original plant and subsequent modifications and enlargement of it, it did not achieve the envisaged 1870/1880’s objective of becoming a major steel manufacturer. Although high quality steel was produced, they were never able match the success of the Sheffield manufacturers.

Revival of steel production during WWII 

1940   Tank track production

At the Board meeting of August 12th 1940, a proposal submitted by the Ministry of Supply was put before the Directors for the erection of a steel foundry at Codnor Park. The foundry was intended for the production of steel bombs and other castings. The proposal instructed to Company to ‘proceed forthwith with the necessary building work and provision and installation of the plant and equipment at a cost of £67,150, all costs to be borne by the Ministry.’

The terms set out by the Ministry were as follows:

The Ministry agreed to take a lease of the site of existing and any additional buildings for the duration of the hostilities plus six months. Certain options open to the Company at the end of the war were given in the proposal. Upon termination of the Agreement, the Company would purchase the additional buildings or plant at a figure to be agreed later, or pay a percentage, also to be agreed, later, of the cost of the improvements made to their existing buildings with an option of purchasing any other plant or building. The Ministry would remove any such plant not purchased by the Company and restore the site. The scheme would be operated by the Company as agents of the Ministry. The Company would receive a management fee of 15/- per ton of good unmachined castings produced to cover the remuneration of senior officials of the Company. A minimum fee of £3,000 was to be paid to the Company in the first year commencing August 7th 1940 and a minimum fee of £2,000 per annum thereafter with all production costs being borne by the Ministry. These terms and conditions were typical of what became known as an ‘agency factory’.

Mr Fitzherbert Wright also informed the Board ‘that he had appointed Mr John Gardom to supervise the new department until such a time as the plant was in proper production at a salary of £500 plus expenses.’ Mr Gardom was an independent foundry consulting engineer who in post war years set up his offices in Marehay, Ripley. Butterley’s engineer, Mr Albert Woodward was appointed to assist Mr Gardom to oversee construction of the Foundry. When it eventually went into full production Mr Granville Walker was given the position of Steelworks Manager.

The new foundry was built on the site of the ‘New Forge’ shown as position ‘20’ on the aerial view of the Works and this meant closure of the 18 inch mill. At the Board meeting of November 1941, approximately one year after receiving the Ministry of Supply’s directive, Mr Fitzherbert Wright reported ‘that the New Forge had now been closed down but that an increased output was now being obtained from the Middle Forge to correspond to that previously obtained from the New Forge. The recent improvements to the plant at the Forge were showing a considerable saving in costs.’

The original intention was that the foundry should produce steel bombs but this was changed to manganese steel tank track links and track pin production before the plant became operational. The building and commissioning of the foundry took approximately twelve months and the tank track patterns were approved in October 1941 followed by the first tracks being delivered as output improved.  Mass production started in November 1941 with Fitzherbert Wright reporting to the Board that ‘a rotary furnace had been installed and was giving satisfactory service and the ‘Tocca’ plant for the hardening of the track pins would shortly be in production.’

A rotary furnace uses a high powered gas burner to melt the iron charge. It soon became apparent to management that demand for gas was outstripping supply as the Board meeting minutes showed over several months following the furnace’s installation. By December 1941, Fitzherbert Wright arranged for a meeting with the main supplier, the Riddings Gas Company but found that the directors were not interested in installing extra gas producers or reducing their price for high volume usage. The possibility of getting additional supplies from Ripley Gas Company was also investigated but again this was to no avail. By February of the following year, some progress had been made as Riddings made an arrangement with the Derby Gas Company to provide extra supplies.

The supply situation however remained uncertain and at the Board meeting of March 31st 1942, Fitzherbert expressed the opinion that ‘a gas producer plant would be unable to meet the requirement of the steelworks and he thought that the Ministry of Supply would approve of a proposed scheme for additional supplies to be provided by the Riddings Gas Company.’  In April, the Ministry’s gas supply experts visited Codnor Park and insisted on the installation of a gas producing plant. Arrangements were then made to comply with this instruction. The Board agreed that supplies would continue to be taken from the Riddings Gas Company until the new gas producer became operational after which the Gas Company would act as a standby in case of need.

Further developments took place during the next three months, the main one being the installation of a new steel converter. At the August meeting, Fitzherbert reported that much improved results were being obtained from it. He also reported that the gas producer plant was being erected and an instruction had been received from the Ministry to proceed with the enlargement of the pin shop to enable larger and more varied types of track pins to be manufactured. The following month, the Board was informed that certain items of plant originally supplied by the Ministry were now redundant, but that these had been taken over by the Company and negotiations were in hand for payment for them.

The next issue arose in June 1943 when the Ministry instructed the Company to stop production of the Churchill tank tracks, replacing them with tracks for the Cromwell tank which had gone into mass production earlier in the year. Production of the Churchill track was allowed to continue whilst the new track was phased into production. The next major and very serious issue came in March 1944 when Fitzherbert reported to the Board the following information:

A notice had been received from the Ministry of Supply that Codnor Park Steelworks would be closed as from March 25th due to the fact that it had been decided to reduce the track link programme. Objection to the notice had been raised on the grounds that the efficiency of the Codnor Park unit warranted its being kept in production and negotiations were proceeding. In the meantime the Ministry had agreed to extend the notice for a further week.’

At the next meeting it was reported that ‘the Ministry would not vary their decision regarding the closing of Codnor Park Steelworks and that production had ceased officially on March 31st.’ Following closure, the Board suggested that the Ministry be approached to obtain a lease of the premises for the assembly and storage of  ‘Sunshine’ agricultural equipment. Permission was given to repay the Ministry the sum of £1,183 / 9s / 1d, this being the cost of the work carried out by the Ministry on No.6 bay. The ownership had been transferred to the Company on April 1st and had from that date been occupied by the Sunshine Department.  

In relation to the length of WWII, the Codnor Park steel project was relatively short, being of only 30 months duration from the initial instruction being given in October 1941 to its closure at the end of March 1944. Perhaps today, the overall viability of the project could be questioned in view of the huge investment made in plant and equipment, running costs and short lived production. It must however be remembered that this was wartime and the steel foundry was possibly one of many decisions taken by the Government which in today’s economic climate would seem to be illogical and unjustifiable.

As a final note about the steel works, Mr Fitzwalter Wright (Managing Director) reported to the Butterley Board Meeting of June 28th 1946 that the Company had decommissioned the steel foundry and converted it into a wagon works producing 16 ton capacity all-steel mineral wagons at the rate of 100 per month.