Butterley Ironworks Keystone 1791

A Report by Tim Castledine

December 2020

An early photo of the Keystone

This locally famous stone was for many years held in Butterley Hall, the headquarters of the Butterley Company and former home of its main founder Benjamin Outram until his death in 1805. Butterley’s history is well documented and so it is not necessary to go into further detail here. The existence of the stone was last recorded in the Company’s in-house magazine Ad Rem, Issue 3, Spring 1952 where it was referred to as ‘the original keystone and the most cherished Butterley possesion, being housed in the Head Offices’

In 1968, the Company was in the throes of being taken over by a certain Mr Hanson (later Lord Hanson), Jim Slater and the Wiles Group. Many of the valuable contents of the Hall were auctioned off but naturally some just disappeared. One such item was the keystone, but where it eventually ended up has remained a mystery for the past 50 years.

Fast forwarding to summer 2020, Ripley & District Heritage Trust was contacted by a former Butterley employee, Mr Tom Denniford of Maidenhead, via the website shop, requesting a copy of Tim Castledine’s book ‘Butterley Ironworks & Codnor Park Forge 1790 – 1986’. He had joined the Company as a young executive in October 1967 to bring some new blood at senior management level. His position was that of Group Surveyor and Land Agent. At that time, the Group Personnel Officer was Mr Peter Sanders and the two gentlemen kept in contact after leaving the Company.

Following the recent death of Mr Sanders, his stepson, Giles Berry, contacted Mr Denniford to ask if he would be interested to have a dated stone previously owned by his step father. He declined, but immediately contacted RDHT via Tim who expressed delight at the news, and duly contacted Mr Berry. It was established that the stone was in a house in the village of Breinton, near Hereford. The house was up for sale and under offer. Mr Berry lives in Cornwall and it was agreed that the stone would be collected on December 6th when the contents of the house were being removed prior to exchange of contracts with the purchaser. It was duly collected and is now in safe storage. Steve Freeborn, leader of Ripley Town Council and Chair of Butterley Ironworks Trust (BIT) has arranged to store and display it in the Council Office in Grosvenor Rd, Ripley until perhaps the time arrives when it can be put on permanent display following development of the Works site at Butterley. BIT members are naturally very grateful for this arrangement.

Photos of the (sandstone) Keystone

The stone, shown in the in the following photos, measures 51 x 34 x 10 cms and weighs 35 kgs. (approx. 0.7 cwt in ‘old money’).  The right hand photo below is particularly interesting when compared with the earlier photo shown above on Page 2 in which the thickness of the stone is approximately double.

It can be clearly seen that the stone’s thickness has been reduced by about 50% probably by using a slitting wheel, finally splitting it apart with a chisel (note the two small marks on the top face of the rear view below). This suggests that the weight of the original stone was approximately 70 kgs.

It is not known when this work was carried out but it was most likely done to reduce its weight, presumably to make it more transportable. Whoever carried out the work was obviously careful not to damage the important front face.

Speculation  re. possible original location  of the keystone

As it is a keystone it is fair to assume that it would have been set in some sort of archway. Given that it is dated 1791, the first year of the Company’s operation, it is perhaps similarly fair to assume that only the furnace and ancillary buildings such as the engine and boiler houses would have been constructed by then. The earliest engraving of the Works made in 1800 (see below), simply shows the blast furnace buildings and cast house, with two large arches forming the front of the cast house.

The question then arises – was the keystone set in the top of one of these arches, in front of the blast furnace as shown ringed red (above right). The engraving does suggest that large keystones were used on the arches. Unfortunately this question will never be answered although it can be speculated that it was an obvious position for it to be prominently displayed.

Estimating the width of the 1800 arches  (More speculation?)

Since a keystone (as the name implies) was used to lock an arch in place, it was decided to see if it would be possible to estimate the width of the early cast house arches depicted in the engraving, by considering the degree of taper of the sides of the Outram keystone.

A scaled drawing of the stone has been made with the tapered sides extended downwards until they met at a point below the keystone’s centreline. It was decided that the distance from this point to the underside of the stone would probably be approximately equal to the radius of the arch. When scaled up, this distance was found to be 7ft (2.13metres) giving an arch width of 14 ft (4.26 metres). With vertical side walls, the overall width of the cast house would be similar.

Although the 1800 engraving shows rather ‘pointed’ cast house arches, the photo (below) of the cast house arch built in the late1830’s in front of  one of the second generation furnaces is semi-circular (still visible today in the blast furnace wall). The width of this arch at its base is 18 ft. It does not have a keystone as it is formed by a double row of bricks.

The fact that the arch is wider than that estimated for those in the 1800 engraving is possibly not surprising, as after approximately 40 years of development, the second generation furnaces had greater smelting capacity thereby requiring larger cast house floor areas.

1791 Datestone ‘v’ B.O. Keystone

It is interesting that another stone still exists dated 1791. It is located below a stone inscribed ‘Rebuilt 1838’ in the side of the existing cast house wall (see photos below)

It has been conclusively established that the 1791 stone relates to Outram’s first blast furnace and was relocated in the existing cast house wall around 1870. Further details about this can be found in the BIT report ‘Butterley Ironworks Blast Furnaces 1791-circa 1913’ by Tim Castledine, (www.rdht.org.uk under the Butterley Ironworks Trust section).

Of particular interest is the similarity of the shape of the individual carved numbers on the two 1791 stones, especially the ‘1’ and ‘7’. The roundness of the upper part of the ‘9’s is also similar but the bottom of the ‘9’ on the keystone is unfortunately eroded.

The similarities suggest that the stones may have been prepared by the same stonemason, although again this will never be proved and must remain just another interesting bit of speculation.

Cast Impression of the Keystone’s Face

A photo of the stone’s face (right) appeared in the Company magazine, Ad Rem, Coronation edition dated 1953, in an article entitled ‘Through Nine Reigns’ (author unknown). It is believed to be a cast ‘negative’ of the face of the original keystone as the letters and numbers clearly stand proud of the surface. It is in fact very thin and was possibly cast in Plaster of Paris or something similar.

When it was made and where it is now is unknown. Perhaps one day it will re-appear – who knows !!


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