Butterley Ironworks : The Future

By Mike Kelley

The Butterley Ironworks Trust (BIT) has been working hard over a number of years to protect and develop the great historical site at Butterley. This once great works had been slowly asset-stripped until it became a failed company and the site abandoned. Since then BIT have been working to not only protect what is left of this jewel of industrial history, but also to seek to make a tourist attraction of it.

Initially BIT looked at making an escalator and/or lift to take people down to canal level below the site, then take electric boats to view the underground harbour called the Wide Hole. This would have been lit up with imagery and sets to show how things were underground in its halcyon days. Getting people down was one thing, getting them out in an emergency was another – which proved impossible.

The hybrid Planning Application (AVA/2020/0697) for development of the site was approved in September and BIT is reasonably confident that the key elements of Butterley’s heritage features will be saved from destruction.

Butterley was at the forefront of the huge socio-economic changes for people that flowed from industrialisation.

What follows are some of BIT’s own visionary proposals:

The Great Wall of Butterley

The Blast Wall is an impressive 137m long and 12m high. It was built over a 130-year period and is made up of seven blast furnaces. These belong to three distinct generations with the first dating from 1791. Step inside the Wall’s main arch where a blast furnace connected to a cast house. Learn about the earliest known example of the mechanisation of a heavy engineering industrial process.

Walk on the clear acrylic covering and look down the shaft to an adit, a stone-built channel which connects with the canal just in front of the Wide Hole. Blast furnace cooling water was returned to the canal via this shaft and adit. Follow the new [Public] Footpath to the top of the Blast Wall and take in the views from the viewing platform.

Whilst there – using the latest technology – look through the ‘digital telescope’ and see what the factory looked like in its heyday. See the location of the two shafts through which the limestone from Crich and coal from Carr Pit was hoisted up to the furnaces above the Wide Hole.

The Wide Hole

Butterley Wharf – or the Wide Hole – is the unique underground wharf complex located directly beneath the Ironworks. It is part of the Cromford Canal which runs through a tunnel 2,712m long beneath the Butterley Estate. Vertical 30m shafts directly linked the canal tunnel and wharves with the Ironworks above.

Hoists at the Ironworks raised and lowered materials and finished products through these shafts, allowing them to be transferred from the canal directly to and from the Ironworks’ internal railway system. Two of the former counterpoise shafts were capped off as late as 2007. Their width and the evidence of putlogs confirmed that they were not merely for ventilation. The loading shafts were capped many years before about 5m above the canal water level.

Limestone (from Crich Quarry) and coal (from Carr Colliery) in containers were lifted vertically from canal boats to tram wagons on the surface that transported the materials to the nearby furnaces. The lifting system initially used a water bucket counterbalance system and later used steam engines. Unfortunately, public access to the underground canal and wharves is not possible now, but we can drop you into it with our ‘virtual reality’ experience!

Simon Waller’s interpretation of what the ‘Wide Hole’ in Butterley Tunnel would have looked like when it was working.

Butterley Ironworks Visitor Centre

The Ironworks VR Experience shows and tells the story of how engineering manufacturing on an industrial scale began in the late 18th century at the Butterley site. We will tell you about the ‘great and the good’ who created and ran the company with such success, but the owners needed a workforce too. We will show you many of the ‘blue’ and ‘white’ collar jobs that had to be done by someone, and how all this fed into changes in the structure and organisation of society.

Without lifting a finger, you will be plunged from daylight at the site surface into the darkness of the Wide Hole where the unique underground wharves are. There, with only candlelight to see by, you must manually unload the coal and limestone into the containers for hoisting to the surface, for hours at a time. Or you could be ‘legging’ the boats through the 2,712m long Cromford Canal Tunnel or, back above ground, stoking the furnaces, or making the moulds for the molten metal to be poured into.

A Tourist Hub

Butterley is at the heart of tourist attractions along Golden Valley to the east the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site and to the west at Ambergate.

Immediately across the highway from the Ironworks site is Butterley Station – the main entrance to the Midland Railway which offers rail trips on steam and ‘vintage’ diesel hauled passenger trains. It also includes the Swanwick Junction complex, a Country Park, and its own Heritage Centre.

To the east of Butterley are Codnor Castle, and the locks of the Ironville flight of the Cromford Canal. To the west, the Butterley Company’s ‘gangroad’ went through Fritchley Tunnel, recognised as the earliest surviving railway tunnel in the world. To the north of Bullbridge and Fritchley, the former quarry at Crich is now the location of the Crich Tramway Museum, whilst to the south is Heage Windmill. All of this is within 4 miles of Butterley. We have created circular walks and cycleways for you to enjoy to many of these locations, all beginning and ending at Butterley.

The future is bright for our preserved heritage. For more information, check out the Butterley Ironworks Trust Facebook site.