The Foundry

A brief history of  Butterley Foundry

 The first liquid iron produced at Butterley is believed to have been tapped sometime during 1791.  It would have probably been a very anxious but exciting time for Mr Outram and his men when liquid iron flowed for the first time. No doubt they had some sleepless nights during the first few days until the blast furnace got up to temperature and melting began. It usually took up to two weeks between lighting the furnace and tapping liquid iron.

It is fairly certain that this iron would have been ‘pigged’ as probably most of the iron would have been for several weeks before more specialised castings such as pipes were produced. Pigs were poured directly from the blast furnace, the liquid iron flowing down a main central sand runner formed in a bed of sand in front of the furnace. Off this, it flowed into ‘tributary arms’ and subsequently into rows of ‘pig moulds’, small preformed recesses in the sand where it solidified, the whole arrangement resembling a sow pig suckling her piglets (hence the name ‘pig iron’). Individual pigs could be up to 3ft long (~1 metre) and weigh around 100 lbs (45 kgs).

The area in front of the furnace was known as a ‘cast house’, in later years to become known as the foundry. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the first workshop would have been the cast house, predating other workshops later known as the boiler shop (Bridgeyard or Constructional Dept.) and engine manufactory (Machine Shop). The accompanying sketch shows an engraving made in 1800 which clearly depicts the pitched roofed cast house in front of the furnace. Also shown is a sketch of the internal view of the cast house (taken from the 1844 ‘Penny Magazine’).  By 1812, three blast furnaces were in operation, and so it is fair to assume that the total area of the cast house(s) had also increased to accommodate the increasing number of castings for rails, pumps and pipes etc.

In 1844, an article appeared in the Penny Magazine about a visit undertaken to Butterley and Codnor Park. Concerning the Butterley blast furnaces, the article noted that ‘they 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.’  It went on to say that ‘when we walk round these furnaces we find that they are all three bounded on the eastern side by an embankment nearly as high as the furnaces themselves and on ascending, this embankment presents itself as a nearly level road terminating at the furnaces at one end and at the mines and collieries at the other’ (presumably referring to those at Butterley Park, Golden Valley and Codnor Park).  The report further describes the level road (known in the 20th century as the ‘Top Plain’) as being ‘occupied by an enormous heap of ironstone undergoing the preparatory process of roasting, some thousands of tons being thus strewed over the place. When we descend from this elevation to the level of the works and pass round to the front of one of the furnaces, we find all the busy and remarkable arrangements for casting the melted iron into the sand moulds. A very large roofed shed extends in front of the mouth of each furnace and the floor of each shed or foundry has in it various earthen pits in which to make large castings together with cranes for raising and shifting ponderous vessels filled with melted iron.’

In 1838, further expansion took place with the building of what was to become in later years the Pattern Shop and a new ‘hot blast’ blast furnace. Both were ‘date-stoned’ the former still being visible in the front wall of the building, the other visible in the ‘Great Wall’ having been relocated there possibly when the furnace was demolished in the early 1900’s.  During the 1840’s further expansion took place with the building of another workshop on the site adjacent to the Coach Road, becoming known as the Victoria Foundry. This was eventually used during WWII as a gun repair shop and later a machine shop for axle boxes for the Codnor Park Wagon Works. Finally is became a Pattern Store until its demolition in the late 1980’s.

In 1904, a 14 year old boy named Harry Walters started work in the Foundry. He rose through the ranks to eventually become Senior Foreman, a position he held for nearly 40 years. He was one of the best known and respected foundry foremen of his generation, eventually retiring in 1963. The following account (in italics) of Harry’s recollections appeared in the Company’s house magazine ‘Ad Rem’ in 1963.

‘According to Harry, the foundry was gas-lit and cranes were hand operated. The working day began at 6 a.m. in the artificial light produced by ‘an ever failing gas-producing plant’. Harry claimed that both before and after daylight, a moulder’s best friend was his paraffin hand lamp.  It was four or five years later when electric light came to the foundry in the form of a single 200-watt carbon filament lamp suspended high up in the centre of the shop. The main castings produced at this time were pit pipes, locomotive cylinders, wheel centres, railway castings, pump bodies and colliery winding engine beds and gears.  Many of these were large castings requiring big moulds and all lifting had to be done by hand cranes.  Harry recalled eight men straining to lift six tons of molten iron from the furnace while four men pulled it around the casting stations.

A major foundry rebuilding project took place in 1911 with the construction of what became known a No. 2 Foundry, specialising in the production of large castings. It was also the time when the foundry was fully electrified with electricity generating equipment being installed, powered by six very large boilers.

During the early part of the 1930’s when the Depression was hitting the country, the Company Directors took the brave decision to extend both No.1 and No.2 foundries. One reason for the decision was to provide work for the fabrication shop as well as recognising the fact that in better times the extra capacity would be needed. As is well known, this capacity was indeed needed with the onset of World War II in 1939.

At the June 1936 Board Meeting, Mr Fitzherbert Wright reported that Butterley had bought Iron Pavings Ltd of Park Royal London..  This was reported in the Derby Evening Telegraph August 24th 1936 in an interview with Mr Fitzherbert Wright who said ‘the Company had purchased recently patented rights for a new process of iron paving and had taken over the works near London.’

However, the Company eventually transferred from Iron Pavings to Ripley, a mechanised moulding line with pendulum mould carriers and two small diameter cupola melting furnaces. This was carried out in 1937/38 before Iron Pavings Ltd was eventually closed. After installation at Butterley, the unit became known as No.3 Foundry Mechanised Plant (shortened to ‘the mech plant’ by everyone). It became a vital part of the Foundry’s contribution to WWII, producing thousands of three inch mortar bomb casings.

Post war development of the foundry was slow until the early 1960’s when a major reorganisation took place, installing semi mechanised facilities such as the Rol-a-Draw pattern flow system. Production increased dramatically and with so many new customers placing orders, in 1973, a fettling and cleaning shop was built on the Cinderbank at Hammersmith. However, this boom time began to disappear in the late 70’s as a result of takeovers and asset stripping. By 1980 this led to the closure of the No.2 Heavy Foundry due to lack of orders, failure to adopt new production practices and an ageing workforce of skilled moulders. Notice of total closure was given on October 14th 1986 followed very quickly by demolition of the buildings, except ironically, the ‘new’ No.2 foundry extension built in 1911 which was converted to a paint shop and Constructional Department workshop. So ended 196 years of smelting and melting at Butterley.