When Benjamin Outram and Francis Beresford founded the Butterley Company in 1790 as Outram & Co, the Industrial Revolution had been underway for at least 100 years. Although pressurised steam power was known to people of the ancient world, it was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that significant progress was made by great engineers such as Newcomen and Watt to develop atmospheric beam engines, primarily used for pumping water out of mines. Trevithick developed the use of high pressure steam power for locomotion and Abraham Darby developed the use of coal as coke (replacing charcoal) to fuel his blast furnaces at Coalbrookdale in 1709.
With a well-established coal based economy, the efficient mining and transportation of coal and iron ore became a high priority. Mine owners required a low cost and relatively easy way to move large tonnages of their products to their customers. As such, the use of canals was considered to be a far superior method of transportation than horse drawn wagons using poorly made roads. This led to the “Canal Mania”, in the period between 1789 and 1796 ‘when massive investments (not all profitable) poured into the construction of a complex canal network. As a young man, Outram was heavily involved during this time with his future business partner William Jessop, surveying canal routes, and working as secretary to Francis Beresford to get the Cromford Canal Act through Parliament in July 1789.
Construction of the Cromford Canal began that year with Outram as Works Superintendent but the main contractors, Sheasby and Dadford, became insolvent in 1791 forcing Outram himself to take charge of the project. The work involved driving a 2,966 yard tunnel through the Butterley ridge between Hammersmith and Golden Valley. This passed beneath Outram & Co.’s ironworks site located on what is now known as Butterley Corner. Tunnelling confirmed that the ground was rich in coal and iron ore deposits which ideally suited Outram’s plan for the ironworks but which led to terrible problems in later years with the tunnel suffering distortion, collapses and eventual closure in 1900.
The first blast furnace was constructed in 1791 and by 1806 three were completed. The production of pig iron and its derivative, cast iron, enabled the Company to quickly develop the production of pipes for the removal of mine water and gas and water pipes for the developing towns and cities. Railway items such as the Outram’s plate rail and, later, Jessops fish bellied edge rails were also in great demand to facilitate the gangroad transportation of coal and iron ore from the mines to the canals. Within the Company’s first two decades, its steam engines began to rival those designed by Mr Watt. Following the deaths of Beresford in 1803 and Outram in 1805, William Jessop and John Wright (the remaining two partners) were obliged in 1808 to employ William Brunton, a very experienced engineer, to drive the Company forward into the 19th century. Brunton, the first of five great 19th century Butterley Chief Engineers, ensured the start of the development of a first class worldwide engineering reputation.
The accompanying map of the Works is that produced by Sanderson in 1835. The line of the canal tunnel is clearly marked. Within the black circle, three small black dots can be seen aligned in approximately a north-easterly direction. One dot lies on the line of the tunnel. It is believed that these dots represent the three blast furnaces in operation at that time as the furnace locations have been confirmed by later maps and reports. To the right of these can be seen a dotted network of gangroads which would have been used to move materials for the furnaces.