Moss Bay Hematite Iron Company.

A look at the early history of the Moss Bay Iron works.

On 24th July, 1872, a lease of land at Moss Bay was obtained from local landowner Henry Curwen by Peter Kirk, James Valentine, Henry Kenyon and Mary Gibson. Kirk and Valentine were proprietors of a works producing wrought iron bars situated near the harbour at Workington. At Moss Bay they built (probably two) blast furnaces for the production of pig iron. A partnership was formed among various relatives of the Kirks and Valentines and operated under the title of The Moss Bay Hematite Iron Company. In 1877 a Bessemer steel making plant and rolling mill were added and the blast furnaces increased to four. The Company rolled their first steel rails on 13th August, 1877. In 1881 the Company was refinanced and renamed The Moss Bay Hematite Iron and Steel Company Limited. Of the numerous different independent iron and steel companies that once existed in West Cumberland, the present day CorusRail can trace its beginnings back to the Moss Bay Company.

J.Y. Lancaster & D.R. Wattleworth give a more detailed account of the history of the works in "The Iron & Steel Industry of West Cumberland - An Historical Survey ISBN 0 9505929 0 0 published in 1977.

Photographs of the Moss Bay works are understandably rare, but those that exist tell us a lot about the early conditions.

Moss Bay blast furnaces

This was scanned from an old postcard and shows the blast furnace plant of the Moss Bay works. The furnaces were roughly aligned in a North West to South East plane and this was photographed from the North East, probably standing on the former Derwent Crossings footbridge.

Notice how the edges of the postcard, which were out of focus, have been touched up manually. To the extreme right, the tall building is the blower house and this survived until at least the 1980s as the engineering workshops for the rail mill. It was known locally as "Hatter's Castle" because they reckoned it had been designed by a "Mad hatter". It was perhaps the worst type of building to put engineering workshops. The blast furnace bunkers where the iron ore, coke, and limestone were stored, and the pig beds where the molten iron was cast, were on the far side of the furnaces. The long, large diameter pipe spanning the full length of the furnaces was the cold blast main which delivered low pressure air from the blower house to the base of each stove. Each furnace is served by three Cowper stoves which were refractory lined. The stoves burned blast furnace gas to raise the temperature of the blast to 500 - 900 deg.C The stack of light coloured materials to the right of the picture is probably refractory chequer bricks for relining the stoves. These were made from locally dug clay at Harrington and made into bricks at the Micklam brickworks.

There are four blast furnaces, each has two gas offtakes with chain operated bleeder valves on top. Two of the furnace stacks are parallel and two are tapered which would indicate that the two left furnaces were the ones added in 1877.

The blast furnaces are shown in more detail below. The burden, consisting of coke, limestone, and iron ore, were raised to the charging platform in two pairs of lifts, similar to the shaft of a coal mine. The materials were loaded in charging barrows which were handled and dumped manually into the funnel head (furnace top). The furnace top was sealed with an inverted cone arrangement or bell. The furnace bell was a heavy cast iron cone which fitted inside a hopper. When it was pulled up (closed) it sealed the hopper and prevented gas from escaping. It was operated by a counterbalanced arm and when it was lowered, it allowed the charge to enter the furnace. At this time the furnace chargers or "fillers" would retreat to their shelters to avoid the flames, smoke, and escaping gas. When the bell was closed the blast furnace gas was taken through two downcomers to a dust catcher "Whirler" seen in the centre of the picture.

The blast furnace stack evovled from a parallel to a tapered shape.

This next picture is an enlargement of ground level and shows the railbank where finished rails were inspected and grouped for despatch.. From left to right can be seen a Furness Railway (FR) wagon, large pipes, and piles of ingot moulds. In the left foreground can be seen a man standing on one of a pair of WISCo. flat wagons which are being loaded with rails. Above his head is a large early style of electric lamp. The curious thing about this photograph is the absence of railcranes or overhead travelling cranes. It is possible, though difficult to confirm, that rails were moved on roller tables or via rope worked skids ( a common practice in later years and still used today)

The date of this photograph? It has to be after 1909 when the Workington Iron and Steel Company was formed. Workington Iron and Steel Company was itself taken over by the Sheffield based United Steel Companies in 1919 although "WISCoy" featured on the sides of wagons until after 1967 when the Steel industry was nationalised and USCo gave way to British Steel.

Thje railbank, where finisehd rails were loaded for despatch.

This is a view of the plant from the South West. There is a motley collection of both internal user and railway company wagons in the yard. The Allerdale Coal Company high sided wagons are full of coke for the blast furnaces, the rake of wagons in front of that are loaded with limestone and we know that some of them are lettered WISCo and some are lettered for the Cleator district (iron ore traffic). In the front row there are low sided Furness Railway wagons probably carrying bars of pig iron or scrap, a high sided Cleator & Workington Junction Rly coal hopper (note the seldom seen internal cross brace) and interspersed amongst all the wagons the very distinctive dumb buffered chaldron wagons used here and throughout the coal mining industry.

Typically there was a prevailing South Westerly breeze giving Workington's townsfolk an unhealthy reminder that the furnaces were in blast. To the centre right, you can make out the incline track to the top of the furnace bunkers with a steam engine just cresting the slope. There are a couple more steam locomotives making smoke to the right, possibly the location of the engine shed. To the extreme right through the smoke, can be seen the Derwent Blast Furnaces (which survived until the 1980s). More about the furnaces on page 2

The five track Cumbrian Coast line indicates the vital role that the railways played in the development of the West Cumberlan Iron and Steel industry

Hematite iron from the blast furnaces was cast into the pig beds at regular intervals day and night. The blast furnaces were just out of view to the left, beyond the furnace bunkers on which a rake of hopper wagons have been left. You can see a pile of limestone in one of the bunkers. I am unsure of the purpose of the elevated machinery in the centre. It could be connected to the preparation of sand, and/or a water tower or it could be a pig breaking machine used to break the pigs from the sows. A blast furnace is being tapped and the iron is flowing in a runner over a bridge (behind the brick shed), then turns a corner and runs downhill toward the foreground. The runner is a cast iron trough built in 6ft. sections and fastened together with heavy bolts and cotters. The bottom of the trough was protected by a layer of coke dust and tar, over which lies the sand, forming the runner. Cast iron shut plates for the runner were placed at the junction of the runner and each sow running across the bed. The shut plate was supported by a staple, spanning the runner. As the iron flowed down the runner, it came against the shut plate and was diverted along the sow and in to each pig. When all the pigs had been filled from the first sow, the shut plate was removed and the iron directed to the next group in the bed. The iron has reached the group of three furnacemen in the picture who are working the shut plates. The man on the left is making any necessary running repairs and adjustments to the sand troughs.

When the cast was finished, the pigs were removed while still hot (they broke more easily) and placed into nearby wagons.Then the sand was raked, levelled and moulds impressed with wooden patterns, ready for the next cast. This was a labour intensive, arduous, inefficient and expensive process and following the lead of the American Iron industry, the process was automated in the 1920s and 30s. It is difficult to imagine a more unpleasant place to be on a cold, windswept, rainsoaked night in the depths of a West Cumbrian winter but the work never stopped. It was hot (and cold), heavy work, each pig weighed about 1cwt. (50Kg.)

Moss Bay Pig beds  where hematite iron was cast in sand lined moulds.

Below is a plan of the Moss Bay works at the turn of the 19th century. At the top are the reservoirs (which still exist and help to determine the relative position of the works). The Derwent branch of the CWJcn. Railway crosses the North/South aligned Cumbrian Coast railway and the diagonally hatched area represents the steel mill buildings. The blast furnaces are below this and the coastline is on the left of the plan. At the bottom is another reservoir (also still there) and the Moss Bay branch of the CWJcn Railway. A slag tip points out in to the sea to the bottom left.

Map of the Moss Bay works

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