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Iron and Steel


History of the Iron and Steel Industry in Scotland
Particularly in Relation to Clydebridge and Clyde Iron

Clyde Iron works

Iron - 1600s to 1800

Steel has been made in small quantities in Scotland, since at least 1607 when Sir George Hay (later Lord High Chancellor of Scotland and Earl of Kinnoull), the first great ironmaster, began to produce iron near Letterewe on Loch Maree in Ross-shire. The site for these ironworks was chosen for the ready supply of coppice wood for charcoal and operated for at least 60 years, when exhaustion of local fuel supplies may have shut the works. Until 1760 a few other blast furnaces were sited in other remote areas in Argyleshire. Iron was then made in larger quantities during the 18th century at Cramond and Monklands.

The first large blast furnace in Scotland was at Bonawe, near Oban, erected in 1750 to make use of local charcoal with iron ore shipped in from Ulverston (Barrow-in-Furness). Bonawe operated for about 150 years, but the nucleus from which the Scottish iron industry developed was Carron Iron Works in Stirlingshire. It was established in 1759, by John Roebuck, of Birmingham, a medical doctor involved in chemical and metallurgical research, and Samual Garbett a business man from Birmingham, with branch establishments in Edinburgh, in association with William Cadell of Cadell and Edington, ironmasters of Crammond. Carron was planned on a large scale for the times and produced 1500 tons of iron in its first year. The works produced armaments, grates, stoves, pots and pans. Dr Roebuck was also associated with James Watt in his steam engine patent.

On Sunday 26 August 1787, Robert Burns, just starting on a tour of the highlands, called to visit Carron Iron Works, but the porter at the gate would not let him in. He used a diamond to write on a window of the inn at Carron:

We cam na here to view your warks,
In hopes to be mair wise,
But only, lest we gang to hell,
It may be nae surprise:
But when we tirl'd at your door
Your porter dought na hear us;
Sae may, shou'd we to Hell's yetts come,
Your billy Satan sair us!

Carron flourished from the demand for munitions for the French and American wars, and in 1786 Edington and Cadel, in association with Carron, built Clyde Iron Works, on the north bank of the river Clyde, a few miles south east of Glasgow, primarily to relieve the pressure on Carron for armaments. These works were reputed to be the best in their day. During the Napoleonic Wars the famous short-barrelled naval guns known as 'carronades' were made there. Other large ironworks constructed in Scotland about this time were at Muirkirk in 1789, and at Calder in1793.

Clyde Iron Works began with two blast furnaces and a foundry, employing about 100 men. It was built on the land of Bogleshole, on an ancient burying place. When digging for foundations various urns were discovered containing ashes mixed with human bones on some of which were the traces of fire. The area before the development was agricultural and sparsely populated. Flax was grown and spun, and woven into linen.

In common with much of the Central Scotland area, there were deposits of coal and iron ore around Cambuslang. A Dr Meek estimated that about 100 coal pits had been wrought out earlier than 1790, and in 1787 a steam engine was erected to keep the village pit clear of water. The annual output of coal in the area then was about 30,000 tons.

Clyde Iron remained owned by the Caddells of Carron until 1810, when it was purchased by Colin Dunlop, who at the time was working the coals in the district of Carmyle. During the ownership of the Caddells, for a time, the Manager of Clyde Iron was James Outram, whose son George came to be founder, editor and proprietor of the Glasgow Herald.

In the days before gas was used for lighting (the streets of Glasgow were not lit until 1820) the blaze from the Clyde Iron Works furnaces, when in full operation, illuminated the district for miles around, as described by the Bridgeton poet Alexander Rodger:

The moon does fu well when the moon's in the lift;
But oh! the loose limmer takes mony a shift;
Whiles here, and whiles there, and whiles under a hap-
But yours is the steady light, Colin D'lap.
Na, man! Like true friendship, the mirkier the night,
The mair you let oot your vast columns o' licht,
When sackcloth and sadness the heavens enwrap,
Tis then you're maist kind to us, Colin D'lap.

Iron Industry Growth from 1828

It was to Clyde Iron that David Mushet came, at the age of 19 in 1791, as a clerk in the Accounts Branch. He became interested in metallurgy and was allowed to carry out experiments in his spare time. He later moved to the Calder Iron Works, then to Derbyshire, and in 1810 to Coleford in the Forest of Dean. David Mushet was the father of Robert Foster Mushet, an even more famous metallurgist who improved the Bessemer process and went on to develop tool steels, wear resistant rails and other steel alloys.

David Mushet contributed many valuable papers on the nature of metals and also discovered the native Black Band ironstone in North Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Stirlingshire that later helped lead to the meteoric rise in the Scottish Iron industry, particularly in the Coatbridge area. This was primarily lead by the invention of the hot blast process at Clyde Iron Works , in 1828, by the Glasgow Engineer, James Beaumont Neilson, which transformed the cost of iron production.

From the memoranda of Colin Dunlop the actual make of pig-iron in 1811 at Clyde Iron was 2,447 tons, with 10 tons 18 cwts of coal used per ton of pig-iron produced, and the cost per ton of pig-iron was £8. By 1828 they made 5,884 tons of pig-iron with a coal consumption per ton of pig iron of 8 tons 2 cwt 2 qrs and a cost of pig-iron of £4 12s 1d per ton. In 1832, when the hot blast was in full operation, heating the air to 600 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, the production had risen to 11,924 tons, the coal consumption reduced to 2 tons 12 cwts and the cost per ton of pig-iron £2 12s 8d.

From 1834 onwards, the cost of heating the air itself gradually decreased, until in 1844 the fuel used for that purpose per ton of pig-iron cost only 9½d. A further breakdown of costs for that year for one ton of pig-iron at 34s 1¾d per ton was:

Coal, 2 tons ½ cwt at 4s 8½d     9s 6 5/8 d
Ironstone, 2 tons 18cwt at 6s 0 5/8d     17s 6 7/8d
Limestone, 6 ½ cwt at 6s 1 7/16d     1s 11 2/8d
Sub Total     29s 0 6/8d
Wages     2s 0 1/8d
Sundries (charges ?)     0s 7 5/8d
Repairs (about a third of the usual amount)     0s 3 1/8d
Heating Air     0s 9 4/8d
Horses and Carts (removing slag)     1s 4 5/8d

TOTAL     34s 1 3/4d


The presence of blackband ironstone lead to the expansion of iron production in Monklands and Coatbridge. This was an area rich in coal and serviced by the Monklands canal since 1794. Iron works had been set up by a group of Glasgow ironmasters, Aitken, Dick, Fleming and McGregor at Calderbank, to supply a growing demand. English iron works were slow to adopt the untried hot blast process. Between 1830 and 1847 Scottish iron production increased from 37,500 tons a year to 540,000 tons a year, providing the leading 27% of British iron production.

The demand for iron and the savings to be made using the hot blast resulted in infringements of J B Neilson's patent for the process. For example, local farmers, the Bairds, had made a fortune from coal mining and were investing this fortune in iron works. They had two coal pits at Gartsherrie and built blast furnaces there in 1830 using the hot blast process without a licence. Neilson sued successfully for £160,000, a sum that Baird easily afforded from the huge profits being made. By 1868 the Bairds owned 4 ironworks, plus many coal and ironstone mines. Gartsherrie was the largest ironworks in Coatbridge, followed by Summerlee Ironworks. Gartsherrie survived until 1967, and might have survived longer but it missed an opportunity to link the ironworks with the adjacent Northburn steelworks and become one of the first integrated steelworks (such as Clydebridge/Clyde Iron became).

J. B. Neilson opened an iron works at Mossend, in Bellshill, in 1839, which became one of the largest producers of malleable iron. A Siemens open hearth steel melting shop was started at Mossend in 1880, but a strike in 1889, lasting nearly 15 months shut the works. The works were taken over by William Beardmore & Co in 1906 and production peaked during WW1 when 3000 people were employed.

Other ironworks were located in the Wishaw area. The Coltness Ironworks, opened in 1841 had 6 blast furnaces. It later added 2 open hearth furnaces for producing steel castings. The Wishaw Ironworks, opened in 1859 with 3 blast furnaces using ironstone from a pit on the other side of Wishaw main street. It closed in 1861 to be taken over by the Glasgow Iron Company, from St Rollox, who also operated a malleable iron works in Milton Street, Motherwell. The Wishaw ironstone was poorer quality and was exhausted by the 1870's, after which ironstone was sourced from Carluke and from Liberton and Lasswade, near Edinburgh.

The iron industry peaked by about 1871, at which time it employed nearly 40% of the Scottish workforce, and 25% of its' steam power. In Coatbridge the ground vibrated from the pounding of steam hammers and a forest of chimneys spewed soot and grit across Coatbridge, which had become the most polluted town in the UK, if not the World. At times it turned day into a night, lit by the blast from the furnaces.

By 1878 Scottish iron production had fallen to 14.5% of British output, partly owing to a prolonged strike of shipwrights, but also to competition from the Middlesborough and Cleveland areas which were using lower cost haematite pig iron. From 1885 the local ironstone and coal supplies were largely exhausted, with coal being sourced further south, and iron ore being imported from Spain, and from 1900 from Sweden. At this time steel was replacing iron and trade was shifting from the iron town of Coatbridge to the 'steelopolis' of Motherwell.

The Calderbank ironworks, which had developed in size to 6 blast furnaces and 60 puddling furnaces, with a reversing mill producing malleable iron boiler and ships' plates, was one of those that failed to meet the new market for steel, and it closed in 1887 (the year that Clydebridge started) and was demolished. However, in 1890 a steelworks with 5 Siemens Open Hearth furnaces was built on the site. This was not successful, but the business was taken over in 1897 by James Dunlop & Co, owners of Clyde Iron Works, and work picked up. A steam turbine driven, 3-high plate mill was installed in 1910 but with the depression in the 1920s the works were closed for periods. In 1930 there was a severe slump in shipbuilding and Dunlops was taken over by the Colvilles, at which time the works was finally shut, although Colvilles moved the plate mill to Motherwell.

Lanarkshire Iron Works

*Note: by 1951 the three furnaces at Clyde Iron Works could produce 600,000 tons per year, equal to the total output of all 83 Lanarkshire furnaces in 1880.

Steel - from 1870s

The Clyde had long taken the lead in shipbuilding and the use of iron for ships rapidly expanded between 1861 and 1871. In 1871, of a total of 196,229 tons of shipping launched at Glasgow, all but 200 tons were of iron, the others being two vessels, totalling 170 tons, of steel, and two 30 tonners.

Scotland had been one of the first to adopt Bessemer Steel production (invented in 1855), with experiments in 1857 at Coats Ironworks and the erection of a small plant by Bessemer himself at Dixon's. However, the resulting steel was unsatisfactory, owing to the presence of phosphorus, and nitrogen embrittlement, and did not improve until R F Mushet's contribution to the Bessemer process. The Bessemer process was then mainly used elsewhere in Britain for the production of rails.

It was the introduction of the Siemens Open Hearth Furnace, first at the Atlas Works in Monklands and then on a larger scale at Hallside Works in 1872, that lead to the expansion in steelmaking in Scotland. Scotland shared with South Wales the initiative in the development of the Siemens open hearth process. In 1871 the Steel Company of Scotland was formed at Hallside, under the supervision of Colonel J Roper Wright, who had worked at the Birmingham Sample Steelworks with Siemens.

The shipbuilders on the Clyde were quick to adopt open-hearth steel. Although it was up to 50% more expensive than malleable iron it had better properties and was a more reliable product than Bessemer Steel. Once it was approved by the Chief Naval Architect of the Royal Navy in 1876 the market was created. This was also an advantage to Scotland as the Bessemer process had not been very successful with the local Scottish iron ores. By 1878 the Steel Company of Scotland, still the only Scottish producers, had 14 open hearth furnaces (10 of 6 ton capacity and 4 of 10 tons). At the time there were 90 such furnaces in Britain, 42 of these in Wales.

When the demand for rails fell off, shortly after Hallside started, they turned to the manufacture of plates, bars, castings and forgings, and a plate mill was installed in 1877, to satisfy the emerging demand for plates from shipbuilders.

James Riley, an influential mechanical engineer, came to Hallside as Manager, in 1878, from Landore (in the Swansea valley), where he had been General Manager under Siemens. There he had met Nathaniel Barnaby's challenge for a uniformly tested steel for shipbuilding. The year he joined, despite a trade depression, Hallside added to its range with heavy angles, tee-bulbs and tinplate bars, and 4 further furnaces were built.

At this time William Beardmore built 3 furnaces, as did Williams of Wishaw. In 1880 the Steel Company built 4 more furnaces at Hallside and purchaced Blochairn, where they erected 8 furnaces. Other newcomers were David Colville and Sons, with 4 furnaces, and Mossend, with 5 furnaces.

The demand for ships plates led to many steelworks installing plate mills from the 1880s. In recent times there were only two plate mills in Scotland, at Dalzell and Clydebridge, however, stretching back to the 1880s there have been over 30 plate mills in Scotland, in other works such as: Blochairn and Parkhead but, perhaps less well known, also in Glengarnock, Lanarkshire, Clydesdale, Mossend, Wishaw and Calderbank works.

Of 251,000 tons of British open hearth steel produced in 1880, Scotland made 84,500 tons, only being surpassed by South Wales's 116,000 tons, although the production per furnace in Scotland was well ahead of any other area. During the next decade, nearly one third of the total shipping launched in Britain was built (and a higher proportion engined) on the Clyde, where more than 30 shipyards provided the main outlet for Scottish iron and steel. In 1881 the output of steel shipping on the Clyde was 75,000 tons, in 1882 it was 120,000 tons and in 1883 it was 141,770 tons. In 1883 the Steel Company of Scotland's make of open hearth steel (at Hallside and Blochairn) was 144,460 ingot tons and the finished output included 56,000tons of boiler and ship plates, and 16,000 tons of angle bars, in addition to large quantities of steel castings, forgings, rails and other goods.

Amongst the first large constructions made possible by the supply of mild steel were the Forth Rail Bridge (58,000 tons in 1883-90) and ships such as the Campania (12,950 tons in 1892).
In 1892 the available capacity of the Scottish iron industry was about 1,250,000 tons of pig-iron, requiring three million tons of iron ore (two million of which were imported), two and a quarter million tons of coal and about half a million tons of limestone. The associated labour cost to produce this iron was about £1 million. At this time the capacity of the wrought or malleable ironworks was about 300,000 tons, requiring 350,000 tons of pig-iron and scrap, 100,000 tons of ore and 650,000 tons of coal. The associated labour cost of the finished iron was about £550,000. Steel capacity (Bessemer and Open Hearth) was about 900,000 tons of ingots, producing about 675,000 tons of finished steel. This required about 800,000 tons of pig-iron, 180,000 tons of ore and about 1,000,000 tons of coal. The associated labour cost of the finished steel was about £1,100,000. This full capacity would not have all been in use and normal output would have been about 25% lower.

Plate Mills in Scotland
Iron plates for shipbuilding were rolled at various works in Scotland. As Hallside Steelworks produced the first steel in Scotland for shipbuilding in the 1870s, and for the Forth Bridge in the 1880s, I realised that it had an early plate mill; but, I thought that Clydebridge, Dalzell and Blochairn had been the only works producing steel plates for shipbuilding in the 20th century. However, following some research in the Mitchell library in Glasgow, I discovered that some 30 plate mills (double click to see table) have operated at various times in Scotland, including one at Dalzell that rolled plates for the Titanic. Even now in 2006, and despite what the press would have us believe that there are no steelworks left in Scotland, the heavy plate mill at Dalzell steelworks and the plate heat treatment works at Clydebridge steelworks are still in operation, feeding the world wide demand for high quality steel plates.

Clydebridge 1887
The Steel Company of Scotland at Hallside had an initial monopoly over the market for open hearth steel. However, because of the demand from the shipyards, many other steelworks started at this time and some malleable ironworks changed to steel production. By the time Clydebridge started in 1887 the steel works could not keep up with the demand from the shipyards. Strikes were also common and wage rises of 15 to 20% were being offered to help keep production going to meet the demand. At this time the early adoption of the open hearth had given Scotland, and Wales, a lead over much of the rest of the UK. However, the initial boom lead to increased competition, and increasing production, and not all of the new works survived.

The Clydebridge Steel Company Ltd was one that only just survived, but with the intervention of WW1 and the arrival of Colvilles went on to thrive. It was started in 1887 by Messrs. Walter and Hugh Neilson, sons of the late Mr. William Neilson, of Mossend, with a sufficient number of partners to make up a private limited company, and at a cost of £90,000, two thirds of which was provided by the Neilson family. Quotes for construction of the works were obtained in 1885, and by 1887 the works were largely constructed and the workforce was being hired. The Nielson family (double click underlined text for family tree) were closely related to James Beaumont Nielson, famous for the hot blast process, first tried at Clyde Iron Works.

Hugh Neilson ran Mossend Iron Co but retired in 1886 to set up Clydebridge. The original manager of Clydebridge was James Neilson, who was regarded as being 'the most vindictive anti-trade union employer in the Scottish iron and steel industry'. This was a boom time in the industry and there had been many strikes by miners and steel workers, which had resulted in wages rising by 15 to 20 % at other works. By September 1889 the Millmen's Union had established a branch of 50 members at Clydebridge. The management gave notice to 13 of the members and the others went on strike, shutting the works for four months. All efforts to settle the dispute "by arbitration and other reasonable means" failed and "all attempts at conciliation had been met with curt refusal". Even after a change of management, labour problems continued, and efficiency was low.

Before the First World War there was a low demand for steel and Clydebridge was closed for 5 years, from November 1907 to November 1912, under a subsidy from the Scottish Steelmakers Association to control demand.

1914 - 1918

With the outbreak of war in 1914 there was a sudden demand for steel billets to make high explosive shells. Several Scottish steelmakers were approached by the Ministry of Munitions and David Colville and Sons was asked to lease and extend Clydebridge. However, the owners could not agree the terms so David Colville and Sons decided, early in 1915, to purchase the works. The transaction was completed in October 1915 and The Clydebridge Steel Company was liquidated in February 1917.

As soon as the decision had been made to purchase, the Clydebridge plant was examined for Colvilles, by the heavy engineering manufacturer John Lamberton. It was found to be in good condition and a start was made on the production of billet steel to make shells.

Picture shows women working at Clyde works during WW1

When Clydebridge Works was taken over, in October 1915, the Melting Shop contained six 40 ton and two 60 ton open hearth furnaces, and a foundation for another large furnace. A cogging mill supplied the plate mills, of which there were three, so arranged that only two were worked at one time, No2 being independently driven, while No1 and No3 (No 3 was installed in 1907) had an engine in common. The cogging mill was altered to roll 6 inch and 8 inch shell bars, and a Shell Shop erected, with six batteries of hack saws to cut the billets to shell lengths. A new 60 ton furnace was built on the spare foundation in the Melting Shop, making the total output of ingots available about 2,000 tons weekly. Extensive alterations were also carried out in other areas, with a view to speeding up the output.

Colvilles had also purchased Glengarnock Iron and Steel Company in June 1916, and as submarines had become active, the Ministry requested Colvilles to undertake large expansions, to meet the acute demand for steel plates to build Standard Ships. The enlargement of both works began in October 1916, at a cost of £1½ million. At Clydebridge new buildings were erected that doubled the size of the works. These comprised a new No2 melting shop, with five 60 ton open hearth furnaces with stockyard and producer bench, and a new cogging mill bay with soaking pits, etc. The No 3 'Heavy' Plate Mill, which was used for rolling wide plate, was dismantled and sent to Dalzell works to be converted into a new No 2 Cogging Mill, and a steam hydraulic guillotine provided to cut the slabs to length. Later, a new engine was put down at the independently driven No2 'Light' Plate Mill and the No1 Plate Mill put into good order.

The new works began producing steel at the end of 1917, and in May, 1918, the new cogging mill was put into operation. Thereafter both plate mills were kept fully supplied with slabs, and were able to produce about 1,500 tons weekly; 2,000 were now employed at Clydebridge.

Between 1914 and 1918, the three works of David Colville and Sons (DaIzell, Glengarnock and Clydebridge) manufactured:

Shell Bars     630,859 tons
Trench Rails     29,128 tons
Bullet and Bomb-Proof,
Nickel Chrome Steel
Bar, (for Aeroplanes)     9,550 tons

A new 3 high, electrically driven, plate mill was installed in 1922 to meet an expected demand for shipbuilding. However, a worldwide slump in trade closed the works for several months and the brand new mill was idle until the works restarted on the 20th February 1923. At this point in its history Clydebridge had survived its difficult early years and was now set to grow.

By 1939, with hot metal working from Clyde Iron, Clydebridge became one of the largest integrated steelworks in the UK, setting world records for the production of sheared plates used to build most of the famous ships on the Clyde (and at Harland and Woolf in Belfast) such as the Lusitania, Mauretania, The Empress of Ireland, Queen Mary, Queen Elisabeth, QE2. It would reach its maximum size with the addition of the 4 high plate mill and new shearing facilities in the early 1960s, and the expansion of the heat treatment plant in the 1970s.

The peak was reached in 1977, just before the widespread closure of most of the UK's open hearth melting shops and closure of the cogging mill. At its peak it had employed 3,500 people. Clyde Iron Works was also closed, after operating for 192 years.

After this, Clydebridge continued to be supplied with continuously cast slabs from Ravenscraig, but with the demise of shipbuilding in the UK the demand for steel plates fell and the plate mill rolled its last plate on 12 November 1982.

The heat treatment and quenching plant survived as it was still new and in demand. Some of the shears plant also survived and the remaining works, run as a satellite of Dalzell works, are still in operation in 2005, some 118 years after it all started.

Ravenscraig at its peak - now just a memory
The mighty Ravenscraig at its peak - now just another memory

Although this is a brief history I do have more detailed, year by year, records of events and outputs in the melting shop, mills and shears.

By C Findlay

Much of this material here has been researched by Colin Findlay. His web pages are here
the site is worth visiting for further information on this aspect of Scotland's industrial past.

Created before 2012