(c) Dr Christopher R. Bayliss; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
It’s difficult to imagine the hostility of the environment of the Works today, the burning slag heaps and smoking chimneys at the heart of the Victorian industrial revolution.

I’m in the process of researching the Spring Vale Steel Works where 18686/Eileen spent upwards of 30 years.

These are my draft notes so far, there are many clarifications needed, lots of questions need answering and, hopefully, more illustrations too…

The Works extending over a huge area, the chimneys dominating the skyline, marking Bilston out as first an ‘iron’ and then a ‘steel’ town.

Although BCN 18686 was commissioned from Eli Aston by Benjamin Pearson, and originally gauged under his name in 1903, by 1927 she had been re-gauged, now in the name of Alfred Hickman. It’s quite likely that following a period of leasing to the BCN, Hickman’s had been leasing the boat from Pearson for some time.

postcard scan
By the 1900s the Works were in operation around the clock, 24 hours a day. This postcard really captures so much of the character of the works, but also, fascinatingly the day boat fleet too. I can see18686 in the lines of the boats in the foreground.

Hickman’s worked a large fleet of both leased and company-owned (often second-hand) wooden and iron open day boats at the Spring Vale Works.

A Brief History of Spring Vale

The Hickman family had bought the Springvale Works, Bilston in 1866. Hickman’s not only made iron at the site but also installed ball furnaces, puddling furnaces and mills to process the iron.

It was this farsightedness and ongoing investment in plant and innovations, allied to securing a stable supply of raw materials, that saw Hickmans expand through long periods of boom and bust in the iron industry and, following rationalisation in the early1890’s, Alfred Hickman had become the only ironmaster left in the trade in the Bilston area, and was in a position of strength to invest in new equipment to produce steel using the more abundant and cheaper phosphoric iron ores.

In 1882 Hickman set up the Staffordshire Steel & Ingot Iron Co. Ltd. to manufacture iron, and produce steel by the Gilchrist-Thomas process. It was an investment that gave him an edge over other manufacturers and which turned Bilston from an iron town into a steel town.

Awesome industry.

Hickman not only took up the process but also employed Percy C. Gilchrist. In 1883 Hickman bought all the equipment from the Mersey Iron & Steel Company, which had gone bankrupt and installed it at Bilston with modifications and improvements suggested by Percy C. Gilchrist, who had joined the board. The works had the capacity to turn out 400,000 ingots, and 30,000 tons of finished steel plates and bars per year.

Steam, heat, water, ore and deafening noise…

An article in the Wolverhampton and South Staffordshire Illustrated of 1898 describes two works belonging to Alfred Hickman at the Spring Vale, Bilston site, the Staffordshire Steel & Ingot Works of the Staffordshire Steel & Ingot Iron Co. Ltd. and the Spring Vale Works of Springvale Furnaces Ltd. these amalgamated in 1897 to become Alfred Hickman Ltd.

Rail and water integrated in serving the needs of the Works, bringing raw materials in, taking finished product out…

The Spring Vale site was huge, and included adjacent collieries and brickworks covering some 200 acres connected by sidings to the main line of the London & North Western Railway and the Great Western Railway; and having extensive wharfage on the BCN, including their own maintenance wharf. The site was intersected by an extensive internal railway on which the firm’s own locomotives ran.

In the early part of the 20th C the canal was still intensively used by the Works…

In the year BCN18686 was made Alfred Hickman was created a baronet, and Sir Alfred Hickman went on to live grandly at Tinacre Hall on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, far from the dirt and dust his works were creating in Bilston. He also became an MP for Wolverhampton.

hickman sir alfred
Sir Alfred Hickman
hickman lady
Lady Hickman  

Innovation and investment continued apace: in the 1900’s gas turbines were installed to provide electricity and to blow the blast furnaces; an extensive experimental refrigeration plant was installed to remove the moisture from the blast of the furnaces; in 1907 a 36‑inch cogging mill was installed (this equipment remained in use until the late 1950s and during the Second World War, would be used to roll 22 ton ingots of armour piercing steel for the production of 25‑pounder shells and produce all the steel for P.L.U.T.O (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) and they achieve a change‑over to the slower but more controllable open hearth technique of steelmaking.

Stewarts & Lloyds Limited acquired the works in 1921 to provide a source of steel for tube making.

Stewarts & Lloyds Limited was another example of a dynamic and entrepreneurial business which had grown rapidly, mainly through mergers and acquisitions, through the latter half of the 19th C.

Andrew Stewart was originally employed as a salesman by Eadies of Dalmarnock, South Lanarkshire, specialists in the manufacture of lap-welded and loose flange tubes. Stewart saw a market for gas pipe but the company would not support his proposals for expansion and so in 1862, along with his brother James, he set up business as a maker of butt-welded and lap-welded tubes establishing a small works at St. Enochs, Glasgow. The company met with rapid success and by 1867 had moved to a large site at Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire, where they built the Clyde Tube Works. In 1882 the company was incorporated with limited liability as A. & J. Stewart Ltd.

In 1889 Andrew Stewart’s sons set up their own business in Glasgow as tube manufacturers under the name of Stewart Brothers. In a rationalisation of the tube making industry in Scotland, A. & J. Stewart Ltd merged with Stewart Brothers and the Clydesdale Iron & Steel Company to become A. & J. Stewart & Clydesdale Ltd. In 1898 the company expanded still further when it acquired James Menzies & Company becoming A. & J. Stewart & Menzies Ltd. From 1 January 1903 the company merged with English counterparts Lloyd & Lloyd Ltd.

The newly merged company, now named Stewarts & Lloyds Ltd set about securing its position by acquiring companies which would enable them to control all of their supplies, manufacture and distribution.

In 1908 the company became colliery owners when they acquired the control of Robert Addie & Sons (Collieries) Ltd., although this interest was sold in 1924. Before the outbreak of the First World War the company bought the British Welding Co of Motherwell, manufacturers of hydraulic welded tubes and established a new works at Tollcross, Glasgow. Following the end of the war the company gained control of the North Lincolnshire Iron Co Ltd, followed shortly afterwards by Alfred Hickman Ltd. and their subsidiaries.

Railway wagons dwarfed by the furnaces…

Between the wars, under the new ownership, a spirit of inter­dependence was fostered and despite incorporation into Stewarts & Lloyds, Hickmans retained a good deal of autonomy in running the vast Spring Vale site.

During the Second World War most of the iron and steel production went into the making of tubes not only for use carrying liquids but also using tubes structurally for boom defences, aircraft hangers, mounts for air raid sirens, ships masts, derricks, conveyors, service huts, gun mountings and a myriad other things. The Spring Vale Works were never busier.

A much later shot of the works, shortly after closure, the use of the canals long since passed, the Works gradually falling silent.

One thought on “The Story of Eileen: ‘Spring Vale Steel Works’

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