How Chris Topp got us started.
Written by Chris Topp in July 2016
Back in about 1967, I had a summer job in the town hall in Bolton, Lancashire. Within easy walking distance was the works of Tomas Walmsley. Known as Atlas Forge this was the last manufacturer, anywhere in the world, of puddled wrought iron. The plant was driven by steam engines, using the waste heat from the furnace flues, which proclaimed their presence over a good bit of the town by the sharp chuff of their exhaust. This is what attracted me as a young man and I became a regular lunch time visitor to the engine room of the 18″ rolling mill, now preserved in working order at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum.
Walmsleys were puddling iron from cast iron into the 1970’s and at the time I was there they were also re-rolling the axles of old railway wagons, raised in the furnace to a dripping white heat and rolled directly into finished sections in the 9″ mill – also driven by steam. I believe a great deal of their production went to Australia for sheep fences and I was told that when wrought iron production ceased in 1974 it was due to the lack of wrought railway axles, the order book for the fencing sections still being full. Atlas Works went on rolling steel for another ten years and I kept in touch with the management. By 1984, being by then something of an iron supplier myself, Walmsleys rolled their last two tons of iron, in their last ever shift, for me.
The story of the Real Wrought Iron Company, however began in about 1977 when a parcel of wrought iron came on the (scrap metal) market when they were demolishing an old locomotive house on Sunderland Docks. Out the back, all covered in brambles there was a pile of wrought iron shafts, very rusty and amounting to ten tons, while inside, the old handrail from Sunderland North Pier had been used to build a sand drier for the locos, using several tons of 1 ¼” square. This was duly purchased for scrap price and so started the long road to finding out about this mysterious metal.
Wrought iron, owing to its fibrous structure, is more challenging to forge or roll than more modern, homogeneous metals. Thus to reduce a billet to a finished bar of steel might typically take seven or eight passes through the mill, while to do the same in iron might take seventeen or eighteen passes. The steel can be reduced vigorously, whilst wrought iron must be nursed trough the mill. With the need to find a way to process my iron, and there being at that time many small, craftsman rolling mills in Sheffield, the answer seemed obvious. Not so easy! Many tons of expensive scrap later I began to realise that special care was necessary. In fact the best we could do was a mill which made only about 30% scrap, and that by sheer talent on the part of the mill men, but time is money and I was paying the rate for rolling the most expensive alloys, used in the aeronautical industries. Even so by 1983 I felt able to publish my first pricelist. At this time orders for small quantities or odd sections had to be forged in our blacksmiths shop.
From the beginning the renewed supply of wrought iron attracted attention from the developing building conservation industry. There were orders too big to be serviced, notable among which was the enquiry for 85 tons of glazing bar section in up to 35 ft lengths for the Palm House at Kew Gardens, which was eventually extruded in stainless steel, but we learnt from this, and subsequent glass house restorations – of which there have been many – were content to replace only the corroded ends instead of the whole bar. In fact this approach has since become enshrined in modern conservation practise.
I could always get sheet iron rolled, at one time by passing a tenner to a certain mill foreman, but flattening it was another matter. I found myself one day looking at an old sheet metal flattener in the vast and gloomy hall of a Sheffield machinery dealer. It was a sunny day but little light got in save through a lone hole in the asbestos roof. The sunbeam slanted across the room like a spotlight on a stage, and there, revealed in the spotlight was a perfect, little rolling mill. The man was more than keen to get such an outdated machine off his hands, and a short time later the mill was installed in a friend’s barn with a home-made furnace and we were ready to go. One problem was finding enough power to drive its 60hp motor. A visit to a local scrapyard won us a 186 hp Leyland diesel engine from an old council lorry, and we had the makings of the world’s first diesel rolling mill. From that day we had to teach ourselves to roll, but being totally new to the science we didn’t know what we couldn’t do, so we went ahead and it was ok.
The story would not be complete without a mention for the Blists Hill ironworks at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, Europe’s biggest ever museum exhibit, principle components of which were recovered from Atlas Works. Throughout the late eighties and the nineties they valiantly tried their best to puddle and pile wrought iron, always with a view to commercial production. It never happened but we were frequently grateful to them for the use of their heavy plant to reduce some of our bigger raw material to more manageable proportions.