Brymbo Steelworks



Date Visited: July 2010

A look round the remains of Brymbo Steelworks, thanks to Brymbo Heritage Group who showed me round and gave me permission to photograph their site and post the photos here! Their website is here: http://www.bhg.org.uk/. If you want a look round, why not ask them? Beats climbing a fence and only seeing some of it!

Some old photos here: http://heritagephotoarchive.co.uk/p39597439 and here http://heritagephotoarchive.co.uk/p389178717

History, from the Wrexham Council website:

Brymbo Steelworks started off as an ironworks. John Wilkinson, the Bersham ironmaster, bought the Brymbo Estate in 1792. The estate had the supplies of coal and iron ore that his ironworks needed. In 1796 Wilkinson established a new ironworks at Brymbo. He probably built the surviving blast furnace, known as Old No.1.

In its first year the ironworks produced 884 tons of iron and Wilkinson had big ambitions for Brymbo. He built another furnace in 1804. After his death in 1808, the ironworks suffered from legal disputes, the absence of a skilled ironmaster and a slump in orders after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The sale of the estate in 1829 provided the opportunity for a new beginning – eventually.

Brymbo ironworks were idle for a decade, but Scottish money and talent heralded a new era. Robert Roy bought the Brymbo estate in 1841.

In 1842 Scottish investors commissioned Henry Robertson, an ambitious Scottish engineer, to investigate if the ironworks were an investment opportunity.

Robertson reported that with improved transport links, the ironworks could be a very profitable business. With the investors’ backing Robertson built a new foundry and machine shops, installed a new blowing engine for the blast furnace and sank the Blast Colliery. In partnership with Robert Roy, Alexander MacKenzie Ross and William Betts, Robertson set up the Brymbo Mineral & Railway Company. They opened the branch line connecting Brymbo to Britain’s growing railway network in 1845. Finally, Robertson headhunted two talented industrialists, William and Charles Darby to manage the ironworks.

Brymbo was once again a successful ironworks, but some of the directors were unhappy. In 1854 the directors took each other to court to gain sole control of the company. Local legend says Robert Roy and Henry Robertson decided to settle their dispute by a horse race to Brymbo. The owner of the horse that reached the ironworks first could buy out the other. According to tradition, the workforce favoured Robertson and ensured that his horse won the race.

Henry Robertson could see that steel was the future of iron. He encouraged John H. Darby and Peter Williams to trial steelmaking at Brymbo and in 1884 formed the Brymbo Steel Company. A year later in January 1885 Brymbo produced its first steel.

Brymbo Steelworks prospered in the early years of the twentieth century. There was investment in new technology and production doubled between 1898 and 1914.

German contractors were busy installing a new magnet crane in 1914 when the First World War started. They were all interned and the Ministry of Munitions took control of Brymbo. The works produced special steels for making torpedo nets and the fuse mechanisms for shells.

The years after the First World War were lean times for the steel industry. The Miners’ Strike (1921) and the General Strike (1926) both forced the steelworks to close, while the slump in orders during the Great Depression (1929-32) drove the steelworks into bankruptcy in 1931. With the works closed, Brymbo had one of the highest unemployment rates in Britain.

In 1933 Sir Henry Robertson saved the steelworks from demolition when his new company took the works out of administration. He entrusted to Emrys Davies and Thomas Roberts the task of bringing the works back into production, while he sought out new markets for Brymbo steel.

Robertson successfully negotiated with Rolls-Royce and the Air Ministry to become the supplier of special steels for aircraft engines. With Britain re-arming from 1936 in response to Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy, Robertson had chosen a growing market.

During the Second World War Brymbo used its new electric arc furnaces, and rolling mill, to produce special steels. From 1943 women took on manual work in the steelworks: operating the cranes and working in the mills. The steelworkers celebrated the end of the war in 1945, but with peace came new challenges.

Brymbo found a specialist role in the fast changing steel industry of modern Britain. Under the management of Guest, Keen & Nettlefold (GKN), the steelworks embarked on a massive programme of modernisation: a new electric melting shop (1959), a new cogging mill (1961) and a new inspection department (1964) – all designed to improve and guarantee the quality of Brymbo steel.

Brymbo steel was used to make:

-Engine and machine parts for cars, tractors, lorries and military vehicles
-Hydraulic pit props and conveyor belt chains for the coal industry
-Drills and bits for use in the oil and gas fields

Brymbo did not compete on economies of scale. Instead Brymbo competed on accuracy and consistency of product. With the inspection department analysing every bar of steel before it left the site, quality control was unmatched in the UK, if not worldwide.

Successive governments’ industrial policies made long term planning difficult for Brymbo’s managers. However in 1976 GKN, once again owners of Brymbo Steelworks, had the confidence to invest £47.6 million in a new bar and billet mill. With the new mill opening in 1980, Brymbo looked well set for the future.

As early as the 1960s and 1970s there were rumours that British Steel planned to close Brymbo. Unfortunately, the new bar and billet mill opened in 1980 just in time for a recession. With falling demand for quality steel from British car makers, Brymbo steel also faced increasing competition from European steelmakers who enjoyed state subsidies.

The workforce at Brymbo Steelworks rose to the challenge: production records in the melting shops and the rolling mills were continually broken with no loss of quality. Although the workers had faith in the steelworks, the new owners United Engineering Steels did not.

Their decision in 1986 to invest £60 million by installing ‘continuous casting’ in their steelworks at Rotherham, rather than in Brymbo, heralded the work’s future closure. Despite the work’s profitability, high productivity and unique quality control systems, UES announced the closure of Brymbo Steelworks on 14th May 1990. The last furnace was tapped on September 27th. As the final steel made its way through the works, each section closed in its turn, until finally the Inspection Departments signed off the last delivery in February 1991.

It was the end of two centuries of iron and steel. The dawn of a new era for Brymbo has taken a long time, but slowly a new community is being built on the site of the old works. Local people and ex-steelworkers came together as Brymbo Heritage Group in 2005 to help preserve the steelwork’s remaining historic buildings and the stories they symbolise for future generations.

Some photos of the works from the air in the 70's and 80's on Wrexham Councils Website:

http://www.wrexham.gov.uk/english/heritage/brymbo_steelworks/go_large_images/brymbo_east.htm

http://www.wrexham.gov.uk/english/heritage/brymbo_steelworks/go_large_images/brymbo_south.htm

UPDATE: I've written about some of these photos in my blog:
http://thevoicefromthenorth.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/pattern/
http://thevoicefromthenorth.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/13/
http://thevoicefromthenorth.wordpress.com/2010/07/27/terex/

UPDATE 2 30th April 2013

I have had the following sad news from the Brymbo Heritage Group:

"Due to the snow that we had over April part of the foundry roof and wall has fallen in, this also took with it part of the Carpenters/Pattern makes shop so the buildings are now in a very dangerous condition."

As a consequence of this, the Ironworks is now out of bounds as it is too dangerous to even walk around. Come on people, please respect this request, I know exploration is a risky activity, but the last thing the Group needs is someone hurting themselves in there.