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Pioneers forged and cast our industrial heritage

Published date: 29 September 2010 |
Published by: Rob Bellis
Read more articles by Rob Bellis


 

IN THE hills overlooking Wrexham there is a vast expanse of open ground which until September 1990 was one of the area’s largest industrial hubs – Brymbo Steelworks.

Brymbo and the other villages that surround it were forged from steel and iron.

In 1792 the ironmaster John Wilkinson bought the Brymbo Hall Estate and transferred his operations here from Bersham. He built two huge blast furnaces with the intention of producing a whopping 4,000 tons of pig iron a year.

The first of these furnaces, known as ‘Old No.1’, operated until 1894 and survives today as a listed building.

The Brymbo Steel Company was first incorporated in June 1884 with one Colonel Wilson chairman of the board.

The works was a pioneering one and in January 1885 the No.1 furnace produced the first open hearth steel to be made in Britain

In 1891 Wilson died and Sir Henry Beyer Robertson, son of the prominent industrialist Henry Robertson who had an interest in the ironworks following the Wilkinson family’s departure, took over at the helm, holding the position until his death in 1948.

Another pioneering event came with the introduction of the first by-product coke oven plant to be operated in conjunction with a steelworks by Peter Darby, of the prominent Ironbridge industrial clan, who had managed the works since Robertson senior’s time.

In fact it was the non-conformist William Darby who, taking an interest in the welfare of his workforce, established the Brymbo Institute and Reading Room.

In his lifetime it was never as successful as he had hoped as the steelworkers preferred a drink to the Darby’s favoured temperance.

The steelworkers later took over the institute and managed it themselves. It supported cricket, rifle, tennis and bowls clubs, financed the silver band and supplied newspapers and magazines for the reading room.

Its successor, the Brymbo Sports & Social Club, became the social centre for Brymbo steelworkers and their families with inter-departmental sports competitions, regular discos and dances, union meetings and award presentations, a carnival and the annual crowning of the Steel Queen.

In 1914 German contractors were busy installing a new magnet crane at Brymbo when the First World War started.

The workers were all interned and the Ministry of Munitions took control of the works.

Production switched to making special steels for torpedo nets and the fuse mechanisms for shells.

After the war the 1921 Miners’ Strike  and the 1926 General Strike  both forced the steelworks to close and in the 1930s reduced demand during the Great Depression led to the works being bankrupt and steelmaking at Brymbo ceased between 1931 and 1934.

The works was saved from demolition thanks to the efforts of Sir Henry Robertson whose new company took it out of administration.

In 1939 a new electric melting shop opened, which on the outbreak of war that year led to Brymbo being chosen to supply high quality steel to the Air Ministry. Under the control of Thomas Firth & John Brown Ltd, four new arc furnaces were installed to help meet the demand.

When the war ended the company was taken over by GKN, before a brief period of nationalisation between 1951 and 1955.

Denationalisation saw GKN return to Brymbo with H W A Waring at the helm
A second electric melting shop was opened and at the same time the old open hearth furnaces shut down.

In 1962 Waring was killed in a plane crash at Luxembourg Airport and his position at Brymbo was taken over by Emrys Davies, a local man employed at the works since 1920.

By the 1960s the steel industry was changing and works like Brymbo and Shotton in Flintshire were facing uncertain times.

In 1969 the Labour government reintroduced nationalisation though this would again be shortlived.

In 1976 GKN installed a new £47.5 million billet and bar mill at Brymbo
It began production in 1980, the same year which saw “Europe’s largest ever redundancy” at Shotton.

The new mill made Brymbo one of Europe’s manufacturers of specialist steels.

But despite this rumours of Brymbo’s demise which had been circulating since the 60s persisted. Demand for high quality steel from British car makers was failing and there was increasing competition from Europe.

In 1986 a new company took over at Brymbo, United Engineering Steels.

It was their decision that year to invest £60 million in continuous casting in their steelworks at Rotherham, that signalled the end for the Wrexham works.

The closure of Brymbo Steelworks was announced on May 14 1990. The last furnace was tapped on September 27.

A large area of the former works is now occupied by housing and there are big plans for commercial, residential, industrial and educational development on the site.

In 2005, a group of ex-steelworkers and other interested people formed the Brymbo Heritage Group to help preserve the steelwork’s remaining historic buildings and their heritage for future generations.

- Information obtained from the Encyclopaedia of Wrexham by W. Alister Williams, published by Bridge Books (www.bridgebooks.co.uk).

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