Black Country Muse

Subtitle

Puddling and other Jobs.

 

 

If you have ever wondered just what this particular job involved, you will need to understand a little of how the Iron was made. The use of a blast furnace is merely the start, for it's product, Pig Iron, is only any good for castings, it being too brittle for use in any capacity involving hard knocks. This is where puddling came in, the secondary smelting of the Iron using additives to remove some of the impurites and thus producing Wrought Iron, which was a bit more flexible. So what did the puddler actually do. First of all, it was a skilled job, a skill aquired over many years of observation and hard work. His day began with loading the furnace hearth with over a ton of pig iron, then the coal fire was lit, and the flow of air adjusted. Unlike the blast furnace, it was important that the fuel used to fire the furnace, did not come into contact with the iron. The hot air flowed over the hearth, not through it, and progress could be ascertained by the means of an iron door on the side of the furnace. The drawing below should give you some idea of the method. The iron, when at the consistency of, shall we say dough, but obviously a great deal hotter, could then be gathered with a long iron bar having a hook on the end. This was called a " Rabbling Bar ", and the action required the Puddler to twist the bar until it had collected enough hot iron, The iron was rolled into a ball, and when judged to be about 50lbs, was dragged from the furnace and put into a machine that squeezed it into an oblong block. This was called a " Shingle ". It then went on to be rolled, or, if it was a very small iron works, sold to another company. In the 1820s, a Tipton man, Joseph Hall, himself a very experienced puddler, discovered that if he threw in some old iron, or the scales from iron working, he got better iron. It should be pointed out, that Henry Cort, the inventor of the Puddling Furnace, only ever worked with recycled iron anyway, so Hall had not made the discovery he thought he had. He may not have understood the chemical process that resulted from his actions, but he certainly knew how to exploit it. In 1830, the Bloomfield Iron Works was founded on this idea, and in 1834, he was a partner, in ownership of Bradley, Berrows and Hall. The puddler now became a vital part of any ironworks, as the demand for quality metal increased. Without his knowing eye, many works would have slowed down, for if the iron came out at the wrong temperature, rolling would have been impossible. The process of rolling was also another inovation of Henry Cort, for he had a Rolling Mill up and running at Fontley Ironworks, Hampshire, in 1784. They also had the responsibility for the condition of the furnace as well, which could collapse if the heat was too great. The fire bars in the grate itself had to be kept cool, otherwise they would melt, just as the iron in the hearth would. Some ironworks had as many as 10 double hearthed furnaces, which supplied a continuous quantity of hot iron for the rolling mill. The puddler was to found all over Europe during the 19th century, the job only becoming obsolete with the advent of mass Steel production. Now heres a thought, the Eiffel Tower is made almost entirely from puddled iron, so are most of the old bridges and iron structures we still have around today. Did a good job your relative, if in a census, he's down as a humble puddler.

 

 

A typical Puddling Furnace, side and top views. (A), is the fire box, which is lined with Fire Bricks, (B). (C) are the iron cross binders, that hold (G), the iron retaining plates in place. (D), are the iron bars in the grate that hold the fuel, (E) is the iron door through which the puddler collects the iron, and (F) is the hearth where the iron awaits melting. You can see that the very hot air passes over the iron, and into the chimney which was fitted with a damper to control the air flow.

Iron Rolling.

The other job I mentioned was an Iron Roller. Now if you've never seen the process, and your relative was a roller, I suggest you explore the subject. It's not something that I would have ever had a go at. I watched rolling many times, at the Mill in Brasshouse Lane, Smethwick, and at Birchley in Oldbury. Long snake like red hot coils of iron, whipping across the iron plated floor at speed, as they came out of the roller. Nimble men, grabbing them with tongs, avoiding other hot coils, and putting them back into the rollers to further reduce the size. The men worked in teams, for believe me, it was hot, hard, and dangerous work. Facinating though, to watch a lump of iron 4 feet long and 6 inches square, reduced to an angle iron, 22 feet long, and an eighth of an inch thick, in just a few minutes. They also rolled iron plates, which were a vital part of building a Boiler, and for the construction of all the ships that came later. Brunel made use of such plates, in the Bridge over the Tamar, in Devon, and the building of the Great Eastern Steamship.

 

 

A general view of an Ironworks, about 1820.The Blast Furnace is in the rear on the right, the Puddling furnaces on the left, and the rolling mill in the center, which looks to be driven by a water wheel.

 

 

The Furnaceman, was mainly concerned with the Blast Furnace. The job involved loading from the top, with alternative layers of Iron or Ore, and the fuel, Charcoal, Coal, or later on, Coke or Breeze. The forced flow of air had to regulated, and the resulting molten iron had to be drawn off and channeled into moulds. It was a continuous process. They would have been responsible for the furnace that heated the boiler for the steam engine as well. The power for the air compressor and the rolling mill came from this source. Accidents to the men were not unusual. One, recalled in the records of a local Iron Works, tells of one furnaceman who tipped a load of scrap iron into the furnace, got caught up on the wheel barrow, and went in with the scrap. It was reported that the local vicar was called in, to say a few prayers, over the molten liquid when it was poured into the moulds. For some reason, the family still carried out a funeral with a coffin. 

Engine driver. Now when anyone finds this recorded as a job, thoughts spring immediately to the Railways. Not so I'm afraid. Almost every firm had a least one engine driver, Collierys, Quarries, Brickyards, and Iron Works. A great deal of trust was placed in these drivers, especially in the colliery, when his skill at judging how far the cage had gone down, could be the difference between life and death. You only have to read some of the accident reports from numerous Iron Works, to see what could happen if the man was not up to the task. He would be the first one to know, if the boiler had any problems, lack of power through a leak, or shortage of water. Sometimes, they fell asleep on the job, with disasterous results.

 

An early illustration of most of the processes involved in the making and rolling of Iron. Nearly all of the Black Country Iron Works would have looked like this. The largest owner in the area, certainly from 1825, was the New British Iron Company. They had works at Corngreaves, ( Cradley Heath, and the largest ) Brierley Hill, ( sold to the Earls of Dudley in 1892 ) Dudley Wood, ( sold to Noah Hingley in 1860 ) Netherton, ( sold to Noah Hingley in 1852 ) and Withymoor, ( sold to James Griffin in 1839.) The company went bust, and was wound up in 1892. Now for those who would like to get a feel for a Rolling Mill, there's a fine example, ( non-working ) at the Black Country Living Museum, near Dudley. Chainmaking, Brass Casting, and Coalmining can also be experienced, as can a memorable trip beneath Castle Hill on a Canal Narrowboat. There are many other items across the website, that cover both Ironworking, and the many dangers faced by the hardy men who forged the areas reputation by the sweat of their brows. Just click on the Forum heading at the top of the page, and use the search facilty. Finally, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Henry Cort, 1741 - 1800, who made the production of iron, whether in this region or elsewhere, so much easier. He made very little for all his efforts, but can truely be said to be the " Father of the Iron Trade ".

Pictures in the Gallery, and more stories on the Forum pages.