Rise and fall of an industry

Tony Smith looks at the loss of a town’s once-thriving industry

WHEN Wellingborough ironworks closed 40 years ago, it was the end of an industry which had served the town for more than a century.

Generations of local men had been employed at various plants since Thomas Butlin established the first open-topped cold-blast furnace in Cannon Street, less than half a mile from the town centre, in 1853.

Known as the East End Works, it produced pig iron mined from small quarries in the east of the town near the River Ise, much of it sent to Staffordshire where it was used to make wrought iron.

A second furnace was added in 1863 but became so busy that Butlin built new works nearer the new Midland railway station four years later – the old one falling into disuse by 1876.

Known as the Irthlingborough works (although two miles from the village), the new plant began with two hot-blast furnaces, adding a third in 1879 and a fourth in 1883 – each capable of producing 700 tons per week.

By now little locomotives had replaced the horse-drawn tramways and ironstone quarrying had become a boom industry in the county with furnaces at Islip, Cransley and Kettering.

In 1874 Messrs Rixon & Co began quarrying for iron at Finedon to feed furnaces built near the railway and Rixon Road, off Finedon Road, Wellingborough.

These were taken over in 1889 by Thomas Butlin and Co, by then trading as the Wellingborough Iron Company. At the turn of the century much of the company’s pig-iron went to Derby to make locomotives. After changing to direct casting, it landed contracts to produce cast-iron sections of tunnelling for parts of the London Underground.

A slump in the industry after the First World War led to the closure of the Irthlingborough works in 1925, after being acquired by the United Steel Companies five years earlier.

In the 1920s the Wellingborough Iron Company was taken over by the Stanton Company (also part of United Steel), which replaced the old Rixon plant in Finedon Road with two modern blast furnaces in the 1930s. This coincided with the major expansion of Corby steelworks by Stewarts & Lloyds, which took over the Wellingborough works in 1939 when the Stanton Company became part of the expanding S & L empire.

Production at Wellingborough, which had slumped to 30,000 tons a year before closure, hit a new high of 117,000 tons in its first full year after reconstruction in 1936.

To cope with wartime demands a third furnace operated from 1942 to 1945 and in 1946 the combined output of the two furnaces was 131,000 tons.

Productivity peaked at 200,000 tons in 1955. But within two years falling demand led to the closure of one furnace and limited use of the other, with the loss of more than 50 jobs. Although hopes rose when the first furnace was re-lit in February, 1960, it was blown out again a year later with 60 redundancies.

The bombshell came in August, 1962 when S & L announced it was closing the plant with the loss of 330 manual and office workers, some of whom had been there up to 45 years.

Sombre workers and company officials witnessed the last “tap” of metal of No 2 furnace at 9.15am on October 23. Although many men were offered jobs at Corby and other company works, it was the end of an era.

Union delegate Mervyn Thomas told the ET: “A lot of people have complained about the dust at the ironworks for years and been praying for the closure. Maybe some of these will be happy and content now.”

Today the ironworks site has been turned into an industrial estate and the original East End works was later used as a council depot.

The Irthlingborough foundry was revived in 1947 by Morris Motors (later British Leyland), which produced tractor parts and engine blocks until it too closed in 1981.