The Founding of Carron Ironworks, by Henry Hamilton

The founding of the Carron lronworks in 1759 was an event of no small importance in the economic history of Scotland. It marks the beginnings of the great metal industries to which Scotland owes its prosperity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There were a few ironworks in this country before then, but they were small concerns smelting iron in the old way with wood or charcoal. They were situated in out-of-the-way places, at Bonawe and Goatfield in Argyllshire, at Invergarry in Inverness-shire, and at Abernethy in Strathspey. The iron industry in those early days was fleeing to the wilderness in search of wood. Iron ore was shipped from England to be smelted with the woods of the Highlands. For this reason these works had no firm basis in Scotland. They did not utilise the vast mineral resources of the country. They were built on an insecure and shifting foundation.

Carron Company was a pioneer in several respects. It was the first concern to use ironstone from the Carboniferous formation of Central Scotland, and it was at Carron that the process of smelting iron with coal was first employed in Scotland. There are good reasons, therefore, for regarding this well-known company as the parent of the basic industries of the Forth and Clyde Valley.

But the establishment of this great ironworks has an interest beyond that of mere annals. A study of its beginnings throws into relief the problems that beset those who wished to set up manufacturing industries in eighteenth century Scotland. To start a new industry required both capital and skill, and in this respect Scotland was hopelessly deficient. But she had vast mineral resources, while England had skill and capital. In the founding of Carron Works these complementary assets were brought together. Scottish industrial life was enriched by the importation from England of expert builders and iron workers, and of large quantities of the materials necessary for erecting blast furnaces and iron mills.

Through the courtesy of H. M. Cadell, Esq., of Grange, I have been able to use the early correspondence in his possession relating to the founding of Carron Company. For the first two years there are few gaps in the correspondence, though only the letters received at Carron are available. It would be a happy circumstance if other records of this great company could be brought to light.

There are three men to whom credit must be given for founding Carron Ironworks - Dr. Roebuck of Sheffield, Samuel Garbett of Birmingham and William Cadell of Cockenzie. John Roebuck was born at Sheffield in 1718, and after studying medicine at Edinburgh and Leyden, he settled in Birmingham as a practitioner. But his interest in chemistry, first aroused when he was a student at Edinburgh, led him to devote his spare time to the subject with a view to the application of chemistry to some of the many industries of Birmingham. It was at this time that he came into contact with Samuel Garbett, a prominent merchant and business man of Birmingham. Together they opened a large laboratory in Steelhouse Lane in that town, but in 1749 they set out on a bigger enterprise when they established a manufactory of sulphuric acid at Prestonpans. At one time Roebuck had thought of trying to manufacture iron in the same district. While at Prestonpans these two enterprising men met William Cadell, a merchant residing at Cockenzie, who carried on a large trade chiefly in iron and timber with the Continent. He not only owned ships but he built them, and on several occasions had attempted, though without success, to manufacture iron.

The task which lay before the three friends was a gigantic one ; for Roebuck and his partners were determined to commence their works on a large scale and to use the comparatively new method of smelting iron with pit coal instead of wood as was customary at this time. Some of the capital was provided by Cadell and his son, but the actual building materials and equipment for the furnaces had to be obtained in England. Moreover the Scots had little knowledge of ironstone mining or of iron working and the various processes connected with casting and forging. It was to England that the partners turned both for capital and skill. At this time England had already several important ironworks, of which Coalbrookdale in Shropshire was perhaps the chief, while Birmingham and Sheffield were hives of skilled metal workers. We shall see that most of the expert furnacemen and builders employed at Carron were brought from the Dale.

But the conditions of the time favoured the establishment of iron works. When the Seven Years’ War broke out in 1756 there was a rapid rise in the price of iron, and both forgemasters and founders entered on a period of remarkable prosperity. In such promising circumstances new capital was naturally attracted to the industry, and in 1757 several new blast furnaces were built in England and South Wales. It was in the midst of this great boom in the munition industries that the Carron Works was planned and set in operation. Soon it became the greatest arsenal in Britain.

At least as early as 1759 the project of establishing an ironworks in Scotland was being considered seriously, for in that year samples of ore had been sent to Birmingham to be assayed. The problem of finding a suitable site for the proposed works was the first to occupy the attention of Dr. Roebuck and his friends. This was a matter of the first importance, and it was no light one to settle ; for the site of any ironworks of the period was the resultant of various forces. In the first place the works must be near ironstone mines, and so surveys had to be made and samples of ore tested. Then it was necessary to have coal for smelting purposes, but this was usually found side by side with ironstone. Wood was considered as a secondary fuel for the furnaces, and since wood too was required for the ‘fineries’ where the pig iron was heated before being hammered, there were reasons for having the works near trees. Besides, water power was necessary to drive the blast for the furnaces and the machinery for slitting and rolling metal, and so the available sites would thus be limited to river banks. It was desirable to have all the branches of the manufacture together but this might not be possible owing to lack of sufficient water power. Finally, it was advisable to have the works on the coast or near some waterway so as to facilitate the transport of the heavy finished goods.

To find a place which satisfied all these requirements was sufficient to tax the ingenuity of the most far-seeing men; but from the first somewhere in the region of the Forth was regarded as the best site, though it is interesting to notice that a request was received from Sir Archibald Grant to consider a site at Monymusk in Aberdeenshire. Cadell himself visited Stirling, while his son paid a visit to Inveraray, but in the latter case it was probably only to obtain information about methods of manufacture and perhaps about skilled men, for a charcoal iron manufactory was being carried on there.

The spring and autumn of 1759 were almost entirely taken up with the consideration of the best site for the projected works. At the beginning of the year samples of ores from various places along the Firth of Forth were sent to Birmingham to be assayed. Several experiments proved that the Bo’ness ore was the best. Garbett therefore decided to go to Scotland in April to complete the investigations in person. Cadell was evidently anxious to start in a small way with a charcoal furnace, for Garbett sends him information on this point.

The success of these preliminary experiments with the Bo’ness ore naturally narrowed the selection of a site, and the partners now felt justified in making investigations about coal and water supply. Garbett wished to start the concern in a large way, and so he wanted to find a place where there would be sufficient water for two or three furnaces, a forge and a slitting mill, but there must be plenty coal and ironstone in the vicinity. That he realised the possibilities of the industry, and was anxious to gain a foothold before any rivals, is shown when he writes, “I don’t doubt in a few years many of this country people will be seeking for proper places to fix ironworks in the neighbourhood of the Forth.” As he had arranged, Garbett set out for Scotland. His visit to Bo’ness merely strengthened his conviction that it was there that the works should be established. He was certain that “a situation on Carron Water was infinitely preferable to all others, because if the works prove prosperous as we expect, some place in the neighbourhood of the Firth of Forth would become one of the principal Seats of Iron Works in Britain, not only for making Iron from the Ore into Bars and Slit Iron, but into Nails and many other manufactures, and in all human probability this will be the case.” Moreover, the works would be near Glasgow. Cadell wished to have the works near to him at Cockenzie, but eventually he agreed to Garbett’s wishes.

By the end of 1759 the preliminary negotiations were completed. The copartnership, commencing on 11th November, 1759, was signed on 19th January and 9th February, 1760. There were seven partners, and the capital of the concern was to be £12,000, divided into 24. parts or shares.

It was held as follows :
Dr. John Roebuck -    6 twenty-fourths -  £3000
Samuel Garbett -        6 twenty-fourths -  £3000
William Cadell, Sen . 3 twenty-fourths -  £1500
William Cadell, Jun.   3 twenty-fourths -  £1500
Benjamin Roebuck -  2 twenty-fourths -  £1000
Thomas Roebuck -     2 twenty-fourths - £1000
Ebenezer Roebuck-    2 twenty-fourths - £1000
24 Total ----------------------------------------£12,000

The Articles of Copartnership included an agreement to take over the leases of mills at Craigforth on the Forth above Stirling, on the Avon, Carron and Crammond (or Almond) rivers, and also to lease or buy the woods of Callander, Leny, Cowbank, Newred, Northwood and Tinnochside. In addition there was included in the Articles a contract, dated 13th December, 1759, to feu fourteen acres from Sir Michael Bruce of Stenhouse for a site for the principal works on Carron Water; and a contract for ironstone on the lands of the Earl of Errol and for coal on the estate of Thomas Dundas of Quarrole (Carton Hall). Curiously enough, although a lease of land for the site of the blast furnaces was taken, the partners, even in the beginning of the new year, were uncertain whether the works should be built there or not; for on 12th February, 1760, Roebuck wrote to Cadell, “It will perhaps be most advantageous to erect the first furnace on the Avon or near Stirling.” Very soon after this it must have been finally decided to build the blast furnaces at Carron, and building operations were soon in full swing.

But long before this preparations were being made for the erection of the main works. Skilled labour was not merely required for building the furnaces but for conducting smelting operations. Indeed, several months prior to the final selection of a site Garbett and Roebuck were engaging workers in England and purchasing the materials for building the furnaces.

A beginning was made in securing skilled men in June, 1759, when Dr. Roebuck engaged “a clever founder or furnaceman who was used to working with pit coal as well as wood fuel.” His wages were to be £50 a year. As soon as this expert was definitely engaged, the bellows for the blast furnace were to be ordered and an experienced man was to be sent to supervise the building of them. “A set of masons and bricklayers and millwrights and bellows makers” who were in the habit of working for all the experienced ironmasters of England were next secured. These experts undertook to teach Scots, and so it was hoped that after the first furnace was built, English labour might be dispensed with.

It was likewise necessary to engage English experts to take charge of the smelting operations. In June, 1759, Roebuck provisionally engaged a skilled furnaceman. This man, who was one of the principal workmen at Coalbrookdale, set out for Scotland in September. Soon more men were engaged with whom an agreement was made to teach Scots. At the beginning of 1760 Garbett engaged one Robert Hawkins, a relative of the Darbys of Coalbrookdale, whose family had a long connection with furnaces in England. He was a very valuable acquisition to the Carron staff and was to receive a salary of £100 per year, his task being to teach Scotsmen the art of boring cylinders and grinding sad irons. Garbett hoped to secure the services of another highly skilled expert—the man who had charge of the cylinder and engine department at Coalbrookdale. In March a skilled charcoal burner and various other workers were brought from England, and in May several ironstone miners were secured in Shropshire.

The Carron partners had also to look to England for most of their building materials. The hearth stones, a shaft for the water wheel, the boards and leather for the bellows and the necessary ironplates for a furnace were ordered in July, 1759, and it was hoped to have them shipped from Bristol by the end of August. But these hopes were not to be fulfilled. The materials which had been purchased could not be sent down the Severn on account of the drought while the greatest difficulty was experienced in securing a tree of sufficient dimensions for the axle shaft though three men had been employed nearly two months to look out and purchase them. By the beginning of October Garbett was able to announce that he had at last secured the shaft and the other necessary timber, though the former which they hoped would have been 27 feet long and 30 inches in diameter, fell short of these requirements. The goods were probably despatched from Bristol in the same month, but the ship was lost at sea, and so all the labour of Garbett went in vain; and in March, 1760, a man was sent to Yorkshire to procure another set of bellows boards. In the meantime other materials were purchased - 20,000 Stourbridge bricks, 100 tons Stourbridge clay, 20 tons pig iron from Coalbrookdale, 30 tons of the best pig iron from Madeley Wood, and 10 tons of timber. These goods were sent down the Severn from Bewdley and shipped from Bristol in February. Further supplies of timber were purchased in Yorkshire, and these with pots for making bricks, baskets, shovels, etc., were despatched from Hull. More timber and iron were obtained in Norway and from Gothenburg.

It has been commonly asserted that the first blast furnace was blown in on 1st anuary, 1760, but this is not correct, since building materials for the furnaces were being taken to Carron in the spring of 1760, it is more likely that the first blast furnace was not lighted until the end of 1760, though an air furnace was in use in the early months of that year. The object of the partners, and certainly that of Garbett, was to establish a large ironworks at Carron with all its various branches. William Cadell, junr., who was the first manager, gives us some idea of the magnitude of this undertaking in his Memoranda Book. There he states the general plan as follows :

4. Blast Furnaces and assisting Air Furnaces when wanted.
4 Air Furnaces to be constantly employed.
1 Boring Mill to be used occasionally for Sad Irons.
1 Double Forge.
1 Forge for drawing Salt Pans.
1 Slit or Rolling Mill.

This was a big scheme, and many years were to elapse before these hopes were realised. In the early days of the partnership the plan was to erect two blast furnaces, worked by bellows or forced draught, and one or more air furnaces worked by natural draught. The former was a large structure and was used for smelting with pit coal ; the latter was a light structure easily built and was used for smelting with charcoal. Since the building of the air furnaces would not entail much labour it was clearly desirable to commence with that, while at the same time pushing forward - what after all was the main part of the business – the erection of the blast furnaces. To pursue such a policy would have this advantage that a certain class of goods could soon be manufactured, and thus the heavy capital expenditure would be counterbalanced by some income from sales.

The delay in securing the hearth stones, axle and bellows boards made it impossible to commence the erection of a blast furnace in the winter of 1759. But meantime skilled men had been engaged, and so the proposal was made that they should be set to build an air furnace. Probably two of these furnaces were lighted early in 1760. They were certainly in full operation in March of that year, and the products, cannon ball, sad irons, and hoops were being sold in the London market by Thomas Roebuck & Co. But Garbett seemed to get small satisfaction from these early sales. “Our reputation at setting out is of great importance,” he writes. “All goods cast at air furnaces are brittle and of a very different quality to what is cast from the blast furnace at the Dale; it is for this reason I wish you would not permit anything to be cast at the air furnace that can possibly injure our characters, which will suffer if we make any one thing inferior in any respect to what is cast at the Dale ; this I should make a point of and I hope we shall have the first reputation for the quality of our goods.”

While this furnace was in operation everything was being done to push forward the erection of the blast furnaces. “The chief point is to get the Blast Furnaces at work as soon as possible and not let them be neglected for anything else,” wrote Garbett in March 1760. In May building operations were still going on and a beginning had been made in setting up a forge. Both blast furnaces were probably lighted by the end of 1760.

Thus was the first large ironworks established in Scotland, and one which is still flourishing to-day. Before the end of the century the torch was carried from Carron to other places in Scotland, to Clyde, to Omoa and Wilsontown in Lanarkshire; to Muirkirk in Ayrshire, and to Devon in Clackmannan. But the industry was still a small one. The total output of the Scottish blast furnaces in 1796 was only 16,640 tons valued at £108,160, whereas in that year the production of linen cloth was valued at £906,202. In 1814. Sir john Sinclair in his General Report classed the coal and iron industries among the “Secondary or less important Manufactures of Scotland.” But by that time they were rapidly gaining on the textiles and soon were to outstrip them.

[The Scottish Historical Review, Apr. 1928, Vol. 25 (99), pp. 185-193]