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  • In a wooded valley on the outskirts of Gateshead sits an

  • unassuming building. But this building had a remarkable

  • impact on England's industrial history.

  • Originally built in the 1720s, Derwentcote Steel Furnace

  • played an important role in the creation of steel

  • allowing for a huge step forwards in engineering and production.

  • I'm Rob Bell, engineer and adventurer

  • and I'm travelling around England, seeking out some of the key sites in

  • this country's shift towards a more modern way of manufacturing and living

  • This steel furnace employed an

  • early method of turning wrought iron into steel

  • and was active for over a hundred years up until the late 1800s.

  • To find out more about the part Derwentcote played

  • I'm meeting Mark Douglas, Senior Properties Curator

  • from English Heritage

  • - Mark, nice to meet you - You too

  • There's so much more to this building once you step inside

  • - Yeah, it's good isn't it - It's fantastic

  • So, tell me when was this steel furnace operational? When was it active?

  • It was active from the early part of the 18th century

  • We know probably from around about 1720.

  • This is the earliest surviving example of a cementation furnace in the country.

  • That's what makes it incredibly important

  • Can you tell me a bit about the process

  • of what went on in the furnace here - how you turn iron into steel?

  • The main principle is you must not let air get to the iron because it oxidizes it

  • So inside this massive masonry that you can see in front of you here, there's two chests

  • In those two chests they would pack bars of iron between layers of charcoal

  • and then top the whole thing off with sand to make it airtight

  • and light a fire. There's flumes going around the outside

  • up to a dome ceiling and flumes going underneath these two stone chests

  • And basically heat them up to about 1100 degrees

  • and keep it at that temperature for between seven and ten days

  • Then allow the whole thing to slowly cool down, probably another two weeks

  • During that process the iron inside there

  • will absorb the carbon out of the surrounding charcoal and that would then

  • create what we call blister steel. The whole surface would look like a

  • pancake or blistered up like a pancake when it came out of these furnaces

  • and that would be then used to forge

  • sheer steel and used to make the tools down in the forge

  • What kinds of tools, what kind of implements

  • might have been manufactured from the steel from this furnace?

  • Anything with edges. Anything with cutting edges

  • because it would hold an edge and it could be made a lot thinner

  • Scythes, shears and also swords

  • And was this part of England then intrinsically linked to steel production

  • and if so why was that?

  • Steel production in itself isn't really intrinsically linked to any particular place

  • It can be done anywhere, all you need is raw materials

  • What made this place important is geology and geography

  • Geology in the sense that we have access to raw materials such as iron

  • But the main thing that made this

  • different was the route between here and the continent

  • Between here and Sweden - the access to Swedish bar iron which is

  • an incredibly pure form of iron

  • So it was Swedish iron that was used

  • and turned into steel here, not English iron?

  • No, the British iron from around here was high in phosphorus

  • Swedish iron was incredibly pure

  • How important was Derwentcote then within the steel production of the

  • greater area of the North East?

  • Derwentcote was one of many many manufacturers around here

  • but it was the development of this

  • sort of process that lasted a long time at Derwentcote

  • But the valley itself, the Derwent valley, at one point was the biggest iron works in Europe

  • Over 50 percent of all the iron produced in the country in the 18th century

  • was produced in this valley. It was just a hotbed of furnaces

  • and steam and iron and smoke

  • It would have been an incredible place to be

  • Absolutely yeah it's very hard to

  • imagine that when you're walking around here now

  • Were there other furnaces similar to this in other parts of the country?

  • Sheffield is the main protagonist but somebody - probably a disgruntled employee

  • snuck off down to Sheffield and took the ideas

  • It wasn't the process itself, it was the technical bits in between that made the difference

  • The people move to where the opportunities lay.

  • It's an evolutionary process in a way

  • The process of producing steel by this method

  • had been practiced for hundreds of years, but not on this scale.

  • How big an employer was this steel furnace? Who was working here?

  • To run this, it would take you and that'll be it.

  • So it's a one-man job or possibly a two man job

  • And that was it then?

  • The whole process from start to finish would be a vast employer

  • Making chains, making anchors - here they were making billets of steel

  • They're not taking this and finishing stuff off.

  • They're producing a product, then giving to somebody else.

  • It was the bigger plants where they're doing everything

  • They took it from raw materials to finished product and it was this hive of activity

  • But of course unfortunately by 1890 this place has gone, finished.

  • The furnace had gone out, quite literally

  • The next evolution of the whole place was a road was driven through the forge

  • to furnish a drift mine, a coal mine

  • That's all gone. Now we've got a valley

  • When did English Heritage take guardianship of the Derwentcote Steel Furnace?

  • And what condition was it in at the time?

  • It was taken into guardianship in 1985

  • and it was in pretty poor condition. But it was also the rest of the

  • landscape that's also a scheduled monument

  • It's been afforded a level of protection by the state as well

  • And so what about the work that's required here at Derwentcote in order to

  • preserve this for future generations to come and enjoy and to learn about our industrial past?

  • It's not a sort of building that's going to fade away quite quickly.

  • It's a huge substantial piece of masonry

  • The main thing you've got to do with this place is keep the water out

  • Keep it dry and it'll last forever.

  • Well I hope so because it's a really exciting part of our history and it's great to come

  • and learn more about it from you today, Mark.

  • - Thank you so much - My pleasure

  • From a distance this site may seem barely worthy of note

  • But as we've learned today, it's a hidden gem

  • in the local, the national and the international story of steel production

  • It's also early proof that the north of England would play a

  • key role in the Industrial Revolution and that England

  • as a whole would be swept up in a pioneering period of manufacturing and industrialisation

  • The area around Derwentcote Steel Furnace

  • is open all year round and the furnace itself is open on special days

  • To find out more, check the English Heritage website

In a wooded valley on the outskirts of Gateshead sits an

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How England Was Made | Episode 3: Derwentcote Steel Furnace

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    Summer posted on 2021/06/03
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