The Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron & Coal Company
The Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron & Coal Company
The Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron & Coal Company was based in south Wales. Founded in 1790, it was the largest tinplate producer in the country, until its closure in 2002.
In the Edwardian period it employed 34,000 men, and by the mid-nineteenth century it was at the forefront of technological development, especially in the conversion of iron to steel. It gained further British technological firsts after a complete rebuild in 1936-8 and went on to outlast all the other Heads of the Valleys iron and steel plants.
Ebbw Vale Ironworks was part of a chain of works along the northern rim of the south Wales coalfield where the raw materials for making iron - iron ore, coal and limestone - occurred together.
It was established in 1790 by a partnership led by Jeremiah Homfray, owner of the Penydarren Ironworks at Merthyr Tydfil. In 1796 he sold the works to the Harford family who ran it for the next half a century, building three more blast furnaces, puddling furnaces to produce wrought iron and rolling mills to make rails. The Harfords also bought the three blast furnaces at Sirhowy in 1818, to increase their supplies of pig iron for the furnaces and mills.
The Harfords went bankrupt in 1842 when their overseas investments collapsed. Their works were kept going by trustees and in 1844 Abraham Derby IV, the Coalbrookdale ironmaster, came out of semi-retirement to form the Ebbw Vale Company.
The company rapidly expanded, buying the neighbouring Victoria Ironworks in 1848, Abersychan Ironworks in 1852, Pentwyn Ironworks in 1858 and Pontypool Ironworks in 1872. When the local iron ores became exhausted the company bought iron mines in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Spain during the 1850s.
In 1854-5 George Parry, the works chemist, experimented with steel making but it was not until 1868, when the company installed a Bessemer plant, that regular steel production began.
The cost of expansion
The company was reformed as the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron & Coal Company Limited in 1868. The cost of continued expansion in the boom of the early 1870s crippled the company in the depression that came later in the decade. Iron trade declined as steel superseded iron - fortunately the Ebbw Vale Company had been an early innovator in steel production.
From 1873 the company was controlled by Manchester financiers, who did not seem to understand the iron and steel trade. The works declined; Pentwyn closed in 1868, Sirhowy and Abersychan closed in 1882-3, Pontypool in 1890 and by 1892 the concern was almost bankrupt, with the plant described as obsolete and the machinery in disrepair.
Changing direction — the insatiable demand for Welsh Coal
From the 1870s onwards the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron & Coal Company's prosperity lay in coal rather than iron and steel. In 1873 it was already the largest coal producer in south Wales, but the bulk of its coal was being used in the coke ovens and the steam engines of the ironworks.
In the 1870s and 1880s the company switched direction to take advantage of the spectacular growth in demand for Welsh steam coal to drive the world's ships, trains and steam engines.
As the older collieries in the Ebbw Vale area were becoming exhausted it sank two new collieries - Waunlwyd (1874-7) and Marine Colliery at Cwm (1889-91). Ebbw Vale coal became a familiar sight all over the world.
The increasingly insatiable demand for Welsh steam coal during the first two decades of the twentieth century enabled the company to rapidly expand and modernise its collieries. Some of the older collieries were closed and output was doubled at Waunlwyd and Marine.
In twenty years the company doubled its output to 2 million tons. More coal meant more miners and the company's workforce rose to nearly 6,000, and profits rose dramatically too.
In 1892 control of the company returned to iron and steel interests. The companies finances were consolidated, with expansion and modernisation beginning in 1897. In 1910 a number of south Wales colliery owners led by Viscount Rhondda became directors.
In May 1911, under the impression that profits would be increased by concentrating on coal production alone, they closed the iron and steel works. However, their hopes were not fulfilled and those works reopened in April 1912.
The last act of expansion before the First World War was the construction of sheet mills in 1912.
Between 1918 and 1920 the company increased its capital from £1.8 million to £7.7 million and embarked on further expansion. Two modern blast furnaces built at Victoria in 1920-23 replaced the four old Ebbw Vale blast furnaces. Plants were installed to produce steel railway sleepers and weldless tubes and couplings. However, the international iron and steel trade slumped in the early 1920s.
The golden age of the early twentieth century was shattered from the 1920s onwards. The boom in the coal export market collapsed as ships switched to oil for fuel. After 1922 the company's high profits turned into big losses.
The 1920s and 1930s were the "Years of the Locust" as wages fell, collieries closed and unemployment rocketed. There were bitter and long industrial disputes in 1921 and 1926 and the financial crisis of 1929 affected the Ebbw Vale company badly. Its works closed, putting almost half the town's population out of work.
In 1935 the company went into liquidation and all its collieries were sold to Partridge Jones and John Paton Ltd, the largest colliery owner in the Gwent valleys.
To remain internationally competitive, Britain's tinplate industry required an American-style steel stripmill. A new stripmill was planned in Lincolnshire but Government intervention caused it to be relocated to Ebbw Vale, and in 1936-8 the old works was cleared and an integrated iron, steel and tinplate plant built.
The former collieries of the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron & Coal Company were taken over by the National Coal Board when the whole industry was nationalised in 1947. In that year, three were still in production — Waunlwyd, Cwmcarn and Marine. They were closed in 1964, 1968 and 1988 respectively.
Up to the present
The first electrolytic line outside the USA was built at Ebbw Vale in 1947-8. The Bessemer and open hearth steel plants were expanded and in 1960 Britain's first LD converter was installed at the works. Such plant was soon to supersede all Bessemer and open hearth steel plants in the UK. Two further electrolytic tinning lines were installed in 1961 and 1969, with galvanising lines added in 1957 and 1969.
Rationalisation in the steel industry following nationalisation in 1967 led to the steel plant at Ebbw Vale closing in 1978.
Until closure in 2002 the works concentrated on tinplating and galvanising, and was the largest tinplate producer in Britain.
Article Date: 23 July 2010