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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

In the sky a lurid glow

The Neilson Mausoleum- Tongland kirkyard

How iron furnaces forged modern Scotland.

Post-referendum, the Labour vote in Scotland appears to be in meltdown. It now seems possible that despite victory for the No campaign last September, the SNP will win enough seats in the May UK general election to create a further constitutional/political crisis/major headache. But will a strong SNP vote mean that most former Labour voters  have become nationalists?  Or will a significant number of SNP voters in May be voting not as ‘nationalists’ but as opponents of neoliberal austerity? That suggestion is a simplification of an older and deeper dimension of Scotland’s politics, one which is tied up with the beginnings of the Labour party in Scotland. This in turn connects to the Scottish experience of industrialisation and ‘old’ rather than neo liberalism.

The following is a beginning. When it got to 3500 words I paused it. Even in this condensed form it will need another 4000 to finish and many more to do justice to the subject.

Hot Blast

In 1994 an attempt was made to blow-up a statue erected in 1834 on Beinn a' Bhragaidh. Attempts to have it more lawfully removed have also been made. An inscription at its base reveals why.

In lasting memorial of-George Granville-Duke of Sutherland Marquess of Stafford KG-An upright and patriotic nobleman-a judicious kind and liberal landlord-who identified the improvement of his vast estates-with the prosperity of all who cultivated them-a public yet unostentatious benefactor-who while he provided useful employment-for the active labourer-opened wide his hand to the distresses-of the widow the sick and the traveller-a mourning and grateful tenantry-uniting with the inhabitants of the neighbourhood-erected this pillar-AD MDCCCXXXIV (1834).

For many people the statue and its inscription  mocks and insults the memory of the thousands of people evicted from the land by the duke of Sutherland and other landowners during the Highland Clearances.

Three hundred miles to the south of Beinn a' Brigade a smaller monument on Barstrobrick hill in Galloway erected in 1888 commemorates an event which changed and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Scots, Irish and other nationalities. Yet this monument to human misery has never attracted any more than passing attention and has never been threatened with demolition or removal. Perhaps if the monument had been built on the same ‘eminence’ as this parish church, it would have attracted more attention and less indifference.

From the steeple of the parish church, which stands on a considerable eminence, the flames of no fewer than fifty blast furnaces may be seen. In the daytime these flames are pale and unimpressive; but when night comes on, they appear to burn more fiercely, and gradually there is developed in the sky a lurid glow similar to that which hangs over a city when a great conflagration is in progress. Dense clouds of smoke roll over it incessantly, and impart to all the buildings a peculiarly dingy aspect. A coat of black dust overlies everything, and in a few hours the visitor finds his complexion considerably deteriorated by the flakes of soot which fill the air, and settle on his face. There is something grand in even a distant view of the furnaces but the effect is much enhanced when they are approached to within a hundred yards or so. The flames then have a positively fascinating effect. No production of the pyrotechnist can match their wild gyrations. Their form is ever changing, and the variety of their movements is endless. Now they shoot far upward, and breaking short off, expire among the smoke; again spreading outward, they curl over the lips of the furnace, and dart through the doorways, as if determined to annihilate the bounds within which they are confined; then they sink low into the crater, and come forth with renewed strength in the shape of great tongues of fire, which sway backward and forward, as if seeking with a fierce eagerness something to devour.

In 1869, when the above was written, the parish church mentioned overlooked the rapidly growing town of Coatbridge in Lanarkshire. This growth began in 1830 when the first blast furnace built  for the Baird family at Gartsherrie  was fired up. The blast furnace was one of the first to use a new technique which was to revolutionise  the Scottish iron industry and make Scotland the workshop of  the world. The new technique involved superheating the air blasted into the furnace. This reduced coal consumption from 8 tons per ton of iron produced to three tons. This made the Scottish pig iron the cheapest in the world. In 1825, Scotland produced only 25 000 tons of pig iron per year. By 1840 this had risen to 240 000 tons, to 564 000 tons by 1848 and over 1 million tons by 1862.

The ‘hot blast’ technique of iron smelting which created this phenomenal growth was discovered by James Neilson, manager of the Glasgow Gas Works in 1828. The monument on Barstobrick hill was erected by his son Walter Neilson in honour of his father’s revolutionary discovery. After making his fortune through his discovery, James Neilson had bought Queenshill estate, including Barstobrick hill, in 1848. Neilson’s choice of Galloway to retire to was influenced by a family tradition that John Neilson of Corsock in Galloway was an ancestor. James Neilson was a strongly religious man and John Neilson was a Covenanter ‘martyr’ -or rebel- who was executed in Edinburgh in December 1666 after being captured following the battle of Rullion Green.

There is a difficult point to make here. When the duke of Sutherland and other Highland landowners began reorganising their estates, were they intentionally setting out to destroy the traditional ways of life of their tenants, or were they trying to improve the lives of their tenants? In Lowland Scotland, it is accepted and understood that the re-organisation of estates by landowners was intended to modernise and improve farming practice, making it more profitable for landowner and tenant. The aim, which was accomplished, was to move from subsistence to surplus, banishing the spectre of ‘dearth’ (famine)  from the land.

The problem in the Highlands was that the its very different physical and human ecology meant that trying to copy a process which had worked in the Lowlands failed, with disastrous consequences. But, given the very limited knowledge of physical and human ecology available at the time, how could  Highland landowners have predicted the destructive consequences of their actions? In the context of the Highland Clearances, such arguments are dismissed as apologetic excuses. But by the same logic, does that mean we must hold James Neilson and the Scottish iron masters who profited from his invention accountable for the appalling human cost of the industrial revolution they created?

Extending this argument and with the benefit of environmental hindsight, would it have been better for Scotland if its coal and ironstone had been left untouched beneath the ground?

Coal had been exploited in Scotland since the middle ages, a move pioneered by the great abbeys who used it to boil sea water in  to make salt. However, even by the beginning of the nineteenth century, most coal was still used domestically and production was based on small, shallow mines. Of the future iron producing areas, the expansion of coal mining in Ayrshire had been limited by the failure of several attemtps to break into the Irish coal trade. Since the mid-seventeenth century, coal mining had been built up in West Cumberland to supply the Irish market and Cumbrian coal retained its dominance of this market through the eighteenth century. While coal from Lanarkshire supplied Glasgow, as late as 1769 coal mining was still not a major industry.

By 1769 work had begun on the Forth and Clyde canal and James Watt had surveyed the route of what was to become the Monklands canal. James Steuart, who owned the 12 000 acre Coltness estate was a former Jacobite who had spent 20 years in exile in Europe. Steuart was interested in political economy and had already published his book ‘Outlines of Political Economy’.  In 1769 Stueart published ‘Considerations on the Interest of the County of Lanarkshire in Scotland’. The main focus of this paper was Steuart’s fear that the Forth and Clyde canal would damage the economy of Lanarkshire by allowing imports of grain from the eastern Lowlands to be sold cheaply in Glasgow. Lower grain prices would have a damaging impact on the process of agricultural improvement in Lanarkshire. Ironically, in 1836 Steuart’s son sold Coltness estate for £80 000, not for its agricultural value, but for the coal and ironstone which lay beneath its fertile fields.

Between 1769 and 1836, Scotland did undergo an industrial revolution. This revolution was based on cotton. By 1835 there were 125 cotton mills in Scotland, but although steam was a mature technology, 44 % of the power used in the mills was still supplied by waterwheels. Likewise although there were steamships and steam locomotives at work in Scotland by 1830, their demand for coal could still be met by traditional coal mining. Population growth and economic growth would have increased demand for coal through the nineteenth century. More modern, deeper mines would have been developed to meet this demand, but without the stimulus of the iron industry, this change would have been more gradual and less traumatic.

The discovery that coke could be used instead of charcoal to smelt iron was first made by Abraham Darby in England in 1709. It took fifty years before the technique was successfully applied in Scotland at the Carron iron works. After 1759 no new iron works were built in Scotland until 1785 when the Clyde iron works was built and over the next forty years only a further eight  were constructed. This contrasts with the situation in South Wales where production of pig iron grew from 12 300 tons in 1788 to 277 643 tons in 1830. This was 41% of total UK production. Scottish pig iron production in 1830 was only 39 000 tons or 5.5% of total UK production.

Why was the South Wales iron industry so much more successful than the Scottish iron industry before 1830? There are two main reasons. Firstly, production costs were lower. The Welsh coal had a carbon content of 80%, twice that of Scottish coal. This meant that the Welsh needed less coal to produce their iron. The Welsh coal and ironstone were close to the surface in the hills and could be mined using horizontal shafts driven into the sides of the Welsh valleys. This reduced the labour costs involved in mining the coal and iron stone, producing another cost saving. Secondly, the Welsh had the advantge of ‘location, location, location’. The iron works were linked to Cardiff and Newport by dense network of eighteenth century canals and waggonways. From Cardiff and Newport the Welsh iron could not only be exported by sea but also sent, via the river Severn and the English canal network, to the already well established metal bashing industries of the West Midlands.

Until 1830, the main disadvantage of the Scottish iron industry was that the low -35% to 40%- carbon content of Scottish coal meant that it took as much as 8 tons of coal to produce one ton of iron. This made Scottish iron more expensive than Welsh iron. Apart from the Carron iron works, which specialised in the production of cannons -the Carronade- the other Scottish iron works were only able to survive because the transport costs of shipping Welsh iron to Scotland offset its cheaper production costs. If progress on deepening the Clyde to Glasgow had been more rapid, or if a rail link to England had been established earlier, the Scottish iron industry might have withered away before Neilson’s hot-blast could revolutionise it.

Neilson had become manager of the Glasgow Gas Company in 1817. In 1824 he was approached by an ironmaster who asked if the techniques used to purify the gas could be used to remove sulphur from the air used in blast furnaces. As Neilson explained in a paper he read to the Glasgow Philosophical Society in 1825,this question had arisen because ironmasters had observed that the iron produced in winter was superior to iron produced in summer. In the absence of  scientific knowledge, some ironmasters believed that there was more sulphur in the air in summer while many others believed that colder air produced finer iron. Neilson argued that the difference was due to the higher oxygen content of cold air. He also noted that warmer air had a higher water content.

This led him to experiment with heating the air to dry it out. His first experiment involved supplying an ordinary blacksmith’s forge with heated air ‘the effect was that fire was rendered  most brilliant, with an intense degree of heat’ while blasts of cold air produced only ordinary brightness and heat. Unfortunately, as Neilson later recounted, there was a ‘strong prejudice’ and a ‘superstitious dread’  amongst furnace managers against meddling with furnaces that were producing good quality iron. However, one of the furnaces at the Clyde iron works was producing poor quality iron so Neilson was allowed to experiment with heating the blast supplied to this furnace. This improved its performance and Neilson was able to use the results of his trials at the Clyde iron works to produce a provisional patent for his invention in 1828 and a full patent in 1829. The first hot-blast furnace using an ‘improved apparatus’ began operations at the Clyde iron works in 1830.

If it had been left to existing ironmasters, their ‘strong prejudice’ against innovation would have led to a slow uptake of Neilson’s hot-blast. The rapid adoption of the new technology was driven by the Bairds of Gartsherrie. The Baird family had been tenant farmers in Lanarkshire for generations. They had profited  rise in food prices during the Napoleonic wars,  but as prices fell after 1815, Alexander Baird took on the lease of a coal mine near the Monklands canal in 1816. Alexander had 8 sons and made William, then aged 20, manager while Alexander junior, aged 16, became the selling agent in Glasgow. In 1825 the brothers took the lease of a pit at Gartsherrie in Old Monklands parish. The problem with supplying coal for the Glasgow market was its seasonal nature with high demand in winter and low demand in summer. The existing coal suppliers also operated a cartel, keeping the price of coal high by restricting production. It seems likely that the Bairds decision in 1828 to build an iron furnace at Gartsherrie was driven by a need to find a use for surplus stocks of coal and the fact that there were extensive reserves of ironstone in the immediate area.

The Bairds first furnace was fired up in 1830 and was a hot-blast furnace. This meant that they were immediately able to produce pig iron more cheaply than their traditionalist competitors. Emboldened by the success of their new venture, by 1843 the Bairds had built 16 blast furnaces at Gartsherrie producing 100 000 tons of pig iron per year making it the largest iron works in the world. As they built more iron furnaces, the Bairds improved the hot-blast systems used and stopped paying royalties to Neilson. This led to a legal dispute which Neilson won in 1843. During the trial, the Bairds revealed that in the ten years between 1833 and 1843 they had made £ 260 000 net profit from hot-blast iron.

The Bairds ability to make huge profits from Neilson’s hot-blast was in part due to the discovery that Lanarkshire’s blackband ironstone (iron ore mixed with coal) and raw splint coal could be used directly in their furnaces. More pig iron could then be produced from less coal and iron ore. But in addition to this cost saving, the Bairds and other ironmasters made sure that the labour costs involved in mining the coal and ironstone were also reduced. This was achieved by what can only be described as a class war directed against their employees.

The problem faced by the ironmasters was that, as Alan Campbell explained in ‘The Lanarkshire Miners’ (Edinburgh, 1979), between 1606 and 1799 Scottish coal miners had been legally bound to their place of employment. While this form of neo-feudal serfdom guaranteed mine-owners a dedicated workforce, it also deterred new entrants to the workforce. The bonded miners believed that their wages were linked to the price of coal, so when coal prices were high so were their wages. This encouraged them to limit the amount of coal they mined so its price remained high. Well into the nineteenth century, the early miners’ trade unions continued trying to keep their wages up by restricting how much coal they mined.

However, although the new hot-blast iron furnaces needed less coal, high coal prices risked losing the resulting cost-advantage. The furnaces also had to be kept going 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. The ironmasters needed a constant supply of cheap coal and as more hot-blast furnaces were built, they had to keep increasing the supply of coal and ironstone to the furnaces. To do so, the ironmasters opened their own coal and ironstone mines. At first these mines were close to the iron works but as production increased the ‘industrial frontier’ was pushed further out into the Lanarkshire and Ayrshire countryside.

To accommodate their workforce, the ironmasters built housing for them, as cheaply as possible. To feed their workers, they also opened company stores where the workers had to spend their wages. In theory the Truck Act passed in 1831 made this illegal, but as late as 1871 the House of Commons had to set up an inquiry into its effectiveness after a petition signed by 100 000 miners. In Lanarkshire it was found that there had been no criminal prosecutions under the Truck Act. This, it turned out, was because the ironmasters had effective control over the legal system in Lanarkshire.

Before Coatbridge became a centre for the new iron industry, the parishes of Old and New Monklands had been rural parishes with no need for a police force. By the 1840s this situation had changed but the Commissioners of Supply for Lanarkshire, who were mainly rural landowners, did not want to take on the expense of providing a police force. The Bairds of Gartsherrie and other local ironmasters then had the two parishes plus parts of Shotts and Bothwell made a into a special police district, paying for the new police force through the rates they paid on their extensive properties in the area.

By 1869, although there were 415 Commissioners of Supply owning property with an annual value of £100 in Lanarkshire, the smaller Finance Committee, dominated by the ironmasters and large landowners like the duke of Hamilton who was also a mine owner, controlled the purse strings of the Procurator Fiscal. Before proceeding with a potentially expensive legal case, the Procurator would have to have the approval of the Finance Committee. In 1871, the auditor of the accounts for Lanarkshire’s Committee of Supply said that he would not allow the expenses for a prosecution under the Truck Act because he believed the Commissioners ‘would not sanction it’.

James Baird’s account of a strike at Gartsherrie iron works.

In April 1837 the colliers were receiving five shillings a day, but as trade was looking rather unfavourable, they took it into their heads that they would be able to keep up their wages by working only three days in the week, and they continued to do this for some time. The other coal masters took no steps to resist it ; but we resolved that we would not, if we could help it, have our output limited in this way, and we accordingly gave every man notice to quit in fourteen days.
Thus we were left with eight furnaces, and not a single collier at Gartsherrie. We were not
obliged, however, to draw upon our reserve supplies. We had  now an " open cast " ready for work, and at Gartgill we had about twenty acres of the Pyotshaw coal hanging on the roof of the main coal, and it could be easily brought down. This we found could be accomplished by ordinary labourers, and we were soon able to procure a large output from the open cast and  from the Pyotshaw coal—a good many labourers who had been
working about the pits being now employed at the common coal faces. In the course of three weeks the output had been so much increased that we were able to carry on the whole of the furnaces. So stubborn, however, were the colliers, notwithstanding what they saw we were able to do, that they did not look near us for fifteen weeks.
This strike taught the poor men a lesson which they did not soon forget. It was as determined and prolonged a strike as any we have ever had at Gartsherrie. Many of the wives and children suffered greatly during the fifteen weeks of their foolish idleness. When they returned their condition was sadly changed. The best their furniture was gone. Most of the people who returned were in squalid wretchedness, and some of those who had left us had succumbed to their sufferings, and were in their graves. All the time I remained about Gartsherrie—down to 1851 or 1852—I never again saw the colliers up to the same mark of health and comfort as that in which they were before this strike.

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