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Without the rich hematite iron ores of Furness and West Cumbria there would have been no railway over Stainmore. The massive, rich iron ores of these areas contained the highest iron content of any ores mined in Britain and became highly prized for smelting by the early 19th century. Distant from markets and from the early centres of iron smelting, for many years the ore was shipped to established centres of the iron industry in the Midlands, South Wales and central Scotland. Only small amounts were smelted locally using charcoal for fuel. During the 18th century small blast furnaces were operated at Maryport, Cleator Moor, Duddon, Newlands (near Ulverston), Nibthwaite (south of Coniston Water), Backbarrow and Lindale (near Grange-over-Sands).

The arrival of the railway from the 1840s transformed the situation. Initially exports from the area grew rapidly, but soon a new generation of entrepreneurs established modern blast furnaces around Workington, Cleator Moor and Barrow consuming an ever-increasing proportion of locally mined ores. The invention by Sir Henry Bessemer in the late 1850s of the first method for the large scale conversion of iron into steel, which was initially dependent on the use of the low-phosphor ores from Cumbria, led to a massive growth of the iron and steel industry from the 1860s and through the 1870s. By 1882 over 1,000,000 tons of pig iron were produced in West Cumbria alone, nearly one-eighth of total UK production, with at least another half million tons from the Furness area.

The 1880s were the peak from which a long sustained decline of the industry was to commence, though massive production figures were reached again during World War One. By this time the impact of exhaustion of local ore reserves and increasing dependence on imported ores, mainly from northern Spain initially, and competing and more efficient new methods of steel manufacture were being increasingly felt and many works closed soon after the war. Rationalisation ensured that the industry continued as a major contributor to the local economy, at Barrow until 1960, and at Workington into the 1980s, with the last remnant of industry there, the rail mill only closing in 2006. Rail manufacture had been one of the major drivers of the industry in Cumbria with Barrow and Workington-rolled rails being exported all round the world for the massive expansion of rail networks in all parts of the British Empire, the United States and South America during the late 19th century.

So the railway over Stainmore played an essential part in the growth of the British Empire and the development of the transport networks which were essential for transporting the products of Empire back to the mother country - and for British manufactures to reach their global markets.

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