For many years, the name of the Ironworks was referred to as the Alfreton Ironworks. When the works were established in the early 1800’s the parish town of Alfreton was the nearest point for communication with the outside world. The Cromford Canal was used to transport goods, but the mail and passenger coaches stopped at the Angel Inn and George Hotel in Alfreton. This situation did not change until the arrival of the railways to Pye Bridge in 1847, and even then all mail was carried through to Alfreton. It was not until later in the 20th century that the location became more commonly referred to as the Riddings Ironworks, and after iron making finished in 1926, the Riddings Foundry. This change was probably due to the influence of the Oakes family, who lived at Riddings House. Despite the name, however, the Ironworks was located in the hamlet of Pye Bridge.
The effect that the Oakes family had in the area can be seen with the formation of a new gas works in 1888, situated across the B600 from the ironworks and wholly within the hamlet of Pye Bridge. It was named the “Riddings & District Gas Company” regardless of its actual location.
Whilst the exact location of the ironworks may not be that important to the overall expansion and prosperity it brought to the local community, it is the case that Pye Bridge never had the connection and status that eventually went to Riddings.
1. ESTABLISHMENT OF THE IRONWORKS, c.1802
Just after the turn of the 19th century four people entered into a partnership and purchased a property known as Exeter House on Full Street, Derby and land at Pye Bridge on the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border. The four were Thomas Saxelbye, Richard Forester Forester, Nathaniel Edwards and William Wylde. [Note that duplication of the name “Forester” is correct, as his full name was Richard Forester Forester].
Exeter House sat on the bank of the River Derwent. It was originally built around 1640 and known as Bagnall House after its first owner, although it was extended and altered in later years. In 1724 the property was inherited by the daughter of Thomas Chambers, whose family had added to the grounds by purchasing land on the opposite bank of the Derwent which was developed into pleasure grounds for the house. His daughter married Brownlow Cecil in the same year, 1724, who had by then inherited the title of 8th Earl of Exeter, and from whom the house then took its name. The house was modernised over the years but in March 1758 it was sold to John Bingham, then Mayor of Derby. His son, also named John, lived in the house with his family until they moved to Worcester, when it was rented by William Strutt, an engineer. Exeter House continued to be owned by the Bingham family until it was purchased, along with the land on the opposite bank of the Derwent, by the partnership of Saxelbye, Forester, Edwards and Whylde around 1801. The partners planned to build a foundry on the land where the pleasure grounds had once stood.
Three of the partners came from Derby and the fourth from Southwell, Nottinghamshire.
The four partners formed a business which took the name of Thomas Saxelbye & Company and named their Derby works the Derwent Foundry. None of these four men seemed to have had any former dealings with iron making or iron foundries and no doubt looked upon the venture as an investment opportunity. To oversee their investment they employed James Oakes [1750-1828], who was also from Derby. Oakes was the son of Benjamin Oakes, head of a family of innkeepers and carriers of St. Peter’s Street, Derby. It is likely that membership of the Derby Philosophical Society is how James Oakes knew Richard Forester and how he initially became involved with the ironworks at both Derby and Pye Bridge.
Around the year 1801, the company purchased land at Pye Bridge and the partners became lessees of the mineral rights. Two exposed concentrations of ironstone rakes ran through the area. One was known as the “Ironville Anticline”, and the second was known as the “Riddings Dome”. These two concentrations yielded a high tonnage of iron ore per acre of land. To add to the desirability of the mineral rich land the Cromford Canal had also been constructed alongside the ridge. An auction of land took place on 20 November 1801 at the George Inn, Alfreton. The Derby Mercury published on 12 November carried a notice of the auction of which Lot 9 was: “A piece of land well adapted for wharfage purposes, called the Upper Bent and part of Spring Field, adjoining to and lying between the Canal and Turnpike Road aforesaid, near Pye Bridge, containing by estimation nearly four acres. All the premises are intended to be sold subject to reservations of minerals which will be particularly specified at the time of sale”. It is not clear exactly where this land was, or if Thomas Saxelbye & Company purchased it at the auction. The date and details are, however, closely matched. It is believed that the land on which the ironworks sat was purchased partly from Lancelot Rolleston, of Watnall Hall and partly from the Musters of Beauvale, and that the mineral rights were leased separately. The fact that the land and mineral rights were separately owned and leased often caused issues with the respective owners and lessees. This is explained by John Farey in his book “General View of the Agriculture & Minerals of Derbyshire” published in 1811 which states: “The coals in old inclosed parishes in some instances belong to one person, and the land to another, and even the ironstone is again separated by Leases, as in Somercotes and some other places; in such cases the cultivation suffers severely, from want of any interest between the Farmer and the Miner…”
The “Asclepiad” of 1888, previously mentioned, referred to Charles Sylvester the engineer and James Oakes together founding the Alfreton Ironworks, although this is probably a reference to them establishing the works on behalf of the Derby partners. No other documentation or reference in support of this claim has been discovered. As the two men obviously knew one another at least through the Derby Philosophical Society if not more socially, it seems logical that they could have been employed in establishing the ironworks at Pye Bridge. Certainly James Oakes seems to have taken the project to heart, purchasing shares in the partnership at every opportunity until he became the sole owner. At the outset there were probably two people required to oversee and run the construction of the ironworks and foundry. The first would be an engineer and the second a project manager. In nearly all documents that describe the vocation of men such as those in the Philosophical Society, titles such as Engineer, Scientist, Chemist etc., are used, but more often than not James Oakes is referred to as “Gentleman”. He was certainly not employed as the manager of the Derwent Foundry or the Ironworks at Pye Bridge, as other people are known to have had that title; he was more likely to have been the head of the company responsible to the shareholders or partnership, and in today’s terms would probably have the title “Chief Executive Officer” [CEO}. Despite his perceived fondness for Pye Bridge and Riddings however, he continued to live at Derby.
The works that Thomas Saxelbye & Company founded at Pye Bridge was next to the canal wharf and ideally sited to exploit the coal and ironstone. It became known as the Alfreton Ironworks and opened around 1802. Unlike the foundry business at Derby, the Pye Bridge site included a Blast Furnace for the manufacture of iron.
An early map of the Ironworks, dated 1811. The road at the top left is the current B600
Prior to 1709 charcoal was the medium used to produce iron. Woods were being cleared of timber for shipbuilding, for housing and other essential trades which resulted in the price increasing dramatically. In 1709, Abraham Darby succeeded in smelting iron using coke, derived from coal. By the time that the Derby partners established their business at Pye Bridge, the use of charcoal in ironmaking had all but disappeared, and the desirability of siting an ironworks close to the supply of both ironstone and coal was obvious. Along with the blast furnace to produce pig iron, the company also established a foundry at Pye Bridge, and began to sink their own collieries and ironstone mines close to the works. During 1802 alone, a total of 22 blast furnaces were under construction in Britain, showing the speed with which ironmaking was developing and why the Derby partnership were willing to invest their money in this enterprise.
In 1804, William Whylde left the partnership and was replaced by a man named Joshua Lomas. The transfer of shares and the change in the partnership was recorded in the London Gazette dated 17 April 1804: “Whereas the Partnership between Thomas Saxelbye, Nathaniel Edwards, and Richard Forester Forester, all of Derby, in the County of Derby, and William Wylde, of Southwell, in the County of Nottingham, Iron-Masters, and carried on at Riddings, in the Parish of Alfreton, in the said County of Derby, and at Derby aforesaid, under the firm of Thomas Saxelbye and Company, hath (so far as the same relates to or concerns the said William Wylde has been this Day dissolved by mutual Consent. And whereas the said William Whylde [with the Consent and Approbation of the said Thomas Saxelbye, Nathaniel Edwards, and Richard Forester Forester] hath assigned and transferred all his Share and Interest of and in the said Co-partnership Concern unto Joshua Lomas, of Derby aforesaid, Gentleman: Notice is therefore hereby given, that the said Business will in future be carried on by the said Thomas Saxelbye, Nathaniel Edwards, Richard Forester Forester, and Joshua Lomas, under the Firm of Thomas Saxelbye and Company, with whom all Accounts relative to the late Partnership are to be settled. Witness the Hands of the said Parties the 20th Day of February 1804; Thos. Saxelbye, Nath. Edwards, Rich. Forester Forester, William Wylde, J. Lomas.”
By the beginning of 1805 it appears that the partners in the firm had taken the decision to transfer all production to their Pye Bridge works. A notice to this effect was published in the Derby Mercury on 9 May 1805 which read: “DERWENT FOUNDRY, Derby – Messrs. Thomas Saxilbye & Co. desire to inform their Friends and the Public that they are about to remove their foundry business from the Derwent Foundry to their Blast Furnace and Foundry near Alfreton, where they propose to carry on every branch of the casting department, and they request all future orders may be addressed to the Alfreton Iron Works - Derby 8 May 1805.”
Also in 1805, Joshua Lomas left the partnership. This event was again recorded in the London Gazette, which was dated 12 November that year: “Notice is hereby given, that the Partnership lately subsisting between Thomas Saxelbye, Nathaniel Edwards, Richard Forester Forester, and Joshua Lomas, of Alfreton, in the county of Derby, and of Derby, trading Under the Firm of Messrs. Thomas Saxelbye and Co. was dissolved by mutual Consent on the 11th Day of April last, so far as relates to the said Joshua Lomas; and all Debts due and owing to and from the said Partnership Estate will be received and paid by the said Thomas Saxelbye, Richard Forester Forester, and Nathaniel Edwards, who carry on the said Trade on their own Account: As witness their Hands this 28th Day of October 1805. Thos. Saxelbye, Nath. Edwards, R. Forester Forester, J. Lomas.” Lomas was a partner in the company for just over one year. A new partner to replace Lomas was not sought, and the three original Derby partners continued the business on their own.
During 1805, the company appointed David Mushet [1772-1847] as manager. Mushet was by then a well-known authority on the manufacture of iron, and his work at Pye Bridge resulted in changes which increased the production capacity of the blast furnace to a level almost 60% more than those operated by the Butterley Company at that time. Whilst working at the ironworks, David Mushet lived at Hermitage Hall, [now Hermitage Farm], at Newlands. He moved there with his wife, Agnes, three children, and his younger brother, George.
Mushet was perhaps an obvious choice to fill the role of manager to the ironmasters of the Alfreton Ironworks. Born in Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, he was the son of a former weaver who had established his own foundry in the town. Although he did not work for his father he studied ironmaking while he was employed as an accountant by the Clyde Ironworks of Glasgow. He would become an authority on the manufacture of iron and steel and in 1800 he developed and patented a process to make cast steel from wrought iron [he later sold the patent to a Sheffield company]. Prior to his appointment at Pye Bridge, he worked at the Calder Ironworks, where his scientific and experimental attitude did not always go down well with the owners, who were more concerned in protecting the profitability of their company. By 1805, the year he was employed at the Alfreton Ironworks, he had published around thirty papers on the subject of iron and steel making and whilst working at Pye Bridge Mushet continued to write articles which were published to much acclaim. Within a relatively short time, Mushet turned Alfreton Ironworks into the most efficient and cost effective foundry in the county.
David Mushet’s brother, George, only lived with him at Hermitage Hall for about six months, before returning to Scotland in May 1806 to assist another of his brothers, William, to manage an ironworks at Dalkeith. Whilst in Derbyshire George probably worked as an assistant to his brother David. He wrote a short diary, some of which covers his time at Hermitage Hall and which offers a remarkable insight into life in the area at the time. Four entries in the diary, written on consecutive days are partly transcribed below:
It must be noted that George, referring in his diary to “the English”, was, of course, Scottish. It is almost certain that young and old alike in the district would have known who George Mushet and his brother David were, and the respectful attitude shown to them reflected the position they held in the Company. If anything, the diary entries show the difficulty in receiving national news when living in a rural location in 19th century England, as the defeat of the Combined Fleet [now known as the Battle of Trafalgar] occurred on 21 October, just over two weeks before the diary entry.
David Mushet remained at Hermitage Hall and continued his research while working for Thomas Saxelbye & Company at the ironworks. As well as being well-known for his work into iron and steel making, Mushet also knew a great deal about the geology of the area, as the coal and ironstone was crucial to the manufacturing process. The collieries and ironstone mines dotted all over Riddings, Somercotes and Pye Bridge were an integral part of the business and actually employed more manpower than the ironworks itself.
The coal agent working for Thomas Saxelbye & Company at this time was Theodore Silverwood. Silverwood would spend his whole life at the ironworks and for much of the time lived at Lower Somercotes. He was born in 1773 and married Ann Horsley at St. Martin’s Church in Alfreton in 1805. Members of the Horsley family would also play a role in the ironworks during the mid-1800’s. Silverwood’s name appears in a Poll Book for 1826 where he is described as an “iron master of Somercotes”. By the time of his death in 1839, so great was the influence he and his wife had made to the physical and spiritual welfare of the local population that a stained glass window and plaque was dedicated to them at the Church of St. James in Riddings. Mushet must have known Silverwood very well, and both men were respected for their geological knowledge. Such was his reputation that in January 1808, whilst still working at the Alfreton Ironworks, Mushet was made an honorary member of the Geological Society.
The importance of Mushet’s and Silverwood’s research to the reputation and growth of the ironworks cannot be underestimated. John Farey, a mineralogist [who had a somewhat complicated career], was appointed by Sir John Sinclair [1754–1835], then President of the Board of Agriculture, to survey the county of Derbyshire “in order to evaluate minutely its Stratification and Mineral Treasures” Farey contacted local experts knowledgeable in the subject, one of which was David Mushet. They met in 1807. Farey would eventually publish his work “Agriculture and Minerals of Derbyshire” in 1811, which contained information on the collieries and ironstone mines in the area and has become a valuable source of industrial history today.
In 1808 the Riddings Estate of Lancelot Rolleston was put up for sale. An auction of the estate took place on 23/24 February 1808 in 52 lots. An extract from the notice printed in the Derby Mercury of 7 January, prior to the auction, gives some idea of the size of the Rolleston estate at the time: “…In 52 Lots, a Valuable Freehold Estate [Tythe Free], situate at Riddings near Alfreton consisting of several substantial farmhouses and requisite outbuildings, sundry cottages and about 300 acres of valuable meadow, pasture and arable land, divided into convenient sized close, also an extensive right of common over Riddings and Alfreton Common…” A large majority of the Riddings Estate was purchased by Thomas Saxilbye & Company, which later became a significant purchase for the history of the ironworks and of the future of the locality.
Mushet continued his research and corresponded with like-minded people all over the country. An edition of the “Philosophical Magazine” [a scientific journal] published in the last quarter of 1808 printed a relatively long letter from him to a Mr Tilloch, headed “Alfreton Iron Works, November 10, 1808” and titled “Analysis of Various Kinds of Pit-Coal”. The letter begins: “Sir, It has often been a matter of surprise to me that we should possess so scanty a share of knowledge on the component parts of pit-coal, or at least that so small a share of that knowledge should meet the public eye. Except the analysis given by Mr Kirwan, I do not recollect any in our language. After this short preface, I shall offer you no apology for sending you the details that follow…”. The letter then continued with a short analysis of Welsh Furnace Coal from Cyfartha, Alfreton Furnace Coal, Butterley Furnace Coal, Welsh Stone Coal and others. His analysis of the coal produced locally was important to his experimentation and his subsequent conclusions and recommendations.
The publication “Coal & Iron Industries of the United Kingdom” by Ben Haas, published in 1882 mentions the work of David Mushet while he was at the Alfreton Ironworks and states that: “Mr. David Mushet introduced his system for making coke on a large scale for blast furnaces known as the ‘Close Way’ as distinguished from the old method in use at the beginning of the present century, of making heaps of coals, which being set fire to, were subsequently extinguished by a stream of water when coking was complete”.
Coke had replaced charcoal as the fuel used in ironmaking, but the quality depended on the methods employed in its distillation from coal. At the Alfreton Ironworks Mushet introduced a method for the manufacture of coke which became known as the “Closed Method” or “Close Way”. Dwarf chimneys were constructed just over one metre in height which were erected in rows on a “coke hearth.” Coal was stacked around the chimneys which were then fully enclosed in ash and fine sand or soil [known as “breeze”]. Openings were left in the chimneys and through the stacks so that they could be lighted and coal burnt and converted into coke. This closed method, the precursor of the coke oven, produced a much higher grade of coke and a greater consistency of quality.
The iron ore itself had previously been burnt in the open air in beds of coke and then coal-slack, before being broken up, screened and then smelted in the blast furnace. Mushet also devised a new method for this process by roasting the ore in kilns, which reduced the amount of fuel required and the time taken. Once broken up and screened the ore was placed in the blast furnace with limestone or fluor spa, used as a flux, which the company obtained from mines and quarries at Crich. The coke, iron ore and flux was placed in the blast furnace in alternate layers [the limestone or fluor spa was used as a reducing agent, without which the iron ore would not reduce to pig iron in the furnace]. The “Magna Britannia” of 1817 records that: “Fluors of various colours are found in several Derbyshire mines. These fluors are much used for promoting the fusion of brittle and churlish ore; the yellow spar from Crich is used at the ironworks at Butterley and Somercotes.”
After screening, very small pieces of iron ore were removed as these could block the blast furnace. They were considered a by-product of the process [and called “minion”] but once mixed with quick-lime made a hard durable mortar for the building industry.
In 1828 the hot-blast furnace was introduced. It was patented by John Beaumont Neilson of Wilsontown Iron Works in Scotland. The hot-blast furnace used waste heat from the exhaust gases to preheat the air being fed into the furnace and resulted in a reduction of the fuel needed to smelt the iron ore. This invention also led to the use of anthracite [known as “hard coal”] also being used as a fuel [which could not be lit in a “cold-blast” furnace], thus reducing costs further. This system was first used commercially at Yniscedewin Iron Works in Wales by a Mr. David Thomas in 1837. Investigations had found that a partial replacement of coke in the blast furnace reduced costs and increased the quality of the pig iron.
Anthracite has a high carbon content and the highest energy density of all types of coal. However, hard coal was found in the deepest seams, and in the early 1800’s the technology then available made mining it both difficult and dangerous. The ironworks at Pye Bridge was at the forefront in technical innovation and experimentation, mainly due to their employment of people like David Mushet. In the early part of the 19th century they produced an artificial version of anthracite. The details were reported years later in the “Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and the Museum of Economic Geology in London”, published in 1846 which stated: “Anthracite has also been produced by artificial means, before the introduction of the hot blast into the manufacture of iron, when it was of importance to procure that largest amount of combustible matter without possessing the bituminous qualities of common coal. This Mr. Oakes of the Alfreton Iron Works effected, by exposing the coal to a very gradual application of heat, thus converting it into a complete anthracite and not into coke… Specimens of this artificial anthracite are preserved in the Museum of Economic Geology, London”. Significantly, the report states that the artificial anthracite was produced prior to the invention of the hot-blast furnace and was therefore likely to have been part of an experiment similar to those carried out at other ironworks. The article shows that the management at Alfreton Iron Works, led by James Oakes, was at the forefront of such experimentation.
David Mushet left Pye Bridge around 1809, but his input into the business during his tenure as manager was critical to its later development. It was likely that some of his research and experimentation did not sit well with the partners in the company, as they were in business to capitalise on their investment. Just as with his previous employer, the Calder Ironworks, Mushet probably became frustrated at the difference in attitude between scientist and manufacturer and departed to find fame and fortune elsewhere, The geological research that was carried out in the district continued under Silverwood, who would be appointed manager of the ironworks and no doubt had a long and friendly relationship with the future owner, James Oakes.
By the time that Mushet had left, the ironworks and its associated coal and ironstone mines were already having an impact on the local area. The Dog & Doublet Inn at Pye Bridge, for example, was well placed to take advantage of thirsty furnacemen but was also the nearest lodging house to the ironworks. The date when this Inn was built is not known and as it was located adjacent to the Alfreton-Nottingham Turnpike it may well date prior to the establishment of the ironworks. It can be dated back to at least 1808 when the Derby Mercury, published on 24 January that year, ran a notice for an auction held at the Inn: “Sale by auction by Mr. Hickson at the house of Mr. Kennedy, the Dog and Doublet at Pye Bridge near Alfreton… valuable household furniture and effects”. Future sales of land and houses at both Pye Bridge and Somercotes would mention, as a selling point, the close proximity of the ironworks and collieries and the increase in rent that could be made due to the influx of workers and their families. Pye Bridge itself had been established many centuries before the ironworks arrived. Its name no doubt derives from the bridge that must have crossed the river Erewash in ancient times and which forms the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Today, many people will cross a newer version of the bridge without even realising they have crossed over the river. The ironworks itself was sited between the hamlets of Pye Bridge and Riddings, but James Oakes’s son, also named James, decided to make his family home at Riddings, most likely due to the rural atmosphere, away from the main activities of the business that almost certainly impacted on day-to-day life in Pye Bridge and Somercotes. With the ironworks, collieries, ironstone mines and the farms that they owned, Thomas Saxilbye & Company was a major influence on the development of the locality and its increasing population. At the centre of this was James Oakes, who, by 1809, was becoming the major player in the company.
2. THE OAKES FAMILY ERA, 1809
Although the business prospered, in 1809 Thomas Saxelbye left the company. The same year a petition of bankruptcy was awarded against Saxelbye, which may have led to his resignation from the company that bore his name. His shares and entire interest in the business were transferred to James Oakes, and the name of the firm was changed to Oakes, Edwards and Forester, reflecting the change of ownership. The London Gazette of 27 May 1809 recorded the change in circumstance as follows: “Notice is hereby given, that the Co-partnership lately subsisting between Thomas Saxelbye, Nathaniel Edwards, and Richard Forester Forester, all of Derby, in the County of Derby, Iron-Masters, trading under the Firm of Thomas Saxelbye and Company, at the Alfreton Ironworks, situate at Riddings, in the Parish of Alfreton, in the said County of Derby, and also at Derby aforesaid, was, on the 25th Day of March last past, dissolved by mutual Consent, so far as related to or concerned the said Thomas Saxelbye, and that the said Thomas Saxelbye, with the Consent and Approbation of the said Nathaniel Edwards and Richard Forester Forester, did then assign and transfer all his Share and Interest in the said Co-partnership Concern unto James Oakes, of Derby aforesaid, Gentleman, who was thereupon admitted and became a Partner in the Place and Stead of the said Thomas Saxelbye; and also that the said Business will in future be carried on by the said James Oakes, Nathaniel Edwards, and Richard Forester Forester, under the Firm of Oakes, Edwards, and Forester, with whom all Accounts relating to the late Co-partnership are to be settled. Witness the Hands of the said Parties the 20th Day of May 1809. Thos. Saxelbye, Nath. Edwards, Rich. Forester Forester, James Oakes.”
Although Nathaniel Edwards and Richard Forester continued as partners within the company, it was almost certainly at this time that James Oakes became the senior partner.
Theodore Silverwood continued to work as manager for the company during the changes in company ownership, and used his knowledge of the local geology in the sinking of the many colliery and ironstone mine shafts in the area.
When John Farey published his work “Agriculture and Minerals of Derbyshire” in 1811 some of his findings were queried in the Philosophical Magazine by Robert Bakewell, a well-known geologist of the time. The work of Theodore Silverwood was used in Bakewell’s argument. Volume 42 of the Philosophical Magazine, published in 1813, printed an article by Bakewell with regard to Farey’s work in Derbyshire with particular relevance to a “zigzag” fault in the stratum, which other geologists were unable to confirm. Part of the article referred to the work of Silverwood and Mushet, some years previous: “…a collection of sinkings or boreings, applied in succession, from the deep to the basset, which was begun several years ago by Mr. Theodore Silverwood, the very able Coal and Iron agent, at Somercoates Furnace, when it was under the direction of my scientific friend Mr. Mushet… “
It continued: “…Mr. Silverwood’s general sinking account, I have frequently seen, and indeed have a copy of it, as far as it had been completed each way from Somercoats, when last I was there and it now appears that, from a letter of one of the proprietors… that Mr Silverwood is making progress with a vertical section of Derbyshire Strata, which is, I hope, doing by an actual levelling over the surface, an ascertainment of the top and bottom of each rock or visible stratum, and its dip, to be applied to the thickness previously ascertained by sinkings…” “…I sincerely hope that this important work may soon be completed by Mr Silverwood, and as soon as I hear that the eastern part of it is finished I certainly will, at the first opportunity of travelling that way, avail myself of the kind invitation I have had from the resident proprietor Nathaniel Edwards Esq, to see Mr Silverwood’s sinking account and section, and if possible, I will trace the ‘zigzag’ fault across it”. In reply, John Farey stated that he had, in some instances in his work, not been able to confirm details that had been given to him by third parties, but the exchange shows the preparation and study that went into the business of mining in the early part of the 19th century.
Nathaniel Edwards died in January 1814 but it seems that the firm of Oakes, Edwards and Forester continued for several years after, due perhaps in part to complications with the assets of his estate. Richard Forester also took the decision to leave the partnership in April 1817. Despite the changes within the company, a second blast furnace was being added to increase production.
Although it cannot be certain, the combination of Edwards’ death and the resignation of Forester may have prompted a proposed sale of the business. Edwards’ business interests had passed to his executors and heirs, who no doubt wished to capitalise on the funds available from a sale of the assets. Regardless of the reasons, a decision to dissolve the partnership and sell the estate was made, and the entire business was consigned to auction. The estate was effectively sold in two lots. Lot One consisted of Alfreton Ironworks, Riddings House, parkland and approximately 115 acres of arable pasture and meadow, and Lot Two titled “Estates in Derby”, was to include Exeter House, its gardens and grounds. A notice relating to the auction was published in the Staffordshire Advertiser on 21 June 1817, a full transcription of which follows:
“ALFRETON IRON WORKS AND ESTATES IN DERBY
TO BE SOLD BY AUCTION BY MR. BREAREY
Under an Order of the Arbitrators, at the house of Mrs. Woodward, The George Inn, in Derby, on Tuesday the 15th day of July next, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, (unless previously disposed of by Private Contract, of which due notice will be given)
All those well-arranged, newly erected, and valuable IRON WORKS, situated on the Pinxton Branch of the Cromford Canal, in Somercoates [sic] near Alfreton, in the county of Derby, consisting of two BLAST FURNACES with a BLAST ENGINE of 32 horse power, a TURNING ENGINE condensed from the BLAST ENGINE, very spacious and commodious CASTING HOUSES, Drying Stoves, Cupola, Four Air Furnaces, Ironstone Kilns, Coke Hearth, Smiths, Joiners and Model Makers Shops, Warehouse, Counting House, Work-men’s Dwelling Houses, and other necessary Appurtenances; together with all the Stock-in-Trade, Working Tools, and implements of every description, and two Boats.Also a double powered PUMPING ENGINE, and WHIMSEY, with two Boilers, &c. and other Colliery Appendages. An extensive WHARF on the Bank of the Canal is connected with the Works by a short Iron Railway. One of the Furnaces is now in Work, and the other complete and ready for Blast, and the whole of the buildings are in good repair. Also a LEASE for an unexpired term of 21 years, of COAL and IRONSTONE under upwards of 300 Acres of Land adjoining the Works. The Cromford Canal opens a communication from this Estate with Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Gainsboro’, Hull, London, and all the Inland Canals; and the freight to the Metropolis is as low as from most Ironworks in the Kingdom. The Iron is of an excellent and approved Quality. Also a capital and modern built STONE DWELLING HOUSE for the residence of a Partner or Manager, very pleasantly situated, with a neat Conservatory, good Stables, Coachhouse, Corn Chambers, and other Offices, Pleasure Grounds and Kitchen Garden; the whole forming a very desirable country residence. Also a desirable FREEHOLD ESTATE, consisting of a FARM HOUSE and requisite Farming Buildings, in part newly erected, and about 115 Acres of Arable, Meadow and Pasture Land, (including the Gardens, Pleasure Ground, and land occupied by the Buildings and Works above described) lying in a ring fence and in high condition; together with a variety of Farming Stock and Implements of Husbandry.
ESTATES IN DERBY
An eligible FREEHOLD ESTATE, consisting of Nine DWELLING HOUSES with Gardens, in Exeter Row, in the Parish of St. Alkmund, in Derby, in the occupation of William Pedley, Thomas Birch, Mary Ford, John Rhuer, Robert Brewer, Mary Brough, Joseph Dodson, John Smith and John Kirby, and several Acres of valuable Land at present occupied as Garden Ground but well situated for building purposes and intended to be sold together or in Lots, according to a Plan which will be produced at the time of Sale. N.B. This land lies on the east side of the River Derwent, but is neat to, and connected with, the Market Place by means of a convenient Bridge and Road. Also about TWO ACRES of Garden Ground, in the possession of John Wild, lying near to the last mentioned Land.
For further Particulars application to be made to Messrs. WARD, LOCKETT, and BALGUY, or Mr, Jessop, Solicitors, Derby. Derby, 10th June 1817”
The “Stone Dwelling House”, described as a “desirable country residence” is Riddings House.
Despite the public notices, neither Lot was sold. The Derby Mercury on 17 July 1817 records: “The Alfreton Iron Works previously advertised for sale by auction not having been sold, they are to be disposed of by private contract. The Houses in Derby are to be sold in separate lots and the Land in Derby will be sold together or in lots as agreeable to the Purchases…”.
There must have been much uncertainty surrounding the business during this period, as both the Riddings and Derby estates remained unsold, although the second blast furnace was commissioned and began working in 1817. In April the following year the company’s assets were again consigned to auction. This time however, the auction lot for the Ironworks and Riddings House and Park also included the lease for the mineral rights and land in Crich that was omitted from the original auction particulars in 1817. Much of the description for the sale was the same as for the previous auction, but a further extract of the auction details published in the Derby Mercury on 2 April 1818 reads: “CAPITAL ESTATES, IRONWORKS AND COLLIERIES – All those well-arranged, newly erected and valuable IRON WORKs situate on the Pinxton branch of the Cromford Canal at Somercotes…. And a lease for an unexpired term of about 20 years, of coal and ironstone under an extensive tract of land adjoining the works, and about two acres of Limestone land at Crich…” The estate in Derby was also listed for auction in the same notice.
The confusion surrounding the fate of the ironworks continued, as a further notice was printed in the Derby Mercury of 16 April 1818 which read: “IRON WORKS AND ESTATES IN ALFRETON AND DERBY – The sale of this property by Auction, which has been advertised for the 20th day of April instant, is postponed until further notice – Derby 14th April 1818”. It is possible that James Oakes was trying to find sufficient investment to purchase the ironworks and associated properties and lands. It is known for certain that he did in the end find funds to enable him to purchase the estate by private treaty. At this point, James Oakes became the sole owner and the company changed from Oakes, Forester and Edwards to James Oakes & Company. The Derby Estate was sold by James Oakes in June 1819 to William Eaton Mousley, who, like Nathaniel Edwards, was an attorney from Derby.
A final notice regarding the dissolution of the previous partnership and the change of company name was published in the London Gazette dated 24 November 1818, which read: “Notice is hereby given, that the Partnership heretofore carried on by the undersigned, James Oakes, of Derby, Gentleman, Nathaniel Edwards, late of the same place, Gentleman, deceased, and the undersigned Richard Forester Forester, Doctor of Physic, as Ironmasters and Co-partners, at Riddings and Somercotes, in the County of Derby, under the firm of Oakes, Edwards, and Forester, was dissolved, so far as regards the said Nathaniel Edwards, on the, 14th day of January 1814; and Such Partnership was dissolved, so far as regards the said Richard Forester Forester, on the 8th day of April 1817.—All debts due and owing to and from the said Co-partnership concern will be received and paid by the said James Oakes; and the business will be continued under the firm of James Oakes and Company: As witness our hands this 19th day of November 1818. James Oakes, William Charles Flack, Salona Flack, Wm. Edwards (The Executrix and Executors of Nathaniel Edwards, deceased), R. F. Forester.”
James Oakes died on 16 January 1828. His death was reported in the Nottingham Journal, published ten days later. The notice read: “On Wednesday the 16th Instant, while on a visit to his son at Riddings House, aged 77, James Oakes Esq. one of the Aldermen of the Borough of Derby. His health had for some time been visibly declining, but his death was awfully sudden. He rode out frequently for the benefit of gentle exercise in an easy phaeton and in one of these little exercises, having reached the town of Alfreton, he suddenly expired while sitting in the vehicle. Few men have left behind them a character of more unimpeachable integrity, or of greater simplicity of manners and genuine benevolence of disposition.”
James had married Dorothy Snape [1759-1839], who was born at Derby. The marriage took place on 30 May 1786 at Weeford, Staffordshire and they had several children together. Their first born son, Benjamin, named after James’s father, died in infancy and the business was inherited by their second son, named James [1788-1845]. In truth, it is not known when James took over the business interests of his father. James junior would have only been around 14 years old when the ironworks at Pye Bridge was established, although by the auction in 1817 he would have been 28. However, it is known that Riddings House had already been erected by 1817 and was probably built specifically for James around the time of his marriage to Sarah Haden in 1814. He certainly lived there at the time of his father’s death and it is believed that his father remained in Derby, and never lived in the Alfreton area. As the notice regarding the change of ownership in the London Gazette of 1818 referred to “James Oakes of Derby, Gentleman” it is almost certainly referring to James Oakes senior. It is likely though that James senior passed the business on to his son as soon as practicable and certainly long before his death in 1828.
PHOTO: A photograph of Ironworks Staff with Oakes family members.Thomas Haden Oakes is centre [with the beard]. The photograph dates from the late 1800's
Riddings House is an English Heritage Grade II Listed Building [no. 1109003] and originally consisted of a house and coach house together with gardens and parkland. It was extended several times, with a billiard room and clock tower added to the north-west corner. Whilst its location gave the impression that it was situated in countryside it was, in reality, only a short walk to the ironworks and other properties owned and operated by the Company.
The Oakes family was instrumental in establishing the Church of St. James at Riddings, donating land for the building and churchyard and funds towards the construction. Theodore Silverwood still had a prominent position within the Oakes empire which can be witnessed in a newspaper notice published in the London Evening Standard of 3 January 1828 regarding the building of the church at Riddings: “ALFRETON NEW CHURCH - BUILDERS and OTHERS - desirous of acting to execute the several works in the intended new church at Riddings, in the parish of Alfreton, Derbyshire, may see the drawings and specifications on application to Mr. Silverwood, at the Alfreton Iron Works. Persons who tender for the whole of the work must state if they are willing to undertake any of the trades separately, and at what sum; and each tender, accompanied with a schedule of the prices at which the same is made, and with the name of the party tendering, and two sureties, endorsed thereon, is to be delivered at the office of his Majesty's Commissioners of Churches, London, on or before the 12th of January. The Commissioners do not pledge themselves to accept the lowest, or any other tender, unless considered satisfactory. Further information, if required, may be obtained, on application to Mr. Bedford, Architect, 9, Gower-street, London.”
James junior continued his father’s expansion of the ironworks and the influx of workers to both the iron and coal businesses run by the family began to swell the local population.
Although the ironworks would become better known for the manufacture of iron pipes and street furniture many other bespoke castings were made. The Derby Mercury, published on 27 August 1828 printed an article regarding two new bridges that were being erected at the docks in Hull. This short article not only gave an indication as to the size of the castings handled by James Oakes & Company, but also the means of transport and the importance of the Cromford Canal at that time. Part of the article reads: “During the last week the second bridge (the one by which the communication between Whitefriargate and Waterworks street will be effected) arrived, and was landed on the north side of the Old Dock These bridges, the workmanship of which is of the most finished description, were cast and fitted up at the foundry of James Oakes, Esq. the proprietor of extensive works at Riddings, in the vicinity of Alfreton, Derbyshire. A surveyor, with a foreman and eight workmen from the foundry, have arrived in Hull, who are to commence forthwith the erection of the bridge last alluded to, the masonry being already so far completed as to admit of the work being proceeded in. It appears that the whole of the materials of this bridge, weighing about 90 tons, were conveyed to this port from Mr. Oakes's premises in two of the boats employed at Nottingham in navigating the Trent. They are flat-bottomed, and without decks; and, it is somewhat singular that, although apparently little suited for the Humber navigation, from the sharpness of their build, they actually outsailed and passed by the Gainsborough steam packets, arriving here in six hours from the last-mentioned place. We understand, however, that had not the weather been extremely favourable, they would not, loaded as they were, have ventured below the confluence of the Trent and Humber. As it was, the goods were conveyed hither, as it is termed, in one bottom, and all the expenses and delay of a re-shipment of the cargoes were avoided”
Stephen Glover’s “The Peak Guide…” published in 1830 has a description of the ironworks at that time: “The Alfreton Iron Works are situate within the hamlet of Riddings, in the parish of Alfreton. They consist of two blast furnaces for the manufacture of pig-iron and an extensive foundry for the conversion of a part of this product into castings. During the late war, these works were employed almost exclusively in furnishing cannon-shot and shells for the service of government; of which three thousand one hundred tons have been sent to the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich in the space of one year. Similar castings continue to be occasionally supplied from these works for the board of ordnance, and for the East India Company. Now, however, the principal part of the produce of these works, not disposed of as pig-iron, is cast into retorts and pipes for gas works, pipes for water works, castings for machinery, bridges and the general purpose of architecture. The retorts made at Alfreton have obtained considerable celebrity on account of their durability. Three collieries are connected with this establishment, which besides supplying the iron works, contribute largely towards the general consumption of coal in the midland counties. Eleven steam engines are in use on the different departments of the works, and from six to seven thousand yards of rail-road. The number of men employed is about five hundred. Three hundred and fifty of these are connected with the ironstone works and collieries and the remainder at the blast furnaces and foundries. The earnings of the labourers vary from 1s 8d. to 2s 4d per day; of the mechanics, founders and furnace men from 3s. to 5s.; of the colliers and ironstone getters, from 2s 6d to 4s 6d according to the nature of the work and the ability and experience of the individual.”
Stephen Glover also gives a short guide to iron making in his book, stating that the ironstone beds at “… Codnor Park, Morley Park, Somercotes near Alfreton, Chesterfield and Staveley are the most valuable in the county “. He continues, referring to the blast furnaces: “… iron is now made in tall furnaces only, heated with the coke of pit-coal and blown by cylinder bellows worked by steam engines. When the fusion of ironstone commences the smelted metal passes through layers of coke and limestone and collecting in the bottom of the furnace is let out into beds of sand, moulded into the forms required. A pig of iron is three feet and a half in length and weighs one hundred pounds”.
PHOTO: Special moulding Core, c.1919
The relationship between the ironworks and its associated mines and collieries during the 19th century is easily overlooked, but as well as the ironstone and coal required for the manufacture of the company’s products there were also other interests at play. On 5 December 1839 the Board of Directors of the Midland Counties Railway appears to have passed a resolution to build a number of Coke Ovens, sufficient to supply all their needs. The “Railway Times”, Vol. 6 states that they “were ordered to be built at the Riddings Colliery, the property of James Oakes Esq., their Vice-Chairman, and that 100 ovens were built”. In total 101 ovens appear to have been erected. Thirty four of the ovens were built on land which was the property of John Cressy Hall, but which was leased by James Oakes for the mineral rights and 67 on land belonging to James Oakes, “near to the ironworks”. The cost to the railway company was £4,964. 2s 2d, “exclusive of the tools and materials used in coking” and the sum of £2855 8s 6d was paid to James Oakes & Company for the materials used in the construction. The Railway Magazine continued: “It appears by the minute-books that these ovens were ordered to be built on the Report of Mr. Kearsley, in which he states ‘that the coke produced at the Riddings Colliery was of first-rate quality’”. An agreement was made with William Silverwood [an agent for James Oakes & Company and a son of Theodore Silverwood], to supply the whole of the coke required by the Midland Counties Railway made at the ovens at a cost of 17s per ton [reducing to 16s per ton after the first four months], delivered on board a canal boat at Pye Bridge Wharf. The agreement included for the railway company to supply not only the coke ovens but all of the stores and tools associated with the works, whilst William Silverwood agreed to the upkeep and maintenance and to pay a rent to the Midland Counties Railway of £150 per year. The coke was conveyed from Pye Bridge to the Coke Store at Long Eaton by five pairs of barges, one pair belonging to the railway, one pair to Mr. Horsley and three pairs to James Oakes, also at an additional cost. The coke required by the Midland Counties Railway was one of their largest day to day expenditures, and the agreements made in 1839 and 1840 with James Oakes & Company were much criticised when it appeared that they were paying substantially more for the product than other railway companies, although this fact was disputed by several parties. A visit to the coke ovens by the railway company committee took place and after due consideration found that the ovens could only be used for coking the coal from the Riddings Collieries. The committee recommended that the coke ovens be offered to James Oakes & Company at a valuation to be ascertained. The situation was complex, but although initially erected for the Midland Counties Railway, the coke ovens became substantial assets as the blast furnaces also used coke in the manufacture of iron. The “Riddings Colliery” to which the Railway Magazine refers is almost certainly the Old Deeps, which consisted of two shafts sunk in the 1830’s and officially known as Deep Main Nos. 1 & 2. They originally exploited the Low Main coal seam but one of the shafts was extended to the Kilburn Seam at 250 yards deep. It was anthracite coal from the Kilburn Seam that was used at the Coke Ovens for the railway.
In the early 1840’s, James Oakes invited Dr. Lyon Playfair [later Knighted and then created Baron Playfair], to Riddings House to carry on research he was undertaking into waste gases produced by blast furnaces. The “British Association for the Advancement of Science” had previously advanced a grant to investigate the exhaust gases and chemical reactions of blast furnaces used in the manufacture of iron. The German chemist, Professor Robert Bunsen [of Bunsen Burner fame] had already carried out research into charcoal fired furnaces, but as coke was by then more often used in England this was thought to require further investigation. The British Association invited Professor Bunsen to England in order to continue his research with the assistance of Playfair. After corresponding with several manufacturers the decision was taken by Playfair to take up the offer given by James Oakes, as he believed that the Alfreton Ironworks would offer the best facilities and freedom for his research. To this end, Bunsen came to England and visited Playfair at Manchester in 1844, prior to their visit to Riddings and the Pye Bridge Works. In his memoirs Playfair described their journey from Manchester to Riddings, which is transcribed as follows: “We went by coach to a small town called Ripley to spend the night before arriving at Riddings. The coach carried away our two hats, which we never saw again. Next morning we went to various shops in Ripley to obtain new hats, but we were told that we had not got ‘Ripley heads,’ and certainly we found none large enough; but we ultimately got disgraceful looking wide-awakes, which made us, with our two German blouses, look like tramps rather than professors. However, we were cordially received and entertained at Riddings House, the seat of Mr. Oakes. It was to be a familiar place to me for the rest of my life, because two years later I married the youngest daughter of our host.” Playfair married Margaret Eliza Oakes at Riddings in 1846. They were the first couple to be married at the village church. The couple initially moved to Barnes in Surrey where Lyon Playfair was then based and during the next few years the couple had two children. Sadly Margaret became seriously ill and moved back to Riddings House where she died in 1855. She is buried in the Oakes family vault at the Church of St. James in the village. Although Playfair re-married several years later he returned to Riddings House on many occasions, and looked upon the Oakes family with a genuine fondness and admiration.
More important than the description of the journey Bunsen and Playfair undertook, however, is the detail regarding the blast furnaces on which their research was carried out. This is also covered in Playfair’s memoirs: “The investigation which we had undertaken was difficult. The iron furnaces were about fifty feet deep and from the top there belched a huge flame which lit up the sky at night. Our object was to ascertain what changes took place in the fuel, limestone and iron ore at every foot, from the top where they were introduced until they reached the hearth where molten iron and slag ran out when the furnace was tapped. We erected a support at the top for malleable iron pipes which were to sink into the furnace with the materials. These pipes being connected, I had their length marked at every foot with white paint so that it was apparent from which part of the furnace the gases were streaming. These gases were collected into glass collecting tubes, which were hermetically sealed by a lamp and duly labelled. This did very well and answered our expectations until the iron pipes descended to the hottest part of the furnace, where the air enters by the blast, and there they melted and we had new devices to make. Mr. Oakes, the proprietor, was not to be defeated, and by separate gangs of men and great labour he tapped the sides of the furnace so as to let us draw off the gases by insertion of lateral tubes. Bunsen was engaged below and I was occupied above passing the gases through water to collect any soluble products, when I was alarmed by being told that my friend had become suddenly ill. I ran down and saw white fumes coming out of a lateral tube, and Bunsen apparently recovering from a fainting condition. I applied my nose to the orifice and smelt the vapours of cyanide of potassium, which gave an entirely new light to the processes of the furnace, because this poisonous substance is an excellent reducer of metals. The results of this investigation were important, and have since led to the introduction of great improvements into the staple industry of this country although suggestors of them have long been forgotten by the iron trade.”
Playfair’s experimentation and the results of his research were published at the 15th meeting of the British Association, held at Cambridge in 1845 and was titled “Report on Gases evolved from Iron Furnaces with reference to the Theory of the Smelting of Iron – by Prof. Bunsen of Marburg, Hesse Cassel and Dr. Lyon Playfair of the Museum of Economic Geology, department of Her Majesty’s Woods & Forests”
The report itself comprises many pages and covers the results of the research in great detail, all of which were carried out at the Alfreton Iron Works. James Oakes had died by the time this paper was published, an event not lost on Playfair, who was thankful for the way in which he had been allowed to conduct his experiments. At the end of the paper he wrote the following: “We have already stated that the principal experiments on which our present inquiry is founded were instituted at Alfreton Iron Works, the property of Mr. Oakes of Riddings House. The liberality with which this gentleman opened all his processes to our inspection, and the zeal with which he aided us in our inquiry, under circumstances of no ordinary difficulty, cannot be acknowledged by us with sufficient gratitude. A few short months, however, have deprived industry of a most scientific manufacturer and society of a most amiable man. Our acknowledgements that our success in the inquiry is mainly owing to the facilities which he offered to us and now must fall upon the dead instead of the living; but we cannot refrain from expressing our thanks to his sons, who aided us materially in our experiments with their practical knowledge, and especially Mr. C Oakes whose well-appointed laboratory and skill in chemical manipulation were placed at our disposal during our residence at Riddings House”. Playfair’s subsequent recommendations resulting from his research were incorporated into the blast furnaces at the ironworks.
Despite the technological advances old working practices still existed, as noted in the Children’s Employment Commission Report by John Michael Fellowes of 1842. In his report Fellowes found that about 10 children under the age of eighteen were working at the ironworks, and about eight of these were under thirteen years of age. In contrast, the Butterley Company employed 34 under the age of eighteen, but none were under thirteen. He reported to the commission that very few children were employed at the forges and foundries in the district but the youngest he met was employed at the Alfreton Iron Works. The boy was 10 years old and was employed in carrying and preparing the sand for moulders. Interestingly, Fellowes goes on to report that “The others are employed either in the same way or in removing the moulds from the cannon-balls” indicating that this may still have been a chief product of the company at the time.
James Oakes died suddenly on 28 April 1845 at the age of 67 years. He had married Sarah Haden on 19 May 1814 at St. Michael’s Church, Derby and they had six children. Sarah was the daughter of Thomas Haden, surgeon and twice mayor of Derby [serving in 1811 and 1819]. The business passed to his eldest son, also called James [1816-1868] after his father and grandfather. James’s two brothers, Thomas Haden Oakes [whose middle name was taken from his mother’s maiden name] and Charles Henry Oakes also took active roles in the business. A short notice on his death was published in the Nottinghamshire Review and General Advertiser, which simply read: “In our obituary of this week it has been our painful duty to record the death of James Oakes Esq. of Riddings House near Alfreton, an able and zealous magistrate for the counties of Nottingham and Derby. While the unexpected bereavement to his family and connections is truly and deeply regretted, the public of this county and the magistracy more especially have sustained a loss that will be felt.”
In 1847 the discovery of oil at the Old Deeps colliery led to Lyon Playfair returning to Riddings House at the request of James Oakes. Playfair at the time was employed as a professor in the Royal School of Mines. After some investigations he wrote to James Young, a former fellow chemistry student with Playfair and asked him if the discovery was of interest. Part of his letter stated: “You know that mineral naphtha is a rare natural product, no spring of it occurring in this country, all being imported from the continent or Persia. Lately a spring of this valuable product has been discovered on an estate belonging to my brother-in-law (Mr. Oakes) near Alfreton, Derbyshire.” The letter continued: “My brother intends to set up stills for it immediately; but as they are iron masters this would be a separate industry, so I have advised them, if possible, to sell the naphtha in the crude state to chemical manufacturers and thus avoid carrying on an industry foreign to their occupation…”. James Young came to Riddings House and carried out various experiments; not only on the product itself but also discovering the source and nature of the substance. Finding that lubricating oil and oil for lamps could be refined from the substance Young signed a contract with James Oakes to purchase all that came from the Old Deeps colliery. A year after he first arrived at Pye Bridge he also set up stills and a small manufacturing plant within the Alfreton Ironworks to refine the products, taking advantage of the facilities already available. This, in effect, was the first oil refinery and the start of the petroleum industry. After a short while Young moved to Scotland [where he was born] and with his colleagues, Edward William Binney and Edward Meldrum established the large oil refinery at Bathgate, near Glasgow. Binney had previously read a paper published in 1843 titled “An Account of the Petroleum found in Downholland Moss”, which showed that such a product could be produced from the decomposition of peat. Both he and James Young went to Downholland, in Lancashire, on 26 November 1848, when Binney showed the deposit of petroleum to Young and explained how it had formed. Binney made a statement to the Literary & Philosophical Society of Manchester, which was subsequently published in the “Proceedings of the Society, Vol 8”: “This was before I accompanied that gentleman to Riddings, at Easter 1849, and went down Mr. Oakes’s pit, where the deep coal was wrought, and petroleum flowed from the roof. At both these places the supply of petroleum was not sufficient for commercial purposes on an extensive scale. The Bathgate works were the cause of the petroleum trade in America…” Edward Meldrum was a chemist who had met James Young whilst working for Muspratt’s Chemical Works in Liverpool, when Young was the manager there. In 1848 both Young and Meldrum established a partnership at the Ironworks to develop the small refinery before moving to Bathgate, Scotland. The refinery at the ironworks was eventually removed, but this episode was one of the most important events that took place at the Pye Bridge works.
Another important event in the history of the ironworks was the arrival of the railway. Until the railway, which ran through Pye Bridge, was built, the only means of easily transporting large castings and heavy freight was on the Cromford Canal. Although via this method large amounts of product could be shipped to other parts of the country and to the seaports for export, it was expensive and slow. The railway would provide a cheaper, much faster service. Originally, the proposed Midland Counties Railway was aimed at transporting coal from the Erewash Valley collieries to their main customers in Leicestershire and beyond. The second James Oakes was one of the original Coal and Iron Masters who proposed such a railway although for both James Oakes & Company and the Butterley Iron & Steel Company the railway would have added advantages. His son, James, would take over from his father on his death in 1845. The history of the development and ownership of the railway is complex, but its eventual route, taking it past Ironville and Pye Bridge was no coincidence. Many legal documents and newspaper articles refer to the Acts of Parliament that were passed in relation to the railway, its route, cost and impact upon the Cromford Canal, but a small notice in the “The Law Journal” for 1847 sums up the importance for the ironworks “An Act to enable the Midland Railway Company to purchase the Mansfield and Pinxton Railway and to alter the same, and to make a railway from the Erewash Valley Railway to the Nottingham and Mansfield Railway, with branches to Mansfield and also to the Alfreton Ironworks.” The Mansfield & Pinxton Railway mentioned in the Act was an early 4ft 4ins gauge horse drawn railway, often referred to as a tramway. The Act allowed the Midland Railway to take over the line. The track was re-laid to the standards of the day, and finally opened in 1849. The railway transformed the business and later maps of the ironworks would show the branch line with multiple sidings and shunting yards. The company would eventually have its own steam trains and steam cranes that operated within the works. Almost everything that required heavy handling within the works site was moved by steam engines.
Whilst the railway became by far the most important means of transport the canal was still used for transporting products to certain clients. During 1853 and 1854, James Oakes & Co. obtained a contract to supply the British army with large quantities of round shot for the Crimean War. The “Stantonian” magazine, Volume 15 No 9, [published in September 1945] ran a short article on the history of the ironworks at this time: ”Shot and shell up to 6ins diam. were cast in chills and afterwards ground smooth in revolving mills. They were then loaded direct into the boats and despatched to London, the round trip taking three weeks. Old employees have been heard to talk of the place being like a beehive at the time.” The magazine continued with other information relating to the Pye Bridge wharf on the canal: “…Some years ago the triangular basin, in which the boats were loaded, was cleaned out and used as a cooling pond. Amongst the excavated mud were found some thirty or more specimens of this ammunition, ranging from 1½in to 6in diam., together with several chills in which they were cast…” Sadly, the Stantonian reported that these artefacts had since been lost.
The site continued to expand, and by 1861 a third blast furnace had also been added to increase production. At this time, Erasmus Thomas Horsley [1802-1875], was the manager of the Alfreton Iron Works. He was born in Pye Bridge in 1802 and at the time of the census return in 1851 his occupation was described as “Engineer, Grocer and Miller”. In 1863, his son, Thomas Horsley (1825-1885) also became manager of the iron works succeeding his father. Thomas was born on 25 May 1825, and educated in Derby. He was apprenticed in 1840 as a student to Mr. Josiah Kearlsey, a locomotive engineer working for the Midland Railway Company at Derby. It was in this capacity that Horsley rode on the first engine that ran on the line from Derby to Nottingham. After studying under Josiah Kearsley he assisted his father for a short time, until, about 1845 he took an appointment as engineer and manager of the Milton Ironworks in Yorkshire. Whilst there he designed various pumping engines for both lead and coal mines, and other machinery which was manufactured by the company he worked for. In 1854 he was appointed engineer to establish the Norton Ironworks of John Warner & Sons, near Stockton-on-Tees, where, on completion, the original Great Bell for the Westminster Clock was cast, along with one of the quarter bells [the Great Bell cracked during testing and was deemed beyond repair, so a second bell was cast by the Whitechapel Foundry, which is now known as ‘Big Ben’]. In 1863 he returned to Derbyshire and was appointed engineer and manager of the Alfreton Ironworks, where he remained until he retired to Derby in 1868. After a long and successful career, Horsley died at King’s Newton, Derby on 21 November 1885. During his time working for James Oakes & Company, Horsley lived at Pye Bridge.
In 1866 a visit to the collieries and ironworks of James Oakes & Company was undertaken by the “British Association for the Advancement of Science”, who held a meeting that year at Nottingham. Lyon Playfair was a member of the Association at that time, and at a prior meeting spoke about the ironworks and his previous visits. An article was published in the “Artizan Engineering Journal” in 1867 in which Playfair noted with interest the age of the blast furnaces at Pye Bridge, two of which were by then some forty or fifty years old. His speech partly related to the intended visit:- ”… Prof. Playfair said that as the members intended an excursion to Riddings Colliery and the Alfreton Ironworks, he might mention that one of the objects of interest was a peculiar furnace, celebrated for its antiquity, being 40 or 50 years old, whereas the average duration of iron furnaces was only about four or five years. Recently a part of the wall was taken down for repairs, and he then had the opportunity of examining the whole of the furnace, and of ascertaining how it was that it had lasted so long. To his surprise, he found it lined with plumbago 3 or 4 inches thick, not by the manufacturer, but by the operations of nature. This result he attributed to the carbon in the iron having been squeezed out; and the whole of the furnace was probably lined with plumbago. He thought they might congratulate themselves upon the promise of Dr. Matthieson [the author], that he would continue his researches.” [Plumbago is an old English word for Graphite]
The British Association meeting at Nottingham was held over several days, and included six excursions, including the one to Riddings where guests were to be entertained by James Oakes and senior members of the Company. A whole broadsheet newspaper page was given over to the meeting in the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal, published on 31 August 1866. The detailed description of the visit to Riddings is possibly unique and is transcribed here in full: “EXCURSION TO RIDDINGS – About 50 ladies and gentlemen left the Midland Railway Station shortly after one o’clock for the Riddings Colliery and Alfreton Iron Works, belonging to Messrs. James Oakes & Co. This excursion, though limited in point of numbers, exited a considerable degree of interest, and the party included Mr Grove [the President of the Association], Sir E Belcher, Sir W Armstrong, the Abbe Mirgro, Sir Willoughby and Lady Jones, Dr. Lyon Playfair, Dr. Gilbert, Dr. Thompson, Dr. Bennett, Colonel Playfair, Professor Flucker, Professor Williamson &c. Having set down the Eastwood party at an intermediate station, the train stopped at Pye Bridge, where the majority of the party alighted, in order to inspect the Riddings Colliery, while the remainder, consisting mostly of ladies, whose nerves shrank at the descent of a coal pit, proceeded to the Alfreton Iron Works. The colliery has been opened about eighteen months, and the visitors first encountered splendid brick buildings upon visiting an engine of 50 horse power with formidable idling wheels, round which iron chains were coiled. Preceeding thence to the pit’s mouth preparations were immediately made for the descent. It should here be noticed that the shaft, instead of being vertical, is an inclined plane, the gradient being at first 1 in 3 and afterwards 1 in 9. This is a plan not often adopted, and in some cases might present difficulties, but it is certainly calculated to diminish the number of accidents, the majority of which are connected with the shaft. It is intended to make a vertical descent in addition when the workings are extended, and indeed, one has already been commenced and carried about 900 yards. A few of the visitors availed themselves of this access to the pit. The greater portion, however, were let down the inclined plane, each ‘train’ consisting of half-a-dozen trucks or waggons, conveying a dozen or so at a time. Most of the party had evidently never visited a coal mine before, and the departure of the first convoy naturally excited some sensation and trepidation, particularly when the train disappeared from view, while some youngsters, ‘native and to the manner born’ had collected on the top of the shaft and evidently enjoyed the timidity and the embarrassment of the strangers. It is, of course, perfectly practicable to descent the shaft on foot, as is commonly done by the colliers, and some of the bolder spirits of the party were prepared to essay the task, but it was prudently determined to discourage this, in order to preclude the possibility of accidents from collision with the ascending or descending trucks. The usual rate of speed was also lessened, both in consideration of the nervousness of the party, and also to enable them to make a more leisurely survey of the shaft. It would obviously be a great mistake to judge of the access to other mines by the Riddings pit, which possesses another peculiarity in being particularly dry and clean. Only at one or two points is there the slightest moisture; moreover, stooping is scarcely at all required, and the walking at the termination of the steep gradient is remarkably smooth and easy. Having promised thus much, we may proceed to describe the inspection made by the visitors. The pit’s works consisted of a tolerably wide brick archway, and this was continued for some distance, until a seam of soft coal was reached, well adapted for domestic use. It is at some points three feet in thickness, while at others it thins off to the extent of one-half. Passing beyond and under this, which, not being at present worked, nor likely to be for some years, makes a very even and substantial roof the shaft proceeds through a stratum of shale and ironstone until it arrives at a second bed of coal, of the kind known as ‘Derbyshire Hard Bright’ which fetches at the pit mouth about 7s. per ton. Here the visitors got out of the trucks and proceeded, candle in hand, on foot, and the gradient being now easy and the path tolerably smooth no contretemps occurred. Thy first passed the stables and as they went on met a number of horses drawing loads of coal along the tramway. Though entirely shut out from the light of day, for they pass their lives in this subterranean region, and are never taken up except when unwell, the horses appeared in good condition, and quite accustomed to the strange circumstances in which they were placed. Various sidings or stalls were observable (there are at present 15) and several of these were explored by different groups of the visitors. The ‘face’ of the coal sparkled in the candle light, and this bed, it appears, contains but a small proportion of surface. Wooden rafters and pillars are, of course, erected wherever necessary, and as the workings are extended the refuse is turned to account by being packed up in place of the pillars, leaving the roof to settle as it pleases. Continuing to advance, the visitors again met the seam of soft coal, the work on which is, of course, comparatively light. The extent of the workings is at present about 900 feet, the vertical depth, however, being considerably less. The ventilation, as was invariably admitted, was excellent (about 80,000 cubic feet of air a minute passes through the mine). Indeed, it is impossible to imagine a visit to a mine that could be attended with less discomfort. Several ladies took part in the inspection. Naked lights can be used in all parts of the pit, the Davy lamp being only employed in the trial of fresh workings. The colliers thus work under favourable conditions, though their calling must necessarily be a somewhat undesirable one, never seeing daylight except on Sundays for several months of the year. The usual limit of work is about 12 hours a day, being paid by the piece. They can generally earn, if they please, as much as £3 per week. Wages too, have a steady tendency to rise, which is one of the reasons why the price of coal to consumers is gradually advancing. The majority of the men, however, who are of muscular build and by no means unhealthy looking, do not choose to make as much as this. We have endeavoured to give a neophyte’s impression of the mine, but we are in danger of falling into a brown – or rather black- study, and will therefore proceed at once to chronicle the ascent. It may, however, be first remarked that the shale to which the workings penetrate yields considerable quantities of petroleum, which finds a ready market. The visitors, having placed themselves in the trucks, a wire suspended from the roof gave the signal for ascent and they were drawn up to the surface. Much less jerking is experienced in this process than when the shaft is vertical, in which case every stroke of the piston of the engine is perceptible. There was an evident feeling of delight when a glimmer of daylight from the pit’s mouth was discernable, contrasting as it did with the yawning gulf of darkness from which the ‘train’ was emerging, but all the party appeared much gratified with their visit, and were unanimous in commending the kindness and courtesy shown by Messrs. Oakes and the attention and civility of those of their employees who were deputed to act as guides. The company next proceeded to the Alfreton Iron Works, which have been in operation about forty years, and belong to the same firm. Part of the ore is obtained in close proximity to the coal-pit. Being a carbonate, and not a hematite ore, it is not adapted for steel, but large quantities of cast iron are annually manufactured here. The visitors inspected the process of burning it with lime, in order to set free the carbonic acid gas, and went as near as they dared to the furnace to see the ore thrown in, Mr. Oakes accompanying them and giving every explanation. Meanwhile, many of the visitors had found their way to Riddings House, Mr. Oakes having kindly given the party an invitation to luncheon. They sauntered about the picturesque park and gardens, the rural appearance of which was matter of astonishment, considering the proximity of so many furnaces, the trees and shrubs showing no tinge of smoke. A number of ladies and gentlemen played croquet, and a band, which Mr. Oakes engaged from Matlock, gave additional animation to the scene. The party sat down to luncheon about five o’clock. This was tastefully set out in a tent erected on the grounds and was of the most beautiful character, including a liberal supply of champagne. The usual post prandial formalities were dispensed with, but Mr. Grove took the opportunity of expressing the hearty thanks of the company to Mr. Oakes for his kindness and hospitality. The association, as a body, he humourously remarked, possessed no feeling of gratitude, visiting a different town annually, and thinking nothing more of the places where they had been received; but its members fully appreciated the kindness which had been shown to them in this district, and those present would carry back with them a very pleasant recollection of their visit to Riddings. Mr. Oakes briefly acknowledged this expression of thanks, observing that if the company had enjoyed their visit he felt repaid. On leaving the tent the visitors amused themselves in the grounds for a short time longer, until the hour fixed for their return train approached, when the band gave a signal for departure by playing the National Anthem and the excursionists reached Nottingham shortly after 8pm. The luncheon was furnished by Mr. J F King, of the Bell Hotel, Derby.”
James died at a relatively young age on 31 July 1868. He was buried in the Oakes family vault beneath the Church of St. James, Riddings. A short obituary was published in the Derbyshire Advertiser & Journal on 7 August: “RIDDINGS – DEATH OF JAMES OAKES ESQ.- In our obituary column we record the death of James Oakes Esq., of Riddings House which took place on Friday last. The melancholy event, although anticipated by his relatives two or three days before it took place, has cast a gloom over the neighbourhood. Mr. Oakes’s loss will be deeply felt by the county at large, as he had been an active magistrate for 20 years, and devoted great attention to the administration of justice in the Alfreton Division. Although a Churchman, Mr. Oakes contributed liberally towards Dissenting chapels and schools in the neighbourhood. As a coal and ironmaster he was greatly respected by those in his employ. The funeral of the deceased gentleman took place at Riddings church on Tuesday last. The attendance of inhabitants was very large. Amongst the mourners were T. H. Oakes Esq, C. H. Oakes Esq, Dr. Lyon Playfair CB, G. Playfair Esq, The Rev. N. Milner and J Wathal Esq.”
James had lived all his life at Riddings and there can be no doubt about the closeness of the family at that time. The census return of 1861 recorded all those present at Riddings House when the enumerator called. It makes for interesting reading:
1861 Census Return – Riddings House
The census would not have included servants and staff who were not at work when the return was taken. Many of the staff would have lived at Riddings or Somercotes, but shows that families were moving into the area from far and wide.
James had married Marian Milnes [1820-1909] at Ashover on 30 July 1846. She outlived her husband by many years and died at Riddings House at the grand age of 89 years in 1909. James and his wife Marian did not have children, and the company passed to his younger brother, Thomas Haden Oakes (1819-1902). Thomas ran the business from 1867 until his own death in 1902, a period of 35 years which was arguably the golden age of the company.
During his tenure as head of the company Thomas continued the expansion of the small family run empire being created in the district. The “Calendar of the Records of the County of Derby” records that on 31 December 1870 “… John Watson, William Gibson and Thomas Bishop, described as before To Thomas Haden Oakes of Riddings in the county of Derby, esquire. Conveyance in fee [by deed poll] of a piece of land at Pye Bridge in the parish of Alfreton, in the county of Derby, containing three hundred and forty square yards, on part of which Pye Bridge Tollhouse then recently stood, and the remainder of the said land was used as a garden thereto. “
The quality of the products manufactured at Pye Bridge was well-known. The Building News and Engineering Journal, published in 1869 reported on iron making in Derbyshire and stated that “Messrs Oakes, of Alfreton Ironworks, have for a long time maintained a character for superior material and workmanship in their extensive casting business, which embraces castings of every description.” The following year, on the 6 March 1870, the Derbyshire Times & Chesterfield Herald ran the following short article: “SOMERCOTES - A MOST REMARKABLE FACT IN THE IRON TRADE -From a small blast furnace, belonging to Messrs James Oakes & Co., Alfreton Iron Works, Somercotes with only two small tuyres [sic], the large amount of 103 tons of iron was produced in the week ending February 26, after being in continual blowing for 55 years. This furnace also has been noted for producing the strongest quality and of the greatest specific gravity of any in the country” [a tuyere or tuyère is a tube, nozzle or pipe through which air is blown into the blast furnace].
The remarkable age of the furnaces at Pye Bridge, which were working under continual blast, was recognised throughout the scientific and engineering world. The Society of Engineers booklet “Transactions for 1881” published the following year, printed an inaugural address by the President, Charles Horsley, relating to the competition faced by various iron manufacturers and the fact that such competition did not contribute to any improvement in the quality of iron produced. The article stated that “…The lives of blast furnaces are now of very short duration, compared with what they were in the early part of the present century. I can give two instances of the length of time furnaces lasted without being blown out, which furnaces were at the Alfreton Iron Works, Derbyshire. One blown in during the year 1802 was in blast until 1873, while another blown in during 1811 was not blown out until 1866. This latter furnace was visited by the Members of the British Association during their meeting at Nottingham. After the furnace was blown out an examination showed that there had been formed a partial lining of plumbago, which protected the firebrick lining; this, I think you will admit, was a very remarkable incident in blast-furnace practice”. [Note that the date for the second blast furnace should have read 1817].
The article continued with an interesting insight into the working practices of the early blast furnaces at the ironworks: “I do not find charcoal had been used in smelting during the earlier period of the life of these furnaces. Coke alone was used up to 1829, when equal parts of coal and coke were substituted. The introduction of the hot blast was the cause of all coal being used; at that time the Furnace or Tupton Coal, mixed with a Lower Hard Coal was the fuel used. The ironstone used was the argillaceous of the coal series, containing from 25 to 37 per cent of metallic iron; the iron in the raw stone exists as a carbonate, and required calcining at a cherry red heat to convert the carbonate into a peroxide of iron for smelting. Iron made from this ore is very strong indeed. The bands of ironstone technically called ‘rakes’ are sometimes found with the coal seams. The Blue Rake lies above the Lower Hard Coal. The Kernal Rake lies above the Yard Coal; nine different rakes have been worked at the Alfreton Iron Works and it was found that the greater the variety used, the better and stronger was the iron produced…”. Charles Horsley [1829-1905] was well placed to write about the Alfreton Ironworks. He was son of Erasmus Thomas Horsley and brother of Thomas Horsley, previously mentioned. Charles was born on 30 May 1829 at Pye Bridge and educated at Derby Grammar School. He spent his first few adult years working for various engineering companies before moving to London, where he acted as agent and a consulting engineer for James Oakes & Company, a position he held until his death. He was the inventor of a gas exhauster and a patent syphon for gas mains which was manufactured at the ironworks. Advertisements for James Oakes & Co., from that time mention the Alfreton Iron Works and their City Road, London offices and include the following item: “Note – makers of HORSLEY SYPHONS. These are cast in one piece, without Chaplets, doing away with Bolts, Nuts and Covers, and rendering leakage impossible.” Although Charles Horsley remained in London he served on the Boards of several gas and water companies and was elected a Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1883, and became President of the Society of Engineers in 1866. He died in 1905.
The Horsley family played a significant part in the running of the company for many years, and Erasmus Thomas Horsley and his son Charles would continue to patent processes and inventions into their old age. The London Gazette published on 27 August 1867 regarding a patent application, which read: “Erasmus Thomas Horsley, of Pye Bridge, Alfreton, in the county of Derby, Engineer, has given the like notice in respect of the invention of ‘improvements in treating cast iron.’ As set forth in their respective petitions, both recorded in the said office on the 7th day of August, 1867”. The fact that Erasmus worked with his son can be seen in a further article in the same publication dated 11 October 1867: “To Erasmus Thomas Horsley, of Pye Bridge, Alfreton, in the county of. Derby, Engineer, and Charles Horsley, of 22, Wharf road, City-road, in the county of Middlesex, Civil-Engineer, for the invention of ‘improvements in the production of a glaze or vitrified surface on cast iron or other cast metal’." This later patent though, became void on 7 October 1870.
Cast iron pipes manufactured at the ironworks were originally produced in horizontal moulds, the core of which would be supported with small iron rods which became part of the pipe itself. It is believed that at Pye Bridge they were cast on an inclined bank. Horizontally cast pipe resulted in an uneven distribution of iron around the circumference and slag became incorporated into the product resulting in weak sections within the pipe. From the mid-1800’s this method of casting was slowly superseded by using vertical moulds which were placed in deep pipe pits. Using this method slag collected at the top of the mould and was removed from the pipe by simply reducing its length, creating a much stronger and cohesive product. The Alfreton Ironworks were among the pioneers of vertically cast pipes. According to Samuel Slater, who worked as a Foreman Fettler at the ironworks, the earliest pipe pit, named the “Round Pit Shop” was opened in 1862. Samuel was born in 1861 and started work for James Oakes & Company in 1877. He wrote a short one page history on the ironworks for a magazine on the occasion of his fifty years’ service, and in the article stated that the “New” Foundry was opened the previous year, 1876, for the manufacture of 24in to 72in diameter pipes up to 9ft in length, which were vertically cast. An extension to one of the original workshops bears the date 1877. The New Foundry was extended in length over the years and became by far the largest building on the site. It was also known locally as the “Long Shop”
Under the guidance of Thomas Haden Oakes the business prospered. Thomas, like his siblings, was born at Riddings House, and spent his whole life in the village. Along with contemporaries like Sir Charles Seely he was one of the great benefactors of the district, much respected by workers and friends alike. He supported many good causes in Riddings and the surrounding villages throughout his life. In Somercotes he donated £800 toward adapting the original Church of St. Thomas in 1854 and financed a stained glass window which was placed in the Chancel to commemorate the event. Later on he endowed the church again, and was instrumental in helping to create the Ecclesiastical Parish of Somercotes. He was also a prominent supporter of the Church of St. James, Riddings and both Riddings and Somercotes National Schools. He was a Justice of the Peace, and chairman of both Alfreton and Mansfield magistrates’ benches. Thomas also had a lifelong love of cricket, which spurred him on to donate land in Riddings Park for the cricket ground. Riddings Cricket Club was established in 1847 and is believed to be the oldest cricket club in Derbyshire. Perhaps, though, Thomas is most well-known for building the windmills at Riddings in 1877, which he named after his parents, James and Sarah. He was also interested in horticulture and exhibited in many horticultural exhibitions. The grounds and gardens at Riddings House were substantial, and well-known throughout the county. He employed a head gardener to tend the estate at Riddings and by the mid-1800’s they were fully mature and consisted of manicured lawns, gardens and glasshouses. The Derby Mercury of 20 June 1877 ran an article on the grounds of Riddings House which almost covered an entire column. To give a feel of the extent of the grounds, a portion of the article has been transcribed as follows: “RIDDINGS HOUSE, THE RESIDENCE OF T. HADEN OAKES, ESQ. - It matters little at what period of the year we visit the gardens at Riddings House, for we are sure of a rich treat while there, and to come away gratified with what we have seen. There are upwards of a dozen fruit houses, many of them of large dimensions, and nearly twice as many plant houses, besides numerous pits and other appendages, all filled to overflowing with choice collections of plants… After a short ride on Whit-Tuesday afternoon from Mansfield to Pye Bridge on the Erewash Valley line of railway and a walk of a mile from the station through the village of Riddings I found myself in company with Mr. J. Ward, who soon introduced me to the numerous treasures under his extensive charge.” Mr Ward mentioned in the article was the head gardener at Riddings House. The article continues with a walk through the garden and several glasshouses, describing the exotic plants in detail, including orchids that were being grown for the house. “In leaving this block of houses we come to another range 80 feet long, in two compartments. The first is an orchard house containing large standard Peaches, Nectarines and Plums, planted down the centre. In front of these are smaller trees in pots, and the back wall is clothed with Peaches and Nectarines. The standards and trees in pots are carrying heavy crops, and those on the wall moderate crops. Some of the Plums are quite loaded with fruit. The second compartment also contains Peaches and Nectarines planted out as standard's, and others trained on the walls. The palm stove, which is also in two compartments, is 50 feet long”. Further descriptions are given of the plants in this glasshouse before the article continues: “We now pass to the opposite side of the mansion, and enter the Fern House and Conservatory, each 40 feet long and 18 feet wide. The latter communicates with the mansion, and in the evening when Mr. Oakes entertains his friends at dinner he has an ingenious way of lighting it with gas. What in most houses is a blank wall is here obscure glass, placed about two feet from the wall and the glass studded with eighty jets, and after dusk all are lighted, and the reflection among the Ferns and other plants has the appearance of very powerful moonlight. The next house we entered is the vinery…Near this is the Azalea House, 60 feet long and 14 feet wide…The Pleasure grounds are not extensive; Hollies and Yews appear to grow with great luxuriance and are trained with as much care as Azaleas”
The reporter continued his tour of the extensive glasshouses. He mentioned that he crossed the village, although it is not certain exactly where the tour resumed: “Here is another village of glass houses, The first a small Peach house, 24 feet long by 14 feet wide containing Peach and Nectarine trees, each carrying a heavy crop that would be ripe by the end May. The second house is of the same size as the last, and contains the same number of trees, the fruit to come in for succession. The late vinery is 80 feet long and 14 feet wide… The orchard house is 80 feet long and 14 feet wide. Pears and Plums are grown in pots and Peaches and Nectarines on the back wall… Passing out of this house we enter a vinery 130 feet long and 14 feet wide… The next house in order is a span-roofed greenhouse, containing a choice collection of Heaths and other greenhouse plaints. All the Heaths are trained with the greatest of care, and every plant is in robust health… Strawberries are forced in abundance, and for this purpose a house is provided 70 feet long by 14 wide, in two 2 divisions. The first division was cleared out and planted with Cucumbers and Melons… The Pine stove is 60 feet by 16, with a path down the centre, and the Pines plunged in beds on each side. They were in excellent health, and gave promise of useful fruit“. Sadly, evidence of the large network of glasshouses has all but vanished in the modern landscape. The area of land under glass shows the wealth that was being generated by the ironworks and collieries at this time, as well as the passion for horticulture that Thomas Haden Oakes had.
From the mid-1850’s the company had had an interest in the production of coal gas, both for use by the ironworks and for a supply to Riddings House [as noted in the newspaper article above, referring to the lighting of the conservatory]. A small production facility was built on the site of the works and a gasometer can clearly be seen on maps of the ironworks from around the 1870’s. By the 1880’s the company was looking to increase production and is thought to have had contact with several local gas companies. The demand for gas in the district was increasing and, in 1888, Thomas Haden and Charles Henry Oakes made an application for a Parliamentary Bill to form the Riddings & District Gas Company, which was passed by an Act of Parliament on 28 June that year. The Act incorporated that the “Riddings & District Gas Company shall approve a capital of £30,000 divided into 3,000 shares of £10 each. Gas of a quality not exceeding 14 candles priced at 4 shillings per 1,000 cubic feet of production.” The 1888 Act also undertook that the old gas works, within the boundary of the ironworks be demolished and replaced entirely by a new works under the control of James Oakes & Company. The supply was to be used for their industries and then to be extended to cover the town of Alfreton, South Normanton, Pinxton, Codnor Park and Selston [the “town of Alfreton” included the whole parish]. The new company was actually a joint venture with the Butterley Company. Ever since the establishment of the ironworks at Pye Bridge there had been a close relationship between the Company and Butterley Ironworks. As far back as 1805 David Mushet was recorded as having visited Butterley and directors of both companies sat together on many committees. Under the circumstances the joint venture was not such a surprise and the fact that provision was made to supply Codnor Park, where Butterley had a large foundry, was probably one of the reasons for their involvement in the business. The Riddings & District Gas Company eventually acquired the Pinxton Gas Light & Coke Company in 1914, through the Riddings District Gas Act of the same year. The new gas works was constructed on land in Pye Bridge on the opposite side of the turnpike to the ironworks site. The old gas works, once it had been demolished, made space for expansion of the foundry.
For many of the employees at the ironworks the work was heavy and dangerous. There were many fatalities, particularly during the 19th century, but also some remarkable escapes. On 14 November 1897 several workmen were seriously injured when a number of moulders were making preparations to cast 10 inch pipes in one of the pipe-pits when a ladle containing about four tons of molten iron, which was hanging from a crane, accidently overturned. A key, designed to keep the ladle vertical, had been mis-placed. The molten metal came into contact with wet sand resulting in a violent explosion which was heard some distance away. The Derbyshire Times & Chesterfield Herald of 20 November that year reported that those who required immediate help and medical assistance were “…A Wright, single man of Oakes Row, Codnor Park; A Slaney, Pye Bridge; J Goodman, Lea Brooks; C Glenn, Somercotes and A Stokes, Riddings. These men were all badly burned…”
The company rewarded the workers with a fair and reasonable salary for the time, which is why the influx of families into the area continued. They also occasionally increased the wages, as can be witnessed in a newspaper report published in the Derby Mercury on 11 December 1889, which read: “SPONTANEOUS ADVANCE TO ALFRETON IRONWORKERS. The proprietors of the Alfreton Ironworks, Messrs. James Oakes and Co., have issued a notice to their employees, who number upwards of 1,000, that after the 31st inst. a farther advance of 5 per cent, will be made upon the wages of all engaged at the works. The advance was entirely unexpected, and it is therefore all the more appreciated.”
The Oakes family and managers at the ironworks did not, however, have a perfect relationship with their workforce. Like in many other industrial sectors, the Trade Unions were active and intent on improving the working life and conditions of blue collar workers. An interesting article appeared in the Derbyshire Times & Chesterfield Herald dated 23 September 1893, specifically relating to the foundry workers at the Riddings Ironworks:- "MEETING OF IRONWORKERS AT RIDDINGS - On Saturday night the inaugural meeting of the new Somercotes branch of the Ironfounders Society was held in the large room at the Seven Stars Inn, Riddings. There was a very large attendance of members who had earlier in the evening partook of a substantial dinner. Hitherto members of the Ironfounders Society, employed chiefly at the works of Messrs. James Oakes & Co. have belonged to the Butterley branch, but it was deemed advisable, owing to the distance from Somercotes to Butterley to form a separate organisation. At the meeting the opportunity was taken to present Mr. Thomas Slater, moulder, who has been disabled through the loss of two fingers on his right hand, with the sum of £100 from the accident fund of the society. The Chair was occupied by Mr. T Bradley (Somercotes), and he was supported by Mr. J Davison of Sheffield, chairman of the Sheffield District Committee… Mr. Davison gave an address on the principles and objects of the Ironfounders Society which had been established in the year 1809"
Thomas was a confirmed bachelor and never married. He died in 1902, the business then passing to his younger brother, Charles Henry Oakes [1825-1906]. Although a wealthy man his funeral was a simple affair. There were no flowers [by request] and his coffin was carried from Riddings House to the Church by several of his workers from the collieries and ironworks. A newspaper report on his funeral stated that ”…It needed something of a magnetic character to draw such a large crowd of people to witness the last sad rites, and in truth its dimensions bore inadequate testimony to the esteem in which the deceased gentleman was held not only by his late workmen but by the whole of the inhabitants of Riddings and district”. His body was interred in the family vault at Riddings Church.
By the time that Thomas died the business had undergone many changes. By the end of the 19th century many of the old, small collieries had closed and the shallow coal seams exhausted. Deeper mines and more advanced techniques in mining had left just a few collieries in the area, including Cotes Park Colliery, owned by James Oakes [Riddings Collieries] Ltd; the Birchwood Colliery complex, owned at the time by the Babbington Coal Company and the Swanwick Collieries complex owned by the Palmer-Morewood family of Alfreton. The Ironstone mines too, had all but disappeared. In the mid-19th century James Oakes & Company had operated more ironstone mines than collieries, but by 1900 all of the iron ore was imported from Northamptonshire. Business, however, had flourished. In the latter half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century the country’s infrastructure was vastly improved. Roads were tarmaced, street lighting installed and most importantly, sewers and water mains were laid, all of which used products manufactured and supplied by the ironworks. Although the production of iron for pipes was synonymous with the ironworks, street furniture such as lighting columns, manhole frames and covers were all cast in the foundry.
Although Charles Henry Oakes had already had an influence in the business empire that the family now ran, being for the most part in charge of the collieries, his time as head of the ironworks was short. After just four years in charge, he too passed away at the age of 81 years. The Oakes business empire had, between 1845 and 1906 passed through the hands of three brothers. Charles had married Georgina Macklin, daughter of the Reverend Roseingrave Macklin and Jane Ann Audouin [who had married in Ireland in 1820]. Charles and Georgina married in Derby in 1856, and they had six children. A long obituary was published for Charles Henry Oakes in the Derbyshire Times & Chesterfield Herald on 24 February 1906. Although kind words are usually expected in such notices, the obituary for Charles Henry was particularly true to his character and perhaps summed up the reasons why the Oakes family had, by then, become a part of the history of the area itself. The obituary is transcribed in full as follows: “DEATH OF MR. C. H. OAKES, SENR - The Loss to Riddings - Tuesday was sad day in Riddings and district, for that day Mr Charles Henry Oakes, Holly Hurst, Riddings, the senior partner in the firm of Messrs. James Oakes and Co., ironfounders and colliery proprietors passed over to the majority. The news of his death will cause sorrow to hundreds of people who have lived m the district, and experienced the many kindly deeds of the deceased gentleman. The Oakes family has lost one its most able, generous, and kindly members, and the name of Chas Hy. Oakes will always be remembered for his consideration for the industrial classes, his indefatigable labours, and his consideration for his employees. It is about five weeks ago since Mr Oakes was confined to his room through illness, and finally dropsy and bronchitis supervened and proved fatal. Dr. Corkery, of Alfreton, his medical attendant, paid unremitting attention to him, and had, as expected, the best medical skill at his command. The deceased gentleman was the third son of James Oakes, who with two others, founded the present important and extensive coal and iron firm of James Oakes and Co., whose ironworks are at Riddings and collieries in the neighbourhood. The deceased’s two brothers, James and Thomas Haden pre-deceased him, the latter just over three years ago. The former, whose widow still survives, left no family, while Mr Thos. H. Oakes was a bachelor. The deceased’s father left three sons and two daughters, a son and daughter being unmarried, and the deceased himself leaves three sons and two daughters, a son and daughter being still single. Mr Oakes’ eldest son is Aid. James Oakes. J.P., the vice-chairman of the Derbyshire County Council, and the Chairman of the County Education Committee, who probably has done more for education under the recent Act than any other person in the county. His other sons are Mr C. H. Oakes J.P. of Newlands House, and Mr Gerard Oakes J.P. of Felley Abbey. His elder daughter (Mrs Barrow) resides at Sydnope, Darley, while Miss Oakes has been a faithful attendant upon her father at home. The deceased was born on Dec. 3rd, 1825, so that he had attained the ripe old age of 80 years, After completing his education he began to take an active part in the management of the concern which he had lived to see extended and enlarged to a considerable degree. From the first he was a hard worker. He might have enjoyed ease and leisure, but preferred the activity of business life, for which was well fitted, physically and educationally. In those early days trade and work were very different to what they are now. The “commercial” spirit had not reached the pitch of to-day and the oldest residents of the district can recall many incidents which well illustrate the "homely" methods, nay, humane, which were utilised by the proprietors in those early days. That relationship still prevails, and nowhere is the bond between owners and workman closer than at Riddings. The late Mr C H Oakes was chiefly associated with the collieries of the firm, and he was no mere “man of the desk" in the management of these. He controlled them by practical methods, by donning the workman’s garb and visiting the working places day by day. He had always a cheery word and greeting for his men and was never averse to chat with them in their stalls. For some years Mr Oakes has not taken an active part in the management of the firm's works, but his experience and advice have always been at command. He seldom missed a day in his visits to the works, and was there as late as five or six weeks ago. In the midst of his business Mr Oakes never Iost sight of the needs and the conditions of the workmen, and their welfare was his constant study. His sympathy, his generosity, his chatty urbane qualities were always in evidence and his kindness to old workmen and tenants which is characteristic of the family, will long live in the public memory- Deceased was not a public man of the stamp of his brother, Thomas or his son, Ald. Oakes, but it was well known that held pronounced views on public men and public appointments. He was never a magistrate, but that was because he would not accept office. For some years he was a member of the old Alfreton Local Board after the extension and incorporation of Riddings and Somercotes. He was a strong Conservative and a Churchman, but his views were sufficiently wide to enable him to extend his liberality and sympathy to all movements which had for their object the betterment of the district and the residents. He was an ardent amateur musician. Music in fact, was a consuming passion with him. He had a record which few can hope to attain and less surpass. For close upon 60 years he has been the organist at the Riddings Parish Church, and he never missed unless he was away from home or ill. He loved to lead the musical portions of the service and retained his position until about a month ago, notwithstanding the fact that was very unwell. Nothing gave him greater pleasure at the Riddings flower show than to hear a good band and to watch a good cricket match. Mr. Oakes had a wonderfully retentive memory, a breezy conversational manner, and a happy way of expressing himself. He could tell a good story and what is more could listen to another in return. Practically for the whole his life has been connected with the Sunday school and Church work in Riddings, and he has given his best in talents and bounty to those causes. For many years he was the superintendent of the former and afterwards conducted a men's Bible class. He was the Vicar‘s warden, a position he was asked to fill upon the death of Mr T H Oakes, who acted in that capacity for about 50 years. In the words of Emmerson, "The only way to have a friend is to be one”' - that was how Mr Oakes made his friends and admirers and this was the true foundation of his popularity. The funeral will take place to-day (Saturday) at 2.30 pm at the Riddings Parish Church, where the coffin will be deposited in the family vault. The obsequies will be of a quirt character, in accordance with the wishes of the deceased gentleman. There is sure to be a large crowd however, to pay their last respects to one of the most popular residents in Riddings. At the Derbyshire County Education Committee on Tuesday, a resolution of sympathy with Ald. Oakes in his bereavement was passed.
The business interests in the company passed to his eldest son, James, born at Riddings in 1858. He was the fourth generation with the name James who had an involvement with the firm. James was educated at Harrow and Trinity College Oxford, gaining a BA in 1880 and an MA in 1886. He became a magistrate for Derbyshire [on the roll for High Sheriff in 1912] and Vice Chairman of Derbyshire County Council in 1901.
James continued to expand the ironworks and invest in this section of the company. The Sheffield Independent published on 20 June 1906 reported: “EXTENSION OF MESSRS. JAMES OAKES AND CO.'S IRONWORKS. Considerable extensions are being made at the ironworks of Messrs. James Oakes and Co., near Alfreton. The fitting and erecting shops have been increased to double their size, up-to-date machinery being introduced and a large electric plant installed, principally to work the massive overhead and other cranes. New moulding shops, cupolas, and pipe pits are some of the improvements which have been necessitated by the augmented trade which the firm has been doing for the past two or three years. Mr. W. Ralph Bates, the manager, has initiated improvements in nearly every department, and has infused new life into the works throughout. Mr. Bates is a native of Ripley, and was formerly employed at Messrs. Oakes and Co’s ironworks as draughtsman of the foundry, and he left a responsible position at the Ebbe Vale Iron and Steel Works to take up his present position”. Additions and improvements continued to be made over the next few years. A building that survived the closure of the works carries the date of 1907.
A decision was taken to improve the method of producing vertically cast pipes by purchasing the most modern type of plant available at the time from the German firm of Ardelt. Known as the Ardelt or German Shop, this new facility opened in July 1910. The German company, then known as Robert Ardelt & Söhne, was established in 1902. It was originally involved in the repair of machinery but quickly became an engineering company specialising in the design of factory facilities, especially for foundries. The main focus of the business, by 1904, was the construction of foundry machinery, including cast iron pipe making facilities, designed by the engineer and founder of the company, Robert Ardelt. The Ardelt Shop and associated buildings were constructed on the site of the gas works and gasometer that had been demolished some years previously. Built at the side of the new workshop was the Ardelt Cupolas, which were vertical furnaces in which the pig iron was melted for casting.
Despite a miscellaneous number of other products the emphasis for production continued to be on the manufacture of cast iron pipes and retorts. The principal products of the company were vertically cast straight pipes and specials, made to order. In addition to the range of sizes made in the Ardelt Shop, straight pipes were also made in other parts of the works in sizes up to 72 inches in diameter, while specials could be produced up to 84 inches in diameter. The majority of the pipes and specials produced by the firm were of the flanged type, but considerable quantities of socket and spigot castings were also made.
The in-house magazine, The Stantonian, Volume 15 No 9 published in September 1945 ran a short article on the history of the ironworks, part of which read “It is interesting to note that 350 miles of steel water main laid in 1903 at Coolgardie Gold Mines, was causing so much trouble in 1909. The Government of Western Australia appointed a research committee to investigate and it was found that the only parts of the main giving satisfaction were the CAST IRON SPECIALS made at Riddings”.
PHOTO: The Ardelt Shop [sometimes also referred to as the German Shop]
The improvements that the company made to the production facilities did not, however, extend to the workforce. The employees working in the new Ardelt Shop were subject to new working practices which altered their pay structure. It seems that the men working in the new Shop were told that the changes would not affect their wages, but in practice new piece work rates introduced by the company resulted in a loss of earnings for the pipe moulders. They found it impossible to earn the same amount of wages per day after the introduction of the new rates. Despite the often good relationship between the company and its workforce, the managers seemed unsympathetic. This resulted in the pipe moulders walking out, affecting other parts of the company. The Derbyshire Courier, published on 20 May 1911, summed up the mood of the workforce at the time: “PIPE MOULDERS ON STRIKE - Serious Situation at Alfreton Ironworks… Unfortunately, both for the management and workmen, the dispute at the Alfreton Iron Works (Messrs. Jas. Oakes and Co.) has assumed a very grave aspect. Some months ago the firm put down a new pipe plant for the purpose of moulding pipes on the very latest principle, but the men employed at the pits, not being able to get a day’s wage, put in for an advance. This the management refused, with the result that the men, after serving a week’s notice, came out on strike…”. A spokesperson for the men was quoted in the report “…The manager says we can get a day’s wage if can get the output, but we cannot get it; It is impossible…”. The dispute directly affected about seventy workmen in the Ardelt Shop, but patternmakers, fitters and a large number of labourers were also laid off due to the stoppage, although men still using the traditional pipe making methods continued to work.
Mr. Ralph Bates, manager of the ironworks, had the responsibility of negotiating on behalf of the company. The men were paid per inch of pipe cast, with bonuses depending on the number of casts and amount of wastage made each day. The strike lasted several weeks, but eventually a solution was agreed between the parties. The Derbyshire Courier once again carried news of the dispute. Published on 1 July 1911, the report read: “ALFRETON IRON WORKS STRIKE ENDS - Amicable Settlement - After a strike lasting six weeks, the dispute at the Alfreton Ironworks of Messrs. Jas. Oakes and Co., has been amicably settled, and the pipe moulders will commence work on Monday. The settlement was brought about by a conference between Mr. W. R. Bates and the men at the New Inn, Riddings, on Wednesday evening. A deputation of the men waited upon Mr. Bates at the offices in the morning, the outcome of which was a promise to meet the men at the New Inn in the evening. Previous to coming out on strike the men were receiving 2â…›d. per inch and they asked for this to be increased 2½d. per inch. The management offered another â…›d. but this the men refused. The terms now offered by the management, and which have been accepted by the men are as follows; 2¼d. per inch and 2½ per cent on 28 casts, which means five each day, and three on Saturday; then 2½ per cent, in that when the wastes are under 6 per cent., and 10 per cent, if the men can manage six casts a day. Six casts a day has never been accomplished but the terms will encourage the men to try. It is possible that only two pits will start Monday, but the rest of the men will be found employment in the other shops. The pipe moulders consider the terms satisfactory and will be pleased get to work again.”
This seemingly complicated arrangement shows how the ironworks was run. As today, there was often a fine line between the salaries paid to workers and the profit expected by the management. Disputes continued and were relatively common; most were settled within a short time, but other factors that resulted in closure and lay-offs were beyond the control of both management and workforce.
In 1912 there was a strike by miners which affected much of the country. The first colliers to strike were actually employed at Alfreton Colliery, but the dispute quickly accelerated. The ironworks at Pye Bridge, dependent on coal, had no choice but to close. A short report was published in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette on 20 February 1912. It read: “IRONWORKS TO CLOSE- . Messrs. Oakes and Co., have given notice that their Alfreton iron works will close as soon as the miners’ strike begins. Already the foundry of the Staveley Coal and Iron Company is standing idle through lack of fuel.” The plant would stand idle until the miners returned to work.
As well as industrial disputes, James Oakes & Company also found themselves in breach of the Factory and Workshops Act in regard to the employment of boys. Whilst their employment was not in breach of the regulations, their hours of work were strictly controlled by law. The Factory and Workshop Act of 1901 raised the minimum working age to 12 years, but introduced legislation regarding their education, mealtimes and other benefits. From the age of 13, however, children were allowed to take up full-time employment. Whilst the age of the children was not recorded, James Oakes & Company was charged in 1913 with employing five boys in contravention of the Factories and Workshop Act. The Inspector of Factories visited the works on 27 November 1912 and found that “Three of the boys on one occasion had been employed from six o’clock in the morning until seven at night, and on another occasion two boys had been at work from five o'clock in the morning until six at night, contrary to the Act”. The Company admitted the offence [but in defence stated that workmen had kept the boys on and the Company had had no knowledge of the extended time worked]. They were convicted and fine 10s and costs for each offence.
Graces Guide of 1914 describes the business of James Oakes & Company as “…makers of Pig Iron, Gas and Water Pipes, Cylinders, Engineers' Castings, &c., Alfreton Iron Works, Derbyshire; 60, Queen Victoria Street, London, E.C.; and 14, Temple Street, Birmingham. Established in 1800 by the Oakes family and continued by the same family. Present Principals: James Oakes, Gerard Oakes and Charles Henry Oakes. Manager: W. Ralph Bates. The firm is entirely self-contained: Coal Mines, Iron Ore Mines, Sand Quarries, &c. Premises: Cover a large area. Men Employed: Iron Works, 800; Colliery, 3000. Specialities: Flange Work for Power Stations and Condensing Plants, Pig Iron, Gas and Water Pipes, Cylinders, Engineers' Castings up to forty tons weight, also Tar Macadam for Roads.“
As can be seen from the description, the Oakes empire had, by 1914, become a substantial undertaking.
The First World War began in August 1914 and almost from the start a steady flow of workers left the Ironworks at Pye Bridge to enlist in the armed forces. By the end of the war in 1918 a substantial portion of the workforce had either volunteered or had been conscripted to serve. Only those considered too old or to be in essential skilled work remained. Following a pattern repeated up and down the country, James Oakes & Co employed women where possible to fill in the gaps, and found a ready and willing female workforce in Somercotes and Riddings. In fact they became so used to the work, wages and a degree of independence that when the soldiers finally returned after the war, many were unwilling to give up their jobs.
PHOTO: Employees of the Ironworks during the Great War, including women
The end of the war brought with it unforeseen economic consequences that affected large parts of the country. The ironworks at Pye Bridge did not escape. Although improvements to the works had been made in previous years, the three blast furnaces had been standing for a long time, two of them for over one hundred years. Although the economic situation did not help with the finances of the ironworks, continued disputes played a significant part in a decision taken by the Oakes family to work with the Stanton Ironworks Company of Ilkeston. Strikes within the mining industry were not uncommon, and each time the effect of such disputes caused closures and production issues for the ironworks. A strike of Nottingham miners in 1919 resulted in hundreds of ironworkers being laid-off, with the future of the company being questioned. The closure was reported in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on 27 March 1919, which read: “Big Ironworks Closing Down - Owing to a lack of coal various departments of Messrs. James Oakes and Co.'s Alfreton iron works are being closed down as the men complete the work they have in hand, and yesterday the services of the first batch of workmen, numbering well into hundreds, were dispensed with. This is the direct result of the Nottinghamshire coal strike, and unless there is a speedy settlement the whole of the Alfreton ironworks, it is feared, will be set down, throwing a very large number of workmen out of employment, in fact involving a large percentage of the residents of Riddings and Somercotes”
Whilst James Oakes and his family ran their business empire to sustain their wealth, there must still have been an emotional tie to the local population and a responsibility to the workforce and their families which must have weighed heavily on the owners. The family still lived at Riddings House and still had much influence in the district. James Oakes was an Alderman, Magistrate, Councillor and an active member of the County Education Committee. His work during the Great War as second Chairman of the Military Appeals Tribunal was recognised by conferring upon him the CBE. The economic downturn and financial constraints immediately after the war, combined with various labour disputes, were, however, a significant problem for the stability of the ironworks. From the company’s viewpoint there probably seemed few alternatives regarding the future of the business. Discussions took place between James Oakes & Company and the Stanton Ironworks Company Ltd at Ilkeston during which a relationship formed between the two companies, and in 1920, Stanton finally took control of the Pye Bridge site, ending an association with the Oakes family of over one hundred years. As part of the agreed takeover of the Ironworks, James Oakes became a director of the Stanton Ironworks Company.
The other business concerns of the company were of no interest to Stanton Ironworks, and were not included in the sale. The details were reported in the Derby Daily Telegraph on 24 January 1920. A transcription of the article follows:- "DERBYSHIRE AMALGAMATION – STANTON IRONWORKS & OAKES & CO – We learn that an amalgamation has been effected between the Stanton Ironworks Co. Ltd and Messrs. James Oakes & Co., Alfreton. The Stanton company are one of the largest producers of pig-iron in the country and when the amalgamation is effected they will have 17 blast furnaces. Some time ago the works of the Holwell Iron Company were taken over, bringing the roll of work people to nearly 8,500, and the total will be considerably augmented by the new amalgamation. The company now has nine blast furnaces at Stanton, five at Holwell and three at Alfreton. The Derbyshire works are one of the oldest in the county, having been worked for many years as a private concern. The amalgamation does not affect the collieries and brickyards to which Messrs. Oakes & Co. hold the controlling interest, but only for the furnaces, foundries and ironstone properties. It is understood that the amalgamation will date from Jan 1st, the two firms having been working together some time.
James died in June 1921, approximately 18 months after the sale of the ironworks to Stanton. He was 68 years old. A comprehensive obituary was published in the Derby Advertiser on 25 June 1921 and as he was the last of the Oakes family to have direct ownership of the ironworks, a full transcription of the notice follows: “DEATH OF ALDERMAN JAMES OAKES, J. P. – A Typical English Gentleman – By the death of Alderman James Oakes, JP of Riddings House, Alfreton, who passed away on Sunday morning, following a seizure on the previous Wednesday, the county has lost a true English gentleman who upheld the best traditions of county and parochial life, whose kindly disposition and sterling Christian character gained for him the love and esteem of all with whom he came in contact. Of him it be said he never wilfully uttered an unkind word or did an unkindly action, and his name will be revered for many a long year. Although failing health for some time past had compelled him to relinquish many of the what he considered to be the essential duties of gentlemen in his position, he still kept in touch with county and local affairs, and up to the day before he was seized with his fatal illness he attended a meeting of the Education Committee at Derby. On Wednesday news that he had been stricken down was received throughout Riddings and the neighbouring villages with a feeling of dismay, so accustomed had the inhabitants become to his kindly presence and the very unexpectedness of the seizure made the feeling more acute. From the time of his seizure on Wednesday Mr Oakes never regained consciousness and he passed peacefully away at 9.30 on Sunday morning.
At this point a brief history of the family will perhaps not be inappropriate. Before the age of the railways the Oakes family were extensive carriers and the yard of St. Peter’s Street, Derby, where their offices and stables were situated is still known as Oakes Yard. A former Mr. Jas. Oakes, a member of this firm, married Miss Haden, whose father, a wine merchant in the Derby Market Place was mayor of Derby in the early part of the nineteenth century. The youngest son of this marriage was Mr. Charles H Oakes, who became the husband of a daughter of the late Rev. Rosengrave Macklin for upwards of twenty years vicar of Christ Church, Derby, and the deceased gentleman was their eldest son who was born at Riddings in 1858. He was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Oxford, and graduated MA in 1886. In his earlier days he was a capital shot, fond of hunting and for some years was captain of the Riddings Cricket Club, a member of Alfreton Golf Club and at the meetings of the latter used to preside.
When the Derbyshire County Council was formed in 1889, Mr Oakes offered himself as a candidate for the Alfreton Division [no. 2]. He had as opponent Mr Joseph Bown, whom he easily defeated, the result of this poll being Oakes 916, Bown 540. Though much younger than the majority of his colleagues his natural ability and grasp of detail made his services on various important committees most valuable. He continuously represented the Division until 1902 when he was elected to the aldermanic vacancy created by the death of Mr Alfred Barnes, of Ashgate Lodge, Chesterfield. The year previous the council had recognised his excellent business qualifications by electing him as their vice-chairman, and on the retirement of Alderman Herbert Strutt was elected to the chair, a position he occupied with great distinction until failing health compelled him to ask to be released. Mr Oakes was especially interested in the educational function of the Council and was chairman of the committee for very many years and did much to promote the successful carrying out of the Education Act of 1902.
In Parochial affairs he was always keenly aware of the responsibilities of his position and succeeded his father as superintendent of Riddings Sunday School and also Church Warden, and a foundation manager of the Riddings and Somercotes Schools. All social philanthropic and religious movements in his locality had his practical support and co-operation. During the war he rendered valuable service which was recognised by conferring upon him the CBE as second chairman of the Military Appeals Tribunal. He was made a county magistrate in 1891. His business responsibilities were very great as the head of the firm James Oakes and Co., one of the largest private coal and iron firms in the country, employing many thousands of hands on which depends the prosperity of the villages of Riddings, Somercotes, Pye Bridge, Brinsley and Jacksdale. The late Mr Oakes was unmarried and his sister resided with him at Riddings House, which he seldom left except for short intervals as he loved his home. His favourite recreation of recent years was a visit to his club at Derby.
HIS WORK FOR THE COUNTY – Before the business commenced at the meeting of the County Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon, Ald. Johnson Pearson, the chairman, made feeling reference to the late Ald, James Oakes. He need scarcely remind them. He said, of the work Ald. Oakes had done for the county and especially in connection with that committee. He was appointed on the old Technical Education Committee in 1891 and became chairman and ultimately chairman of that committee. His unfailing courtesy and his fair dealing made the work of the committee smooth and pleasant. Personally he regarded Ald. Oakes as a model to look up to, and they had still the tradition he had inculcated. He moved: ‘With thankfulness for our association with so valuable a public life, and deep sorrow at the loss of so esteemed a colleague and personal friend, we place on record our high appreciation of the invaluable services rendered to this committee and the public work of the county generally by Ald. James Oakes, and tender our sincere sympathy to the members of his family in their bereavement.’ This was seconded by Ald. Wilson and carried by the members standing.
MAGISTERIAL REFERENCE – At the Alfreton petty sessions on Wednesday the chairman, Mr W Gladwyn Turbutt, said that on behalf of himself and fellow magistrates he had to discharge a most painful duty. During the last few days the court lost a magistrate who perhaps would claim a larger measure of public esteem than had fallen to the lot of most. As regards his own personal feelings, Mr Turbutt said his acquaintance with the late Mr James Oakes began in the same public school and continued at the same university, and this became cemented and strengthened through a long life of mutual tastes and interests and those feelings had not become dimmed and tarnished as the end approached. Perhaps the court would like to hear some reference to Mr Oakes’ public character which had left its mark on his career. Mr Oakes had strong business capabilities and on the few occasions when he attended Alfreton Court it marked him as a most able magistrate. His abilities perhaps found their greatest expression in the County Council. An original member of that body, his abilities brought him rapidly to the front and before many years he received the chairmanship in succession to Mr Strutt. Most people were aware that the duty of the chairman of the County Council meant something more than presiding at quarterly meetings of that body. It implied attendance at most of the committees and a general supervision to a certain extent of the aims and purposes of those committees. One of those committees on which he presided would leave a lasting influence upon the life of the county – he referred to the Education Committee. Elementary education started a new era in the country by making it necessary to educate the whole body of children, which made it necessary to institute inquiries in every parish in the county and supply the needs required. That implied a vast body of work which devolved upon the chairman and the committee. As chairman of an important tribunal during those long years of war, he [the speaker] had some knowledge of the work which devolved upon him and he could say with some confidence that the seeds of his illness were laid in the anxieties of the arduous duties which devolved upon him. In addition, as head of an important iron and coal industry he had to meet all the anxieties which governed the industries during the war. In conclusion he would like to remind the members of the court that in the late Mr Oakes they had a staunch churchman who believed in the truth of the faith in which he was brought up.He was a model English gentleman, a true Christian and a bright example of public service to his county and district. He felt sure it was their wish to express their feelings of deep sympathy to those of his near relatives on this sad occasion. Mr W Mortimer Wilson [clerk], in associating himself with the chairman’s remarks, said he never remembered a time when the name of Mr James Oakes was not a household word and an emblem of everything. JUST, UPRIGHT AND TRUE”
3. THE STANTON IRONWORKS ERA, 1920
The newspaper articles referring to the merger show that, by 1920, the ironworks had become a smaller player in the manufacture of iron and steel, and the business no doubt was less profitable. In the end, it is likely that James Oakes thought the sale would be the only way to protect the business and its employees in the longer term. James died the following year, and the business, now without the ironworks, passed to his younger brother, Charles Henry Oakes [1863-1929].
An article referring to the Last Will & Testament of James Oakes was published in the Derby Daily Telegraph on 15 March 1922. This shows not only the high positions within the district that James held, but also the companies in which he had an interest: “WILL OF MR. JAMES OAKES. Mr. James Oakes. J.P., of Riddings House, Riddings, Derbyshire, colliery proprietor, for some years chairman of the Derbyshire County Council, and a former High Sheriff of the County, chairman of Messrs Lee and Jerdein, Ltd., and of the Riddings District Gas Company, a director of the Stanton Iron Works Co.. Ltd.. and of Kempson and Co., Ltd., who died on the 19th June last, aged 67 years, left estate of the gross value of £198.689 10s. 10d., with net personalty £111,699 8s. 3d. Probate of his will has been granted to his brother, Mr. Charles Henry Oakes, colliery proprietor, of Newlands, Alfreton. The testator left to his sister, Georgina Frances Oakes. a life annuity of £1,500 free of tax, and the use while she shall reside there of Riddings House and his effects there. He left £3,000 upon trust for his sister, Jane Margaret Barrow, for life, with remainder to her issue as she may appoint, or equally, whom failing, she may otherwise appoint, and all his other property to his brother, Mr. Charles Henry Oakes.” Note that the Will does not mention the ironworks, as this business had already been transferred to the Stanton Ironworks Company.
Under new management, the ironworks once more began to prosper. By 1923, three years after the Stanton Ironworks purchase, improvements were being made to increase the production of iron and steel. The No. 3 Blast Furnace had been shut down for modernisation, and was re-lit during the December of that year. After refurbishment, it had a capacity of some 350 to 400 tons per week. A ceremony was held for the re-lighting, which was performed by Miss Oakes whose family, of course, still had a large part to play in the development of the district, if not specifically the ironworks. In its report on the ceremony, the Derby Daily Telegraph of 22 December 1923 stated that “…the Alfreton works had not been in such a flourishing condition for the past twenty years…” and continued “…The new pipe plant today is turning out more tonnage and breaking all records…”. At the same time, the No. 2 Blast Furnace had also been refurbished and was being prepared for re-lighting.
Despite the fact that the Stanton Ironworks Company had a good reputation for the treatment of its workforce it could not escape the turbulent years of the mid-1920’s. In a scenario repeated in businesses up and down the country relationships between management and workforce became strained. After the Trade Unions called for a country wide general strike, which officially began on 3 May 1926, production at the ironworks was halted. Although the strike was initially solid many employees drifted back to work, and the Dundee Evening Telegraph of 11 May 1926 summed up the mood at the time “LESS ENTHUSIAM FOR STRIKE… Stanton Ironworks, Derbyshire, where four thousand men are employed, resumed work this morning. Alfreton Ironworks, belonging to the same company, are also working, though not at full strength.” The general strike continued officially until 13 May 1926, when it was deemed that support among the workers was not sufficient to carry on.
PHOTO: The Ironworks in 1923. The three blast furnaces can clearly be seen in the photograph
Further disputes, however, did persist, especially with the mine workers, who walked out of the collieries again in September the same year. The ironworks quickly ran out of coal, and laid-off the entire workforce. This was also recorded in the newspapers at the time. The Sheffield Evening Telegraph reported: “COAL DISPUTE VICTIMS … Owing to lack of fuel, the Alfreton Ironworks belonging to the Stanton Coal & Iron Company closed on Saturday. It is unlikely that work will be resumed until the miners return to the pits.” Although many of the employees at the ironworks were by then members of a trade union, as they themselves were not on strike they were not generally entitled to strike pay. Miners throughout the country agreed to end the strike on 12 October 1926, and slowly coal production returned to normal. The hardships endured by the workers who were laid off led to a society being established at the foundry in 1927, which had the grand title “The Alfreton Ironworks Hospital and Kindred Society”. The society would continue until June 1936, when representatives of the foundry were invited to Stanton Ironworks at Ilkeston to discuss the formation of a Works Committee, which continued until the closure of the works.
Along with the national strike of 1926 came the economic depression of the late 1920’s and a general downturn in trade. The Stanton Iron & Coal Company looked to reorganise its business, with the production of iron and steel one of the issues it faced. The three Blast Furnaces at their Pye Bridge site were closed down and rumours regarding the future of the whole of the ironworks began to circulate. To quell these fears, the Company Secretary issued a statement which was printed in the Derby Daily Telegraph on 30 March 1928. The statement followed the closure of the Blast Furnaces and the dismissal of the men who operated them. The statement read “Owing to a rearrangement of the blast furnace output of the Stanton Iron Works Company, Ltd., embracing their three works, the blast furnaces [at the Alfreton Iron Works] have been closed down. As a result a small number of men have been discharged. This department only represents a small part of the Ridding Iron Works. The iron foundries, which represent by far the larger part of the works, are being continued. The blast furnaces of the company at Stanton are, of course, remaining in blast.” The ironworks effectively became a foundry, with iron being supplied from Stanton’s Ilkeston site. The Blast Furnaces at Pye Bridge were eventually demolished in 1938.
With the loss of the blast furnaces at their Pye Bridge works, the management at Stanton could not hide the fact that the foundry had become a more vulnerable concern in their business portfolio. Their Ilkeston and Holwell plants would always take the lion’s share of any investment. It was certainly true that as the tide of business ebbed and flowed, the Pye Bridge works began to feel the forces of economic pressure. Further rumours began to circulate in 1933 regarding the fate of the works, which was heightened when Stanton Ironworks confirmed that it would close their Riddings facility, although only as a temporary measure. The Derbyshire Times & Chesterfield Herald of 11 March 1933 reported as follows: “WORKERS SUSPENDED – Temporary Measure at Riddings Ironworks - Between 400 and 500 men and boys, mainly resident in Riddings, Somercotes and Pye Bridge, are affected by a decision of the Stanton Ironworks Co. Ltd. to suspend work at Riddings Ironworks. The workmen, with few exceptions, are under notice, together with members of the office staff. The Derbyshire Times understands that a number of senior officials will be transferred to the head offices of the company at Stanton. Mr. E. J. Fox, managing director of the company, attended a meeting of the Works Committee at Riddings Ironworks and stated that it was with reluctance that the company were obliged to close down, but thought it would only be a temporary measure. It is understood that Mr. Fox added that the company’s own workmen would be given preference to outsiders when vacancies arose at their Stanton or Holwell Works. Workmen would be able to sign at Riddings Ironworks offices to attest their willingness to work at Stanton or Holwell. Rumours have been prevalent that the works were to close down permanently, but in view of Mr. Fox's assurance such rumours are dispelled. The worst fears of the workmen are thus allayed. The Stanton Ironworks Co. Ltd., succeeded Messrs. James Oakes and Co. as proprietors of Riddings Ironworks some years ago.”
The impact on the local workforce would have been immediate. The same newspaper reported on 6 May 1933 that a letter had been sent to Stanton from the Alfreton Urban District Council regarding the continued closure of the foundry, and that a reply had been received: “CLOSED IRONWORKS - No Immediate Hope of Re-opening at Riddings - Letter to Alfreton Council - There is no immediate hope of the reopening of Riddings Ironworks belonging to the Stanton Ironworks Co. A short time ago Alfreton Urban Council asked the Company to receive a deputation with the object of doing something to help in the re-opening of the works, and so providing more employment, but a communication was read from the firm by the Council on Tuesday to the effect that the Company doubted whether such a visit would worth the waste of time involved. They were up against the hard facts of the situation that until the conditions of trade improved and increased the demand for the Company's products they could not say when the works would be re-opened…”
The foundry finally re-opened on 10 July 1933, initially employing between 200 and 300 workmen, or about half those previously employed. During the closure many of the workers had had no choice but to rely on charity from various sources in order to support their families. Churches and chapels organised fund raising events and even the Alfreton British Legion’s Relief Committee helped during these hard times. The Belper News of 13 October 1933 reported that the Committee had received “…heavy claims arising largely from the suspension of work at the Riddings Ironworks.”
On the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939, the British Government realised that the steel and foundry plants available for war production would not be able to cope with the demand for equipment and munitions. The Stanton Ironworks Company was one of several businesses who agreed to establish a new works capable of manufacturing large steel bomb cases for the RAF’s Bomber Command. The new foundry was financed by the Ministry of Supply and constructed on farm land near Stanton-by-Dale. The facility was opened in September 1941 and was known simply as the Stanton Gate Bomb Plant. Such was the need for workers, especially those skilled in the foundries, that workers from Riddings were seconded to the Bomb Plant and given Reserved Occupation status for the duration of the war. This not only included some of the foundry workers but also pattern makers, maintenance fitters and other essential employees. After the war ended in August 1945, these men were released by the Ministry of Labour and returned to their former jobs at the Riddings Foundry.
PHOTO: Women Worker at the Ironworks during the Second World War with bomb casings, thought to date c.1940, prior to the opening of the Stanton Gate Bomb Plant
In the years after the war, the Ironworks began a slow but steadily declining business. In an effort to halt the deterioration new products were added to the range, including slag ladles and pan bottoms for the sugar refining industry.
By the mid-20th century the ironworks at Pye Bridge had settled into the landscape and had become the focus of its workers lives. Its parent company, Stanton Ironworks, had built an ablution centre, a medical centre and other facilities for its employees, encouraged sports and other activities and had a relatively stable workforce. As with almost every other company of its size, the ironworks employed all the trades it needed, unlike today were much of the ancillary work is outsourced. The company not only employed moulders, patternmakers, engine drivers, labourers and fitters but also electricians, plumbers, painters and gardeners. The medical centre was attended by a nurse during normal working hours and a full range of office staff reported to the Ilkeston head office.
Despite Stanton’s investment, however, it could not hide the fact that the Pye Bridge site, known by Stanton as the “Riddings Works” was the smallest of their sites and the one where expansion was generally not possible. The vast majority of the investment that Stanton made went to their Ilkeston site, which could be enlarged as required. Spun iron pipes had been manufactured at Stanton for some years, in large centrifuges, followed by spun pipes internally lined with concrete. A spun concrete pant was also established by the company. A large Coke Oven Plant extension was also built at Ilkeston in 1955.
By 1960, many ironworks and foundries throughout the country had closed. The Birmingham Post published on 10 March 1960 reported on the annual general meeting of the National and Midland Ironfounders’ Association, when the chairman, Mr W James, informed the members that 370 iron foundries [almost one in five] had closed in the previous ten years. Whilst the reasons for the closures may have been attributed to various causes the newspaper article quoted Mr James as stating that the introduction of new production facilities and modern machinery meant that the capital expenditure required to compete in an international market was often beyond many of the smaller foundries. There was, also, a problem with many companies obtaining land next to their premises for expansion and new developments, an issue very relevant to the works at Pye Bridge. Without funding and room to expand, the technological advances made in the industry in the previous ten years or so would have been of little consequence to many of the old foundries. During the meeting, Sir Frederick Scopes, then chairman of Stanton Ironworks and a national, well-respected leader of the iron and steel industry spoke in a more upbeat fashion about his company and its employees. It was, he said “…important that employees should be enabled to own their own houses and should be encouraged by special schemes to do so.” Sir Frederick then referred to a private insurance scheme started by Stanton Ironworks which provided sick pay of up to £5 per week for a weekly premium of 3s. Such schemes, along with the company’s encouragement in sport and leisure activities made Stanton Ironworks one of the best and most respected employers in Derbyshire.
Large and bespoke castings had always been a specialty of the ironworks and the Stantonian Magazine Vol.21 No. 12 published in April 1960 reported on a special order: “Recently completed at Riddings Works were the four very large pipe special castings… They formed part of an order by Drysdale & Co., Ltd., of Glasgow, for pipes varying from 60in to 84in internal diameter and the weights of the castings range from 5 tons to a little over eight tons. The pipes and castings will be used in the power station of the Central Electricity Generating Board at Skelton Bridge in Yorkshire”
During the 1960s there was a move away from cast iron and steel pipes to concrete, and the fortunes of the foundry began to sharply decline.
The Stanton Ironworks Company merged with Stewart & Lloyds Ltd in 1960. Stewart & Lloyds were iron and steel pipe and tube manufacturers, who were established on 1 January 1903 when A. J. Stewart & Menzies merged with Lloyd & Lloyd to form the new company. This company grew by acquisition over the following years until it was nationalised in 1951 under the Iron & Steel Act, when it became part of the Iron & Steel Corporation of Great Britain. In 1954, however, the company was offered for public sale and transferred to the Iron & Steel Holding and Rationalisation Agency, from which 50% of the shares were purchased in 1956. Prior to the merger with Stanton, Stewart & Lloyds Ltd purchased the Staveley Iron and Chemical Company from the Iron & Steel Holding and Realisation Agency for six million pounds and began to merge these two companies to form Stanton & Staveley Ltd, whose assets also then included the Riddings Foundry.
The fortunes of the foundry would fluctuate in the following years. The Stantonian Magazine published in February 1962 [Vol 22 No. 11] ran a short article on the Riddings Works Committee Supper, held at Hill’s Café in Alfreton on 29 December previous. It was presided over by Mr L Hearnshaw, General Manager, Foundries. In the article he stated that:-“Despite the industrial clouds which had appeared to be gathering at the beginning, the year at Riddings had been quite satisfactory. In fact, said Mr Hearnshaw, output had risen by 428 tons for sandcast products and 46 tons for flanged spun pipes. Although Riddings was not a modern works, Mr. Hearnshaw continued, new machines had been purchased and new methods developed which had helped to maintain production costs at the same level as the previous year.”
Despite the rosy outlook, however, Stanton still had to compete globally with new and emerging markets in the Far East, which for the UK steel industry would become an ever increasing problem. In 1967 the government of the day began to nationalise the industry. Stewart & Lloyds Ltd, along with all of its associated subsidiaries was nationalised that year, and became a part of the British Steel Corporation.
4. BRITISH STEEL CORPORATION, 1967
As with all major changes in large industries, decisions were made regarding those portions of the business that were not deemed viable, often without emotion and regardless of the impact on the local population. In 1968, the following year after it was nationalised, the decision was taken to close the foundry at Pye Bridge.
On 24 February 1969, the local Member of Parliament, Mr. Raymond Fletcher, brought the subject of the closure of the foundry into the political arena of the House of Commons. Just a small part of Mr. Fletcher’s speech in the House of Commons is transcribed as follows: “This is not the first time that I have raised in this House the problems of the Alfreton area, but I sincerely hope that it will be the last time. I am profoundly grateful that it is the duty of my Hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Economic Affairs to reply to this debate, because there is nobody in the present Government who understands the problems of this area better than he does. He has made a recent visit to the area and he has talked with the people concerned. He has established first name contact with the trade union people and the industrialists, and when I talk to him about the problems of this area I know that I am talking to a person not only who understands but who is a friend in the strict and literal sense of that word. I have to raise this problem because the decision has been made by the British Steel Corporation to close the Riddings Ironworks. This is an ironworks which has been established for a long time and it is being closed in accordance with the rationalisation measures which the British Steel Corporation has embarked upon.” “...I submit that this closure, whether justified or not—and whether it is justified is the subject of vigorous argument elsewhere in which I intend to participate strongly—hits an area which has already been too savagely hit by the process of industrial restructuring. I will give a few figures to illustrate that simple proposition. When I was first elected for the constituency, which includes the Alfreton Urban District, there were many collieries in full production. By the end of March, 1969, there will not be a single colliery in the area employing workers in the area. In other words, an entire industry has contracted to the point of disappearance. I am not whining about this, I am not moaning about it, and I am not leading protest demonstrations, because I fully recognise the problem is not so much one of keeping uneconomic pits in existence as of bringing new industries into the area to absorb the labour liberated by the closure of the pits. I have said on at least four occasions on the Floor of the House that labour thus liberated is probably the best labour in the country, and I have here a file of testimonials from employers testifying that former mining labour can be trained very easily, and is probably the best labour that is available.”
Since the closing of the blast furnaces in the 1920’s the foundry at Pye Bridge had had to compete with the larger works at Ilkeston and Holwell. Both of these sites had retained their blast furnaces and Stanton Ironworks continued to increase the size of the company through further acquisitions. In the early 19th century when the works at Pye Bridge was initially established it was ideally located, sitting as it did almost on top of the ironstone rakes and coal seams, and next to the most modern transport infrastructure at that time, the Cromford Canal; but by the mid-20th century the site had become anything but ideal. The ironstone had long since been shipped from elsewhere, the canal had closed, and in the 1960’s even the railway stations of Pye Bridge and Pye Hill & Somercotes had all but been abandoned. More importantly, the ironworks sat on a small enclosed site. On one side was the old canal and the railway line, on another it was bordered by Riddings House and Park, on another by the encroaching houses in Somercotes that would eventually become the Cottage Farm estate and finally, completing the encirclement was Pye Bridge itself. There was, in effect, little available land for expansion. When something new was required, something old had to be removed, always at a cost.
Stanton Ironworks was still a company that ran its affairs like a family run business, as was often the case in those days. Their duty was not just to their shareholders but also to the workers and their families. This attitude amongst the management probably kept the foundry open and working throughout the 1960’s. Their approach to this can be seen in the encouragement and support offered to various works committees and the investment in the sports ground, across from Furnace Row at Lower Somercotes. Despite disputes and business problems Stanton was deemed a good employer by its workforce but although the company still invested in the foundry at Pye Bridge, over time it was the plants at Ilkeston and Holwell where the bulk of the investment would be made.
When the steel industry was nationalised the British Steel Corporation was tasked with both streamlining and modernising it. Those plants deemed too old or too costly to improve, or simply unprofitable, were unceremoniously axed from their business model. The question of whether the foundry at Pye Bridge would have survived if Stanton Ironworks had not been nationalised is one that has been asked on many occasions. It is, in the event, likely that if the closure had not occurred in 1969, Stanton Ironworks would have had to make the same decision not long after.
PHOTO: A photograph taken on the last day, Friday 13 June 1969
In the end, Riddings Foundry closed on Friday, 13 June 1969. The site was earmarked for development as an industrial estate, and when it was finally opened, it was given the name which more correctly reflected the area in which it was located. It became known as the Pye Bridge Industrial Estate.
As to the employees, the trade unions negotiated several options with British Steel. The first was redundancy, under which terms the employee was effectively paid off and dismissed; the second was relocation to Ilkeston with a guaranteed job at their Stanton & Staveley plant (to which British Steel would make a contribution to the relocation costs) and finally, for those not wanting to relocate, a job at the Ilkeston plant with dedicated transport from Somercotes and Pye Bridge to the Ilkeston plant and return. Although many of the workers took redundancy, a considerable number initially took the option of free transport and a continued job with British Steel. The bus which ferried them back and forth each working day would continue to operate well into the 1980s.
A few of the old buildings remained, taken over by new enterprises as part of the new industrial estate, but development could not hide the fact that a large part of the early history of the area had vanished.
5. THE RIDDINGS WORKS SPORTS ASSOCIATION
The Stanton Ironworks Company was known for its relatively good relationship with its workforce and its foundry at Pye Bridge was no exception. A Riddings Works Sports Association was formed by workers which organised football and cricket teams to play interdepartmental matches as well as other teams from relevant local associated leagues. Other sports were also catered for and the company gave both sponsorship and encouragement.
On 9 May 1953 the Sports Ground [located across from Furnace Row, Lower Somercotes] was opened. The opening was reported in the in-house magazine The Stantonian, Volume 18, No. 7, published in June 1953. Part of the article read: “RIDDINGS WORKS NEW SPORTS GROUND – ‘Those who remember this site before operations commenced must be amazed at the transformation’ said the Managing Director when, at the opening of Riddings Works new Sports Ground on Saturday, May 9th he addressed a gathering of some 500 of our colleagues and friends. Continuing, Mr. Scopes mentioned the possibility that some of the Riddings employees might be under the impression that they did not get the same amenities as their colleagues at Stanton. But he wanted them to know that it was his wish that all branches of the organisation should get their share of the amenities which the company was willing to provide. ‘This Sports Ground’, he said, ‘is a tangible example of what we are prepared to do – but we can only provide the facilities; it is up to the work-people to make full and proper use of them. I hope this ground will prove to be of the greatest possible value to the employees at Riddings’... Immediately after the official opening the Riddings Works Cricket Team and their opponents, Codnor CC, took the field to play their first match on this new ground. It turned out to be an exciting game, in which our Riddings colleagues celebrated the event by beating Codnor by three runs: Riddings 34, Codnor 31… It is only after many months of planning, negotiation, hard work and much expense that this site – which for many years was no beauty spot - has been so transformed. Today it is an amenity which will provide excellent sports facilities for our Riddings colleagues and at the same time give not a little pleasure to the residents in the immediate vicinity; it is a credit not only to the Riddings Works and the Company but also to the whole neighbourhood. It is just a year since we published a plan of the layout of this 7½ acre site. We also gave a description of the various facilities provided which include cricket and football pitches, bowling greens, tennis courts and a fine pavilion”.
There followed a list of dignitaries at the opening ceremony. The Sports Ground became one of the best amenities of its type in the district. Prior to the sports ground being laid out it was used to extract clay by James Oakes & Company, who had extensive clay pipe and brick works at Pye Hill. This land has also been subject to opencast coal extraction and then a landfill site, before being restored as a rugby ground for Amber Valley Rugby Club.
PHOTO: Riddings Ironworks Football Club, 1960's
On 5 June 1954, the Riddings Works Sports Association held its first Sports and Gala Day which was held on the sports field. Attractions included the Stanton Ironworks Band, Sports, Entertainment Sideshows and Open Tennis and Bowls Tournaments. A fancy dress parade was also held, which started at the Black Horse Inn, Lower Somercotes. Admission was charged at 1s, with all children under 15 years free.
The Gala became an annual event, often well attended, until the ironworks itself became scheduled for closure. The 1955 event was reported in the Ripley & Heanor News, published on Friday 9 September that year. A full transcription is given as follows: “SPORTS AND GALA AT PYE BRIDGE – Three wrestling bouts in which one of the contenders was Jack Taylor of Accrington, British lightweight champion, were the main attraction at the second annual sports and gala of the Riddings branch of the Stanton Ironworks, held at the sports ground, Pye Bridge last Saturday. The sports were opened by Lady Scopes, wife of Sir Frederick Scopes (managing director of Stanton Ironworks). Also present at the opening ceremony were Sir Frederick Scopes, Mr A Watson, assistant managing director of Stanton Ironworks and Mrs Watson, Mr W S Matthews, training officer and Mrs Matthews, Mr C S Whitfield, works manager and Mr J E A King, personnel manager. Features of the afternoon included sports events for children and adults, a bowls competition for which there were 64 entries, sideshows, and a Punch and Judy show. The Duffin Cup, awarded to the winner of an inter-departmental relay race was won by Pattern Shop “D”.
Sports results were:
WRESTLING – The organisers were well pleased with the increased attendance this year, due to the wrestling attraction in a natural setting, the contests apparently thrilled the crowd and provided a mixture of the rough and dirty stuff as well as some real classy wrestling. First bout, over five three minute rounds, brought together Con Cooper, of Ripley, versus Ric Staley of Heanor. This bout started off fairly quiet, Cooper taking the first fall in the second round., but in the third round the stronger Heanor boy equalised with a “Boston Crab”. The next round was clear, with Cooper showing much superior wrestling ability. In the last round the Ripley boy became too confident and after a number of thigh throws found himself “pinned” and an unlucky looser.”
In 1956 the event was held on 9 June. The Melton Mowbray Tally Ho Carnival Band was a star attraction with Cookery, Handicraft and Pet Show competitions all added. As with all such events, however, the weather played a crucial part in the success of the day. The Ripley & Heanor News reported that: “The attendance was not as large as expected owing to the weather”.
The 1957 Sports & Gala Day was held on 1 June that year. Prior to this event a Sports Association Dance was held at Leabrooks Miners’ Welfare on 8 March in aid of the Gala Day, organised by the Arts & Crafts Section. According to the Stantonian Magazine of April that year more than 170 people attended the Dance. An article on the Gala and Sports Day was published on 7 June in the Ripley & Heanor News: “GALA AT PYE BRIDGE – A street parade by Chesterfield Newbold Toppers’ Carnival Band added greatly to the success of Riddings Works Sports Association’s fourth annual sports and gala on the Works Sports Ground, last Saturday. In the heat of the afternoon crowds of employees and friends enjoyed a miscellany of entertainment, including athletic sports, gymnastics by the Five Equilibrists and Birchwood Boys’ Club; judo by Somercotes Judo Club under the leadership of Mr C Shepherd; displays of marching and counter-marching by the Toppers Carnival Band; and an arts and crafts and handicrafts exhibition, along with numerous side-shows. Special attractions for the children included Mr Eric Hawksworth’s miniature railway, a Punch and Judy show, and Joe Sparta, the lightning cartoonist whose talent made him a firm favourite. The programme was most entertaining to the visitors with something of interest to watch due to the hard work of the organising committee, stewards and all the helpers. The prizes were presented by Mr. Whitfield, manager of Stanton Ironworks. The Duffin Challenge Cup was won by the Pattern Shop, and it was presented by Mrs Duffin.”
The Riddings Works Sports Association also oversaw the management of several of the works teams connected with various sports, including several football teams, at least two cricket teams, a bowling club [which had a large membership], and a tennis club. Inter-departmental matches were organised and the football and crickets teams also played in local leagues. Almost every copy of the Stantonian Magazine contained stories of the various sports fixtures and team news. The following transcriptions are randomly taken from the Stantonian, all relating to the foundry:
The Riddings Works Sports Association also organised other events, and had an active Social Committee that arranged staff outings and dinners. As well as company news, the Stantonian Magazine also ran news articles on the main sites of the group, which included Ilkeston, Holwell, Wellingborough, Cochranes [in the North East] and Riddings. Photographs of various dinners and outings were published, but family photographs of weddings and children were also printed.
The company had a “cradle to grave” mentality that, despite the industrial and economic issues it faced, continued to be at the centre of its philosophy. It left behind fond memories for its workforce and its closure in 1969 ended over one hundred and sixty years of history.
6. LONG SERVICE AWARDS
After such a long association with the district and an important employer, the ironworks and foundry had many workers who spent their entire working lives at the foundry. Whole families were often employed; fathers, sons and brothers alike.
PHOTO: A Long Service Presentation for Stanton Employees, 1953
As each change of ownership in the company occurred, the employee’s period of service was accrued and carried forward, resulting in many of them being presented with long-service awards for 25 and 40 years. They were usually presented with a watch, engraved with their name and year on the back.
The years worked by some of the employees at Riddings was astonishing by today’s standards although in the early years of the 20th century the school leaving age was much lower than today. Mr. T. H. Boultbee, for example, who worked in the foundry department, completed 42 years’ service on 7 November 1951, while A. E. Hendley completed 51 years on 31 December 1958 and T. Whilde, who worked in “Sundry Services” a staggering 55 years on 29 December 1961. Mr. Whilde’s retirement was recorded in the Stantonian Magazine Vol. 22 No. 11 of February 1962: “Among the longer serving employees to feature in our pages this month is Mr. T Whilde who retired from Riddings on December 29, after 55 years’ service. For most of his working life Mr. Whilde was a moulder at the New Foundry but the last three years he has spent tending the gardens at Riddings Works. A member of the Amalgamated Union of Foundryworkers for more than forty years, Mr. Whilde has been treasurer of the Somercotes Branch for the past fifteen of them. His son, Mr. A. J. Whilde is employed in the order office at Riddings.”
In the Stantonian Magazine of February 1952 [Vol 17 No.11] various references to long service were made at the annual Pensioner’s reunion Party. The oldest retiree present in 1952 was Mr. Frederick Street, who started work at the Alfreton Iron Works in 1887, retiring in 1926 and, as the magazine reported, had been “drawing a retirement allowance ever since”. Another, William Meakin, started work at the age of 13 and did not retire until he was 70 years old. Edward Perkins started work just four days before his fourteenth birthday and retired four days before his 70th. The fact that generations of the same family worked at the Pye Bridge plant can be seen in an article published in in the same magazine. This read: “ANOTHER OLD STANTONIAN FAMILY -During his speech at the annual supper of Riddings Works Committee, Mr H. Swindell [Chairman], related how in the year 1837, his grandfather, Mr. Henry Cotterell Swindell started work at the Riddings Foundry at the age of 11 years. He was a moulder; he had six sons, they also had sons and all came to work at the foundry [some of them later came to Stanton where the name is a household word] and between them, father, sons and grandsons had been with the Company for a total of 236 years. ‘During all those years since 1837,’ continued Mr.Swindell, ‘there has always been a Swindell at Riddings’”
[MANY MORE PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE IRONWORKS, ITS WORKERS AND THE OAKES FAMILY CAN BE FOUND IN THE PHOTO GALLERY]