Victorian Industry in Furness

During the 1800s England saw massive growth in its industry through, what is now known as, the Industrial Revolution.

This growth was seen even here in Furness with new industry starting up from steel works to bobbin mills! Industry which was set to shape the area we know today.

At the start of the 1800s Furness was similar to how it had been for centuries with large towns like Ulverston and Dalton generally thriving with the iron mining industry being one of the main employers. But over the course of the coming century things would start to change, dramatically.

During the early to mid 1800s lots and lots of bobbin mills were built across the Lake District and into Furness. Places like Spark Bridge, near Greenodd, had large mills and further up near to Newby Bridge was Stott Park Bobbin Mill, now the last remaining mill in the area and, indeed, the country! These mills would produce thousands of wooden bobbins each year for the booming cotton and wool industries over in Lancashire and Yorkshire. So many were needed as they were basically disposable items, used once then thrown on the fire. This meant there was constant orders coming in for more and more of these lovely and functional items.

The mills utilised the fast moving water of the Lake District to power their machinery with the use of water wheels and, often, later water turbines. They also utilised the large amounts of coppice woodland in the area.

Coppicing was another major industry in the area, growing various types of trees, from hazel to birch, which were regularly cut down to their base to encorage new shoots which will grow tall, straight and fast. These would then be cut down again after a 10-15 year period to grow new shoots again. It was an ongoing cycle which created large amounts of much needed wood. This wood was perfect for the production of bobbins!

They would be cut down and taken onto site where they could be cut to size and turned on lathes to produce, you guessed it, bobbins. The bobbin industry was a huge one but sadly in the 1970's, with the reduction of wool and cotton mills and the invention of plastics, wooden bobbins became obsolite. All the bobbin mills closed their doors and many were knocked down, thankfully though one of these mills, Stott Park, was saved and is now open today as a visitor attraction. It is run by English Heritage and can be visited 7 days a week throughout the summer months for guided tours around the inside of the mill where you can even see some bobbins being made!

It is safe to say that several of the bobbins being made in the Lake District were going a short distance to Backbarrow where there was a large Cotton Mill. As mentioned previously the wool and cotton industries were booming and mills were springing up across the country, especially in Yorkshire and Lancashire. Furness at the time was indeed part of Lancashire and un-surprisingly had its own Cotton Mill. The mill at Backbarrow ran until 1868 when a large fire broke out causing many of the machines to fall through the floors of the mill destroying them! The mill was re-built but never re-opened.

A new woolen mill did however open in part of the rebuilt structure in 1880. Sadly though it didn't last past a couple of years but it wasn't the end of the story at Backbarrow. The whole mill site was bought in 1890 by Johannes Eggestorff who opened a brand new factory producing ultramarine blue powder. This saw the birth of the Lancashire Ultramarine Company, a company which became a huge employer in the area and extremely successful. The factory ran until it sadly closed in 1982 after 92 years of production. The Whitewater hotel now stands where the mill building used to be. One of the biggest changes to the peninsula in the 1800s was the arrival of the railway and the huge expansion of the small fishing village of Barrow!

It was in 1844 that the Furness Railway Company began life building rail links from the slate quarries at Kirkby-in-Furness and the Iron Ore mines of Lindal to the deep water harbour at Roe Island. These early rail links were solely for the movement of minerals, i.e. slate and iron ore, to the coast where they could be distributed across England. The first links opened in 1846 and soon expanded up to Broughton-in-Furness, a small market town, and later, in 1854, a link was completed to Ulverston (the biggest town in the area at the time). The railway continued to expand with new links to Lancaster and Carnforth, this meant that the Furness peninsula was, for the first time, easily accessible from the rest of the country.

The Furness Railway went on to help in the huge, and swift, development of the areas newest town, Barrow. 

The Duke of Devonshire, the Duke of Buccleugh, Henry Schneider and Sir James Ramsden were the owners and board members of the Furness Railway. They also owned the slate and ore mines in the area, not just content with owning large profitable businesses and the rail links to transport their goods they decided to build a huge new dock at Barrow, rendering Roe Islands port useless. They also opened steelworks at Barrow where the local ore could be processed. All this development meant new jobs and in turn new housing was required, housing which was built in Barrow. This marked a period of rapid growth in the town, swiftly expanding it from a small fishing village with a minimal number of houses to a grand Victorian boom town, often referred to as ‘The Chicago of the North’.

All this growth led to James Ramsden, in 1871, founding the Iron Shipbuilding Company, which would later, in 1897, become Vickers Shipyard and subsequently BAE Systems. This new company was created to build large ships in the port of Barrow using the processed steel from the local steelworks. These ships could then be distributed around the country and later the globe. This industry grew and grew in the area expanding the town further and today the shipyard is still the main employer of this truly Victorian town.

Another industry popular at the time was quicklime production. Large kilns known as Lime Kilns were used to fire limestone to upwards of 900°c to produce Calcium oxide, or quicklime as it was commonly known as, a white powder substance which could be used in mortar and agriculturally. You can still see many lime kilns dotting the landscape around Furness, the one pictured here is just outside the village of Scales.

We've only spoken about a few of the vast amount of industries in this area, if we were to go into detail about them all I'm sure we would be here for days! However some of the other industries include - rope works, iron works, jute works, slate mines (Kirkby slate mine is still operational), iron mines, brickworks (Askam brickworks opened in 1845 and is still in use today), charcoal burning, tanneries (leather making) and of course fishing!

You can find a host of evidence across the peninsula of these long lost industries from the massive slag banks at Askam to the street names of Barrow. Be sure to keep an eye out the next time you are about in the area and do take a mintue to remember the truly idustrial past of Furness!




Written by Bertram


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