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Annual Report 2001

A South Wales Blast Furnace - Twentieth century heavy industry, Port Talbot, Glamorgan

Photograph of blast furnace no.3 protruding through the cast house roofDespite the importance of iron and steel manufacture to the British economy in the 20th century, no complete steel-cased furnace has been preserved and only a handful of these remain, such as Redcar and Scunthorpe in England and Port Talbot in Wales. ULAS was approached when one of the Port Talbot furnaces was made the subject of an environmental impact assessment for a proposed regeneration project including a new road. The School of Archaeology and Ancient History has recognised expertise in Industrial Archaeology and ULAS was fortunate in having access to the knowledge and experience of Professor Marilyn Palmer and Peter Neaverson whilst carrying out this work. Blast furnace No. 3 at the Margam Steel works, Port Talbot, the subject of this assessment, is certainly one of the largest industrial structures examined by these experts.

Swansea and its immediate surroundings had become a centre for copper smelting during the 18th century. Ores from south-west England were shipped into the area and smelted using the abundant supply of cheap coal; copper works were established at Taibach (now part of Port Talbot) and Cwmavon. Iron production in the hinterland, using local ore, coal and limestone, grew rapidly in the early 19th century. However, suitable local ore supplies became exhausted and the ironworks became reliant on ore from other parts of England. The economic disadvantages of this resulted in the import of foreign ores which eventually led to the movement of iron and steel making towards the coast, which enabled them to take advantage of the local market for steel for tinplate manufacture. The Margam iron and steel works at Port Talbot were the result of investment by a large tinplate manufacturer at a new site with good shipping and railway facilities. Baldwins’ integrated iron and steel works opened in 1920 with two of the three blast furnaces originally planned in operation and probably represented the best of then current practice.

Photograph of Margam works from the air in 1957. The original blast furnaces can be seen next to the quay, far leftFurther development at Margam works slowed down during the depression in the 1920s and 1930s. However, increased wartime demand probably led to the completion of the No. 3 blast furnace by 1941. In the post-war reconstruction, Baldwins became part of the Steel Company of Wales which made a massive further capital investment at Port Talbot. This involved rebuilding and enlarging the three blast furnaces at Margam Works and building a new open-hearth steel plant and hot-strip continuous rolling mill at Abbey Works on adjacent reclaimed land to the south. The original three furnaces were rebuilt with substantial increases in their production capacity but their further enlargement was limited by the constraints of their dockside site. In the 1950s two new furnaces were built, and later a new deep-water harbour to allow much larger ships to off-load to a new ore storage area. Once the new No. 4 and 5 furnaces began production, the older furnaces, No’s 1 and 2 were demolished. However, No. 3 furnace was retained as a stand-by, refurbished and brought back into service in 1991/2 for a limited period. Since that date the furnace and the ancillary plant have been abandoned and allowed to deteriorate.

Swansea and its immediate surroundings had become a centre for copper smelting during the 18th century. Ores from southwest England were shipped into the area and smelted using the abundant supply of cheap coal; copper works were established at Taibach (now part of Port Talbot) and Cwmavon.

Iron production in the hinterland, using local ore, coal and limestone, grew rapidly in the early 19th century. However, suitable local ore supplies became exhausted and the ironworks became reliant on ore from other parts of England. The economic disadvantages of this resulted in the import of foreign ores which eventually led to the movement of iron and steel making towards the coast, which enabled them to take advantage of the local market for steel for tinplate manufacture. The Margam iron and steel works at Port Talbot were the result of investment by a large tinplate manufacturer at a new site with good shipping and railway facilities. Baldwins’ integrated iron and steel works opened in 1920 with two of the three blast furnaces originally planned in operation and probably represented the best of then current practice.

Further development at Margam works slowed down during the depression in the 1920s and 1930s. However, increased wartime demand probably led to the completion of the No. 3 blast furnace by 1941. In the post-war reconstruction, Baldwins became part of the Steel Company of Wales which made a massive further capital investment at Port Talbot. This involved rebuilding and enlarging the three blast furnaces at Margam Works and building a new open-hearth steel plant and hot-strip continuous rolling mill at Abbey Works on adjacent reclaimed land to the south. The original three furnaces were rebuilt with substantial increases in their production capacity but their further enlargement was limited by the constraints of their dockside site. In the 1950s two new furnaces were built, and later a new deep-water harbour to allow much larger ships to off-load to a new ore storage area. Once the new No. 4 and 5 furnaces began production, the older furnaces, Nos 1 and 2 were demolished. However, No. 3 furnace was retained as a stand-by, refurbished and brought back into service in 1991/2 for a limited period. Since that date the furnace and the ancillary plant have been abandoned and allowed to deteriorate.

The present buildings and structures within the development site fall into two main categories, the ore handling facilities and the blast furnace plant, both of which were originally planned in 1917 as a ‘state of the art’ integrated iron and steel works to produce pig iron using imported ores. The ore handling facilities are, in part, some 80 years old with the remainder representing modifications to handle ever-increasing amounts of ore imports required by the enlarged furnaces, until the new harbour and ore storage areas to the south-west were brought into use around 1969/70. The blast furnace plant is mostly of comparatively recent date, much stemming from the rebuilding of the furnace in 1950/2, although some of the remaining plant may be the original, now over 80 years old.

No. 3 blast furnace is steel-cased and about 70m (225ft) high, representing the rebuild of 1950 to 1952, when the hearth diameter was increased from 16ft to 25ft 9in (c. 4.9 - 7.9m). The rebuilding was carried out on the base of the original furnace which seems to have been constructed during World War II. The cast house encloses the base of the furnace with floor channels for slag and molten iron, which was directed into rail-mounted ladle cars on the north-east side, and the slag to cars on the south east side. An overhead travelling crane and some ladle cars remain in situ. The furnace remains as abandoned after its last use in 1991/2, although much of the furnace, equipment, walkways, guard rails, pipe work and support structures are severely corroded.

The No. 3 blast furnace at Port Talbot represents an important example of Britain’s 20th century industrial history. Although no examples are preserved in Britain, steel-cased blast furnace structures have been retained elsewhere in Europe and the USA. At the time of writing the future of the blast furnace at Port Talbot is uncertain. However there is a case for either No. 3 or the more modern No. 4 (1956) or No. 5 (1959) blast furnaces, should they become redundant in the future, to be retained as examples of this significant part of Britain’s industrial heritage.

We would like to thank Corus and Parsons Brinkerhoff Ltd. for help and co-operation during this assessment.

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UPDATED: 11th April 2014
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