The Leeds Steelworks became one of the largest iron and steelworks in Yorkshire. It occupied around 25 acres (10 hectares) between Balm Road and Pepper Road in Hunslet and alongside the Midland Railway. Its perimeter extended to just over a mile. At its peak it employed 1,400-1,500 and exported its products worldwide.
Hunslet’s industrial history can be traced back to the 18th century. Its advantages, according to John Goodchild, were flat land watered by two streams, excellent trading opportunities since the Aire and Calder Navigation opened to Leeds bridge in 1700, the improvement of the Leeds to Wakefield road by a turnpike trust from 1758, and the availability of local coal and clay. The opening of a colliery (1739) was followed by potteries, a brewery (1763) iron founding (1770), textile mills (1787) and chemical works (1798). By 1800 Hunslet was ready to become “one of the great 19th century workshops of the world”.
Joseph Ledger began iron founding on what eventually became the site of the Leeds Steel Works in the 1860s. The first blast furnace was built in 1871. The operation became known as the Aireside Iron Company in 1881 and the Aireside Hematite Iron Company in 1882-3 (hematite is the principal ore of iron). In 1888, when it started converting pig iron into steel by the Bessemer process, it became the Aireside Steel and Iron Company.
In 1889 Walter Scott Ltd (of Newcastle-upon-Tyne) acquired the works, with its three blast furnaces. Sir Walter Scott (1826-1910) was a renowned railway builder, colliery and shipyard owner. It now traded under the name of the Leeds Steel Works.
The owners began to re-construct and expand the works. Originally standing in fields, its expansion is likely to have been a major factor attracting extensive back-to-back housing development around Bower Road and Pepper Road in the 1890s and early 1900s.
The company owned large iron ore mines in Frodingham, north Lincolnshire, which supplied the works with over 2,000 tons of ore a week. This ore reduced the need for limestone because it is strongly impregnated with lime. They also imported ore from Northamptonshire. The ore and other supplies such as coke and limestone came by rail - the works site included 5 miles of railway sidings - which was also used to send out pig iron and finished steel.
The works now had four blast furnaces, each able to make 100-130 tons of iron a day. All the iron produced was used for making Bessemer steel in an adjoining plant.
The steel was then cast into ingots and transferred to heating furnaces in the rolling-mill department. Here it was rolled to different sizes and sections. The rolling mill produced 1,800-2,000 tons of steel a week. Since 1894 a speciality had been tram rails. It produced 50 different sections of rail for most UK Councils. In 1892 it had been the first to produce a rail 60ft long: a longer rail meant smoother running. By the 1920s the works had made over half of the total tramway rails in use in England.
It also produced the first wide grooved tram rail suitable for dealing with mainline stock, to allow a railway wagon to run on a tram rail. This had an impact on dockside systems. The company took all of this specialised rail trade, which had been in the hands of foreign companies.
Permanent way rails were rolled for several leading English railways as well as South America and Canada.
Slag produced at the blast furnaces was broken up and used for road making, concreting, railway ballast and artificial manure. Since 1908 a business had been developed to make tarmacadam or asphalt using a lot of the slag. Molten slag was run off from the furnaces into containers, allowed to cool, then put under giant crushers and ejected for mixture with tar to form a perfect road-making material. It was much used around Leeds.
Those killed were William Henry Bosworth (27), William Walker (32), William Hirst (24), William Thompson (27), Henry Howard (40), Arthur Thompson (28), Joseph Hinett (35), Harry Hobson (30) and John Hartley (56).
A later report described the mood in Hunslet: “Standing in the streets are the women-folk and, if one overhears their gossip, it has but one subject. Now and again one comes across a man, heavily bandaged, leaning against a wall, and repeating the story to a crowd of eager listeners. And here and there there is a house with the blinds drawn and the neighbours trying to comfort the widow and the children, going in and out”.
After the first World War competition from abroad had begun to make steel production unprofitable. It still had a modern and efficient iron making plant, however, and was now producing high grade irons for foundry and forge work and for other steelworks throughout England. It was one of the leading firms in the country in this product. The special plant asphalt plant was producing over 100,000 tons a year.
Although conversion of iron to steel had ceased, the company was fabricating other steel section: constructional steelwork for buildings, roofs and bridges.
Britain’s iron and steel industry had grown enormously to be a world leader in the 19th century but from the latter part of the century foreign competition was becoming more intense. The worldwide recession in the 1930s hit all users of iron and steel. There was over-capacity in the industry and firms closed. The Leeds Steelworks employed only a few hundred when a receiver was appointed in 1934. An 18 month period of dismantling began in August 1935. There was 400,000 tons of slag on the site and the slag plant was to re-open to make road-making material and concrete.
A letter from Harold Newton to the Yorkshire Evening Post struck a nostalgic note:“With the news of the lamentable dismantling of the famous Leeds Steelworks, the thoughts of many people will travel back 30 years or so to the time when Hunslet was a hive of industry by day and night. For many years the sky was aglare at night with the light from the huge blast furnaces which played their part in the making of steel destined for nearly every part of the world. Hunslet at that time was the hub of the engineering industry. There were highly skilled craftsmen at such works as Kitson’s, Fowler’s, Clayton’s Tannett Walker’s … Many of these engineers were sent to all parts of the world to supervise or assist with the erection of the engineering marvels made by their respective firms”.
New industries were slowly established on parts of the steel works site from the 1950s but part of it remained derelict for many years. This was known locally as the slag ("t'slag”). With its remains of stone walls, Balm Beck, and moonscape of waste material it became an unofficial adventure playground and illegal gambling den.
The boundary of the steelworks can still be discerned on the ground because within the old works perimeter the land today is still mainly in industrial use and beyond it is housing that replaced the back to backs. The works may have long since gone, but they have left a geographical imprint to remind us of a once great Hunslet industry.
Belle Isle (Belle Isle Study Group, 1985)
Hunslet in the Eighteenth Century (John Goodchild in Aspects of Leeds 2, Ed. Tate)
Harold Newton, letter to Yorkshire Evening Post, 24th August 1935
Yorkshire Evening Post: 11 and 12 January 1900; 27,28 and 30 August 1913; 8 and 10 August 1935;
13 December 1975
The Leeds Steel Works (Walter Scott Ltd) in Yorkshire Post Tercentenary Supplement, July 8-17, 1926
Iron and Steel Institute, Leeds Meeting. Published by the Institute, 1912, pp 23-25
Trade Directories: 1881 Kelly’s, Part 1; 1882-3 Post Office Directory Part 1; 1888 Kelly’s;
1892 Slater Directory; 1908 Kelly’s
Images of Leeds 1850-1960 p. 159 (Brears,1992)
The steelworks in 1909
Bill Britten worked at the Leeds Steelworks around 1927 as a lad assisting with the removal of the end products of the giant slag crushing machines.
“ When I was a boy, the largest industry in Hunslet was the Steel Works. I remember lying in bed at night looking out of my window directly onto its blast furnaces, whose tall chimneys belched thick, black smoke interspersed with clouds of dirty white or yellow sulphur. Angry flames would leap out from their tops to lick the heavens, and myriads of white hot sparks like shooting stars would light up the darkness as the Bessemer plant canted over to release the liquid metal into ingot moulds. It was a man-made hell-hole of banging and clattering day and night; accidents were a daily occurrence, and not for nothing was it grimly named the ‘slaughter house’. It was said that men wanting jobs used to wait for the arrival of the ambulance to take away victims of an accident, and then apply for their jobs.”
There were inevitably serious accidents. Those in 1900 and 1913 were extensively reported by the Yorkshire Evening Post.
11th January 1900 “Disastrous explosion in Leeds”
Material had ‘dropped’ in the No. 3 blast furnace and the gas which formed as a result exploded. The ‘bell’ or movable roof, weighing many tons, was blown into the air. “A tongue of flame shot up from the furnace sky-high. It was accompanied by an immense column of smoke and shower of debris composed of limestone, coke and iron ore”.
James Barnett (26), John O’Grady (23), Walter Cawthorne (33), and William Henry Kirby (23) were killed.
26th August 1913
“Horrifying scene at Leeds Steelworks” “Terrific explosion in Leeds. Boiler end blown out”. “Rain of red-hot bricks and scalding water”. “Ghastly scene”. “Hunslet in mourning”.
9 men were killed and over 20 injured in this accident which occurred in the rolling mill where the ingots, after being re-heated, were pressed through rollers and into girders, tram rails etc. The mill contained 5 large re-heating furnaces, over each of which was 30 ft. by 7ft. boiler. It happened in the evening when the last ingot was being rolled before supper. A half-ton piece of metal was hurled 30 yards. 50 men in the mill ran for their lives. Clouds of hissing steam made it impossible to see anything. A tremendous bang was heard all over the district. People rushed to the gates.
“A Leeds hero”
Joseph Stoker ran up a ladder after the explosion to shut off a valve to the other (linked) boilers, because the water was escaping and the other boilers were running dry. The boiler canted over and ladder and man pitched ten feet to the ground, but he re-mounted. “I knew it was my duty to go - I was in charge of the boiler - and so I went”.
Leeds Steelworks in 1932
Image copyright of Leeds Library and Information Services
Image copyright of Leeds Library and Information Services
The Leeds Steelworks
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Image from Keith Greenhalf
An advert from the early part of the 20th century, showing a section of the steelwork made for the 2,000 feet Karachi pier extension