Maurice Legg

                 Chapter 4 The Consett Iron Company


Now I’ll describe the area surrounding Railway Cottages. Half a mile away there were seven “blast furnaces” These are cylindrical structures about 55 ft high, lined with firebricks. They are loaded with iron ore, limestone and coke: air is forced into the bottom and the whole thing then burns at 1800 Degrees. A vast amount of smoke comes out chimneys at the top and is vented into the open air. I think that one “smelting” took about 8 hours - by then the iron ore has been reduced to iron; the iron is run out of the bottom of the furnace into moulds as is the molten slag - the waste product of the process. The scene is reminiscent of Dante’s inferno. The furnace can’t be allowed to go cold or the firebricks would crack and so the furnace is immediately reloaded and the process is continuous for 24 hours a day. The molten slag is carried away in large insulated wagons and goes to “slag heaps”, enormous mountains of slag some 150ft high which straggled around the countryside for half a mile or so. Our house verged on a railway line at the back and 100yds away at the front was a slag heap which, fortunately, was not in active use. See figure…


Continuing this lecture on the processes of the industrial revolution, we come to the process which converted iron into steel. This is linked to my childhood because the Siemens-Martin“ steel furnaces, 3 of them were within 200 yards of my house although they were hidden in large corrugated iron sheds. These furnaces were like large saucepans some 20ft across lined again with firebrick. They were filled with iron and a mixture of gas, first ordinary gas to heat up the iron and then oxygen to burn off the carbon in the iron and turn it into steel.  This furnace had a cover and the waste gases were led away to chimneys and vented to the air. As boys we’d cross the railway and watch through the openings at what happened: occasionally we were caught and then there would be hell to pay.


The coke ovens were about 400 yards from the house in a different direction. They were particularly noxious and consisted of  a horizontal stack of ovens rather like a loaf of sliced bread only the slices were larger- about 20ft by 20ft by 2ft. Slices were charged with coal individually by a hopper which ran across the top and were fed below by steam. The heat of the previous charge caused the charge to burn and produce gas for domestic use, for use in the furnaces as I’ve described and for a chemical plant which produced by-products such as naphtha and ammonium sulphate- then a major fertiliser. The main end product was coke and that was extracted by opening the doors and pushing it out with a huge plunger device. When I was17, I worked at a similar gas works and my job, with my pal Bert, was to hose down the extracted coke so it didn’t not continue to burn. The discharge of the ovens took place day and night and, since the ovens were completely outdoors, the discharge lit up the whole night sky and was a sight to behold. Of course the ovens leaked and the sulphurous smell which surrounded them was evil. And dangerous - lung cancer and emphysema were other by-products.


The blast furnaces, the Siemens=Martin furnaces and the coke oven, were the main evils surrounding my house. At greater distances were the other parts of the steel works- a rolling mill, an electricity plant, the slag heaps, the “offices” and the labs. In the middle of the three installations were the marshalling yards; coal, would be trucked in from neighbouring collieries, iron ore from Yorkshire and Spain and many other supplies from all over England and Scotland. In the marshalling yards, the various trainloads would be broken down and “shunted” to wherever they were used. At the same time the end products- the steel plates, the chemicals etc were aggregated into trainloads going to different destinations. The major-domo of this process of breaking down the trainloads coming in, sending the individual trucks to their point of use and gathering the final products into trainloads for a particular destination was my signalman father known in the trade as “wee Jackie Legg”. If he made a mistake and sent wagons to the wrong destination, the result would have been chaos. He worked different shifts, 6 to 2, 2 to 10, then 10 to 6 on a three week cycle sometimes for 12 hours when someone was sick. Eventually he had a breakdown but that is another story! He had highly developed eidetic memory - obviously he could keep a map in his head and, incidentally was the best draughts player in Consett. Draughts was the precursor game to chess and he and I taught each other Chess from a book, a skill which was to play a major part in my early life. The skills which he displayed in work were those which today would have been relevant to graphic design, printed circuit layout, planning, programming etc and would have been well paid. He was an extraordinary man who read widely, never drank or smoked and was interested in working class movements and many other things. He taught himself to play the violin and did everything he could for the welfare of my brother and me.
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