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Minutes of the 361st  meeting held at 10.00 in Stokesley Town Hall on Tuesday 20th March 2018:

Speaker Alan Betteney: Norton Ironworks and the Story of Big Ben

Alan worked in the research department at ICI for 30 years, before becoming a contractor. He has published books on industrial history in the area, including on the World War 1 wireless station in Stockton, the Zinc Works at Hartlepool and the iron works in Thornaby. He gave a very interesting talk on how the original Big Ben was cast in Norton and what happened thereafter. Big Ben is the name for the Great Bell of the clock tower and not the tower itself!

The Norton Ironworks was at the end of Station Road, where it was ideally place to receive coal, iron ore and limestone by rail. The first company was the West Hartlepool Ironworks, where William Barrett was the works manager. This company only survived a few months. The second company on the site was Warners Lucas and Barrett. John Warner was a Quaker who had many children by two wives. Several children joined the business. The company were originally brass founders who made a variety of products including beer engines, fire engines and bells of up to ½ tonne. He decided to expand into iron production because the material was much cheaper. Lucas was a coal merchant and Barrett was a man of wide experience.

In 1834, the Palace of Westminster burned down. A clock was needed for the replacement. The Astronomer Royal produced the specification for a clock accurate to 1 second/day with a 14T bell. Parliament appointed Baron Grimthorpe, previously known as Edmund Becket Denison to design the mechanism. He was zealous but unpopular and impossible as a colleague. He invited Mears of Whitechapel, Taylors of Leicester and Warners to tender for the bell. Warners gave the best quote and were awarded the contract. Their works in London was too small and they therefore decided to cast the bell at Norton. Casting was successful and it was tested at the works, which were opened so that the public could see the bell. Denison was very happy.

It was transported by rail to Hartlepool and then by boat to London. It was transported on rollers to Westminster. It was again tested and Denison was very satisfied. Unfortunately Denison decided to increase the size of the hammer more than once. This led to the bell being cracked beyond repair. Warners struggled to get paid and were unwilling to make a replacement. Mears were contracted to provide the new bell. This was tested satisfactorily until Denison again increased the size of the hammer and cracked the casting. Fortunately this time the crack could be repaired. The 4th quarter bell is still the original cast at Norton.

By 1865, the company needed to expand and the Norton Iron Company was formed. 3 new blast furnaces 85 feet high were built with 26000 cu. feet capacity, alongside the originals. By 1877, the company had hit hard times and petitioned to be wound up. The assets were put up for sale in 1880. The Norwegian Titanic Iron Company continued on the site using ilmenite ore from Norway. This had a high titanium content, making it difficult to smelt. This contributed to the company being wound up in 1888. In 1899, the cottages were sold and the slag on the site was turned into building blocks. Marshalls eventually took over the site to make blocks, before they moved away and in 2008 a housing estate was built there.

In reply to questions, Alan said that Mears had recently moved from Whitechapel, but Taylors are still in business in Leicester. Warners were bombed in the First World War, destroying the company. Iron ore came from Swainby, because Bolckow & Vaughan and Pease owned the larger mines in the Eston Hills. Smaller companies like the ones at Norton found it easier to deal with smaller miners.