Who made the ironwork for the Crystal Palace?

Lithograph by T Picken after an original painting by Phillip Brannan

I’ve been working recently with the Chance Heritage Trust, who are busy whipping up enthusiasm for the restoration of the huge Chance Glassworks at Spon Lane in Smethwick. Chance’s were an iconic local employer and had many claims to fame, but the most enduring is probably that they made nearly a million square feet of glass for the 1851 Great Exhibition – the Crystal Palace. The iron frame which held the glass was also a Black Country product – the only problem is, if you google who made it, you get a few different answers. This post is really just me being curious enough to try and piece together an answer. It should be noted that this turns out to be a question of networked capitalists – not normally a subject with whom I hold much sympathy. Although it’s necessary to sort out which firms did what, I’m bearing in mind that, as always, it was the unnamed working classes that did the work, and they should have got the credit and value of their labour rather than mostly being laid off shortly afterwards.

The Great Exhibition was a high point of British Victorian self-confidence, showcasing innovations and arts from all around the (colonised) world. To house all of this, a huge building was required that could be designed and constructed in about a year. A commission including Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Robert Stephenson and William Cubbitt eventually selected plans presented by Joseph Paxton, head gardener at Chatsworth House. He had some experience in grand glass structures (his greenhouse there was the largest glass building in the world when constructed in 1836, also using innovative large panes from Chance’s).

Construction of the Great Exhibition, Illustrated London News

Enter Charles Fox. A celebrated railway engineer, Fox moved into industry in 1839 via a partnership with Francis Bramah, son of the hugely famous Georgian inventor of locks, pumps, engines and more, Joseph Bramah. Francis’s brother John Joseph Bramah also joined the partnership. The Bramahs had inherited their father’s factories including a huge railway works in Pimlico, London, built and operated with the assistance of the great railway engineeer, Robert Stephenson. In 1840 they purchased part of the Smethwick Grove estate to build the brand new London Works, beside the Birmingham Canal, very close to the famous Soho Foundry. Bramah, Fox & Co. became the inheritors of the civil engineering side of the original Bramah business, and employed master engineers in the 1840s including John Henderson, William Siemens and John Cochrane. After Francis Bramah died in 1840, and John Joseph Bramah retired in 1842, Henderson (who had worked for Bramah & Co in the 1830s) stepped up and Bramah, Fox & Co became Fox, Henderson & Co. by 1845. Through Henderson’s family, the firm also had a engineering works and foundry in Renfrew, Scotland. The London Works alone employed over 2,000 people.

London Works, Cranford Street, Smethwick. Ordnance Survey 25-inch map, 1892-1914 series (via NLS maps)

In some ways, this is the end of the story: partly due to cost and partly to connections with Paxton, Fox, Henderson & Co. made the iron for the Crystal Palace. But I’ve often heard that it was made by Cochrane’s at the Woodside Ironworks in Dudley, and this is backed up by an 1856 report cited on Grace’s Guide that “the first pillars for the Crystal Palace of 1851” were cast here.

Woodside Ironworks was founded by Alexander Brodie Cochrane (senior), Alexander Brodie Cochrane (junior – his son) and our old friend John Joseph Bramah. Cochrane Snr was born in Eddlestone, near Peebles in Scotland, but by the 1830s was manager of the Grazebrook family’s collieries and ironworks near Dudley. His son, Cochrane Jnr, was born in 1813 in Dudley and went to work with his father. In 1838 father, son, and Bramah opened a small foundry in Bilston; two years later, in 1840 (the same year as Bramah and Fox‘s London Works in Smethwick) they began building the huge Woodside Ironworks, located between the Dudley No.1 Canal and the Earl of Dudley’s Pensnett Canal, just to the North of what’s now the Merry Hill centre, on land leased from the Earl. According to Cochrane Jnr’s obituary for the Institute of Mechanical Engineers:

 Amongst the public works there executed were the castings for the Exhibition building of 1851, the Copenhagen gas and water works, the pipes for the Melbourne water works, the large caisson and dock gates for the Victoria docks, London, and several large iron bridges, including Westminster Bridge, the Charing Cross Railway bridges, and the Rochester road bridge and swing bridge.

Woodside Ironworks, shown on the 1892-1914 series 25-inch Ordnance Survey Map (via NLS maps)

As in Smethwick, when Bramah died in 1846, his role was taken by new partners. In Woodside’s case, this was Archibald Slate and Charles Geach. Slate was a Scottish engineer, initially employed by the Bramahs in London, and entrusted with running the Holly Hall Foundry, connected to the Earl of Dudley’s estate. It was an obvious move across to Cochrane & Co. Geach was a banker from Cornwall, boosted into a career by his wealthy uncle. He went on to work for the Bank of England, and to found the Midland Bank, and took on investments of his own, including the Patent Shaft Works in Wednesbury, Park Gate Ironworks in Rotherham, and Woodside. His investment enabled the Cochranes to undertake huge contracts like the Great Exhibition which, as a partner, he devoted the whole works to.

…with respect to the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park; he not only substantially promoted the undertaking, but devoting all the powers of the Woodside Foundry to the task, those works produced the great bulk of the cast-iron frame-work of the building, arrangements being made for casting from thirty to thirty-six girders and forty-eight columns per day, the latter being all bored and turned within the same time.

Geach later became MD of the Crystal Palace when it was moved to Sydenham.

The Crystal Palace under construction. Illustrated London News, 16 November 1850

Elsewhere in The Builder, we find that while Charles Fox was general superintendent of the project, “the general management of the works” was given to Mr Cochrane (presumably junior). Fox noted his particular gratitude for “Messrs Cochrane & Co, of Woodside Ironworks, and to Mr Robert Jobson, of Holly Hall Ironworks, near the same place, for their exertion and attention in the preparation of casting.” Sheffield-born Robert Jobson was also intimately connected to this network: he married Lillian Cochrane (AB Cochrane Jnr‘s sister) in 1841, and was employed by one John Joseph Bramah at his Pimlico works from 1833. Here he had been such a success working on railway contracts that he drew praise from Robert Stephenson himself. Jobson would have worked alongside Archibald Slate at Holly Hall, and his obituary mentions the Exhibition:

Mr. Jobson entered into business upon his own account in the neighbourhood of Dudley, and executed the castings for various important works-amongst others, a largo portion of those required for the Great Exhibition building of 1851, for the Crystal Palace, for the New Street Station at Birmingham, and for various other works.

Excerpt from the 1888-1913 series OS 6-inch map. I believe the building in the middle might be the Holly Hall Foundry, although it’s not labelled on any OS map. Contemporary references locate it South of the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway, and East of Round Oak.

John Joseph Bramah (and the wider Bramah organisation) clearly acted as the link between the two firms here, even though he retired not longer after both firms had built their large factories in the Black Country, and died before the Great Exhibition was a twinkle in Prince Albert’s eye. Bramah continued his network-building: He became a partner in the Bloomfield Ironworks in Tipton c1844, and in the Horseley Ironworks, Dudley Port, c1845. By the time of his death, he was one of the Black Country’s most important ironmasters, with connections across the region, part of an industrial dynasty. After his death, it’s clear that business partners remained close: Charles Fox, Archibald Slate, Alexander Brodie Cochrane etc. knew each other and worked together, to the point where Cochrane could act as works manager and even legal representative for Fox.

So: the Great Exhibition was overwhelmingly a Black Country product, whatever your opinion of where Smethwick fits into regional geography. Much of the great iron structure was built at Woodside and Holly Hall, near Dudley; other parts were in Smethwick (which at most is close to the Birmingham border, and still in Staffordshire) and probably a small amount of metalwork was probably made in Scotland. Other contracts like carpentry were spread around more widely. The glass was made at Chance’s great glassworks which, located adjacent to a colliery and hard against the borders of Oldbury and West Bromwich, can certainly be claimed for the Black Country.

I think the story of the Great Exhibition’s structure can tell us a couple of things. Firstly, the Black Country was the best, and perhaps the only, place where such a design and construction could be completed. These personal, geographical connections enabled Fox, Henderson & Co. to scale up what they could offer on their tender, and it’s likely that very few other ironworks could meet the demand so readily. Certainly there were larger ironworks than Fox & HendersonDowlais in South Wales or Consett in Co. Durham for example – but alongside the size of plant and the raw materials, there was nowhere with the breadth of expertise in such a tight geographical location than South Staffordshire. The region had a longstanding tradition of a diverse range of metal manufacture, compared to the blank slates which the proprietors of some of these newer works had. The tradition persisted: Woodside Ironworks continued making structural ironwork for decades afterwards, as did Bramah‘s other businesses, especially Horseley. Fox & Henderson collapsed in 1856. The partners, of course, didn’t suffer particularly. Henderson died not long afterwards, and Fox went on to found more engineering businesses. His 2,000 workmen bore the brunt, and were put out work. The Black Country became renowned for its constructional metal though, with firms like Rubery Owen and Brockhouse adding to the roster. The Victorian Black Country was the success it was as a combination of raw materials, networked businesses, and above all the skill and expertise of those making the iron.

The other lesson is to put this mid-Victorian economic golden age into some kind of perspective. The 1850s, 1860s and early 1870s are often considered a distinct era – years of boom when Britain bestrode the world, its industry was roaring, the Liberal age which proved that free trade was superior to the protectionist corn laws and stamp duties of the an earlier Britain. It thus became a reference point for late 20th century economists to argue that applying the principles of free trade strictly was the only way to get the world working again. This helps explain things like modern procurement rules – if you’ve ever had to get three quotes for something, or vet a new supplier, you’re working in this world. But as this web of connections shows, Victorian free trade didn’t work like this: who you knew counted more than rigid financial efficiency. Perhaps Britain’s Covid contract scandals demonstrate that we haven’t moved as far from the world of networked, preferential subcontractings as we like to think. Perhaps the idealised view of the free market suffers from the underlying flaw that people will be people, and don’t always act in accordance with strict economic principles. This mid-Victorian free trade orthodoxy was itself challenged and brought down in the early twentieth century, when imperial preference and protectionism made a return. In both epochs, economic risk was borne by the working class rather than the capitalists, whether that’s the 2,000 men put out of work when Fox, Henderson & Co. had a bad contract, or the millions chucked out of work in the turbulent world of the the 1920s and 1930s. It’s not long ago since the financial crash, when – just for example – hundreds of Black Country workers were sacked when the Wolverhampton-based Carillion collapsed in 2018. Perhaps when economic orthodoxy is challenged this time around, we can come up with a solution that doesn’t place the risk of grandiose projects and speculative ventures on ordinary people.

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