The Founder of Tow Law

By Ron Storey

The name Charles Attwood may not come readily to mind when looking into the history of our town, but without him and his natural flair for industrial development Tow Law might never have come into existence.


In 1844 he set about the production of Iron and Steel products that were to be the foundation of Tow Law. With a combination of luck and his background both in the Iron and Glass trades he developed a major industry here in the West of County Durham.


During his life Charles was to give a number of interviews in which he gave a glimpse both into his own and his family's history. I draw in part on these interviews on this history of Charles Attwood.


The Attwood Family.


The Attwood family were descendants of the De Bois. who were Knights of Brittany before the conquests. One of the early records of the family relates to the battle near Ploermal fought in 1351, in which an Attwood took part.


During an interview in 1867 Charles Attwood was to tell the following about his family. The Attwoods, with the exception of two families had, after the conquest more land than any other family in England. They descended from the Capets, Kings of France and before the invasion of England by William of Normandy, in which they, the De Bois (Attwood) took part, were a knightly family.


Although I am unable to confirm this story I feel we must give him the benefit of the doubt, as to other members of his family the records tell us the following.


Charles was born, on January 25th 1791, at Halasowen Shropshire. George Attwood, the grandfather of Charles, started a business of Iron manufacture in Worcester about the middle of the 17th Century. On his death it passed to Mathias Attwood, his son, who in addition to carrying it on also engaged in the nail trade and other industries. Mathias Charles's father became the owner of several considerable estates in and around Worcester and Shropshire. He was to married one Ann Adams the daughter of a yeoman of Cakemore, Halesowen. They had a family of eleven children, seven sons and four daughters, Charles being the youngest son. In his early years Charles was to have a good founding in the family nail and iron trade, this was to stand him in good stead in later years.


Charles Arrives in the North of England.


We now come to the years 1809. This year was to see Charles arrive on the North East and not another part of the country part of the country he was never to tell, in any of his interviews. He was a young man of 18 years when he arrived in this part of the North of England, he soon became connected with the Glass and Soap industries of Gateshead.


The Soap side of his business was to last but a few short months leaving his to concentrate on the Glass side of the business. The company's name was The Crown Glass Company, and had works both in Gateshead and Whickham. His share of the company was only 10%, the remainder owned by his partners.


At this time the manufacture of glass was anything but in a perfect state this he set about to improve. He was so successful that he patented an invention which enabled him to impart to glass that clear transparency we now associate with it.


After three years he was successful in buying out his partners and was to carry on the business himself, the year was 1813.


During the following years, his business was to expand at and even greater rate. So much so that he was to open an office in London, to which the greater part of his glass was shipped for sale. But fate was not on his side, when in the latter part of 1813, he was to become involved in a disastrous lawsuit.


Charles had found that he had unwittingly become involved in a law-suit of long standing. The principals in the suit-Barbar and Banner, had bought a small glass works at Gateshead, which they ultimately covered into a manufacture of ground glass, to which they gave the same the Crown Glass Company. This being the same company Charles now owned.


Barbar, who was a solicitor in Newcastle was a speculative and unscrupulous man. He soon ruined his partner Banner, having been threatened with prosecution for forgery disappeared. Meanwhile Banner was declared bankrupt, and his assignees thinking there was little if nothing left, failed to realise the estate.


The works where carried on by others until joined by Charles Attwood in 1810, but with Charles success, Banner representatives sore a chance to recover some of the money owed to them. To this end they brought a suit to recover profit for upwards of 20 years, under a decree of the Court of Chancery, ordering an account between Charles and his two original partners.


The case was to last a total of nine years, eventually proving Charles's innocence. But the cost of defending himself proved to be very costly, he was unable to recover the cost from the plaintiffs. He continued his work in the Glass trade until his patents ran out, when they where taken up by others.


A New Venture.


After his venture in the glass industry Charles turned his attention to another and what eventually proved more lucrative business.


Charles had heard that ironstone of a very rich nature could be found in the Cleveland Hills, he set about a search of the area but before he completed this search a Mr. Walton who had formerly owned a freehold estate in Weardale, called on Charles and showed him a quantity of material which was unknown to him. Mr. Walton had a weakness for mining and was expanding his money on the lead-mining industry of his native dale.


Charles found the materials to be a carbonate of iron of a very rich and peculiar quality, which was not known to exist anywhere in Great Britain, except Cornwall although it was found in abundance in Europe among the Syrian and Corinthian Alps, where its presence had been known since the time of the Romans.


An inspection of the locality from whence Mr. Walton had obtained the specimens convinced Charles the district was a rich one. He found the ides of turning the discovery to practical account but in order to do this it was necessary to acquire a lease for working of the iron ore in Weardale.


Prior to Mr. Walton's discovery a Mr. Pearson, an agent of the Bishop of Durham had obtained a lease of all the iron ore deposits in the manors of Stanhope and Wolsingham. This agent had only one child, a daughter, who married a Mr. George Wilkinson and through her the lease reverted to Mr. Wilkinson.


The value of the iron ore was not realised by Mr. Wilkinson and it was the persistence of Charles that revealed the possibilities of such a rich mineral. On the 5th of November 1844 the "Report on the Mineral Lease in Wolsingham" mentions the considerable quantities of ironstone and considerable value". The report recommended a £25 rent as fair one for the renewal of the lease, an increase of £15 per annum on the 1819 figure.


When Charles approached Mr. Wilkinson regarding entering into a lease he found that a Mr. Cuthbert Rippon had been there but a few days before him and had arranged for the working of all ironstone in the manor of Wolsingham. Charles was compelled to enter into an agreement with Mr. Rippon for the sub-lease of the manor.


The Establishment of the Weardale Iron Company.


A firm was established in 1844 for the working of the ironstone under the name of the Weardale Iron Company with Charles Attwood the managing partner, he was to own no more than 10% of the company's shares, the remainder being owned by his partner and backers Bearing Brothers Merchant Bankers of London.


Mr. Rippon had erected a blast furnace at Stanhope Burn, in order to process ironstone, but after selling the sub-lease to Charles Attwood, he also arranged to sell this to him. Although near the ironstone, the Stanhope Burn Blast Furnace was too far from the supplies of coal and a more suitable site was sought for the erection of a blast furnace.


This was to be found further to the east, near to the boundaries of the Brancepeth and Bradley Estates, which were on the western termination of the Durham coal field, where abundant supplies of coal for the manufacture of coke were to be found. Charles obtained a lease of the coal royalties in the immediate neighbourhood from William Russell of Brancepeth Castle.


Charles set about the job of constructing five blast furnaces on a site near to the farmhouse we now call Tow Law House, located at the bottom of Iron Works Road, which still stands today. The total sum of money expanded in the erection of the Iron Works and the purchase of coal royalties exceeded one million pounds at Tow Law.


By the erection of the blast furnaces and the opening out of the Black Prince Colliery a town soon sprang into existence on the hill top overlooking this single farmhouse, which was to give work for many hundreds of people.


From the rich and almost pure ore of Ryder ironstone was manufactured of a quality which soon obtained a fame almost world wide for it superiority. This iron was smelted with coke from the Company's own beehive coke ovens at Black Prince.


In 1846 Charles Attwood moved from Bishop Oak near Wolsingham to Tow Law and assumed the position of managing partner of the Weardale Iron and Coal Company. He resided at "The Offices" down near the blast furnaces, and by doing so Tow Law became the headquarters of the Company and from there he directed their operations for eighteen years.


On the 14th January 1850 Charles obtained a lease of all the ironstone and mineral deposits in the manor of Wolsingham. Up to this date he had only a sub-lease of the manors deposits obtained from Mr. Cuthbert Rippon. Once this lease was obtained the development of the ironstone and the iron foundry was rapid.


With the building of the railways for the iron company from Parkhead to Rookhope and then to Westgate in Weardale and its connection to Stanhope and the Tyne Railway at Parkhead, for the transit of ironstone and limestone the iron field was fully opened out. The demand for ironstone was enormous, for railway development was creating a demand for iron and at the same time facilitating its manufacture and distribution.


From the years 1869 to the 1916, 1,365,307 tons of ironstone were despatched from Weardale. It was the backing of Barings, the London Bankers and Financiers, that enabled Charles to obtain the mineral lease and create the iron industry in Weardale on such a large scale.


Contact with Henry Bessemere.


Charles erected a small laboratory and furnace near his residence at Tow Law and it was here that he carried out experiments and worked out several amelioration's in the manufacture of steel. With his natural flair for experiments he was always open to new developments this was to bring him into contact with one Henry Bessemer.


Henry Bessemer, the great steel maker, carried on an establishment in Sheffield, had patented his now famous process of converting iron into steel in 1855. Attwood was the first to take out a licence from him, and by it he converted the great part of the iron manufacture at Tow Law into steel as well as at the Bessemer Works which he had erected at Tudhoe.


He still continued however, his many experiments in the art of making steel in his laboratory and furnace at Tow Law. In 1861, six years after Bessemer had secured his patent, Attwood had one granted to him for "Improvements in the production and manufacture of steel and iron of a steely quality", the essence of which consisted of smelting together malleable iron and cast iron by whatsoever manner produced.


The Wolsingham Steel Works are Begun.


With the granting of his patents Charles started to build his new steelworks at Stanners Close, Wolsingham. Unfortunately, at this time he was temporarily laid aside from active operations by ill health compelling him to pass a considerable time at Torquay, and to add to his misfortune his nephew, whom he had initiated into the practical details of the process was cut off by paralysis.


Amid these adverse circumstances, Charles relaxed his interest in his new steel process, and although the works which he had begun at Stanners Close were proceeded with it was on a much smaller scale than he originally intended. However, the firm produced iron of a very high class, so good as to closely resemble in composition and quality the celebrated spiegeleisen from which very good steel was produced.


Specula iron, or as the Germans call it "Spiegeleisen" was preferred as the kind best fitted for the making of steel, but this being only a particular variety of cast iron had long been employed for exactly the same purpose, at least in Germany, and patents had been taken out in this country by Messrs, Price, Nicholson and Perry. Attwood found himself one more involved in litigation, and in addition encounted considerable opposition from his partners.


Charles heard of the work Siemons were doing in glass furnaces in France and persuaded Siemons to design an open hearth furnace for use in his Wolsingham works. His manager at Tow Law, William Shaw, was a young and brilliant man whose family had been master smithers to the Bishop of Durham form the days of Henry VII, and it was he who made the first experiments with Siemens furnace on Christmas Day 1867.


The patent for invention of "Improvements in the production of the manufacture of steel and iron of a steel quality" was granted to Charles on 15th of May 1862 and allowed him the privilege and authority of using the invention within the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man for a term of fourteen years.


After his death in 1875 an application was made by his successors for the further extension of five years for the patent. A copy of the application states that 500 tons of steel rails had been supplied from Charles works to the railways company's during the working of the patent and 30 tons of shot was made for her Majesty's Services on one occasion. It also states the great advantage of Attwoods steel over Bessemers steel

and its uniformity, the engineers being able to depend upon its quality and that the only steel rails laid down were made by Bessemer and Attwoods processes.


One year after the foundation of the Wolsingham works, Charles by reason of advancing years, retired and spent the remainder of his days at his home Hollywood House, near Wolsingham. Although considerably impaired in bodily strength he continued almost to the last in full possession of his mental powers, and died on the 24th February 1875 at the age of 84.


On the day of the funeral all work was suspended at Wolsingham, Tow Law and Tudhoe works. He was laid to rest in Wolsingham Churchyard to the south-west of the church.


Although the founder of the Weardale Iron and Coal Company was now gone, it was to continue in the hands of others. By 1882 the Iron Works at Tow Law had closed, with company now concentrating its iron and steel production at the Bessemer works situated at Tudhoe. The company still retained its collieries at Tow Law and still used Attwood Place as the Company's Offices. The Wolsingham works were to continue as a private venture under the control of Rogerson and Company, in whose hands it was to remain until the first World War. After the war it was sold to Doxford and Company of Sunderland.


The works are still producing steel today, and once more an independent company renamed Weardale Steel.