Local Historical Stories


Early in 1996 Alastair Robertson - our local historian was asked if he would write a couple of historical articles for the Alston Moor Newsletter. He thought he could manage three or four but in the event, over 20 years later, they were still going. Once, and only once, he received an unsolicited article from an outside source, this was the reminiscence of a school for wartime evacuees at Nent Hall that came from Mr. Michael Dickinson and it was gratefully included in the series.

They’re a real mixed bag, too random to put into a book, but they’re still worth keeping in a more permanent form, so the Historical Society website seemed the perfect place to have them.

Material for the articles came largely from local sources, from the Alston Moor Historical Society Archives, St. Augustine’s Church Records, Alston Library, the Cumbria County Records Office in Carlisle and the County Records Office Northumberland.

There has been editing in some cases that will be noted at the beginning of each item, otherwise the articles have been left as they were written, complete with occasional references to such things as cement lorries, the millennium, and foot and mouth disease, which are themselves now things of the past (?).
Read on …

Story No 22: Jacob Walton and the Iron Furnaces of Alston Moor

Jacob Walton
Alston Moor is famous for its lead production, but a mineral for which it is not so famous is iron. At the height of production in the 1850’s, it only ever reached 2% of Cumberland’s total, the rest was mined around Whitehaven. But it still has its own story with Jacob Walton, of the memorial beside the Town Hall, at its centre. What follows is part of a longer study to be published at the end of the year. (An article, ‘The Iron Mines on and about Alston Moor,’ was written in conjunction with Raymond A. Fairbairn and published in British Mining Memoirs No.69, 2001.)

Jacob Walton was born in 1809 at Nentsberry, one of eight sons and six daughters of Jacob and Mary Walton. Almost inevitably he was part of a lead mining family. His father, Jacob, had leased the Brownley Hill mine in partnership with Thomas Shaw as early as 1816. Two of his brothers, Joseph and John, took up residence in Weardale, at Frosterley and Stanhope respectively, while other brothers were local lead mine agents,
In the 1840s, competition in the iron market was fierce. Iron from Glasgow, was cheaper than iron produced in the north east of England and the situation was so serious that in 1845 the owners of the Walker and the Tyne Iron Works started to import Scottish ironstone instead of the ores from near Whitby.

There seems to have been an ‘iron rush’ akin to a gold rush at this time, for between 1844 and 1845 iron prices in Glasgow had recovered in a spectacular fashion from 40/- per ton to 120/-. Obviously here was something on which to capitalise as soon as possible. Because of this situation there was a degree of urgency to develop and iron industry in the manor of Alston Moor. Obviously here was something on which to capitalise as soon as possible.

Transport was the key to iron smelting and Alston Moor had no railways in 1845. The Newcastle & Carlisle Railway had opened fully in 1838 and the most convenient railhead was at Haydon Bridge, using the 1826 turnpike down the West Allen to make the connection. There were also great hopes that the Wear Valley Railway Company would extend its line via a tunnel under Killhope to Alston Moor to transport the mineral wealth and supply Weardale and Teesside. Any potential iron industry on the Moor could not compete without rail transport and the progress of the railways was monitored closely.

Yet even with the absence of railways, during 1845, 205 tons of iron ore had been sent from Alston Moor to the railhead at Haydon Bridge. Demand was there, it was important therefore for Jacob Walton to get things moving.

At the end of 1845, after four years of effort and expense in developing the iron ore potential, Jacob Walton was ready with partners, one of whom was Melville Attwood, agent for the zinc spelter works at Tindale, to negotiate for a lease to work the ore deposits.

In January 1846, Bell Brothers, Iron Founders of the Walker Iron Works, Newcastle upon Tyne, were carrying out trials on the Alston ore. Even though the quality of their sample was found to be “middling, that is, probably equal to Scotch iron”, in mid February the brothers were willing to enter into a lease for the right to work the ores. In March 1846, Melville’s relative, James Attwood, at Melville’s instigation, began to take an interest. James wrote to Melville, “I have had some correspondence with my Brother Thomas, Mr. Matthews and Captain Pew of Whitehaven on the subject of joining in our proposed Iron Co. for which they are quite disposed as well as several others of my friends”.

With the inducement of wealthy, influential partners, including his brother Thomas Attwood, a banker, and of finance to build blast furnaces on Alston Moor, Jacob Walton and Melville Attwood were persuaded to give up a third of their share to James Attwood.
As the year progressed, the Bell Brothers were sending away increasing amounts of ore, and anxiety was starting to be felt with regard to progress towards the erection of furnaces, which in turn depended on the construction of a railway. The railway now looked certain that it would arrive from the north rather than the southeast.

At the end of the summer Jacob wanted to know from James Attwood what progress was being made with the financiers for the furnaces, as he had heard nothing since spring.
Then on November 14th, Melville was “sadly annoyed” to receive word from James that the financiers had declined to subscribe to the proposals.
This news threw Jacob into a state of alarm, he wrote to Melville saying that “something must be done”.

January 1847 brought bad news. Bells Brothers’ mining operations had taken an unfortunate turn, the stone from Park Fell was proving unsatisfactory and they were seeking an extension of the ground at Nenthead in order to find ore to make their operations viable.

In that same month, a lease had at last been acquired from the Greenwich Hospital Commissioners which put James Attwood in a better position to negotiate, but by this time his contacts had invested their money elsewhere. However the railway surveyors were setting out the line from Haltwhistle, and Jacob believed that once the railway arrived, everyone would receive “the greatest advantage”.

But an air of desperation entered Jacob Walton’s letters to James Attwood from this point. He was “very desirous of having something done with the Iron Ore takes soon”, and later, “I need not tell you of the expence that I have been at and the time that I have devoted to it which would have been profitably employed in some other way and which I am afraid will all be thrown away if I do not look after my own interests …” James Attwood refused to be moved.

Recriminations ensued throughout the summer, and the desperation to reach any solution showed in August when there was an idea to split the partnership up into three separate parts, dividing the iron ore grounds into three by lots and each man to act in isolation from his former partner, except in the case of the lease with the Bell Brothers.

Then in October 1847, the Bell Brothers terminated their lease with a final payment of £135.17s.0d. Jacob Walton acknowledged their cheque with the words, “We trust that in future we will have business transactions that will end more to your advantage”.
In December, Jacob was still writing to James Attwood in an attempt to gain satisfaction. He wrote, “I am very wishfull to have some settlement respecting the Iron, it is impossible that I can allow it to remain as it is at present ...” A solution must have been found for the correspondence ends.

The blast furnaces were never built and iron ore mining ceased for the time being. Even though the proceedings had ended in bitterness, the affair had not dampened the spirit of Jacob Walton. He was soon in negotiation for further iron ore leases.

If the blast furnaces and foundry of Alston Moor had ever been built they would rapidly have become white elephants. Jacob Walton had had his fingers burnt over this affair, but not so badly as they might have been had the scheme gone ahead.

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Alston Moor Historical Society was founded in 1973 and, due to the nature of Alston Moor, it is a member of both the Northumberland Association of Local History Societies and the Cumbria Federation of Local History Societies.
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