In 2012 the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and the newly formed Kirkless Friends Group asked our Society if it would investigate the industrial heritage of the Kirkless site (once the site of the huge Wigan Coal & Iron Company) and see if we could identify features which could be highlighted on a heritage trail. We carried out a desktop assessment and started site surveying in 2013. However it wasn’t until 2015 that we were able to secure permission to dig. There follows a general summary of the history of the site and the work we carried out there.
The site was originally founded in 1858 as the Kirkless Coal and Iron Company. It merged with the Haigh Collieries in 1868 to produce the massive Wigan Coal and Iron Company. By 1880 the company had ten blast furnaces on site built by John Lancaster who was previously manager of the Shelton Iron Works in Staffordshire. The first 5 were 65ft high, the second 5 were 80ft high. They produced pig iron on a continuous basis for the next half century.In 1890 the steel works was added which included five open hearth furnaces able to produce 1,300 tons of steel per week. This enabled the pig iron to be converting into a variety of steel products. The steel works included rolling mills which formed the steel into products in demand at the time – including railway lines, structural sections and plate. A advertisement poster from 1912 shows the range of products, including Spiegeleisen which means ‘mirror steel’ – as its high manganese content gave it a mirror-like appearance. At it’s height before the First World War, its beehive coke ovens had replaced by Semet Solvay type ovens producing 3,600 tons of coke per week. In addition they produced tar, pitch, sulphate of ammonia and benzol. Other items produced at Kirkless included bricks, concrete flags and tarmacadam. The company also manufactured their own steam engines, building twenty by 1912, and a fleet of rail wagons which reached 7000 by 1930.
In the mid 1920s there was a slump in the coal and iron market and the company began to lose money. Iron and steel making ceased in 1930 when production was transferred to the more modern Irlam site which also had easy access to the Manchester Ship Canal. After that the works was dismantled and the site became derelict. After the Second World War the northern part of the site was taken over by the NCB for their headquarters and maintenance workshops but when the works close in the 1980’s this are area became an industrial estate. The area to the south where the steelworks was however remained derelict but in the 1980’s became subject to a campaign of reclamation and re-landscaping. However the project was abandoned when the money ran out leaving much of the remains still intact lying just below the surface. Enigmatic features in brick, stone, concrete and iron protrude through the undergrowth, reminders of the site’s industrial heritage. This feature looks like it is made from brick but actually its iron. We suspect it was the result of an accident when perhaps molten iron broke through the furnace wall. Mixed with bricks and rubble it set in a brick-built vault below. Later, when the brick walls fell away the impression of the room was revealed.
The sites industrial legacy has also produced a unique habitat for flora and fauna. Grasses normally found on seaside dunes, none-native water plants and flowers found in only a few other places in Britain are all now thriving. This parasitic Broomrape, although not particularly rare in itself, combined with the other plants, transform the area into something quite unique.
In 2012 the Trust approached our Society to see if we could help them identify the industrial features in the landscape and explain what they represented. The first step was to familiarise ourselves with the site by studying available maps from the time. This map of the Kirkless site shows its development in 1893 including the rows and rows of bee hive ovens producing the coke for the furnaces. Railways crisscross the site delivering the raw materials and taking away the slag producing the Rabbit Rocks to the south and later a huge slag heap to the east which has now been taken down. By overlaying these older maps onto the most recent we were able see how these buildings relate to current features. Having established the relationships between the old and new our next task was to produce an accurate drawing which we could use to locate the features on the ground. Starting in 2013 we carried out a number of detailed surveys using a plain table. and later a theodolite and dumpy level to give us a more accurate result. By taking sighting from two positions we were able to triangulate the exact positions of prominent features (such as the estate fence, factory buildings and the old hall).
We used this data to create our drawing and by overlaying the Steel Works we were able in 2014 to undertake a reverse survey. This gave us a rough location of the factory footprint on the ground enabling us to plan where to dig.
We submitted our project plan to the council in 2015 we got our licence to dig. Our first target was an area where a footpath had exposed some brickwork. It tuned out to be a platform paved with reused firebrick. In the centre was a plinth of much stronger brick with the ends of four large iron tie rods protruding through. Some heavy machinery must been located here but we had no indication what this could be.
We worked continually throughout the year (although just a couple of weekends a month) and were able to uncover a number of walls constructed both of brick and concrete which helped us to establish the full extent of the site. One particular discovery was the base of a huge chimney which must have dominated the area to the south of the Steel Works. The remains showed it to be over eight metres in diameter with a one meter high base made up of twelve brick course. We managed to identify the chimney on the aerial photo but surprisingly it wasn’t the largest chimney on the site. This was claimed by the 360 feet high chimney belonging to the Boiler House which fed the steam-powered Blowing Engines (said to have been one of the tallest in the country).
Our work on the site was at times quite hard but very rewarding when new features were unearthed. Our licence ran out at the end of that year and we haven’t been back since so there is still plenty of archaeology on the site yet to be discovered. Interpretation boards have been subsequently set up and a heritage trail established. You can find a detailed account of our activities there on the site by visiting our Site Diary here.