Brymbo Ironstone

Gauge: 1ft 11½in (600mm)

Brymbo Steel Company had ironstone quarries at Hook Norton, Oxfordshire, providing iron ore for the main works in Cheshire.

John Wilkinson, the ironmaster famed as “Iron-mad Wilkinson”, purchased Bersham Ironworks, near Wrexham, in 1753, and introduced Darby’s coke-firing methods. His patented method of boring out iron cannon brought him great wealth, particularly when adapted for producing cylinders for Boulton and Watt steam engines. In 1792 Wilkinson bought the nearby Brymbo estate where he set up blast furnaces.

Wilkinson died at Brymbo Hall in 1808. His estate was disputed and much of his fortune went in litigation. The Brymbo works were bought out of Chancery in 1841 when a new limited company was formed. Brymbo was one of the companies which exploited Bessemer’s 1856 process for making steel, which led the way towards cheaper production. The result was the increasingly lavish use of steel for railways, construction, and other industrial purposes.

By 1899 Brymbo Steelworks was rapidly depleting its local stocks of ironstone, leading it to prospect in Oxfordshire. It purchased ironstone fields at Hook Norton which it reckoned would yield over a million tons, giving it a life of thirteen years. Since Brymbo was 132 miles away from Hook Norton it was decided to calcine the ore on site, in gas fired kilns, to reduce the cost of transport.

To keep the kilns constantly charged a narrow gauge tramway system was constructed. It became the largest 2ft gauge railway system in the ironstone industry. Calcined ore was transhipped into Brymbo standard gauge wagons at Hook Norton sidings on the Banbury and Cheltenham Railway branch of the GWR, opened in 1887. The presence of the large deposits of ironstone in Oxfordshire and the expectation of transporting it had been a great influence on the routing of the Banbury and Cheltenham Railway.

Brymbo soon purchased further land at Hook Norton for quarrying, considerably extending the expected life of the fields, and also bought ironstone from three smaller neighbouring quarries.

The First World War brought increased demand from the Ministry of Munitions for iron and steel. A greater production of ironstone from the Midlands was specified. In June 1917 a new company, the Oxfordshire Ironstone Company, was set up by Baldwin’s Steel Co. and Brymbo Steel Co. Within a year Baldwin’s acquired a controlling interest in Brymbo.

The optimism of a post-war boom in steel was short-lived. The high cost of transport to Wrexham, and a miners’ strike led to cost cutting. The worldwide slump of the late 1920s forced Brymbo Steel Co. Wrexham to call in the receiver. Brymbo Wrexham did not operate again until 1934.

The Hook Norton ironstone fields were leased out during the 1930s and new uses for the ore constantly sought. World War Two brought a new demand for home produced iron and steel and Brymbo steelworks became a vital part of the war effort. Hook Norton ore was despatched uncalcined, the kilns remaining unused.

With the end of the war in Europe Brymbo found it cheaper to import richer ore from abroad and decided to close Hook Norton in June 1946. Plant was scrapped and land sold in 1948.

Number / NameManufacturerTypeNotes
Gwen  Hudswell, Clarke & Co. No.523 of 18980-4-2STScrapped
JoanHudswell, Clarke & Co. No.1173 of 19150-4-2STScrapped 1944
ROD No.352 (Black Bess)Hunslet Engine Co. No.1264 of 19174-6-0TEx WD. Scrapped
RussellHunslet Engine Co. No.901 of 19062-6-2TEx Welsh Highland Railway 1942. Sold to Fayle’s Tramway 1946
Betty  Hunslet Engine Co. No.1101 of 19120-4-0STEx Penmaenmawr & Welsh Granite Co. Scrapped