Round Oak Steelworks
The Round Oak Steelworks were an important steel production plant in Brierley Hill, West Midlands (formerly Staffordshire), England. It was founded by Lord Ward, later the Earl of Dudley in 1857 as an outlet for pig iron made in the nearby blast furnaces. During the Industrial Revolution, the majority of iron-making in the world was carried out within 32 kilometres of Round Oak. At their peak, thousands of people were employed at the works. The steelworks was the first in the United Kingdom to be converted to natural gas, which was supplied from the North Sea.
The Round Oak Iron Works
The Ward family, Lords of Dudley Castle, came to own and control a wide range of industrial concerns in the Black Country of the nineteenth century. The family owned land in the region as well as extensive mineral rights. In 1855 the Dudley Estate commenced the construction of the Round Oak Iron Works at Brierley Hill. The site was next to the Dudley Canal and two railway systems: the public railway run by the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway and the Pensnett Railway a mineral line owned by the Dudley Estate itself. Also nearby were the Level New Furnaces (also known as the New Level Furnaces) where blast furnaces, owned by the Dudley Estate could supply pig iron for the new iron works at Round Oak. The iron works commenced production in 1857. It was a large scale operation: on opening it employed 600 men and equipment included 28 puddling furnaces and five mills. The works were extended between 1865 and 1868 and were then capable of producing 550 tons of finished iron per week.
Demand for iron began to fall from the 1870s as steel production began to compete with traditional iron products and it was decided to convert the plant to steel production. In 1890 the Dudley Estate sold the iron works to a new public company, which would aim to convert to steel production. The new company was called the Earl of Dudley's Round Oak Iron and Steel Works. However, it soon ran into financial difficulty and in 1894 the company went into liquidation, resulting in repossession by the Dudley Estate. In 1897 a new company, The Earl of Dudley's Round Oak Works Ltd was established under the ownership of the Dudley family.
Steel was produced at the works using basic electric arc and open hearth methods. Principal products included alloy and carbon steel bars (case hardening, bright drawing, free cutting, machining, hot and cold forging), special sections, railway bearing plates, rounds, squares, flats, angles, channels, joists, billets, blooms, slabs and large forging ingots. Round Oak manufactured a weldable extra high strength steel under the brand name, 'Thirty-Oak'.
In September 1966, the 3½ mile long railway between the steelworks and Baggeridge closed. By the 1970s, the factory's viability and profitability began to decline due a fall in demand for its products. At its peak some 3,000 people were employed at the plant, but by 1979 the jobs cuts began and the plant's future was thrown into serious doubt.
At its peak, up to 3,000 people worked at the factory, but that figure had fallen substantially by the late 1970s and closure was looking increasing likely. It finally closed on 23 December 1982, after 125 years of steel production. By the time of closure, the factory employed 1,286 people. Brierley Hill had already been hit hard by the recession of 1980/81, which had caused high unemployment, but the closure of Round Oak saw unemployment in the town peak at around 25% - one of the worst rates of any town or city in Britain at this time. The closure came in spite of a fierce argument by local Conservative MP John Blackburn that the plant was still profitable and should be retained. Demolition work took place during 1984, when it was purchased by Don and Roy Richardson.
Redevelopment of the site
The farmland which stood in the shadow of Round Oak Steelworks was designated by the Government as an Enterprise Zone in 1981, being extended to include the site of the works in 1984 - the same year that the Round Oak buildings were demolished. It was in October 1984 that the local council backed the plans of local twin brothers Don and Roy Richardson to build a retail park and shopping mall on the farmland. Within 12 months, the first retailer had moved onto the retail park, and by April 1986 the first phase of the Merry Hill Shopping Centre had been completed. 1987/88 saw more shops open at Merry Hill, as well as a 10-screen cinema, before the final phase opened in November 1989.
Merry Hill brought thousands of jobs to the local area and spearheaded a region-wide transition from manufacturing to services as the key employer of local workers, although many of the new shopping centre's jobs were occupied by people who had worked in other locations until the retailers decided to relocate to Merry Hill.
The first businesses did not move onto the steelworks site until December 1990, when new offices were completed as part of the Waterfront development.
Despite the closure of the works in 1982, a steel terminal was opened on the adjacent railway in August 1986 and is still in use.
- Patrick Keiller (1999). Robinson in Space. Reaktion Books. ISBN 1-86189-028-1.
- ProQuest Information and Learning Company. The Engineer. London: Morgan-Grampian.
- Raybould, T.J. (1973). The Economic Emergence of the Black Country. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. pp. 161–171. ISBN 0715359959.
- Ronald Stanley Edwards; Harry Townsend (1958). Business enterprise: Its Growth and Organisation. New York: St. Martin's Press.
- The Acorn. House magazine of Round Oak Steelworks. Issue Summer 1971.
- David St John Thomas; J Allan Patmore (1973). A regional history of the railways of Great Britain. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. ISBN 0-7153-6208-9.
- W. G. M. Salet; Anton Kreukels; Andy Thornley (2003). Metropolitan Governance and Spatial Planning: Comparative Case Studies of European City-Regions. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0-415-27448-6.
- Collie Knox (1957). Steel at Brierley Hill : the story of Round Oak Steel Works, 1857-1957. Manchester: Newman Neame.