HISTORY FEATURE: When Parkgate iron ruled the waves — and built the world’s biggest ship

HANGING high and wide above shoppers at Parkgate’s Morrisons is a reminder of when this exact spot was home to one of the nation’s leading industrial powerhouses.

The scene depicted is the Park Gate ironworks in the latter half of the 19th century, when the site was leading Britain’s development in the booming sector.

Through the 1840s and into the 1850s, this collection of buildings with their dozens of chimneys had played a major role in making iron rails for the massive expansion of the railway network here and abroad.

But perhaps the most striking single example of the importance of Parkgate at the time was the crucial part it played in developing what would be the world’s biggest ship — the Great Eastern.

An initial sketch of what was originally called the Leviathan was made in 1852 — but such was the scale of the project that it would not be launched into the Thames until January 31, 1858.

That same decade, iron had been used for ship-building for the first time.

And Isambard Kingdom Brunel — one of the world’s greatest engineers and inventors — became interested in doing something really special with this new way of working.

Meanwhile, here in Rotherham, Samuel Beale and Charles Geach were major stakeholders in the Park Gate ironworks, and also directors of the Crystal Palace Company.

Their involvement in both led to the Parkgate business becoming involved in producing some of the glazing bars which held up the huge glass walls and roof when the Palace was re-erected in South London.

“In the course of this it seems likely Geach and Beale came into contact with Brunel and his shipbuilding partner, John Scott Russell,” said Tony Dodsworth, chairman of Rawmarsh and Parkgate Local History Group.

“When Russell and Brunel wanted to source all the wrought iron sheets for the world’s first double-skinned hull of the ship, Parkgate stepped up and took the order.

“This must have been a real boom time for the Parkgate works with 30,000 wrought iron sheets needed for the ship’s completion.

“The famous James Watt and Company from Birmingham agreed to build the screw engines that would be required.

“Manufacture was far from straightforward as Brunel was working on the very edge of engineering and ship-building technology.”

The project was rocked in the winter of 1854 by the sudden and unexpected death of Geach, who was also MP for Coventry and chairman of the Midland Bank.

Tony said: “He had been crucial to the project because he had been the only person who had accepted flexible terms of payment for supplying the iron plates for this immensely expensive project.

“On behalf of the Park Gate ironworks, he had been prepared to take shares as payment for his iron rather than cash.

“The financial problems were largely overcome and thousands of iron plates were made for the Great Eastern at Parkgate.”

The York Herald newspaper reported in 1857 that the ironworks was supplying “immense iron plates that vary in size from two to two-and-a-half tons... The largest plate being 27ft long by 4ft 3ins wide and one-and-a-quarter inches thick. The plates are quite free from blisters and blemishes and the edges perfect.”

When the biggest plate was delivered on January 20, 1857, London’s leading engineers could not believe their eyes.

This feat of production caused such a sensation that it was diverted to Great George Street to be examined by the experts at the headquarters of the Institute of Civil Engineers.

“It was the engineering wonder of its time and made in Parkgate,” said Tony. “Charles Stoddart, manager of the ironworks company, was still writing about it in the local press in 1897.

After many problems and delays the Great Eastern was finally launched into the Thames in January 1858.

“It was the largest ship ever built at that date and remained the largest ship by weight until the 20th century. It was the single heaviest object moved by humans at her launch.

“She was 211 metres long and capable of carrying 4,000 passengers from England to Australia without needing to refuel en route.

“For several years it operated as a passenger liner between Britain and North America and later was immensely important as a cable-laying ship — it laid the first lasting Transatlantic telegraph cables between Europe and North America in 1866.”

A few months after its launch at Millwall, the Great Eastern was visited by Queen Victoria at Deptford.

The Illustrated London News reported that her majesty spent a considerable time inspecting the ship’s “extraordinary proportions”, and “expressed her great delight at the visit”.

The Park Gate works moved with the times, adopting specialist equipment to maintain its position at the forefront of the iron production sector.

In 1849, for example, a reversing mill was installed, solving the problem of how to move heavier masses of material more easily. It enabled iron plates to be moved backwards and forwards through a roller — improving the quality of its output.

“It was the first ironworks in the country equipped in this way,” said Tony. “And it was because of this advanced equipment and the skill of some key Parkgate operatives that the company was the first to successfully produce armour plating in this country.

“The Admiralty had contacted Palmer Brothers, shipbuilders at Jarrow in the north-east, to see if they could make an armoured battery plate for the navy.

“The Palmers could not — but asked Parkgate ironworks for help and as a result the first successful armoured plate made in this country was rolled and sent to Palmers on February 7, 1856, and used for HMS Terror, a floating battery, that was present at the Battle of Sevastopol in the Crimean War.

“Once again Parkgate led the country in its technical expertise and in some ways led the world.”

For several years the British navy relied solely on Parkgate ironworks to reinforce its wooden warships and provide the armour plates for new frigates.

Ships such as HMS Defence — completed in 1862 — and HMS Black Prince in the 20th century were built of Parkgate armoured plate, four-and-a-half inches thick.

“In 1861, works manager George Sanderson was called to London to speak to a government committee about the armour plate production in Parkgate. His expertise in this field had clearly been recognised by the highest authorities in the land,” said Tony.

“The key skilled worker in this instance was Andrew Hunt who worked with his brother William as a highly skilled roller and almost certainly rolled the first armour plate at Parkgate. He had migrated from Staffordshire to Parkgate and was living near the Little Bridge Inn, close to where Parkgate Shopping is today, and by 1861 had moved to his own house in Hollybush Mount.

“His father was a boiler plate shearer in the Birmingham area. Andrew later left the area and in 1881 had retired to Southport and described himself as a retired armour plate roller. He died in 1890 and left £5,400 in his will, which would be around £750,000 today.”

The armour plate trade with the navy was lost when massive new works in Sheffield started to compete for the orders.

But the Park Gate works and the firm’s achievements are remembered in the streetnames Beale Way and Great Eastern Way, as well as the Great Eastern Retail Park ...and the giant photograph displayed in Morrisons.


A pleasing start to our marking of 200 years

By Tony Dodsworth, chairman Rawmarsh & Parkgate Local History Group

CELEBRATIONS marking the 200th anniversary of the foundation of Parkgate — and its iron and steelworks — are starting to take shape with the aim of making available much more information about the place’s outstanding history.

A variety of events are planned and, over time, our local history group hopes the Parkgate200 logo will become much more familiar.

Events began in 2023 with a photo exhibition at the South Yorkshire Transport Museum in Aldwarke in January. This was repeated at the February open day.

A large number of visitors enjoyed looking round the photos and it was interesting to notice how many local residents expressed serious concern about the dilapidated state of the miners’ institute in Broad Street — an important historic building close by that is falling into disrepair.

It was pleasing to meet so many retired steelworkers from Parkgate with great memories of their working days at “the Forge”. It is remarkable just how many people you meet who had at least three generations of their family employed there.

The next event will be an illustrated talk at the High Street Centre on Saturday, March 18, at 2.30pm. Former resident David Smith will be giving the audience the “low down” on the Low End of Parkgate, an area of immense interest and amazing stories but now largely forgotten.

Later in the year there will be at least two public showings of the film Tread Softly Stranger (1958) that was partly filmed in and around Parkgate and the steelworks.

Plans are also in place for a Parkgate Gala in late July. Exhibitions of old photos and memorabilia will be presented in Rawmarsh Library and Clifton Park Museum, as well as a history day on November 25 that will include an exhibition as well as at least two talks on aspects of Parkgate’s history by Prof Vanessa Toulmin from Sheffield University and David Boursnell.

It is also hoped to establish a Parkgate history trail starting near Parkgate Shopping and up to the war memorial on Rawmarsh Hill before returning via Westfield Road.

If you have any memorabilia linked to Parkgate, and especially the steelworks, that you would be happy to include in the various exhibitions do contact the Rawmarsh and Parkgate Local History Group for further details.

You can reach me on 01709 363151 or email [email protected].

We also hope to arrange interviews with past residents and workers in Parkgate so that there is a permanent record of “how things used to be in Parkgate”.