Slag Heap Removal on the River Tees c1970

t14637The picture shows the final stages of removal of the heaps around 1970. I would guess it took about 3-5 years to get rid of them.

These slag heap formed a chain about a quarter of a mile long on the south bank of the river, opposite the Malleable. The white colour suggests they were of blast furnace slag from Thornaby Iron Works, but it is also possible that they came from the blast furnaces belonging to Bolkow Vaugn at Newport. They were situated just off the rail track from Thornaby to Middlesbrough so the suggestion is quite feasible.

What puzzles me is how these heaps came to be so high. Slag is normally transported in molten form in small cast iron trucks called slag ladles, in which the temperature is about 1000 deg C . It is then tipped out, flowing like molten lava. I cannot see how a steam locomotive would be able to get to the top. Was there some kind of moveable cableway, as was used in Blacketts brickyard?

Photograph and details courtesy of Fred Starr.

17 thoughts on “Slag Heap Removal on the River Tees c1970

  1. Bob you say probably better to have never started the war, we did not Hitler did and I well remember the trauma of that Sunday when the sirens went after the declaration, we kids thrown under the stairs wet towels thrown over our heads against gas as all the adults went into panic, they had mostly seen the first world war, the war in Spain and China so had some idea what to expect.
    War is always a smog, any soldier knows you see what is in your weapon sights having no idea what is 200 yards either side and during the war we only knew what we were told. When told of the danger of invasion the country did what it could in its own defense, earthworks and solid bunkers were built rapidly. The Tees with its flat beaches could well have been used to land, when I trained with the DLI on Seal Sands after the war they were still finding mines left over from 1940. A solid slag heap would be an ideal tank barrier, add some concrete in the gaps a few well placed anti tank guns had there been any and it would have allowed the population to flee as happened in France and still happens today as we see on the news nightly.
    Had we wanted to become German then the country would have listened to Chamberlain as he tried to appease Hitler, he was proved wrong and we got Churchill who will be forever a Hero and that includes all his warts and all.
    Teesside did its part in the war including sending men to the Infantry Regiments raised in the area, Building ships and even parts of the Mulberry Harbour, the women filled the places left by men in the machine shops and not forgetting the men sent to Malta Gibraltar and Egypt to repair damaged ships. I said in an earlier post Hind sight is a wonderful thing, at the time my parents though afraid saw no other way.


  2. Thanks Bob for the clarification about blast furnace slag not being a top grade material that I thought. As you rightly say the sulphur content can be quite high. The smell of sulphur dioxide when it runs out of a blast furnace is quite noticeable.


    • Thanks Fred, the most interesting part of the land area not visible in your photograph was the fairly large World War 2 “Anti-German Tank Traps” built alongside the River Tees banking found at the Erimus settlements end of these slag heaps. Fearing an invasion some Ministry of War Boffin must have reasoned that German landing craft could sail up the river from Teesmouth, attempted a major landing in Thornaby, crossed the Wilderness, and regrouped on Stockton racecourse. This military boffin was determined that they should not capture Stockton, the heart of the British Empire, so he had these huge concrete tank traps erected there in rows of three across stretching for some 50 yards or more.

      As Sir Winston Churchill might have put it “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight them in Thornaby and in Stockton, we shall fight them on Seal Sands and with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”. June 4 1940.


      • Thanks Bob for the information on the tank traps. There used to be similar ones on the north side of the river in the Malleable area. Pictures of these are on the website.

        As Frank Mee has pointed out, it is easy to make jocular remarks about these, quite literally, last ditch efforts to save the country, if Germany did invade. But they were established soon after Dunkirk when our troops and armour was in a very poor condition.

        In mid 1940, it had been decided to form a “stop line” of anti tank defences, which started on the River Severn, running round the south of London and up to the Wash. The Germans would have been allowed to capture the country below this line.

        In our part of the world, a second stop line ran from north of the Wash, through Yorkshire, but terminating at the Tees, a natural barrier. This would protect the industry of Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham. To some extent it looks like Middlesbrough would have been expendable, but I presume that it would have been fairly easy to build an antitank line running from the Eston Hills to the river.

        Older people will remember the minefield at West Hartlepool, helping to protect ICI Billingham , manufacturing explosives and high octane fuel, critical for the war effort.


        • Thanks Fred though I do not think Bob was being jocular. We heard the speech it was delivered to Parliament then Broadcast by the BBC even I as an eleven year old realised just how serious things were after Dunkirk,trenches were dug at the top of Bradbury Road it being the top of a hill overlooking the country across to Billingham one way and out to the Tees Mouth to the East. We kids wandered around the encampment and Family men would talk and show us weapons, each man had ten rounds and even at that age I knew it would never be enough. Minefields were laid on Billingham marshes beyond the Synthetic as we knew it and all the beaches were mined and lined with barbed wire. Pill boxes appeared on every road into Stockton, the bus had to weave through tank obstacles on the wilderness road to Middlesbrough. It may well have been exciting for us bloodthirsty youngsters but I knew my Parents and other grown ups were very worried, then of course the Bombing Started we spent virtually two years in the shelters not that we always got any bombs they flew over us to Leeds Liverpool and the Towns in-between and back out again, you took it as read you would have to sleep in the shelter until morning then still go to school our parents to war work, no excuse for being late accepted.
          With hind sight it all appears futile, though to us who were there at the time expecting invasion not if but when, it was showing the flag probably all that was between us and the real thing but we did take heart from it.
          Our local LDV later Home Guard now mocked as Dad’s Army were mainly first world war soldiers under no illusion as to what was coming yet prepared to fight. No one knows what would have happened though the night the bells rang out which meant invasion, my Mother was standing in the garden with two sharpened pitch forks, they were not landing in her garden and living to tell the tale.
          The mindset of those who saw all that cannot be understood by those who came later when it was all over, something that stayed with me all my life, do not lie down in the face of danger it is better to attack and see what happens.
          I have tried to explain that attitude to my own children they cannot see it, they were never in the dire position we were all in during that year of 1940-1, to say we all breathed a sigh of relief when Hitler attacked Russia does not really tell how we felt.
          Thanks Fred for understanding how desperate that time was, had it happened there would have been a blood bath and probably a divide as with Vichy France, no doubt I would have ended up in the German army in 1947 had I lived, invading the USA in Germany’s search for world domination. It is certainly not a laughing matter to those still alive who lived through those times, not many left now to tell it.


          • Hi Frank, may I add to your remarks that Hitler did not want world domination but to create a copycat British Empire called ‘The United States Of Germany’, the conquered states were the Baltic nations, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and the whole of Russia. Describing them as conquered states is incorrect, it conjures up the wrong impression – one of a cowed people – everyone of these states apart from Poland, welcomed the Germans with open arms, they offered them bread and salt, and young maidens tossed welcoming flowers at German troops. Hitler was not exactly a full shilling, and he and Himmler soon set about forming four groups of mercenary killers known as the Einsatzgruppen squads, whose job was to liquidate mythical enemies who did not exist, they killed about 1 million innocents who given a chance would have gladly assisted Germany’s aims. It was the 1943 German defeat at Kursk which showed the world the Germans could be beaten. A strange fact: the Germans were hopeless at hand to hand fighting, and avoided it, and, Hitler feared what the Brits would do to his men if they had invaded us. For this reason he called off the invasion. We need to remember we declared war on Germany, they did not declare war on us. If only we had sat it out, Hitler would have been assassinated. Will stop there. Bob Wilson.


        • My thanks Fred for the information given most of which I was unaware of. The tank traps mentioned on Cork Insulation land ended up being climbed on and jumped over by most Thornaby boys at some time or other. I did not know that parts of the Hartlpool coastline area was mined to repel invaders, though having said this, it would have been more sensible keeping out of the war completely and sitting it out which is what the French did. Our military efforts achieved little and cost our country a great deal of money which we could not afford. Very few people know that when Winston made his famous speech 4 June 1940, he had three British diplomats in Switzerland trying to negotiate a peace treaty. I spent about 8 years working on the slag heaps mentioned and enjoyed every minute. Cork Insulation had a large number of wonderful employees, and they formed an happy gang. An anecdote; No one had ever met the boss Lord Vesty, one day he had an horse running at Stockton races and messaged them saying he would pay a visit them a visit on the morning of the race to inspect the works, the place was always in a bit of a mess, so they spent a great deal of time cleaning it up, painting walls, and making it spick and span, this clean up cost by my estimate £10 000, when the big day arrived he phoned from the racecourse to say that he’d changed his mind, and would be going straight back to London. The man who ran Cork was called William Tysal, he had not seen Vesty for over 30 years!. I remember the staff were reminded that under no circumstances they had not to wear brown shoes that day because he could not bear people who wore brown shoes. If there is anything to be learnt from this I don’t know?


  3. Just to make it clear, the Malleable was on the opposite side of the river. Although some slag had been dumped from the Malleable and stayed around in boulder shaped masses until the 1980s, most of the high phosphorous slag from its open heath furnaces would have been taken away, and treated with sulphuric acid to produce fertiliser.

    Where were the Gjers Mills blast furnaces? Are there any pictures?


  4. Ted Shrecker is right in suspecting that the Queens Campus of Durham University is built on the remains of a huge slag heap. I am sure that this knowledge will result in some sardonic remarks in the staff common room. Just remember that slag, properly laid, as hard core, makes a very solid foundation.

    Being serious, the extent of the slag heap can be assessed from the Britain From Above aerial pictures. The three earlier ones date from the 1930s and are listed as EAW024107 / 8 and 9.
    The later one, EPW038886, is from the 1940s.

    At its largest extent, the slag heap seems to have begun at the Stephenson annex and finished more or less just to the west of the Tees Barrage. It covered the whole area of Queens, I would guess.


  5. These land and the slag heaps dumped thereon, with the Torch seen in the distance, along with the Cork Insulation and Asbestos Co Ltd factory, offices and works, with road entrance in Hanover Street, off Trafagar Street, Thornaby, were owned by a company called Union International PLC, Smithfield, London, this was the parent company of Dewhirst the butchers, the Blue Star Shipping line, Oxo, Union Cold storage and Cork Insulation. The 1893 founder of Union International were two Liverpool brothers called William Vesty and Edmund Vesty, butchers by trade who discovered by chance that in Argentina and Brazil they raised cattle for their hides to use for leather and afterwards, after they had been slaughtered, dumped the cattle bodies as having no value. To cash in on this discovery they formed a refrigerated ships – shipping line – called THE BLUE STAR LINE, to export this unwanted meat to England, by doing so they quickly establsihed themselves has the worlds largest cattle and sheep buyers, dealers and exporters to England and Europe, and became billionaires. Their sons continued the business until year 2000.

    Union International purchased these Thornaby works to manufacture Cork Insulation, insulation sheets made from Cork, for their meat stores (warehouse size fridges). During the 1930s, Union International bought this former Croswaites foundry site for £3500 , it was later sold to Stockton Council, and the slag heaps seen cleared. I was offered all this slag free of charge by Cork Insulation, but discovered it was unsuitable for road making sub-base, or for building foundations so refused to handle its disposal. It was unsuitable because when wet the iron sulfates in it reacted with the water, it expanded, and after it expanded it was said “it could ‘lift a house of it’s foundations” or “cause a road to crack up”. I understand Croswaites Foundry had dumped the slag seen. I do not know anything about the Malleable Works ever using this land as a slag-dump. I suspect part of the remaining slag heap was used for landscaping the new Teesside University site/s ‘garden and green grass and shrubbery areas’, and not used under it’s road or buildings. I do wish the Torch had been preserved, it really was an interesting structure and worth visiting and looking inside. I have been told it was used for coke storage, or iron ore storage, but am not sure of its exact purpose. In the 1920s a likeable and highly ambitious London financier called Clarence Hatry had purchased Croswaites Foundry, intending it would be part of the Clarence Hatry steel making concern (he had formed) called ‘The United Steel Corporation of Great Britain’, during the depression Clarence Hatry got into financial difficulties and to keep afloat he raised loans from various banks, he later served 9 years in prison for the fraudulent raising of these loans using forged documents an act which bankrupted his group of steel companies and scuppered his Thornaby plans.


  6. Some of this slag came from Gjers Mills blast furnaces. My father worked there for over 30 years. We used to visit him at work and one day I had a ride on one of the steam engines dumping the slag along side the river. Great fun for young lads.


    • I would say that the University would be sites near to the end of Head Wrightsons where the Joiners shop and the Paint and Despatch area was. Maybe some of it over the border line. I remember the Malleable Pipe Works being opposite.


        • I sat in the Pipe Dept as I used to see the overhead crane coming out of the end of the factory with pipes hanging from its slings. The Pipe Mill was very long.


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