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Issue 100 - The Carron Company

Scotland Magazine Issue 100
October 2018

 

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The Carron Company

James Irvine Robertson shares the story of this iron giant

Until well into the 18th Century the night was dark. No gaslight, no electricity - just candles. The moon and the stars were there but in Scotland they are usually obscured by cloud. Beyond the light of your hearth there was nothing but inky blackness, which most believed was populated with supernatural beings that were often malevolent. Then, on Boxing Day 1760, in one place at least, came a dramatic change. The night sky lit up and it was never entirely dark again.

The Seven Years’ War was raging. Triggered in 1754 by Lt-Col. George Washington and the Virginia Militia’s ambush of a small French Canadian force in disputed Pennsylvania, it engulfed every European power and was fought on five continents. The price of iron to make guns and ammunition rocketed and canny entrepreneurs were making fortunes.

Iron working in Scotland did exist.

There were furnaces in places like Bonawe and Abernethy, in the midst of forests that could provide charcoal, but a revolution was underway at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, where Abraham Darby was using coke in a blast furnace. To make iron this way one needed a copious supply of water to power the air blasters and other machinery. One needed coal and the ore to smelt close at hand.

Two Englishmen, chemist John Roebuck and merchant Samuel Garbett, and the Cadells, a father and son who were ship owners and iron importers from East Lothian, formed a partnership to build an iron foundry. After months of searching for a location, they settled on a green field site on the north bank of the River Carron, a couple of miles from Falkirk. Coal was plentiful and iron ore was mined near Bo’ness then shipped up the Forth. The river provided both power and a means of bringing in materials and taking the product out. The Carron Company was born.

They imported experts from England to build the infrastructure and teach the locals the necessary skills. Two furnaces were initially lit, casting a lurid glow against the cloudy night sky that was visible for many miles around. A couple of miles from the Carron works lay Callander House, seat of Sir William Forbes. He made a vast fortune speculating in copper and supplying sheets of the metal to the Royal Navy to cover the bottom of their ships to preserve their timbers. During the Militia Riots of 1797, he mistook the glow of the furnaces for the mob setting fire to his mansion. He fled to Edinburgh and dragoons were dispatched at his request to restore order.

It did nothing for his local popularity when the troops remained in Falkirk for six months. In 1766, James Watt built his first steam engine for Carron and that raised 40 tonnes of water per minute to a height of 36 feet to help power the waterwheels. The company received a contract from the government to make cannon, but lost it when the quality of the weapons was called into question. Garbett’s son-in-law, Charles Gascoigne, who absconded to Russia in 1786 with much of the company’s cash to establish iron foundries there, took over the management and introduced a new gun, invented by Lieutenant-General Robert Melville, that became known as the carronade.

This had a much shorter barrel, was a third or a quarter of the weight of conventional guns and needed a smaller, less skilled guncrew to operate it. What's more, its light weight allowed it to be placed higher in a ship without making the vessel unstable. Carron made and sold a kit of ammunition (chainshot, roundshot, canister, grapeshot, barshot) with each gun, eliminating the irregularity of munitions and ensuring a close fit in the barrel that saved on powder.

Its initial success came from sales to merchant ships during the American Revolutionary War that needed to protect themselves from being boarded by privateers and pirates, but the Royal Navy and the Revolutionaries soon saw its virtues and the company supplied both sides. Its short barrel made it less accurate than conventional cannon at long range, but in close ship-to-ship actions it was devastating.

At Trafalgar in 1805, HMS Victory fired the two 68-pounder carronades on her forecastle, clearing the gun deck of the French flagship the Bucentaure by firing a round shot and a keg of 500 musket balls through its stern windows, killing 197 men, wounding 85 and putting the ship out of action. By then the company’s reputation for quality was such that the Duke of Wellington wanted only cannon of its manufacture for the British army in the war against Napoleon. Carronades were sold to the navy up until 1850, when naval gunnery changed to using explosive shells and needed weapons that were accurate at long range.

However, Carron had never entirely relied on munitions. It capitalised on the new steam driven ships and the railways, as well as manufacturing a great variety of cast-iron goods for industry, household and agricultural use. At one time the company was the largest ironworks in Europe, employing 2,500 people, with five blast furnaces and others fed by natural draught. It had its own shipping line and coal mines.

Many famous names came to call. Benjamin Franklin left the design for his Philadelphia stove. Crowned heads and princes arrived to cast envious eyes at this behemoth at the cutting edge of the Industrial Revolution. Even Robert Burns turned up and was refused entry because it was Sunday. He scratched a disgruntled verse on the window of a local inn.

The company thrived through the 19th Century by making a vast range of goods that it exported in its own ships throughout the world. Its Carron bath became famous and, in 1913, it earned the curious distinction of being appointed grate maker to King George V. By this time, the company’s interests included collieries, coal ovens, ironstone mines, limestone mines, refractory brick works, foundries, blast furnaces, plating shops, galvanising, porcelain, vitreous and stoneenamelling shops, ships and warehouses.

After World War II, the decline in the traditional Scottish industries, together with competition from abroad, led to a collapse in the fortunes of the plant. In 1982 the company went bankrupt and its gates closed.

 

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