Industrial History

Disused Tebay, image by Bernard Mills


Without the rich hematite iron ores of Furness and West Cumbria there would have been no railway over Stainmore. The massive, rich iron ores of these areas contained the highest iron content of any ores mined in Britain and became highly prized for smelting by the early 19th century. Distant from markets and from the early centres of iron smelting, for many years the ore was shipped to established centres of the iron industry in the Midlands, South Wales and central Scotland. Only small amounts were smelted locally using charcoal for fuel. During the 18th century small blast furnaces were operated at Maryport, Cleator Moor, Duddon, Newlands (near Ulverston), Nibthwaite (south of Coniston Water), Backbarrow and Lindale (near Grange-over-Sands).

The arrival of the railway from the 1840s transformed the situation. Initially exports from the area grew rapidly, but soon a new generation of entrepreneurs established modern blast furnaces around Workington, Cleator Moor and Barrow consuming an ever-increasing proportion of locally mined ores. The invention by Sir Henry Bessemer in the late 1850s of the first method for the large scale conversion of iron into steel, which was initially dependent on the use of the low-phosphor ores from Cumbria, led to a massive growth of the iron and steel industry from the 1860s and through the 1870s. By 1882 over 1,000,000 tons of pig iron were produced in West Cumbria alone, nearly one-eighth of total UK production, with at least another half million tons from the Furness area.

The 1880s were the peak from which a long sustained decline of the industry was to commence, though massive production figures were reached again during World War One. By this time the impact of exhaustion of local ore reserves and increasing dependence on imported ores, mainly from northern Spain initially, and competing and more efficient new methods of steel manufacture were being increasingly felt and many works closed soon after the war. Rationalisation ensured that the industry continued as a major contributor to the local economy, at Barrow until 1960, and at Workington into the 1980s, with the last remnant of industry there, the rail mill only closing in 2006. Rail manufacture had been one of the major drivers of the industry in Cumbria with Barrow and Workington-rolled rails being exported all round the world for the massive expansion of rail networks in all parts of the British Empire, the United States and South America during the late 19th century.

So the railway over Stainmore played an essential part in the growth of the British Empire and the development of the transport networks which were essential for transporting the products of Empire back to the mother country – and for British manufactures to reach their global markets.


The Durham coalfield was one of the most prolific in England. The Coal Measures with their coal seams were exposed at the surface immediately east of the slopes of the North Pennines in a north-south band through the centre of the county. It was is this area that the earliest mining developed with the digging of small pits and adits or tunnels directly into the seams. The seams tilted down gently towards the east, and as resources at or near the surface became expired mining moved gradually eastwards towards the coast, reaching the coal via ever-deepening shafts, and eventually extracting coal from seams far out under the North Sea.

Probably from before the 16th century Durham coal served major markets round the North Sea, not least London and the Low Countries. With mining concentrated in the eastern parts of the county the problem of access to the sea or the county’s major rivers for shipment was a major obstacle to overcome. In early years transport would have been packhorse, but the problem drove technical innovation during the 18th century with the development of engineered wooden waggonways along which “chaldron” wagons would be horse drawn, or travel under the power of gravity, to the points of loading into the colliers, the coal-carrying vessels which would take the coal to the markets.

In turn, in the early 19th century, waggonways were developed into railways, not too different in basic concept to those we know today, and powered by the steam locomotives which were also developed within the region. The first of these public railways was the Stockton & Darlington Railway, opened in 1825, specifically to transport coal from South Durham around Bishop Auckland to the River Tees for shipment, and so creating the port of Middlesbrough.

Durham coal was of a very high quality and very suitable for conversion into coke, which was the fundamental fuel for the smelting of iron in the blast furnaces being constructed to provide the principal material for many of the new products of the industrial revolution. One of the rapidly developing centres of the Iron industry was the Furness area of Lancashire, where rich iron ore deposits were geographically remote from supplies of coal and coke. West Cumberland, too, was another centre for development of the industry, and although there were plentiful supplies of local coal, this was not ideal for iron smelting.

With the opening of the South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway in 1861, and the Eden Valley and Cockermouth Penrith & Keswick Railways a few years later, the colliery owners of South Durham were rapidly able to take up the new markets. Extensive coke ovens were built at or near the major collieries to convert coal into coke, and the coke despatched in hopper wagons to the iron and steel works in what is now Cumbria. At its peak in the late 19th century this traffic would reach over one million tons a year travelling over Stainmore to the iron works of Furness and West Cumbria. It would continue until the furnaces at the large iron and steel works in Barrow were taken out of blast about 1960.


Limestone is an essential mineral for use in the smelting of iron ore to make iron. It is added to the blast furnaces to provide a flux within the chemical changes taking place under great heat, the impurities in the ore combining with the lime to be drawn off the furnace as slag. In modern times hard limestones are much prized for the production of aggregates for use in the road building and construction industries. Lime is also used extensively for the manufacture of cement, and in agriculture for the sweetening of acid soils to make them more productive.

Limestone was a significant in originating traffic on the railway over Stainmore, most of this coming from the Hartley Quarry, about 1 mile south east of Kirkby Stephen town.

The quarry was opened in 1927 by Sir Hedworth Williamson Limeworks Ltd. The company had long operated quarries at Fulwell Hills, near Sunderland in County Durham, but these were becoming exhausted and the Hartley site not only had vast reserves of high quality limestone but was on the East-West railway providing new market opportunities in Cumbria and Scotland in addition to maintaining traditional markets in North East England.

The quarry was provided with its own internal railway system which exchanged traffic with the main line railway at Merrygill sidings, just south of Merrygill Viaduct. The site of the sidings can be seen on the level area to the south-east of the main railway formation as the latter descends down the 1 in 72 gradient towards Kirkby Stephen. The ruin of the one-time signal box which controlled the signals and access to the sidings is adjacent to the path at this point.

With the long-term decline of the iron and steel industry, production from the quarry increasingly turned to other markets for which road transport was essential. The railway connection was severed in 1975 involving the final closure of that remaining part of the railway south and east of Warcop through Kirkby Stephen. Demolition of the railway bridge over the road at the north end of Merrygill Viaduct then allowed large road vehicles access to the quarry which continues in operation.