Top; the Baker refractory entrance sign. Bottom; The factory,quarry and colliery circa 1970
History of the site, the quarry & refractory
There is little documentation available for Steetley prior to 1880. It is known that the site was long used as a quarry and in more recent times has been home to the associated Steetley Refractories Company, as well as Steetley Colliery. All of these played a key part in the war effort during WWII.
There is ample evidence that stone has been quarried from the site since time immemorial and it is almost certain that it was used for building Steetley Chapel in the 12th century. (http://www.wlhg.co.uk/book/part5.htm) Records also exist to show that stone from the site has been used in the creation of some very significant buildings in England including amongst others, York Minster and the Houses of Parliament in London.
The building stone was almost certainly sourced from the approximately 15 foot (5 metre) thick top layer of impure Magnesian Limestone of the old Steetley Wood Quarry, as also found in the later Armstrong Quarry. This contained c.12% silica and was very dense, fine grained and of low porosity which enabled it to resist erosion and corrosion.
The main commercial extension of the quarry took place during the industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century with sites being chosen for both the quality and quantity of the natural resource, and their proximity to markets. The Steetley site lies on the previously mentioned outcrop of Magnesian Limestone which stretches from Nottinghamshire to Durham and yielded a large reserve of Dolomite and Dolomitised Limestone, and was in a steel producing area.
Iron ores from Northamptonshire were historically used and these were relatively high in phosphorous and sulphur which made them less suitable for steel-making. However, during the 1860’s and 1870’s Sidney Gilchrist Thomas (a civil servant and amateur chemist) in association with his cousin Percy Carlisle Gilchrist (a chemist) pioneered a new type of steel furnace called the ‘Bessemer converter’ using dolomite bricks. This enabled the use of local impure iron ores and hastened the decline of wrought iron production in favour of steel. This was because the ‘basic’ dolomite more easily withstood the ‘basic’ slags created when producing steel from the previously mentioned impure iron ores.
As the appetite for steel increased dramatically - having previously been the preserve of e.g. weapons manufacturers - the mechanisation that followed gave rise to a multitude of new uses. The growth and prosperity of steel manufacturing and Steetley quarry went hand-in-hand.
The chemically purer Dolomite was originally fired in crude furnaces. However, in 1888 a new type of continuous kiln called a ‘cupola’ was invented by Messrs. Horton and Sharples and this enabled the lye (a residue from the forestry industry) bonded dolomite or ‘Doloma’ refractory bricks to be produced more efficiently for steel plant furnaces and other furnace brick users. This was very convenient for the nearby iron and steel producers of the Don and Rother Valleys around Sheffield and Rotherham, well-known ‘steel towns’. Ultimately the local Steetley products became a global brand, renowned for their quality.
A new era
The successes in making the local ores usable had led Mr Isaac Sharples to buy the quarry and form the ‘Steetley Lime and Building Stone Company’ on January 1st 1885. The company would continue to supply the building industry with raw building materials and also expand into supplying the steel industry.
Alongside Doloma, the Steel industry was also demanding refractory bricks, made from Magnesia. The base material for this was Magnesite, of which the UK has no natural deposits and so around 1936 work began to find out if it was possible to separate the naturally occurring Magnesia from the locally abundant Dolomite as an alternative. In 1936 a laboratory was built at the Steetley works, one of the first jobs was to explore the possibility of releasing Magnesia from Dolomitic Lime.
Experimental work started in 1915, to produce stabilised Dolomite bricks (known as Dolofer), suitable for the Steel industry culminated in a successful and useable product – leading in 1937 to the setting up of the ‘Refractory Brick Company of England’.
In 1959 the ‘Steetley Organisation Research Department’ was established at the Worksop site, in recognition of the need for Steetley to pioneer new and more sophisticated products.
In 1979 the £30.2m acquisition of Gibbons Dudley Limited, led to the creation of ‘Steetley Brick Limited’. Soon after (1981) G.H. Downing & Company Limited were purchased, adding clay roofing tiles and facing bricks to the Steetley portfolio. With the closure of the two Steetley sites during the 1970’s, production was based largely at the Worksop site.
The quarry was closed in 1960 and raw materials were subsequently supplied from the nearby Whitwell quarry and works.
The Steetley Company was acquired by Redland in !991 who then sold the works to Baker Refractories of the USA. Baker finally closed the factory in 2001 and transferred production, in common with many UK manufacturers, to eastern Europe. A very sad day for local people.