Foundries helped to shape today’s Falkirk

The moulding shop of Falkirk Foundry in 1911 when the town was famous for its iron works
The moulding shop of Falkirk Foundry in 1911 when the town was famous for its iron works

Today brings the 100th edition of the Herald in its new format and so this is my 100th article on Falkirk district’s rich history.

Many people say they enjoy these weekly trips down memory lane and the few friendly complaints I get are usually about favourite topics not yet covered, like the many foundries which once dominated the life of the area and which are now little more than a fading memory.

It all began, of course, with the arrival of the Carron ironworks in 1759, which kicked off the Scottish industrial revolution, followed by the ‘Great Canal’ 40 years later. This offered much faster communications and it was no surprise that many of the later ventures were close to the waterway.

The role of Carron was crucial because the works manufactured far more than pig iron, munitions and a vast array of domestic ironware. Over time the works produced a pool of skilled masters of iron founding techniques and men with management skills – how to tool up for production, find raw materials, identify markets and service them at a sufficient price.

Following an unsuccessful venture at Dalderse, a second group of skilled Carron workers launched the Falkirk Foundry in 1819 destined to grow into Falkirk Iron Company, second only to Carron in size and importance, at a site on the Falkirk side of the canal near Bainsford Bridge where main road and waterway met. This remained the heart of the works until it closed in 1982.

In 1845, Thomas Crosthwaite, another Carron man, selected a second canal side site, this time in Camelon, for his Portdownie Works and a decade later we had Abbots Iron and Crosthwaite, along with another of the great iron masters, George Ure, who opened the Union Foundry in Camelon.

Then it all began to happen and when the lift-off came it was spectacular. Between 1860 and 1870, 10 foundries – including some of the great names like Cockburns and Mitchells (Grahamston), Burnbank (Bainsford), Smith and Wellstoods (Bonnybridge), Dobbie Forbes (Larbert) and Cruikshanks (Denny) - opened and the following 20 years brought the Gael, Springfield, Callendar, Saltoun, Dorrator, Carmuirs, Grange and many more.

Victorian Britain went cast iron mad and the new firms made good profits. Some remained small with 30 or 40 employees while others had 10 times as many. The magnificent castings carried the Falkirk name and reputation to every corner of the world and the profits helped to build the towns and villages we enjoy today.

By end of the century, 40 per cent of the local working population were iron men – patternmakers, moulders, fitters, engineers and the rest – manufacturing anything from pots and pans to stoves, grates, boilers, pipes, ranges and baths.

As the 20th century began, the district was at the height of its power and the future looked assured. But, as we now know, the spectacular rise was followed by a slow but steady decline and the story of our times is of contractions and mergers followed inevitably by closure.

But we cannot allow this fantastic history which more than anything else made our community what it is today, to simply melt away as if it didn’t happen. A museum of iron founding is long overdue and I hope to live to see one.