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The Black Country men who built Victorian Great Britain

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: July 30, 2014

By Dan Shaw

  • The Woodside Ironworks where much of Victorian Britain was made

  • Charles Cochrane

  • Charing Cross station nearing completion in 1864

  • Royal procession beneath Holborn Viaduct, 1869

  • Runcorn Railway Bridge

  • Westminster Bridge

  • Cannon Street Railway Bridge

  • The Crystal Palace at Sydenham

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IT MAY be only a slight exaggeration to say that the Black Country literally built modern Britain. Certainly many of the great public buildings of the Victorian age, its bridges, railway stations and the like, used ironwork forged here in the Black Country.

A classic example would be the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the cathedral of Victorian enterprise and ingenuity. The glass was supplied by Chance Brothers of Smethwick while much of the ironwork came from the Woodside Foundry of Cochrane and Company.

This 1924 photograph of the foundry has been supplied to us by Val Worwood of the Woodside History and Memory Group. As you can see, the picture was take shortly after the business had changed hands.

Alexander Brodie Cochrane was born in Dudley in 1813. His father was the manager of the Grazebrook colliery and furnaces and he began work on leaving school. However, in 1838, at a still young age, he became a partner of the ironmaster John Joseph Bramah who had several business interests in the Black Country and across England. Cochrane and Bramah went into business in Bilston but two years later, in 1840, they founded the Woodside Ironworks. Bramah died in 1846 and Cochrane continued the business with his father, also named Alexander Brodie Cochrane, and Charles Geach.

In 1855 a second branch of the business was established in Middlesbrough and shortly afterwards A.B. Cochrane's brother John joined the firm. It was John who supervised the relocation of the Crystal Palace from Hyde Park to Sydenham.

Alexander's son Charles was born at their Blackbrook home in 1835. He left school at 15 and even though he was too young he was allowed to attend classes at Kings College, London. He then worked with Samuel Holden Blackwell at the Russell's Hall Ironworks. Then, aged 20, he went to his father's Middlesbrough ironworks for a year before becoming a partner in the Woodside business.

Charles Cochrane became one of the world's leading authorities on blast furnaces, travelling to America.

With the Cochranes' deep knowledge of ironwork, they were called on to assist in some of the great engineering projects of the Victorian age. They built many bridges, including the Greyfriars Bridge at Shrewsbury in 1879. They also worked on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, opened in 1864. That utilised the chains from the recently demolished Hungerford Suspension Bridge and it was John Cochrane who supervised their removal from London to Bristol.

But it is, perhaps, for their London bridges that Cochrane and Company are best known.

Westminster Bridge opened on May 24, 1862, replacing the earlier bridge of the 1700s that subsiding badly. It is now the oldest bridge over the Thames in central London and was designed by Thomas Page with decorative detailing by Charles Parry.

Cannon Street Railway Bridge opened in 1866 after three years of construction. It carries the railway over the Thames and to Cannon Street Station on the north bank. Designed by John Hawkshaw and John Wolfe-Barry for the South Eastern Railway, it was originally named the Alexandra Bridge for the then Princess of Wales.

The Charing Cross Railway Bridge is better known as the Hungerford Bridge and was completed in 1864. Designed John Hawkshaw, it replaced Isambard Kingdom Brunel's 1845 suspension bridge, the chains from which the Cochranes incorporated into the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The Holborn Viaduct, built between 1863 and 1869, was the first flyover in central London.

Outside London Cochrane and Co. are celebrated for the Runcorn Railway Bridge over the Mersey. It took four years to build and opened in 1868.

As well as bridges Cochrane and Co. also made iron pipes, many of which were used to bring water from the Elan Valley to Birmingham, and many seaside piers at holiday resorts.

The Cochranes were compassionate employers and Alexander built the Holly Hall School, opened in 1861, for the children of its workers. The school closed in 1983.

Alexander Brodie Cochrane died in 1863, John Cochrane died in 1891 and Charles Cochrane in 1898.

Cochrane and Co. sold the Woodside Ironworks in 1923 and transferred their operations to Middlesbrough. The caption on the photo states that the works were bought by the famous scrap merchant John Cashmore. He dismantled all but a small section of the works.

Did any of your ancestors work for Cochrane and Co? Have you another story of the Black Country's proud industrial heritage? Contact dshaw@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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