Iron and steel GAZ Workington since c.1850

By the mid-19th century coal-mining was in decline but Workington experienced a major expansion as a centre of iron and steel making.  By 1860 only Jane Pit was in operation and Workington Colliery ceased production in 1875.  A costly attempt was made to re-start coal production by sinking a new pit, Solway Pit, in 1937; it closed in 1973.

The opening of the Workington Haematite Company’s ironworks north of the town in 1856 (see SEATON) heralded the expansion of the iron and steel industry and a major growth in population, which leapt from 8,413 inhabitants in 1871 to 14,361 in 1881 and 23,749 in 1891.  The coming of the railway in 1847 linked the town to the other industrial centres in west Cumberland and the port’s capacity expanded with the construction of the Lonsdale Dock (on the Seaton side of the river) in 1865 and further harbour works in 1917.  The Lonsdale Dock was made deeper and wider to accommodate larger vessels (and renamed the Prince of Wales Dock) in 1927.  However, the coastal trade declined in the late 19th century: where 80-90 ships belonged to the port c.1870, there were only a mere ‘seven to nine’ by 1900.

By c.1900 there were three main iron and steelworks in Workington township.  Moss Bay Haematite and Steel Co., established in 1871, erected two Bessemer converters at Moss Bay in 1872, adding rolling mills in 1877.  This massive steelworks continued for over a century. The last of the converters was blown out in 1974 and the steelworks ceased production in 1982, though railway rails continued to be made there using steel manufactured elsewhere until 2006.  A second works, the Derwent Haematite Iron Co, between Moss Bay and New Yard, was ‘new’ in 1883.  The third establishment was the works of Kirk Brothers – at New Yard, Marsh side and Derwent Rolling Mills.  Shipbuilding continued in second half of 19th century, making merchant vessels. 

The growth of population levelled off in the early 20th century, to stand at 24,751 in 1931, the last census year before the boundary changes of 1934.  On the eve of the Second World War, Kelly’s Directory summed up Workington’s economy, demonstrating the dominance of the iron and steel industries: ‘The chief industries here are concerned with the manufacture of iron, steel rails and tinplates; there are also works for the manufacture of iron bridges, fences, gates, rivets, boilers, and railway spikes ... There is also a brewery and a ship-building yard’.  The port remained a crucial element in the town’s economy, importing iron ore and exporting iron and steel, as well as coal and lime.

The decline of heavy industry after the Second World War saw a downward drift in population across the later 20th century, from a peak of 29,552 in 1961, to stand at 24,295 in 2001.