This month’s heritage blog is an abridged version of a longer article by heritage research volunteer Lawrence Havis. Through the story of just one Ouseburn business, spanning under 25 years, it tells how Ouseburn industries in the mid-nineteenth century played out on a world stage, it demonstrates the working conditions and life expectancies of the working classes, and the growing struggle between profits for capitalist business owners and the fight for a fair wage and conditions for the workers. The period 1871-75 saw the Ouseburn Engine Works run as an industrial co-partnership, with all workers buying shares in the business at £5 each. £150 of shares qualified you as a director.

January 2021

To understand this period in greater detail Kath Smith’s unpublished undergraduate dissertation from 1994 “Ouseburn Engine works Co. Ltd 1871–1875 The Life and Death of an Industrial Co-partnership” has been made available on the Trust’s website. We thank Lawrence and Kath for their extensive research.

The Ouseburn Engine Works was sited on the east side of the Ouseburn, a little north of the Ouseburn Bridge. It appears to have been started around 1851/52 by an engineer named Robert Morrison. Morrison was born in Scotland around 1822 and came to Newcastle about 1850, where according to the 1851 census he was lodging at 65 Westmorland Terrace, Newcastle. On 29th May 1851 at Christchurch, Tynemouth, he was married to Mary Ann Flemming, a daughter of John Flemming a solicitor in Newcastle.

Map of Ouseburn in 1860

Map of Ouseburn 1860

Morrison improved upon the recent invention of a steam hammer used in forging and in 1854 applied and attained a patent for the steam hammer and started to manufacture the new design. He afforded his men with a night out at company expense to celebrate:

Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury, dated Saturday 28th October 1854

A number of workmen of Messrs. R. Morrison and Co., of the Ouseburn Engine Works, supped together on the evening of Saturday last, in the Marlborough Inn, Marlborough Street, to celebrate the successful starting of a new Patent Improved Steam Hammer for forging iron, the invention of R. Morrison Esq., the acting partner of the firm. This beautiful piece of machinery does great credit to the ingenuity and skill of the patentee and shows the great perfection to which machinery has been brought in this enlightened age.

His design was well received by industry and the business had a healthy order book. Everything was going well but in 1858 there was a terrible accident at the factory:

Manchester Times, dated Saturday 31st July 1858

Great sensation was created in the neighbourhood of Ouseburn yesterday morning by a boiler explosion, which occurred a little before six o’clock, at Messrs. R Morrison and Co’s Engine Works. Seven or eight persons were injured, some of them being very seriously scalded. Had the explosion taken place about half an hour after, it is fearful to think of the sacrifice of life which must have followed. It is thought that one or two of the sufferers will not survive.

The force of the explosion was tremendous. The boiler went right through the roof of the shed high up into the air, and clearing some sheer legs, which stood about 35 feet high, it passed over the yard, a distance of many yards, alighting on another shed, smashing through the roof, and penetrating right into a new boiler which lay on the floor….

At a quarter to ten o’clock two more men were taken along to the infirmary. One of them named James Colvin, 45, died in the course of the afternoon, leaving a wife and five children.

The business carried on and was continuing to build, with Morrison making ever larger versions of his steam hammer, which were being sold all over Britain and abroad.

In June 1862, the Newcastle Chronicle paid a visit and wrote a piece about Morrison’s business:

Newcastle Chronicle, dated Saturday 21st June 1862

An opportunity has been afforded to us of inspecting the extensive and well known works of Messrs. R. Morrison and Co., engineers and founders, Ouseburn, Newcastle. These works are situated on the banks of the Ouseburn, a short distance from where it falls into the Tyne. They cover an extensive area and have the advantage of water carriage from the Tyne to the spacious wharf attached to the manufactory. The contracts entered into by the firm are from all parts of the world; and the first class quality and finish of the machinery constructed at the Ouseburn Works have obtained a preference for it wherever it has been introduced. Everything about the works impresses the visitor with the idea of the magnitude of the operations carried on. From all sides the ear is assailed by a deafening combination of sounds produced by titanic steam hammers, boiler building, punching, hammering and various other noises which show the active, throbbing, energetic life going on around.

In September 1862, Morrison exhibited his steam hammer at the International Exhibition, or Great London Exposition, demonstrating the flexibility of his machine; capable of cracking a nut without damaging the kernel.

The Penny Illustrated Saturday 27th September 1862

Image from The Penny Illustrated (London) Saturday 27th September 1862

The business carried on with orders for boilers and steam hammers flowing in, but unfortunately, on Saturday 12th September 1863, another accident occurred at the factory:

Newcastle Guardian, dated Saturday 19th September 1863

The immunity from serious accidents which has so long attended the extensive operations of Messrs. Morrison, Ouseburn, Newcastle, was unfortunately changed on Saturday last. A little before twelve o’clock at noon on that day, six men and the foreman of the foundry, were busy engaged in “stripping” a casting. In other words, they were removing the plates, bricks and loam of which the mould had been formed, from the casting…

For the purpose of lifting the heavy casting a traversing crane is erected in the foundry. …

A considerable amount of tension had been applied to the chain, but only a portion of what it was calculated to bear, when one of the girders snapped with a loud crash, and the ponderous pieces fell to the ground, carrying the winch and the men with them… Two men out of the seven miraculously escaped death, or dreadful injury at least by being pitched clear of the massy pieces of wreck…The others, we regret to say, were not so fortunate. Felix Campbell, a labourer, was struck on the head by half of the girder and borne to the ground, the girder resting upon him. When extricated it was soon apparent that his earthly moments were few. He expired about three quarters of an hour before preparations could be completed for his removal to his lodgings. Michael Cooley, a labourer, aged 18, was also felled and held to the ground by the other portion of the girder. His jaw was fractured, and he received a serious wound on the head, and a broken rib. Another labourer, named Edward Gallagher, aged 28, was also struck by falling fragments, and so dreadfully bruised that it is supposed that his spine is fractured. John Droyer, aged 30, labourer, was shockingly cut about the face and head. Doctors Manford, Byrne, and Brown were speedily upon the spot, and rendered the necessary assistance, but the three sufferers were subsequently removed to the Newcastle Infirmary, But since then the symptoms have assumed a more cheerful aspect, and hopes are entertained that they may ultimately surmount their fearful injuries.

On 31st August, 1866, due to an economic downturn in the country, Messrs. R. Morrison ceased trading, issuing the following (abridged) statement:

Newcastle Journal, dated Friday 31st August 1866

Ouseburn Engine Works, Newcastle upon Tyne, 31st August, 1866 – We deeply regret having to announce to you that we are under the necessity of effecting an arrangement with our creditors; and, under the advice of a few of the largest of them (to whom a statement of our affairs has this day been admitted), a trust deed has, in the interest of all concerned, and for the protection of the estate, has been prepared as prescribed in the Bankruptcy Act. We subjoin a copy of the statement and take the liberty to annex a form of consent to the deed, which we hope you will be good enough to sign and forward as addressed – we are your obedient servants, ROBT. MORRISON AND CO…

Robert Morrison had moved into his newly built house, Brotton Grange, in the village of Brotton, near Saltburn by the Sea, sometime in the 1860s. Unfortunately, Robert died unexpectedly in 1869, as reported in the Newcastle Chronicle, aged around 50. According to the 1871 census, his wife, Mary Ann and her children remained at Brotton Grange.

In 1871 the factory was restarted as an industrial co-partnership, headed up by John Hunter Rutherford (1826 – 1890). He was a well-known man in Newcastle, and had established Bath Lane School on the 29th June 1870, and would establish the School of Science and Art in 1877. Memorial Fountain was built in his honour in 1894 and stands to this day in the middle of the Bigg Market, Newcastle.

Rutherford sought help in this venture from the Co-operative Stores of Northumberland and Durham:

Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, dated Friday 7th July 1871

The Ouseburn Co-operative Engine Works

Gentlemen, - Your devotion to the great cause of Co-operation is my apology for troubling you with this communication.

The chronic war of industry now being waged in our midst appeals to every man who cares for his country and for the future of the working people to do his best to put an end to it.

In industrial partnerships we have a pledge of perpetual union and peace between capital and labour, and great are the benefits which have flowed from this application of co-operation to distribution, still more important successes await it in its application to production.

To contribute our part of the solution of the difficulties between capital and labour, we propose establishing a Co-operative Engineering concern at the Ouseburn Engine Works, the general outlines of which you will be able to gather from the accompanying prospectus and articles of association; and we should be extremely thankful for any suggestions which your experience may enable you to make. 

Rutherford had many successes in his life, but unfortunately, the Ouseburn Engine Works Co-operative was not to be one of them. It was inaugurated in 1871 and it closed for the last time in 1875. The reasons for this were many and varied, according to the many newspaper reports over the four years it traded, but this brutal article in the Shields Daily Gazette possibly better explains the problems it faced:

Shields Daily Gazette, dated Friday 17th September 1875                                                  

The failure of the Ouseburn Engine Works is the more conspicuous from the fact, that for some few years past the advocates of industrial co-operation, have constantly spoken of it as the great proof of the success of their principle. Many of the distributive co-operative societies, which seem to succeed because unionism never troubles them, have invested their gains in these works, and very serious loss will thus fall on many deserving working men all over the kingdom. The Ouseburn experiment has, however, never fairly succeeded. It started with immense advantage in 1871, just after the Newcastle strike of that year. It began by purchasing a splendid property at a price which at the enhanced values of all such works at the end of the first year, at once gave them a profit of some £10,000. They had some four hundred of the best working men in Newcastle, and orders to the amount of £100,000 were booked in the first year. These contracts, however, were at prices which the rapid rise in values in 1873 made unprofitable, and there was a heavy loss in that year. The company seems never to have recovered this loss; and probably the inconsiderate demand of the workmen for a ten per cent. rise in wages a year ago was the last straw which broke the company’s back. We had occasion to point out in last October, when commenting on Mr. Rutherford’s statement the Newcastle Co-operative Congress in reference to the Ouseburn Works, how workmen are content in all industrial organisations to profit by a rising market, but that they refuse to accept the diminished wages rendered needful by falling prices. Their notion of industrial co-operation is “Heads I win; Tails you lose.” But in this case, we actually have a losing business in which the workmen shareholders insist on an increase of their wages. Such blindness destroys all hope at present, of the success of any large scheme of industrial co-operation… Whether the appeal to the shareholders for more money – “if you would save your business and property” is, or is not, responded to the Ouseburn Engine Works Company is none the less a complete failure as a co-operative institution, and once more illustrates what we said in commenting on the sad breakdown of the great experiment by Messrs. Henry Briggs, Son, and Co., six months ago, that the working classes are really blind to their own interests, and prefer a small present gain, even though it entails great future loss, to any patient labour to lay by for the coming years.

Following bankruptcy in 1875 the works were rescued by several co-operative societies and it continued to trade under the name Tyne Engine Works Company before closing finally in 1881 – “another tombstone for co-operative shops in engineering”.

If you enjoyed reading this piece about the Ouseburn Engine Works, take a look at Mike Greatbatch's article which explores Susannah Crowther, a 19th-century female 'Engine Builder' who occupied the site that Robert Morrison acquired in 1853 - available as part of The Common Room's online exhibition