Hampton and Radcliffe: By 1840 the Ickles Rolling Mill was rolling steel on the premises of the old Oil Mill. Just down the river the corn mill was operating and throughout the 1840s and 50s the three businesses seem to have co-existed; drawing water from the River Don via cuttings that had been made hundreds of years before to keep the mill wheels turning for the monks of Roche Abbey.
In 1865 John Guest’s ‘Relics and records of men and manufactures at or in the neighbourhood of Rotherham’ describes the area near the rolling mill site:
“The sand-beds, as they were called, presented a very different appearance fifty years since to what they do now, they were then verdant islands, the highest part standing from ten to fifteen feet above the ordinary water-courses on each side, one bringing the current from the old Forge, the other from the Rolling Mill. Elder trees grew to some size, and a fine crop of tansy covered a considerable part of the large space.
They were often the playground of the older children of that day, they were easily accessible by stepping-stones when the Mills were not working, and were all the more attractive, in as much as there was some risk of having to remain longer than might be pleasant, if the Rolling Mill got to work without being observed; a vigilant eye, therefore, had to be kept upon it, as when it did start there was only just time to make a scrambling rush over the stepping-stones before the strong current was down upon them a foot deep, and so strong as to require great care and a vigorous effort to get over with water up to the knees.”
In 1871 Hampton and Radcliffe started building a steel works just north of the river that was to become the Phoenix Bessemer Steel company. Both men were already experienced steel makers and knew that the railway provided a key transport route for later development. Initially though they built a bridge to cross back over the river to join the Sheffield – Rotherham Turnpike Road.
Bessemer steel was ideal for rails and train wheels and other local companies, like Brown Bayley and Dixon could produce about 1,000 tons of ingots per week. Demand was high and Hampton and Radcliffe seemed set for success. Making 600 tons of steel per week employed about 450 men.
By 1873 the company was doing well and made a profit of £18,600 that year. In 1874 to enable the company to roll its own products they bought up the old Ickles Rolling Mill across the river as well as building a cogging and a rail mill extension to their own works. They needed more money and decided to raise an extra £50,000 through mortgages and shares.
At just the wrong moment a large customer (Gilead A. Smith and Company) went bust, leaving Hampton and Radcliffe with a huge stock pile of rails, no one to buy them, and owing lots of money. The ‘Panic of 1873’ was a worldwide financial crisis brought about by speculation and risky investment (sounds familiar), and it had finally caught up with them.
Despite much effort to stay afloat the company went into liquidation in October 1875. Henry Steel, buying the leftovers for a bargain £36,500, set up Steel, Tozer and Hampton Limited in Nov 1875. Henry Peech was also an investor, and throughout the period 1875 to 1883 driven by Henry Steel’s sound business dealings the company built, invested and developed the works. By the time Thomas Hampton, who had been the steelmaking expert, retired in Dec 1882 the company had built up an excellent reputation for quality, efficiency and was extremely well run.