Carl Bolckow and The Downfall of Bolckow-Vaughan

In an earlier blog post I described how Carl Bolckow presided over a period of decline for the Henry Bolckow’s former estate at Marton and highlighted the commonly reproduced idea that he was not quite as good a businessman as his uncle Henry. This is perhaps unfair on the man, and it needs to be looked at within the context of the period.

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Carl Ferdinand Henry Bolckow

Carl Ferdinand Henry Bolckow was born in Mecklenburg in 1835 and, much like his uncle, was privately educated before being sent off to Rostock for an introduction to the world of commerce – in Carl’s case, a commercial academy. He arrived in England in 1854 aged nineteen, and in May of that year was put in charge of the foreign business conducted by the already well established Bolckow and Vaughan Company.

Due in part to its rapid and unwieldy growth as well as the ageing of the two men at its helm, in 1864 the decision was taken that the huge company be converted into a limited liability concern; previously the company had always been ran and owned directly by Henry Bolckow and John Vaughan. This appears to have formally come into effect at the beginning of 1865, and Carl was immediately made a key director. With Henry Bolckow as a chairman in semi-retirement from this point until his death in 1878 – and mostly living in London after becoming MP for Middlesbrough in 1868 – it was Carl even in this period that often had to oversee the day to day financial affairs of the company.

As was stated by H. G. Reid writing in 1881, “it may truly be said the he both earned and had thrust upon him the high position and vast possessions which he now enjoys.”  After Henry’s death, Carl was the largest shareholder and was ‘unanimously’ chosen as the new chairman. In the initial years of his tenure he actually presided over a continued expansion of the company. Reid goes on to describe him as “no merely ornamental president, but a deeply interested and capable administrator in the direction of an undertaking which needs – as it receives – the combined wisdom and experience of many ‘heads’.”

Carl indeed seemed destined to live his life at the height of local society and maintain the same level of paternalistic involvement in the town as his uncle.  He was nominated onto the County Bench, was involved with the management of the North Riding Infirmary and in 1880 was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of the North Riding of Yorkshire.  With Alfred Christian Downey he acquired his own furnaces at Coatham in Redcar, outside of Bolckow-Vaughan ownership. He even bought an additional personal estate at Hambleton near Thirsk.

Bolckow-Vaughan – An Economic Downturn

The 1870 and 1880s were challenging decades for industry on Teesside, with many companies going into liquidation. The 1880s in particular were characterised by long periods of large-scale unemployment and the large Bolckow-Vaughan concern was not immune to this. Perhaps, though, Carl showed that he had great business skills simply by managing to ensure the survival of Bolckow-Vaughan in a period which saw the ruin of many other established firms.

John Vaughan’s son Thomas Vaughan had also inherited vast amounts of money on his father’s death in 1868 and had established with it his own iron company, Thomas Vaughan and Co, which had furnaces at Clay Lane in the town and had expanded its production rapidly. After an initial period of success, by 1876 he was financially ruined and the company’s assets were absorbed by Bolckow-Vaughan.  In 1880 Hopkins, Gilkes and Co. formally ceased trading.  Like many other companies they had struggled in the 1870s and had begun the liquidation process in May 1979. The firm was also implicated in the failure of the Tay Bridge in the disaster of 28 December 1879, which had been built using Cleveland iron from their works.

Despite the strong start made by Henry Bolckow’s heir, the period became increasingly difficult. The rapid expansion of the local iron industry which had occurred during the mid-century could not be sustained – there were around one hundred blast furnaces across Teesside by 1875 and eventually there was just too many over-bloated companies competing over the same shrinking markets.

On top of this there was a shift in the fashion of building materials towards steel which many local companies did not react quickly enough to, falling behind the likes of Sheffield. Bolckow-Vaughan had been one of the first to react when they erected a large steel production plant at Eston in 1876, but the Bessemer process which it utilised was not suited to the local ores which were highly phosphoric. As such, local companies who ventured into steel were forced to import hematite from elsewhere – commonly from abroad – in an effort to try and compete. This accrued greater expense in an increasingly hostile economic climate. For this reason, the company (at least in 1881) was still producing twice as much pig iron as it was steel.

The company under Carl Bolckow continued in the vein of trying to be ahead of the local opposition, as well as trying to reduce as much as possible its reliance on foreign ores for steel production. In 1879 the Gilchrist-Thomas process for making steel in an open hearth process was pioneered by Bolckow-Vaughan and allowed for the production of steel using highly phosphoric ore. It was a process which looked as though it would benefit the underdeveloped local steel industry greatly. However it was soon copied elsewhere and had the result of benefitting foreign competition in particular.

Industry was recovering rapidly in Europe after a long period of instability and warfare, such as the Austro-Prussian war and the Franco-Prussian war which had disrupted continental firms and for a while benefited the British iron industry.  Prussia, Austria, Belgium and France soon adopted open hearth technology are were able to improve their industrial outputs markedly. On top of this, from the 1880s Britain now had to contend with the emergent industrial powerhouses of both a newly unified Germany and the emergent United States. Bolckow-Vaughan’s continued expansion was stunted as a result.

Carl Bolckow – A Victim of Circumstance

This difficult period saw a gradual but not rapid downsizing of Carl’s personal assets. Land began to be sold off around the edges of the Marton estate for developments and from 1888 onwards there were sales at Christies and at Sotheby’s of the vast collection of artworks and curiosities which Henry Bolckow had amassed at Marton Hall. Presumably this also involved the sale of shares in the company, although Carl would last as chairman until the mid-1890s.

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‘Scene in Braemar’ – Highland Deer by Landseer. One of the many paintings from the Marton Hall collection which were sold during this period.

Bolckow-Vaughan itself continued for three more decades. It recovered strongly in the early 1900s and was bolstered again by demand for steel during World War One, however by the 1920s demand had fallen off again. The company became a victim of its own size and fell into large amounts of debt.  Dorman-Long, interestingly, was a company which was formed during the difficult period at the end of the previous century in 1875. Like Bolckow-Vaughan, they adopted the Gilchrist-Thomas process during the 1880s and were able to prosper, absorbing many other firms. They would eventually acquire the stricken leviathan of Bolckow-Vaughan in 1929, three years before famously completing construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Carl Bolckow died in 1915 in Torquay where he had retired to, eventually leaving Marton Hall and its estate buildings and grounds vacant.  It certainly seems unfair blame to Carl Bolckow for the decline of the estate when you set it next to the context of the economic climate of the 1870s and 1880s on Teesside. This was not the boom of the 1850s and 1860s where his uncle Henry had been able to amass his personal fortune. Carl inherited a large estate in a period which did not allow him the same opportunities to make the money that was needed to maintain it.

Nevertheless, Carl adopted new processes which brought the company as well as Middlesbrough belatedly into the steel age and to an extent secured Bolckow-Vaughan’s survival through the period. The fact that he remained at the helm for so long at such enormous personal expense should perhaps be seen as a testimony to Carl Bolckow, who has too often been seen in a negative light against the decline of the Marton Hall estate.

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Related posts: A Brief History of BolckowHenry Bolckow – The Short Reign of an Industrial King

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