Jenni Dixon and Ian Stenson from Tame Past Present Future visited Bromford Iron and Steel Company, near the Tame on Bromford Lane, in the summer of 2014 and spoke to Bill Venables and Andy Smith. They told us that in the 1950s and 1960s there had been a rolling mill on every street in that part of West Bromwich, but now the only rolling mill left is Bromford; Bill explained “we keep in business because we do one or two tonne….with up to 15 size changes every day- bigger mills size change every three days”. In the 1950s, though, Bromford was not at its best; it had been bought in 1958 by Charles Cooper who noted that it “looked more like a scrap yard than a steel company”, and part of the site was so used, as can be seen in images of the time (see images above). Cooper reformed the old, failing steel works, and named it the Bromford Iron & Steel Company Ltd, and it began a new era of prosperity.

The Mill That Bill Built

Bill Venables is part of the mill, just as all the people who work in it are, but in the 1970s Bill helped put all the foundations down (with the contractors) for all the machinery that stands and is used today. You get the sense, when you talk to him, that he feels the mill is his place. He took us on a tour.

In older pictures of Bromford you can see the canal arm that cut off which would bring coal into the mills and goods out. The arm has now been bricked off and concreted over, still with a narrowboat suspended inside the concrete that they never felt the need to move (I imagine it hanging there beneath me like a mummy in a tomb, dreaming of its glory days when it was king of industry). Only a tiny part of the old cut is open as the mills still pump in the canal water to cool and lubricate the machinery; a tiny remnant of the canal age in a few square filtering pools on one side of the yard. The water circulates through the whole mill every hour in water pits up to 17 feet deep, and it is the first thing you notice as you begin to walk into the mill; it rushes under your feet beneath open metal decking, a man-made river of water, as wide as the Tame is here itself, and that still helps to run the mill.

It is here, on the left of the yard, where the steel billets (metal bars) are stored ready to go into the furnace; all are colour coded, a rainbow selection of colours to show where the metal has come from and what grade it is- any problems and they can trace the source.

The furnace itself is a massive beast with a belly that heats up to 1400°C. The shell is steel with a fire brick floor and brick sides, and beams made from a ceramic fibre that reflects the heat. As the tiny door is slowly lifted like a tired eye you know about it; the heat surges out and the bright orange glow mesmerises. Bill says that we should be able to see the individual billets, but I struggle to make out shapes in the orange haze; there could be up to 40 tonnes of metal inside at any one time. At the back of the furnace is a bar that pushes the billets out one by one, the rollers take it “and woosh!”, a 1220°C billet is on its way around the rollers, moving like liquid fire on the downtrain across the factory floor, up through the roller one way, and then curving round in a bend and back through the roller in the other direction, though this time squeezed smaller, and then smaller again. Flat, edge, flat, edge; it increases in speed till you can’t even tell it is moving, up to 8 metres a second, “if it can’t get through the mill fast enough, it will break the mill” Bill tells us, “like the rest of the mill, there’s an art in it”. It goes nearly a third of a mile winding through the mill.

As he takes us round he tells us there’s “a hell of a lot of power in this machine”; there needs to be to squeeze the soft metal through. Fifty years ago this was all done by hand, the loading of the billets into the furnace, onto the rollers, and the curling the hot strips around the mill. This was done by a tongsman like Terry Cowdell, who worked in the mill in the 1950s (see images above), and still working part time. He would catch the hot strip as it sped out of the rolling stand and throw it around the hook to enter it in the next stand along the cross chain. This was a very dangerous job, with no way of building up slowly; the first time you stood there waiting, you had to catch the strip. Terry later progressed to roller, head roller and was mill manager till two years ago.

As we walk round we were taken from level to level, up and down metal stairs painted yellow or green, with the rails worn smooth and down to the steel through the paint. Everywhere else has a slight layer of mill scale, a fine dust that fills the air and settles on anything that stays still for long enough. Above this you can’t hear voices without shouting into each other’s ear, just the faint possibility of words, but the men make hand gestures to each other; Andy tells us later that every mill will have different gestures, enclosed languages learnt and handed down, and lost when mills close.

I am surprised how few it takes to run the mill; only eight in on this Wednesday afternoon, but everyone is highly skilled and can do all the other jobs in the mill. And there is always a “sparks” in the building, one on nights and one on days; someone who knows how to fix the electrics.

There is a separate ‘mini hot mill’ which heats a continuous line of wire all day with an electric resistance heater, with an electrical current heating the metal till it begins to glow. The wire uncurls at the mouth being constantly fed inside, and as it starts to turn red hot the air around turns warm and musty, with a smell like burning dust. As it comes out the other end squeezed into shape it is cut to length with a loud ‘cuchump’ and clatters piece by piece onto a bed of chains and bars to cool; now grey, it is still 400°C, but with gloves the pieces are gauged to check the size. It moves slowly across the bed and clatters into the tray at the near end, still warm enough to be felt even at a distance. And this is only the small cooling mill for the wire, the main cooling mill is 24 metres long, the same process, but on a bigger scale.

As we were walking around the mill there was a ‘cobble’, where the rolling process goes wrong and the billet streams out of the rollers in coils and curls, still glowing orange. You know it’s there, you can feel the heat just looking on. The men come straight in to chop up the billet, now all scrap, with cutters attached to rubber pipes, and sparks fly up where cold metal meets hot. They try to work out what caused the cobble and fix the problem, it could be a small thing, but this time it’s not, it’s an issue is with one of the rollers; 2000 kilograms of metal split in two. Years ago, when Bill brought a woman into the mill, the men would swear at him for bringing in a ‘black cat’, a bad luck charm that would only cause problems. Later, as we are leaving, an illegible chant comes over the tannoy, even the security guard is baffled by the noise- we joke that the mill is being de-cursed as the ‘black cat’ finally leaves.

Ian Stenson took the photographs inside the rolling mill in the summer of 2014, see more of his photography here.