The annual Whessoe apprentices reunion takes place in Darlington two days after Christmas. Chris Lloyd tells the story of this most enduring industrial company

ITS past begins with a bag of nails. Its future lies in cryogenics in Korea. Its reputation was made on the railways in the north end of Darlington, and now its name is known right around the world, from Antarctica to Seoul.

It is a strange name, too: Whessoe, a Saxon name of a lost village just outside Darlington.

It started, though, as Kitching’s. William Kitching was a weaver who opened an ironmonger’s shop at the top of Tubwell Row in Darlington town centre in 1790. He probably had in mind supplying local farmers and millers.

In those days, he couldn’t pop to a big barn like B&Q to buy his supplies – he had to make them. So, in 1796, he started a small foundry behind his shop, making and repairing little items such as cast iron chimneys, cisterns and agricultural machinery.

William, a Quaker, died in 1819 and his eldest son, also William, took on the business.

It was obviously thriving, because in 1821 William Jr was able to invest £400 in a madcap scheme that his fellow Quakers – principally the Pease and Backhouse families – were pursuing to connect the south Durham coalfield with a railway to the navigable Tees at Stockton.

In fact, William Jr was elected to be a member of the Stockton and Darlington Railway’s (S&DR) General Committee – an influential role.

The business benefits began to flow almost immediately.

In February 1824, the Tubwell Row foundry won its first contract to supply the railway with 15 guineas worth of nails to attach the cast iron chairs (which held the rails) to the sleepers.

Early next year came a bigger contract – to supply the railway with five tons of iron, out of which it built some wagons.

The construction of the S&DR was not without difficulties and delays. The opening day was set for September 27, 1825. Only the day before did they get Locomotion No 1 running on the tracks pulling the world’s first passenger coach. This, from Shildon into Darlington, is the world’s first passenger railway journey, and William was among the eight first railway passengers.

The Northern Echo:
The Whessoe works, new when this picture was taken in 1991, dominated Brinkburn Road. It was demolished in 1992

Having made his mark on history, William handed the foundry over to his brother, Alfred, who was 14 years younger.

Alfred moved the foundry out of Tubwell Row to Hope Town, beside the S&DR near where North Road station would be built. He was now closer to the railway action, repairing broken turntables and even building engines – one of his first, designed by Timothy Hackworth in 1841, was called Hopetown.

His most famous was Derwent, of 1845. Also designed by Hackworth, it worked for 20 years on the line before being sold to Peases West Colliery at Crook. In 1891, it was presented back to Darlington and it took its place on a plinth beside Locomotion No 1 at Bank Top station. Now it is in the Head of Steam museum, in Darlington.

One of Alfred’s last engines was Elm Field, of 1857. It was named after the High Northgate mansion he had recently bought from the Backhouse family – its grounds now make up North Lodge Park and the mansion itself is now a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.

The Northern Echo:
Alfred Kitching, the locomotive builder who established his foundry in the Hopetown area of Darlington

In 1860, the S&DR decided it was going to take all of its maintenance work in-house, rather than use freelancers like Alfred. It bought his foundry from him, and he retired to Elmfield (he was mayor of Darlington in 1870).

What was left of his business went to his cousin, Charles I’Anson. He moved the foundry to the west. It was still beside the railway, but now it faced onto Whessoe Lane, so he called it the Whessoe Works. On this site would grow an enormous works that would employ 2,000 people until the 1980s.

However, first Charles had to re-establish the foundry without the railway work. He began casting pillars – Whessoe ironwork held up the piers of Bournemouth, Plymouth, Aldborough, Hornsea and Redcar. His columns – presumably for bridges – went to Spain and Portugal, and some even ended up in the Para region of Brazil.

CHARLES died in 1884 and, for the first time in a century, the business was sold outside the family.

It was bought by Thomas Coates, a middle-aged engineer who had worked in the North-East all his life and who had clearly seen a new market emerging.

His first contract in that new market was to build a 3m cubic foot gasholder for Gateshead. By the turn of the century, Whessoe was building gasholders for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, France, Japan, India… With holders went all the other paraphernalia for making gas: condensers, purifiers, scrubbers, exhausters, ammonia stills… But holders don’t just have to hold gas. With a little modification, they can hold oil.

The Northern Echo:
Thomas Coates took Whessoe over in 1891 and moved it into gas

In 1897, Mr Coates met Marcus Samuel, a Londoner whose father had done well importing colourful oriental shells to sell as trinkets. He was just setting up as an oil importer – he’d called his company the Shell Transport and Trading after his father’s line of business – and needed some tanks to store his oil.

From Plymouth to Borneo, Whessoe built oil tanks.

Incredibly, in 2001, Memories reported that on uninhabited Deception Island in the South Shetlands in the Falkland Islands – thousands of miles from anywhere – there is still the remains of a whale oil tank that Whessoe made around the time of the First World War.

Whessoe was the largest tank-building company in the world.

In the inter-war years, under the guidance of a number of skilled businessmen, including Claude Spielman, of War its skills at welding heavy steel plate meant that it was asked to build the nuclear reactor vessels for Britain’s first nuclear power station at Calder Hall (now part of Sellafield).

Nuclear was another string to Whessoe’s bow, but it still excelled at gas: in 1959, it built Britain’s first liquefied natural gas plant at Canvey Island, in the Thames Estuary. This launched the company into the 1960s, its heyday. It employed more than 2,000 in its huge headquarters on Brinkburn Lane – its 38-acre site included a bowling green – and there were another thousand or so employees in Stockton and Derby and around the world. It took on 300 apprentices a year – some of whom survive, and will meet after Christmas.

Yet in the 1970s, a malaise infected British industry.

Whessoe was no longer able to adapt to the changing world as it had done for 200 years. It lost its nuclear contracts; it lost its way in the offshore industry where it was beaten by foreign competition; it lost jobs.

The Northern Echo:
An enormous tank, made at Whessoe’s Stockton site, brings the High Street to a standstill on June 29, 1970

ENGINEERING EXCELLENCE: A Whessoe Works travelling steam crane. Right, Charles I’Anson, cousin of the Kitchings, who called the foundry Whessoe IN July 1989, it announced that it would cease manufacturing altogether, cut another 280 jobs, close Brinkburn Road and concentrate on project management.

In only 20 years, an industrial giant employing 3,000 people had shrunk to a high-tech office in Aycliffe with 400 workers.

Over the next 20 years, the workforce was reduced further, to fewer than 100.

But its reputation as a world-leader in refrigerated, pressurised and cryogenic gas storage still counted for something.

The largest oil and gas company in the Middle East owned it for a while at the start of the 21st Century when it moved to its current headquarters in Morton Palms, Darlington.

The Northern Echo:
Whessoe employed hundreds of engineering apprentices – not all male. Here, in Setpember 1979, are 17-year-olds Melanie Bevan, of Sedgefield, and Jeanette Hall, of Darlington, starting work

Earlier this year, Whessoe was acquired by Samsung of South Korea, the renowned manufacturer of mobile phones and electronic devices.

It feels like the company is again on the up and that the Koreans have spotted a gap in the market, just as Mr Kitching did nearly 225 years ago.

The Northern Echo:
Looking down Tubwell Row, Darlington, more than 100 years ago. William Kitching started his foundry in the building, occupied by William Watson, on the corner on the left