JUST before Christmas, we wondered why a 19th Century ironworkers’ Protestant church in Spennymoor should include a flamboyant 17th Century Roman Catholic altar from Spain.

A fortnight later, we still don’t have a cast iron answer, but we do have a malleable theory.

The altar is in St Andrew’s Church in Tudhoe Grange. The church was built in 1883 amid the chimneys and furnaces of the Weardale Coal & Iron Company’s works, a company headed by entrepreneur Charles Attwood, of Tow Law, and financed by Barings Bank of London.

Local links were cemented when one of the banking family’s members – the Rt Rev Charles Baring – became Bishop of Durham in 1861, which was the year in which the Spennymoor works first employed the Bessemer techniques to convert iron into strong steel. The first four ingots of Spennymoor steel were rolled into rails that were laid across the High Level Bridge in Newcastle, announcing the arrival of both Spennymoor and its steel.

With the works successful, St Andrew’s Church was enlarged in 1895 in memory of the bishop’s eldest son, Thomas Charles Baring. TC had been storing in the steelworks for some time an elaborate marble altar which he had acquired from Spain, and that altar took pride of place in the chapel.

David Walsh, in east Cleveland, wrote to explain that we should not be surprised by close links between North-East steel-making communities and Spain, because towards the end of the 19th Century, two million tons of Spanish iron ore was being imported into Middlesbrough every year.

The local ironstone mined in the Cleveland Hills had a high phosphorous content, which was acceptable for iron-making but not good enough for steel. Spanish ore had a low phosphorous content, and so was imported in huge quantities to feed the blast furnaces of Teesside and County Durham.

Indeed, the Middlesbrough-based ironmaking firm, Bolckow Vaughan, opened its own ore mine in 1871 at Lutchana, in the Basque country in northern Spain. The mine was connected to the docks at Bilbao by a six-mile purpose-built railway, and much of its output would have been destined for the Bessemer steel plant that Bolckow Vaughan opened at Eston in 1875.

Presumably steel-making Spennymoor would also have been importing Spanish ore – perhaps the works’ owner also imported a Spanish altar that took his fancy in the Basque region and he kept it for many years in the Spennymoor steelworks waiting for an opportunity to incorporate it into an appropriate steel-making church?