A giant of industry, with a sense of duty to society

Michael Longridge from Grace's Guide.
Michael Longridge from Grace's Guide.

WE first met Michael Longridge in August 1833 when he entertained Dr Chalmers, the Scottish theologian, at his house in Bedlington.

He took the great preacher on a conducted tour of the ironworks, then to the parish church of St Cuthbert, and then on to Morpeth for breakfast with the Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Matthew Brown.

Michael Longridge appears in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in connection with the Stephensons and Daniel Gooch. He has an entry in John Marshall’s Biographical Dictionary of Railway Engineers, and on www.gracesguide.co, but there is otherwise no biography of him.

He was born in Bishop Wearmouth in 1785, but we know nothing of his upbringing, education or early career.

Marshall says that his father was another Michael Longridge who bought Bedlington Ironworks in 1785, but this is clearly a mix-up with his uncle Thomas Longridge, who, with William Hawks, bought the works in 1788.

Thomas Longridge died in 1803, and in 1809 Hawks sold the business to Biddulph and Gordon of London.

Michael Longridge probably became manager there soon after, but Evan Martin, in his book Bedlington Iron and Engine Works, points out that he was married at Wearmouth in 1813, his first three children were born there, and only the next one at Bedlington, in 1819.

My guess, however, is that Mrs Longridge simply preferred going back to her mother’s for her confinement.

He became a partner in Biddulph and Gordon’s in about 1816, and after that his career is well documented.

In 1823 he was a founder partner in Robert Stephenson & Co, whose locomotive works was at Forth Street in Newcastle.

He opened his own locomotive works at Bedlington in 1837, having put it off for several years because of his connexion with Stephenson’s.

He bought out Biddulph & Gordon in about 1838, renaming the business R.B. Longridge & Co.

His intention, like George Stephenson’s, was that his son, Robert Bewick, should head up the business.

Robert worked at Bedlington until at least 1853, but then took a post in Manchester as a specialist in boiler safety. Michael sold up and retired in 1853.

He died at Hollymount House, Bedlington, in 1858.

Michael Longridge was first and foremost a gentleman.

He came of good family, was educated and accustomed to command.

He also had a strong sense of obligation to employees and to society at large. This is most obvious in his care for his workmen.

In 1821 he provided a school, paid for partly by the men.

There was also a sick club, but its appeal was limited and it only had 110 members in 1824.

In 1829 he built an institute with reading room and library, and in 1841 established evening classes where, for 6d a week, apprentices could learn technical drawing. Longridge provided heat, light, drawing boards, squares and paper.

There was even a non-contributory pension scheme for ‘any agent, clerk or man in the works service’.

If you worked 10 years and became incapable of work through old age, workplace accident or ‘any disease not occasioned by intemperance’, you got £5 per annum for life, or £10 after 20 years.

In 1819, Longridge agreed with Thomas Mason, of the Willow Bridge Colliery near Bedlington, to build a waggonway from there to the ironworks, which would also give Mason access to tidal water.

Longridge paid for the waggonway, getting cheap coal in return.

It was here that the revolutionary malleable iron rail, made at Bedlington to the design of John Birkinshaw, first proved itself.

Also in 1819, George Stephenson took a £700 share in the Willow Bridge Colliery. In 1821, as surveyor to the Stockton and Darlington Railway, he recommended the directors to adopt Birkinshaw’s rail, and this despite the fact that he was a partner in the Walker Ironworks, otherwise Losh, Wilson & Bell, makers of cast iron rails.

William Losh, the senior partner, was furious.

Convinced that Stephenson had a private interest arising from Willow Bridge Colliery, and that Longridge was giving him a commission on sales, he wrote a damning letter to Edward Pease, the promoter of the Stockton and Darlington.

Longridge wrote in turn to Pease to deny the allegations, and the words he used are very illuminating: ‘I am sorry to learn from my honest friend Stephenson that another person has been attempting to injure him in your estimation.’

Stephenson and Longridge were about the same age; and George Stephenson, though once poor and illiterate, was now rich and influential.

I do wonder if, in similar circumstances, Longridge would have described any of his other business acquaintances as ‘my honest friend’.

It was this episode that led to Longridge becoming a partner in Robert Stephenson & Co.

George founded the firm for Robert while Robert was away at Edinburgh University. The shareholders were Pease, Longridge, the Stephensons and Thomas Richardson.

Robert sailed for South America soon after returning from Edinburgh and Longridge was left to manage the business.

As he explained to Richardson, ‘considering it beneficial to the Bedlington Ironworks and that George and Robert would benefit from my habits of business in which they were both deficient, I offered to take part with them. Most assuredly I never intended to have the slightest charge of the manufactory further than attending the monthly meeting of the partners.’

He concludes, ‘if you or Mr Pease can appoint a more suitable person, it will much oblige.’ It was 1842 before he finally succeeded in resigning.

While he must have had a good knowledge of engineering, Longridge’s strength was in management. He understood markets and costs, especially energy costs, kept the works at the forefront of technology and looked after his workers.

The peak of his achievements was the engine works. One estimate puts the number of locomotives built there at 209, but Evan Martin, having listed all the known Bedlington locomotives, makes it only 160.

None of these went to North America, so I am pleased to have found one that did.

Herb MacDonald, on www.trainweb.org, describing the mining railways of Cape Breton, Canada, says that the first three engines there were Timothy Hackworth’s, but the fourth ‘arrived in 1848 from Michael Longridge’s Bedlington Iron Works.’

Longridge’s early locomotives were based on Stephenson’s Patentee of 1833, though whether from Stephenson’s drawings or merely incorporating some of his patents is not clear.

Bayard, the first in Italy, was of this type, as were De Arend and De Snelheid in Holland. These Dutch engines were of 2,000mm (6’6”) gauge.

Many were to other people’s designs. The website www.steamindex.com mentions ones by Daniel Gooch of the Great Western, his older brother J.V. Gooch, of the Eastern Counties – both Michael Longridge’s cousins – and James Pearson of the Bristol & Exeter.

They also built 10 Cramptons, with very large driving wheels, though again one cannot tell if these were designed by T.R. Crampton or only used his patents.

All in all, it is high time we had an authoritative biography of Michael Longridge and a fuller account of who was who at Bedlington Engine Works.