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William Menelaus - Celebrating a mentor

Materials World magazine
1 Mar 2018

Leslie M Shore* explores the legacy of William Menelaus, a renowned engineer-industrialist who played a role in the creation of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, 200 years since his birth.

During the steel revolution, William Menelaus was a highly influential and well-respected figure. Born on 10 March 1818, the Scotsman managed one of the leading manufacturing companies in the world, the Dowlais Iron Company, during the 19th century. 

According to a window dedicated to his memory at St Cynog’s Church, Penderyn, Menelaus was born in Edinburgh. In his later life, he made donations to the relief of the poor at Direleton, a village twenty miles east of Edinburgh. Efforts made after his death to source birth and family details ended inconclusively. However, it seems certain that his mother’s maiden name was Darling. 

Seemingly at odds with having a classical Greek surname, he was educated locally, and then apprenticed, probably as a millwright, to a firm of engineers at Haddington. His hand-skills enabled him to build steam engines and maybe also gear trains. In 1839, the Haddington firm employed him to equip a brick-making plant in Middlesbrough. 

Menelaus then moved to South Wales to rebuild a cornmill at Hensol Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan. The castle belonged to Richard Fothergill, who owned Abernant Ironworks near Aberdare, just three miles from Merthyr Tydfil. In 1843, the ironmaster employed Menelaus at Abernant, where a promotion to chief engineer followed. Fothergill reportedly boasted to Sir John Guest, the owner of the Dowlais Iron Company, about Menelaus’s worth as an engineer, and so Guest lured the Scot away from Abernant in 1851 to become blast furnace manager at Dowlais, before appointing him general manager in 1856. 

The ironworks prospered partly due to being a part of the metropolis of ironmasters emerging in Merthyr Tydfil. A factor that determined this area’s importance was its location on the northern rim of the South Wales Coalfield, where accessible resources of clayband-ironstone coal and limestone were abundant. After the 1830s, Dowlais became a leading producer of iron rail for the worldwide railway market. 

A studious man

Guest’s decision would prove to be a wise one, as press reports from the time indicate. It was not unusual to read eulogistic terms, and one report referred to Menelaus as ‘studious’, while other traits of his reportedly include an indomitable perseverance, untiring regularity and strictness. He also learnt to speak Welsh, which was essential for managing at Dowlais.

In 1856, four years after the death of Sir John Guest, executive control of the company was assigned to two trustees. In November of the following year, Menelaus produced the Dowlais Works Report, which was a production strategy needing considerable investment capital to succeed. The money was raised in 1859 and the centrepiece of the strategy became the Goat Mill, which was the largest production unit of iron rail in Britain. In order to take full advantage of the mill, blast furnace output and company coal mining were boosted.  

In 1856, an article in The Times about Sir Henry Bessemer’s invention to make ‘iron without fuel’ in bulk was brought to Menelaus’ attention. As a result, he carried out an experiment with one of his pupils, Edward Williams, and the works chemist, Edward Riley. The outcome was, however, a complete failure. 

Nevertheless, a judgement was made that, in some ways, a new bulk iron making process was a possibility. The Dowlais company entered into the first licence agreement ever arranged with Bessemer to use the process. Subsequently, the parties involved realised that a process for the mass production of steel had been invented. However, it was also apparent that it produced poor quality steel when it was charged with pig iron containing phosphorous.

Although Dowlais was committed to rolling iron rail into the 1860s, Menelaus adapted the works to roll steel made in bulk. In 1865, the first production cast of converted Bessemer steel was made at the works. He, at the company’s invitation, set up the perfected convertor. Menelaus credited the engineer with skill and perseverance, piloting bulk steel making at Sheffield. In 1869, the Goat Mill’s blooming and roughing facilities applied then recently patented rolling technology.

When the Iron & Steel Institute visited the works in 1870, six Bessemer convertors were in blow. By the 1871, the works has become the first adopter of the Siemens-Martin process, proved at Landore Steelworks, Swansea, in 1869.

Mentoring the next generation

Menelaus sought to pass on some of his skills and experience he had built up over the years to the next generation of engineers, mentoring a selected cadre of young men. The Dowlais pupils, as they were known, learnt on the job. Moreover, they were privy to their mentor’s thinking on technical issues, commercial matters and the management of officials and workers. 

The following pupils had profound impacts as general managers: Edward Williams at Middlesbrough’s Bolckow, Vaughan, William Jenkins at Consett Iron Company, and Edward Pritchard Martin at Blaenavon Iron & Steel. 

In 1867, George James Snelus – who, five years, later would become general manager of the West Cumberland Steel Works – succeeded Riley as works chemist, and with Menelaus’ support the Iron & Steel Institute sent him abroad to study mechanical puddling processes. At Dowlais, he came up with a theoretical solution to enable the Bessemer Convertor to use phosphoric pig iron. 

The bond between mentor and pupils proved influential within the industry and for furthering the steel revolution. At Blaenavon, Sidney Gilchrist Thomas developed the basic lining that cured Bessemer’s phosphorous problem. The former pupil shared the news with his master, who he would later succeed, and so trials took place at Dowlais. However, it was after a Dowlais-born engineer, Edward Windsor Richards, took Menelaus’ counsel that the lining was proved in 1879 on an industrial scale at Bolckow, Vaughan.

Although Menelaus was a member of both the Institutions of Civil Engineers and Mechanical Engineers, the role he played founding other professional engineering institutes was notable. In 1857, in Merthyr Tydfil, he was party to the creation of the South Wales Institute of Engineers. In his speech as the institute’s first president, he viewed education, the work of chemists and tolerance for the waywardness of developing inventions as essential for improving his industry. Around two years later, he presented a paper, Rolling Heavy Iron, to the Institute. His recorded comments about other papers reveal a knowledgeable, lucid, analytical and open-minded man. The mission of a learned society was very much in accord with his own inclinations.

Menelaus’ legacy

There were also economic, as well as societal, changes during Menelaus’ time. After the profitable 1860s at Dowlais, all of South Wales’ ironworks suffered a trade recession in the early 1870s. By 1876, Menelaus remarked that railway companies were using steel rails and foresaw no revival for the use of iron rails. However, he was building his personal wealth. In 1871, he was an investor-partner in Forest Iron and Steel Company, near Pontypridd, and two years later joined a set of leading British industrialists as a shareholder-director to form the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company. 

He was then awarded the Bessemer Gold Medal in 1881, under the auspices of the Iron and Steel Institute. The ceremony was chaired by one of his former pupils and the Institute’s president, Edward Williams. Menelaus’s institute obituarist noted that recognition was due ‘to his services to iron manufacture’. However, today, a re-appraisal is offered. The nub of the message refers to Dowlais as being where ‘the old business of iron-making and the greater business of steel-making, under the control of and actual direction of Mr Menelaus, had been, and still were, conducted with a success and efficiency not exceeded elsewhere’.

The obituarist did not register that Menelaus’ feat was managing a material’s revolution at Dowlais while accommodating changes in the rail market. Moreover, the feat was achieved despite a cost handicap – the import of low phosphoric ores sourced from afar, including Furness in Lancashire, West Cumberland, and Spain. 

The award was, however, judiciously timed, as on 31 March 1882, aged 64, Menelaus died at Carlton House, Tenby, Pembrokeshire, after a protracted illness. He was interred alongside his wife, Margaret nèe Jennet, who died in 1852, in the graveyard of Penderyn church, Breconshire. Most of his fortune was left to relations on the Darling side of his family.

He had acquired a collection of paintings, including those by Paris-born Corot (1796-1875). In January 1882, he ‘had signified his intention to present pictures of the value of £10,000 to the town of Cardiff’, which was said to have ‘taken the breath away of every person in Merthyr and Dowlais’, according to the Merthyr Express. The paintings later became the foundation collection of the National Museum of Wales, which recognised this by showing a sculptured bust of the Scotsman.

Today, IOM3 can also celebrate the role that Menelaus played in its creation. On 9th October, 1868, he represented South Wales and Monmouthshire at the founding meeting of the Iron and Steel Institute, held at the Queen’s Hotel, Birmingham. He was elected Vice-President and a year later he presented a paper to the Institute, On Improved Machinery for Rolling Rail. In 1875, he served as president and in his address covered mechanical puddling and ‘of the applications of steel’. In an obituary, the Journal of the Iron and Steel Institute, wrote, ‘Mr Menelaus was a frequent speaker at the Institute and the high practical value of his criticism is amply attested by the Journal in which they are recorded.’

His name is also recalled by the Learned Society of Wales, which awards the Menelaus Medal for distinguished academic research in engineering and technology. However, perhaps the fitting legacy for a man who served the Dowlais Iron Company so constructively for three decades is that its descendant is one of Britain’s leading manufacturing companies, GKN, formerly known as Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds.

*Leslie Shore is the author of books about UK shipbuilding and coal mining. He is also a member of the Newcomen Society for the study of the history of engineering and technology.