Colvilles Magazine December 1929

Iron Man, Steel Giants: David Colville & Sons

2 min read

Colvilles was one of the most famous firms in Scottish heavy industry. The name can be found imprinted on steelwork all around the world, from buildings to ships and bridges.

David Colville Snr (around 1811 - 1898), founder of the Colvilles empire.

David Colville Snr (around 1811 – 1898), founder of the Colvilles empire.

The firm was founded by the Campbelltown-born David Colville Senior.

Colville first came to North Lanarkshire through his business partnership Colville & Gray. They owned the Clifton Works, a malleable ironworks beside the Monkland Canal in Coatbridge. The picture postcard below shows the Clifton Iron Works, which are on the left of the picture.

Ironworking was a departure for Colville who had been trading as a tea and coffee merchant from premises in Glasgow’s Trongate since moving to the city in the late 1840s.

After his partnership with Thomas Gray ended Colville looked towards Motherwell as a location for his own malleable ironworks. This was a huge industry and at the time Britain was the world’s largest producer of malleable iron. However, in the 1860s two new processes were developed for mass-producing steel. Although initially more expensive than iron, steel was stronger and more consistent in quality (an important factor for shipbuilders in particular).

David Colville brought with him to Motherwell his two eldest sons, John (who had learned ironmaking at his father’s Clifton Iron Works) and Archibald.

Dalzell Steel Works Offices

Dalzell Steel Works offices, Motherwell.


Colville gradually brought his new Dalzell Iron Works into production through March and April 1872. From modest beginnings with 20 puddling furnaces and two rolling mills, the Dalzell works grew into a huge factory. This was partly as a result of Colville securing the contract to supply iron bars for the new Tay Bridge, following the disastrous collapse of its predecessor in 1879. The contract was important in itself but the effect it had on the reputation of the new firm was longer-lasting.

Dalzell Steel

Nevertheless, it was the decision to begin manufacturing steel that secured the company’s place in the history of Scottish heavy industry. From the start, David Colville was aware that steel was the way forward and he made plans to produce it at Dalzell. Colville sent his youngest son, David Jnr to the newly-established Steel Company of Scotland’s Hallside Works at Newton to learn steelmaking using the Siemens-Martin (or ‘Open-Hearth’) process and in 1878 David Jnr returned to join his father and siblings at Dalzell and put what he had learned into practice.

When the Dalzell Works made steel for the first time in 1881 it was the first Scottish malleable ironworks to make the move to steel production. Dalzell steel was soon used in another iconic piece of civil engineering, the Forth Bridge. This was the first large-scale structure to be built of steel.

The majority of the steel for the Forth Bridge was supplied by the Steel Company of Scotland with extra from Wales. However, when additional steel was needed after a design change, about half of it came from Dalzell, making up about 1/7th of the total structure of the bridge.

During the First World War Dalzell was turned over to production for the war effort. This included armour plating and steel for explosive shells. As most male steelworkers went off to fight in the war, women were recruited to work in the steelworks, albeit temporarily.

During the First World War the company, who had already embarked on a programme of expansion, were asked by the Government to come to the aid of several idle and underused works. The purchase of these works would assist the struggling country with its demand for more metal. They included the Glengarnock Steel Works in Ayrshire and Clydebridge Steel Works near Cambuslang, huge enterprises in themselves.

By the time the country found itself fighting another world war in 1939, Colville’s would represent more than 85% of the entire Scottish iron and steel trade.

Changing of the Guard

Sir John Craig

Sir John Craig (1874-1957)

A crucial player in the company’s huge success was John Craig (1874-1957), who had been made a director in 1910. Six years after Craig’s appointment, David Colville Jnr and Archibald Colville died within a few months of each other (their brother John had passed away in 1901).

As a result John Craig was invited to become Chairman of the company he had joined as an office boy 18 years before. He would drive forward the modernisation of the company.

David Colville & Sons Becomes Colvilles

1930 saw the merger of Colville & Sons with James Dunlop & Co Ltd to form a new company, Colville’s Ltd. The immediate change was to close the blast furnaces at Glengarnock and to instead acquire and modernise the Clyde Iron Works at Carmyle near Glasgow. The works was completely rebuilt with larger and more modern furnaces.

A review of the business from the late 1930s onwards would lead to the decision to build a new integrated steel works. There, molten pig iron would be made and fed directly into steel furnaces before being rolled, all on the same site. This would be Ravenscraig.

Alex McGowan started his career in the steel industry as an office boy and recalled carrying the mail to the Works Manager's office.

Nationalisation & Back Again

Ravenscraig’s Strip Mill was the last major capital development carried out by Colville’s and by John Craig who died in 1957. 1962 saw the biggest hot strip still mill in Europe open at Ravenscraig, the final piece of the new facility.

Five years later the steel industry was nationalised for a second time leading to the formation of the British Steel Corporation. So began a new chapter in the history of the Scottish steel industry.

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