In the Victorian era cast iron became ubiquitous in our parks, our streets and our architecture more generally. It was impossible to avoid and made up a large part of park and street furniture, from bandstands to drinking fountains, railings to lamp-posts and sewer ventilation to public toilets, and everything in between, and not just in Britain but around the world.
You might be surprised, however, to discover that many of the leading design and manufacturing companies for cast iron goods were based in Scotland, largely because there were good sources of both coal and iron ore. The largest of them was Walter MacFarlane and Son.
Established in 1850 in Glasgow, then the British Empire’s second city, MacFarlane’s led the way in not only design and manufacturing quality but aesthetics as well. Walter himself was a consummate salesman and made his fortune “by the beauty of his designs and the excellence of the workmanship, coupled with admirable organization.”
Walter MacFarlane was born near Glasgow, in 1817. He worked as a jeweller and then a blacksmith before moving to work for Moses McCulloch & Co. at their Cumberland Foundry ending up as manager. In 1850 he went into partnership with his friend James Marshall a Glasgow businessman and his own brother-in-law, Thomas Russell, a future MP, to set up Walter MacFarlane & Co. Russell left memoirs in which he explained their success.
Traditionally manufacturers of all kinds sold their products through middlemen but MacFarlane decided to break with custom and sell direct. To do so the company began to issue illustrated catalogues, although unfortunately none of these are known to survive until the 4th edition of 1862.
The catalogues were arranged in two separate volumes each of which ran to hundreds of pages – one largely of basic sanitary, drainage and rainwater kit aimed at tradesman such as plumbers and builders, and the other covering more ornamental work aimed at architects and designers. MacFarlane’s made life even easier for these professionals by providing dimensionally accurate drawings that could be dropped straight into designs. From the very beginning they also stamped their trademark into every casting they made, and it was soon recognised worldwide.
This was a great time to be in the construction business. The recent Crimean War had revealed the inadequacy of Britain’s military barracks and fortifications and a lot of rebuilding was required. Russell explained how they started with the invention by McFarlane of “a new latrine” which the company “were fortunate in getting it introduced into all new barracks and the renovations of the old. That, and the urinals for public use, bought us a large trade for many years.”
The provision of public toilets was part of a new and stronger sense of purity, cleanliness and better behaviour in public spaces. It was matched from the 1850s with the provision of drinking fountains by many local councils, which had the added purpose of helping promote temperance. It led to the foundation of the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association in 1859 and the introduction shortly afterwards by MacFarlane of a range of new ornamental cast-iron drinking fountains for streets and public parks.
At the same time the 1850s and 1860s saw a wave of new buildings for workhouses, hospitals, lunatic asylums, church buildings – and in parks – and many of these were built either with cast iron frameworks or ornament, and occasionally even entirely from cast-iron.
The new company took over a disused brass foundry in Saracen Lane but quickly diversified from basic plumbing and sanitary components into ornamental cast ironwork. By 1861 they employed 120 people and had grown so much that in 1863 they had to relocate to bigger and grander premises designed in the Venetian Gothic style by the architect James Boucher, who gradually developed a close association with the firm. They transferred the Saracen name to the new works.
In 1861 Boucher and his business partner the architect John Napier Cousland designed a villa at Coulport on Loch Long for John Kibble, a wealthy if somewhat eccentric Glasgow entrepreneur who was also an engineer, astronomer and photographer.
In the garden Cousland added an iron framed conservatory, which was made in sections at the Saracen Foundry, shipped down the Clyde and assembled on site.
About 10 years later Kibble entered into a complicated arrangement with the Royal Botanic Institution of Glasgow by which he would give them the conservatory but be allowed to hold money-making events there for the next 20 years. It was dismantled and sent back by barge to Glasgow for reassembly in the Botanic Gardens. At the same time it was greatly enlarged and given a large circular dome 150 ft in diameter as well as an impressive front elevation, while its interior was lit by 600 gas lamps which could be coloured for effect. The Kibble Crystal Art Palace and Royal Conservatory opened in 1873, and was used a venue for meetings and concerts.
But by 1880 it was turned back into a conservatory, and filled with temperate plants including a large number of tree ferns, some of which still survive and form part of the National Collection.
In 2003 the Kibble palace was completely dismantled and then restored at a cost of £7 million, before being reopened in 2006.
Meanwhile the business continued to grow all through the 1860s and MacFarlane looked around for an even bigger site, on which to expand. Eventually he found it at the Possil estate on the northern edge of the city. A few years earlier Possil was described as “situated in a park of thirty acres studded with noble trees, some of which are elms of huge dimensions two centuries old, it had the advantage of fine gardens and perfect retirement, and was yet at a distance of only three miles from Glasgow.”
As you can see from the map its great advantage to MacFarlane was its location adjacent to the railway. He bought it, and because there was no notion of listed buildings or any register of historic parks simply demolished the Georgian house, felled the trees and built a 14 acre foundry on the site. He laid tracks to link it to the nearby main rail lines, before laying out new streets and housing for his workers.
The development was described by Glasgow Council as: ” one of the finest and best conducted in Glasgow, and the new suburb of Possil Park, laid out by them with skill and intelligence, is rapidly becoming an important addition to the great city.”
The factory and other buildings, complete with a glass and iron dome and elaborate decorative castings on its Gothic gateway were all designed by James Boucher, and they acted as a gigantic showcase for MacFarlane’s products. The Builder magazine said that McFarlane’s had “lavished the resources of their skill… in making their foundry evidence of what they can do.”
Production started in 1872 and over the next twenty years the population grew from a mere handful to 10,000. Visitors were impressed: we stopped at Walter MacFarlane’s Saracen Foundry newly built on the Possil Estate ... The establishment employs from 70 – 80 Clerks, and almost 1400 workmen, and the workshops extend over 8 acres, all under cover. It is a very interesting and picturesque site. [Sir William Stirling Maxwell 1875]. Ironically, the foundry’s pollution earned Macfarlane the nickname “the Laird of Fossiltoun.”
In 1862 the firm exhibited at the second Great Exhibition in London, and this is when their architectural ironwork really began to be noticed. A new catalogue was issued and attracted a lot of attention from architects. They opened an office in the capital and then a warehouse under Cannon Street Station. The whole country was now their oyster as they divided it up into districts with a sales team for each. The company also took ruthless legal action against any other company they thought was copying their designs. Of course they didn’t always succeed because it would’ve been impossible to protect all of the thousands of designs they produced in a rapidly expanding market.
They employed not only Boucher and Cousland but all the other leading Glasgow-based architects including Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson. Between them they designed all of Macfarlane’s architectural castings, which were then made to a set of standard designs many of which were multi-functional or could be combined to make bigger structures. Many of them can be seen in the imaginary street scene used in their catalogue.
The factory itself was “a striking demonstration … of the wonderful possibilities” of cast iron, and the catalogue had 6000 illustrations of its products. As David Mitchell, now Director of Cultural Assets for Historic Environment Scotland commented: “More than any other firm Macfarlane’s understood the benefits of a comprehensive catalogue’ for their overseas customers, which enabled a worldwide export trade in pre-specified and prefabricated building components. These catalogues represent the pinnacle of the craft and technology of architectural iron work.”
Walter had no children of his own so he “adopted” his nephew, another Walter, in 1872, before retiring at the end of 1879 along with the other 2 founding partners. They handed over to Walter MacFarlane Jnr and Robert Fulton, both of whom were “long connected with the business” and who oversaw its continuing growth. By 1901 the premises had increased to 24 acres in extent.
In 1888 the International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry was held in Glasgow to draw global attention to the city’s achievements. It was the greatest exhibition held outside London and the largest ever in Scotland during the 19th century, and it was followed 12 years later by the even bigger Glasgow International Exhibition.
MacFarlane excelled themselves in 1888 creating a miniature version of the Exhibition Hall itself and installing the 40 foot cast-iron Saracen Fountain in the grounds outside. This has now been moved to the city’s Alexandra Park. A copy was commissioned for the main park in Warrington and another for the zoo in Pretoria.
These exhibitions were a major success and reinforced Macfarlane’s reputation internationally. It led to important commissions overseas including a prefabricated cast iron Durbar Hall in Mysore.
The firm opened a warehouse in Cape Town, and also published at least one catalogue in Spanish for the South American market – and supplied the entrance gates to the General San Martin Park in Mendoza, Argentina. It’s no wonder that The British Architect in 1900 said “there is no more widely known or esteemed name in iron founding than that of Walter McFarlane and co-.”
Like many of other metal based manufacturing companies Macfarlane switched mainly to munitions production during the First World War whilst post-war they moved from largely ornamental work back to sanitary and other plainer castings, and then ‘enamelled baths and rainwater goods’ for the 1920s housebuilding campaigns to meet the massive post-war housing shortage.
Of course some ornamental cast and wrought iron work continued and in the inter-war years they produced many cast-iron panels for commercial buildings, most famously probably for Selfridges in London in 1928, but there was a gradual decline in demand for this sort of decorative ironwork,
By the time of the British Industries Fair in 1937 their list of exhibits although it included “Architectural and Ornamental Ironwork, such Building Front Panels, and Coats-of-Arms”, was mainly basic items such as lampposts, bollards, railings, gutters and pipework.
The Second World War was disastrous for the company. Possil Park was a well-lit target for enemy attack, and probably more significantly from a heritage standpoint, the call for scrap iron for armanents – which was of course almost pointless – led to the destruction of much of MacFarlane’s work. It wasn’t just railings and bollards that disapperaed but many of the larger scale decorative pieces too including the Saracen Fountain in Warrington. Its estimated that only about a quarter of all Victorian cast iron work still survives.
Post-1945 the combination of the collapse of the British Empire, the move away from steam power and the adoption of new materials meant a vast decline in orders. Most of their production switched over to standard foundry work, but even that began to dry up as rainwater and sewage pipes began to be made of plastic rather than cast iron. One of the few successes was their role in casting the classic K6 telephone box designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. There was little investment, the foundry buildings began to fall into disrepair, and most of the ornamental casting patterns were melted down or destroyed. It’s no surprise then that in 1965 after the son of Walter Macfarlane Junior, who had taken over as chairman of the company, died, the business fell apart. Without family involvement it was quickly taken over by Allied Founders, which was itself soon absorbed by Glynwed Ltd. The new owners closed the foundry, demolished the buildings and cleared the site. In the process most of their archives were burned, with what little is left being held by Glasgow University.
Although the firm itself vanished nearly 60 years ago the Macfarlane name lives on because in 1993 it was acquired by Heritage Engineering. They specialise in the conservation and restoration of architectural ironwork, and continue to manufacture many of the original designs of Saracen Foundry.
Another excellent read. Cast iron certainly adds a feeling of longevity to street furniture ( so does concrete, but that’s for another time.)
Thanks Mark… I’ll add concrete to an ever lengthening list of possibilities!