Steetley Magnesite At Hartlepool | Industrial Armageddon

The Steetley Company took its name from the Hamlet of Steetley near Worksop, Nottinghamshire where there had long been a small wayside dolomite quarry producing building stone. The Company bought a 24 acre coastal site at Hartlepool in 1937 and invested £10,000 in a pilot plant for producing a satisfactory grade of refractory magnesia by reacting seawater with Dolime and firing the precipitated magnesia in a rotary tube. Originally built to produce magnesium, the site closed after two failed attempts to keep it running in 2005.

We discovered this interesting information through Things Magazine some time ago. Hartlepool is a town and port in the ceremonial county of County Durham in England. The site can be accessed from two different locations. It seems that many parts of this site have now been demolished but any further demolition has been halted because the site is a habitat for nesting birds. The plan was to build 500 homes on the site but it currently stands still with no further development planned in the immediate future, as we can read at this article.

Caption from Google Earth

Caption from Google Earth

A major extension of the Hartlepool works, increasing its capacity by some 40% was completed in 1962. This included the world’s largest settling tank, a 200 feet pier to carry a seawater pipeline and a 10 acre expansion of the site. For many years it was the largest plant in the world.

According to Magnesia Works:

The world recession of the early 1980’s struck harshly on steel, construction, engineering and chemicals. While the company’s history is one of expansion and adaptation to change, it has had to contend with decline in the manufacturing industry, competition and predatory attack. During 1992 the company came under the ownership or Redland Plc. A magnesia operation was never a part of Redland’s core business and the plant was sold mid 1997 to be renamed Britmag. Britmag traded to the end of 2001 and then due to insolvency went into administation early January 2002. The operation was reborn as CJC Chemicals in April 2002 without the refractory production units. CJC Chemicals ceased production in June 2005.

The site, half demolished, half remains looks like a contemporary-dystopian-infrastructural-landscape, described for one of it’s photographers as “something from the end of the world, true industrial Armageddon.”

Hartlepool was selected as the site for the factory because of its location close to the high purity dolomite deposits at Coxhoe and the fact that the seawater was of consistent quality and free from dilution by fresh river water. It was also near the Durham coalfield which provided the fuel for the kilns.

The site has become as a must-see for urban explorers. Going further back in history, we found that extracting magnesia from the sea originated in California, U.S.A where by 1935, a limited output of pharmaceutical quality magnesia was being provided using oyster shells and seawater.

Steetley’s research and development work to extract magnesia from sea water, by reacting it with dolomite instead of oyster shells, commenced in 1936 using a bath tub for a settling tank and a two meter long steel tube as a kiln. In 1937 a full scale plant was built having a nominal capacity of 10,000 tonnes a year. It was becoming apparent that natural magnesite imports, mainly from Austria, were likely to be curtailed with the growing unrest in Europe.

What can be interesting now, after all reading all this information and seen the images, is to think what can be done in places like this. Mario Ballesteros recently pointed at Domus:

In contexts of crisis, architectural preservation—of buildings, but also of structures, archives, discarded or abandoned plans, as well as other minutiae and ephemeral documentation—becomes an indispensable tool for critical, political, and historical disclosure. Historical value, in this sense, transcends formal architectural merit. Preservation needs to move away from nostalgia and surface; it needs to be cold, clinical, and combative.

Maybe the way to take advantage of this kind of places is to simply imitate nature. In nature, the word “waste” doesn’t exists, because every single element is part of a cycle. What if we see architecture just as part of this cycle, and instead of simply looking at all the arch-ruins that surround us and preservate them in their current state, we introduce, as Koolhaas proposed, a new condition of phasing, where sooner or later any part of architecture would be eliminated to be replaced by other stuff.

UPDATE [June 4, 2011]

Our twitter-friend David Barrie just shared with us some pics of the current state of Hartlepool: Steetley Magnesite Plant:

Thanks David!

More info and wonderful images here, and here. Don’t miss photographs by Kuba Ryniewicz in flickr.


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