The Cockerill Sambre Group of the late 20th century resulted from the 1981 merger of the two major iron and steel groupings of the Walloon region of Belgium. From its beginnings, the Cockerill Group had been based at Seraing on the River Meuse a few miles upstream from Liège, while the company Hainaut-Sambre was based at the town of Charleroi, some 65 miles east of Liège on the banks of the River Sambre. The Sambre flows into the Meuse and provides a geographical link between these two regions, formerly rich in coal. In both areas, iron and steel production dates back before the 18th century, based on the coal mines of the areas, but the majority of the companies that have been absorbed gradually into the group were originally founded between 1800 and 1838.
The Cockerill Group in Liège was founded by an Englishman, John Cockerill, whose father, William, was an English engineer who had emigrated and established a successful textile machinery manufacturing firm at Verviers, 15 miles from Liège. In 1814 John Cockerill acquired from King William of Orange the old “Chateau de Seraing”, formerly the summer residence of the prince-bishops of Liège. To this day this remains the registered office of the mechanical engineering group John Cockerill, which produces machinery for steel plants, industrial heat recovery equipment and boilers, as well as shunting locomotives and military equipment. The ground behind castle became the site of a new factory, which opened in 1817, at first producing steam engines for spinning mills and winding and pumping engines for collieries. As coal was available on site, the company decided to produce the metal it required as well. The company was the first in Europe to erect a coke-fired blast furnace, which began production in 1826. By 1847 there were six blast furnaces in use.
When John Cockerill died in 1840, the financial crisis that followed resulted in the winding up of the company.But it was soon reconstituted as a limited company in 1842, and production began to revive in earnest the following year. By 1845 good progress was being made, and Cockerill engines obtained a Grand Medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. All kinds of heavy machinery were produced during this period: ships, including ironclad gunboats for Russia and cross-channel mailboats for the Dover-Ostend route; tunnelling machines; bridges; and various plants for steel works. A new steel works was opened in 1883, accompanied by much modernization of the existing works. In 1955 Cockerill Group merged with the Ougree-Marihay company. The origins of the company Ougrée-Marihaye, which was established in 1835, lie in an iron foundry established at the beginning of the 19th century in the commune of Ougrée, between Seraing and the town of Liège itself, and the coal mines of Marihaye which had existed since 1778.
The 18th-century companies of the Liège region are only half of the story, and it is necessary to follow the rivers Meuse and Sambre upstream to Charleroi and examine the group’s industrial antecedents. Most of the local companies there remained part of the Hainaut-Sambre side of the group until the formation of Cockerill Sambre in 1981, with the interesting exception of the Forges de la Providence. This company was founded in 1838 with the help of another Englishman, Thomas Bonehill, who had also been introducing industrial innovations to the Europeans. His successor, Alphonse Halbou, rose to fame by patenting the rolled I-section girder–often known today as the RSJ–in 1849, which accelerated the construction of high-rise buildings, undertaken first in Paris and eventually throughout Europe. Forges de la Providence remained separate until 1966, when it was merged with Cockerill-Ougrée in Liège, forming Cockerill-Ougrée-Providence. At this time, Forges de la Providence was a major steel producer based at Marchienne-au-Pont in Charleroi, but also owned two factories in France along with six other important French subsidiaries. By a twist of fate, rationalizations during the late 1970s led to the disposal of the Providence works to the Charleroi-based Thy-Marcinelle et Monceau (TMM) group. This could be said to have restored the geographic balance, but too late, as TMM itself–which first became Thy-Marcinelle et Providence–was to become part of Hainaut-Sambre in 1980, and so by 1981 found itself back with its old parent Cockerill, following the final merger which created Cockerill Sambre. As for the other Charleroi companies, TMM had been formed in 1966 from the merger of Thy-Marcinelle and Acieries et Miniéres de la Sambre. The origins of TMM include the forge of Thy-le-Chateau, which had existed as early as 1763, and Marcinelle, on the south bank at Charleroi. During the 17th and 18th centuries the whole region between the Sambre and the Meuse was known for its ironmasters, and it was one of these, Ferdinand Puissant, who had enlisted the services of Thomas Bonehill at Forges de la Providence. A Frenchman, Albert Goffart, had established his blast furnace in the nearby town of Monceau-sur-Sambre in 1836.
The other main grouping of firms in the surrounding area became the Hainaut-Sambre company in 1955, Hainaut being the name of the province in which Charleroi is situated. The two companies involved in the first merger were the Usines Métallurgiques de Hainaut, founded in 1829, and Sambre-et-Moselle, founded in 1835. The merger between Hainaut-Sambre and Thy-Marcinelle et Providence took place in 1979, not long after the transfer of Providence to TMM by Cockerill.