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Cockerill-Sambre: History

Cockerill-Sambre

A Brief History

The Cockerill Sambre Group of the late 20th century, to which Haut-Fourneau B in Liege belonged,  resulted from the 1981 merger of the two major iron and steel groups of Belgium’s Walloon region, namely the SA Cockerill-Ougrée and Hainaut-Sambre. From its beginnings, the SA Cockerill-Ougrée   had been based at Seraing on the River Meuse a few miles upstream from Liège, while the company Hainaut-Sambre was based in Charleroi, some 100  kilometers 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 to the 18th century, but the majority of the companies that existed  here were originally founded roughly between 1800 and 1838. 

The SA Cockerill-Ougrée, emerged from the merger  the “Societe Anonyme de John Cockerill” with three other large Belgian coal and iron producers, namely the “Société Anonyme d’Ougrée-Marihaye”, the “Societe Metallurgique d’Esperance-Longdoz” and the “Forges de La Providence”.  Hainaut-Sambre, on the other hand, resulted from the merger of “Societe Metallurgique de Sambre et Moselle”, the “Usine Metallurgiques du Hainaut”  and Thy-Marcinelle et Monceau (TMM). Below we will outline the history of these companies and their mergers, starting with the “Societe Anonyme de John Cockerill”.

The Haut-Fourneau B (HFB)
The Blast Furnace (HFB) at Ougree

Societe Anonyme de John Cockerill

The Cockerill Group in Liège was founded by an Englishman, John Cockerill, who was born in Lancashire in 1792. His father was an English engineer who, in 1794, had traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia after being recommended for his skill to Catherine II. However, after her death he ended up in prison as Catherine’s successor, Paul I of Russia was dissatisfied with his services. He managed to escape to Sweden, where he worked on the construction of canal and river locks. Dissatisfied with his life in Sweden and having heard of the wool industry in Liège, he moved to Verviers (25 km from Liège) where he established  a successful textile machinery manufacturing firm in 1799. His business of automating the wool weaving process was a roaring success as hithero weaving was pretty much a manual process on all of the European continent. 

After having brought his family over from Great-Britain, William Cockerill moves to Liege in 1807, where with the help of his three sons he sets up a family workshop, at first on a small scale but, because of their success, they were soon forced to enlarge the plant. In 1810 William is made a French citizen by Napoleon Bonaparte and two years later, he retires from the business leaving it in charge of his two sons  Charles-James and John. (Note that before the indepence of Belgium in 1830, Liege belonged  to France from 1794-1815 and to the Netherlands from 1815-1830) At that stage their establishment was employing 500 iron workers and 1500 carpenters.

John Cockerill proves to be the driving force behind the business and when the advent of steam power brought about a complete revolution in the manufacturing process he is quick to see the importance of the change. Consequently, he chose what is now Seraing,  as the best place for a new factory because of its easy access to coal, iron and transportation links. In 1814 John Cockerill acquires 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. A few years later, this factory was to become one of the first vertically integrated iron foundries and machine manufacturing factories in the world. The John Cockerill engines, were of such good quality that they were able to  compete with the English machines which were, at this stage, holding a monopoly of the market.

 
View of the Power Station from the Blast Furnace (Haut Fourneau B)

In 1823 John Cockerill became the sole owner of the business, having bought out his brother Charles James and in 1825 the company became known as John Cockerill & Cie. Under John Cockerill’s guidance the complex in Seraing, with a coke-fired blast furnace and manufacturing facilities for steam engines, railway locomotives, steam-powered blowers for blast furnaces, and traction engines. Cockerill constructed the first locomotive in Belgium and with the introduction of locomotives at Seraing a further enlarging of the factory took place. A second blast furnace was installed as well as a boiler factory. 

Unfortunately, in 1839, a banking crisis hit Belgium, and John Cockerill’s company faced bankruptcy. In 1840, he traveled to Russia in an attempt to raise funds for the company, but he died of typhus on the trip home, leaving no direct heir.  Faced with the prospect of closing an enterprise of national importance, the state bought the assets, and on 20 March 1842, the company became known as the “Société anonyme pour l’exploitation des établissements de John Cockerill” or “Societe Anonyme de John Cockerill” for short. At this stage the enterprise consisted of several coal mines, blast furnaces, rolling mills, foundries, and machine shops for the construction of steam engines, boilers, ships etc. Under state control the company expanded further.  In 1844 two further blast furnaces are erected and the company expanded its mining assets by developing further coal-mines in Colard (Belgium) and iron mines in Spain. By the 1850, Cockerill’s factory is one of the most important in the world, producing everything from ironclad gunboats and locomotives to bridges and tunneling machines. The company also remained at the cutting edge of technology being one of the first to install a Bessemer converter in 1863, followed by a Siemens-Martin converter in 1872, while the  Gilchrist-Thomas process came into use in 1886. 

Haut-Fourneau B (HFB) - The sinter plant.
The Sinter Plant at Ougree

"Société Anonyme d'Ougrée-Marihaye"

The first traces of coal mining in Seraing date back to the 14th century. At that time, coal was extracted on the surface but, gradually, small mining shafts were dug on the banks of the Meuse. These sites nevertheless remained fairly rudimentary until the beginning of the 19th century, when around twenty small producers came together to form the “Houillère Marihaye”. In 1827, this company gained a concession from the Netherlands, which included several mining shafts, the most important of which were the shaft N°1 and the shaft Pierre Denis (which will become well N°2 of the Vieille Marihaye headquarters ). Several more concessions were gtanted granted and in 1870, the coal mine becomes the “Société anonyme des Charbonnages de Marihaye”. In 1876, the company absorbed the Yvoz colliery located in Flémalle-Grande as well as the “Société des Charbonnages, Hauts Fourneaux et Laminoirs de l’Espérance” which is located in Seraing. 

To the east of Seraing, another concession was granted to the brothers Charles-James and John Cockerill. Wells were quickly sunk but, following an obvious lack of profitability, the various shareholders appealed to the banks with the aim of launching a steel activity on the concession, the coal extracted being intended for the production of steel. This is how the “Société anonyme des Charbonnages et Hauts-Fourneaux d’Ougrée” was founded in September 1835. In addition to its mines, the company founded a coking plant as well as four blast furnaces.

In 1892, the company changed its name to become the “Société Anonyme d’Ougrée” before absorbing the “Fabrique de Fer d’Ougrée”, a company which owned five-eighths of the shares of the Six Bonniers coal mine in Seraing. In 1900, Ougrée merged with the “Société anonyme des Charbonnages de Marihaye” to form the “Société anonyme d’Ougrée-Marihaye”. After their establishment, the “Société Anonyme d’Ougrée-Marihaye” added 4 more blast furnaces between 1900 and 1915 and as a result it became one of the main steel producers in Belgium in the early 20th century, producing about half a million tonnes of steel per year. The Six Bonniers colliery was never fully integrated into Ougrée-Marihaye, but its production was nevertheless combined with that of the group. It closed its doors in 1948. It was also at this time that the company decided to invest in the creation of the Bray coal mine, whose concession had just been sold by the “Société Anonyme des Charbonnages de Maurage et Boussoit”. In 1929, Ougrée-Marihaye continued its investments in Hainaut by buying the “Société Anonyme des Charbonnages de Fontaine l’Evêque”. Its installations were modernized and its production exported to the iron and steel installations linked to Ougrée-Marihaye. However, transport costs led the company to sell Fontaine l’Evêque to “S.A. des Aciéries et Minières de la Sambre” in 1936. The Bray coal mine was taken over by the Maurage and Boussoit coal mines before closing its doors in 1949. On October 24, 1953, a firedamp explosion caused the death of 26 miners and injured 14 others at the Many head office. The popular excitement was gigantic and a few days later, nearly 75,000 people attended the funeral. The headquarters of Many never recovered from this catastrophe and its construction sites remained at a standstill. In 1954, the coal mines linked to the Société anonyme d’Ougrée-Marihaye closed their doors but its steel activities were absorbed by the Société anonyme John Cockerill.

The outside of the Ougree Coke Works
The Coke Works cosntructed by the "Societe Anonyme John Cockerill" in Ougree in 1957.

Les Forges de la Providence

A further consolidation occurred in 1966 when “La Société Cockerill-Ougrée” merged with “Les Forges de la Providence” resulting in the “Société Cockerill-Ougrée-Providence”. 

The history of “Les Forges de la Providence” starts with the marriage of Marie-Philippine Licot and Ferdinand Puissant in 1812, If Marie-Philippine Licot’s father was a renowned forge master, the Puissant family owned one of the largest industrial complexes around Charleroi. However, like much of the European steel industry at that time, he faced stiff competition from English steel companies as their coal and coke powered blast furnaces were much more profitable than the wood-powered ones used in Belgium. As a consequence, Ferdinand Puissant wanted to modernise his failing family business. Puissant decided to go to England to observe and study the processes used there. However, shortly before his departure, he heard of the presence of Thomas Bonehill, an English engineer, in Charleroi asked him for help in modernising his factories.

Bonehill quickly identified the problems with Puissant’s industrial complex, which does not have good transport links. Bonehill advices Puissant to move his operations to Charleroi, which was ideal for the development of steel companies  due to the vicinity of a nascent railway network and the Charleroi-Brussels canal. Ferdinand Puissant seriously considered transferring his factories to Charleroi, but before being able to do so, he died suddenly in 1833. His widow then took over and, in association with Bonehill, acquired, in 1834, a several acres of land in Marchienne au Pont (Charleroi), straddling both the Sambre and the Charleroi-Brussels canal. Unfortunately, Marie-Philippine Licot died a few years later, but with the help of Bonehill, their two sons Edmund and Jules set up the “Société Anonyme des Laminoir, Forge, Foundrie et Factories de la Providence”. At this stage their factory comprises a large rolling mill equipped, eleven puddler furnaces, four reheating furnaces, a slab furnace, an ordinary sheet furnace and a pickling furnace for the manufacture of tinplate. Thomas Bonehill died on August 3, 1858 and was buried in the cemetery of Marchienne au Pont. He left behind him an immense steel heritage and will be recognized as one of the fathers of European steelmaking. In the following years, the company of Providence develops and becomes an increasingly influential industrial complex. 

In 1895, the management of “les Forges de la Providence” became interested in the large mineral reserves of the Russian Empire and succeed succeeds in obtaining the concessions for their exploitation in some Crimean and Donetsk mines. In 1897, an independent company, called “La providence Russe” is established, with its head offices in Marchienne-au-Pont and a factory is in Sartana. This factory consisted of four coke oven batteries , four blast furnaces, steelworks, rolling mills, a foundry,  a phosphate mill and various workshops. About 3,300 workers worked here and on their 12 hour-shifts produced about  162,000 tonnes of cast iron per year. The management is either French or Belgian – and one of their many employees is a certain steel worker called Nikita Khrouchtchev. In 1920, the company has to wind down their operations due to the First World war and the Russian Revolution.

During the First World War, the complex was almost entirely dismantled by the Germans and it was not rebuilt until 1922. The Second World War largely spared the forges and in 1966, the “Société Générale de Belgique”, then the majority shareholder, decided to merging the “Forges de la Providence” with “Cockerill-Ougrée”. The Marchienne au Pont section merged in 1979 with the Marcinelle and Fontaine l’Evêque wire drawing works to become Thy-Marcinelle and Providence. 

The Power Station at the Haut Fourneau B in Ougree

Société métallurgique d'Espérance-Longdoz

At the beginning of the 16th century, the coal industry around Liege was flourishing and several mining companies were established, among others the Fosse de Lyes in Seraing. The Fosse de Lyes  became Fosse delle Croix al Bache known as Espérance in 1623 and eventually resulted in the establishment of  the “Societe Charbonniere de l’Esperance” in 1811. At this stage, the Espérance coal mine was one of the most important coal mines around Liege and, with the union of Belgium with Holland in 1815, its importance increased even further. Indeed, as the Netherlands became one of the first maritime super-powers, exporting coal from Liege to other countries such that Great-Britain and France became a much more profitable business. In 1829, a young Belgian law graduate, called Frédéric-Louis Behr bought the majority of shares in the Esperance coal mine and in 1836 he  founded the “Société anonyme des Charbonnages et Hauts Fourneaux de l’Espérance” 

In 1838, the first Espérance blast furnace was lit. The context of the time favored this new expansion. Before the 19th century, metallurgists mainly occupied the valleys of Upper Belgium, due to the proximity of forests, which provided them with charcoal. Following excessive deforestation, there was a shortage of charcoal and the metallurgical factories moved closer to the Liège coal mines which mass-produced the new fuel for the blast furnaces: charcoal transformed into coke. It is thus understandable why Behr is giving this new direction to its company. At that time, the Espérance company definitely became the country’s leading coke manufacturer. But she knows she is fragile and, to diversify her production, equips herself with an iron factory. To produce sheet metal, a product in high demand at the time, in 1877 it bought the Société Dothée et Cie, which had iron rolling and tinplate manufacturing workshops in the Liège district of Longdoz. In 1920 Evence Coppée & Cie. acquired the company, which becomes the largest Belgian producer of sheet metal, reaching a peak production of 142,000 tonnes in 1948. The plant in Longdoz, however was hemmed in by the city, and could not expand. Hot rolling of steel ceased in 1957 and the Longdoz plant was used only for finishing of the plate, and distribution. 

In 1963 “Esperance-Longdoz” construct a  new a plant on the reclaimed floodplain island site at Chertal, with a capacity of 1.6 million tonnes of steel produced by the Linz-Donawitz process. Without any primary iron production nearby the plant was supplied steel works from Seraing by topedo  wagons.

Finally, in 1970 the  “Societe Cockerill-Ougrée-Providence” merged with the Liège-based “Societe Metallurgique de ‘Esperance Longdoz” forming the “Societe Cockerill-Ougree-Poridence et Esperance Longdoz”. 

Inside the Power Station of HF6, which was built by the company Esperance-Longdoz

Next, let us look at the history of Hainaut-Sambre, a Belgian group of steel companies based in the Charleroi region. It was founded in 1955 by the merger of the “Usine Metallurgiques du Hainaut (based in Couillet, Charleroi) and the  metal making division of “Sambre et Moselle” (based in Montignies-sur-Sambre, Charleroi). In 1980 the company absorbed the Charleroi based steel-group Thy-Marcinelle et Monceau (TMM). At this stage Hainaut-Sambre was by far the largest steel-producer in and around Charleroi

Societe Metallurgique de Sambre et Moselle

Unfortunately, I was unable to find much information about this  steel company, except that it was created in 1897 and is the descendent of two smaller (even less well known) coal and steel companies. By 1921 it was operating 6 blast-furnaces, coking ovens, a steel mill and a rolling mill , spread over three sites: Maizières-les-Metz, Montigny-Sur-Sambre and Chatelineau.

Usine Metallurgiques du Hainaut

In 1828,  the trading house Fontaine Spitaels, together with the “Usines des Hauchies”, which was founded by the Belgian industrialist Paul Huart-Chapel, bought some land, in Couillet (Charleroi) for the construction of a steel work.  The resulting company took the name of the “Société Fontaine-Spitaels et Cie” and quickly completed its factory including blast furnaces and coke ovens. Faced with the growing need for coal, the company absorbed the “Société des Charbonnages de Marcinelle Nord” before changing its name in 1835 to become the “Société Anonyme des Hauts Fourneaux, Usines et Charbonnages de Marcinelle et Couillet”. The company grows very rapidly and several rolling mills are erected between 1836 and 1840. A vast railway network is built in order to export the goods and to import the iron ores. At the end of the 19th century, a Bessemer converter and a rolling mill complete the infrastructure. The Couillet steel plant was constructed under the direction of yet an English engineer, Haarodt Smidt and was, at that time, the largest iron factory in Belgium,  comprising seven large blast furnaces, a vast construction workshop and a rolling mill. The coal came from the coal mines of Marcinelle while the iron ore came in by the railway. 

In 1866 they acquired the “Société des Charbonnages du Gouffre”. However, in 1906, the company divested itself of its coal mines, which were absorbed by the “S.A. des Charbonnages de Monceau-Fontaine”. Following this separation, the “Société Anonyme des Hauts Fourneaux, Usines et Charbonnages de Marcinelle et Couillet” becomes the “Société Métallurgique du Hainaut.”

In 1955, the merger of the “Societe Metallurgique de Sambe et Moselle” and the “Usine Métallurgique du Hainaut” leads to the formation of the steel conglomerate “Hainaut-Sambre”.

Thy Marcinelle et Monceau

The history of Thy-Marcinelle et Monceau, can be traced back to 1763, when a coal fired blast furnace was set up at Thy-le-Château, about 20 km away from the current site. The coal to feed the furnace came from the woodlands in the surrounding area and mechanical energy was harnessed from the river Thyria. In this way, the “Forges et Fonderies de Thy Ie Château” were created. After 1845, the forges were acquired by the company Eugène Riche & Cie, the operator of the railway connecting Charleroi to Vireux, and during this period two coke fired blast furnaces, five reheating furnaces and a rolling mill were built.  The presence of coal fields in the region and navigable waterways for transporting raw materials facilitated the construction of a coking plant in Marcinelle, where two coke fired blast furnaces started to operate between 1863 and 1872. In 1888,  the merger of the “Forges et Fonderies de Thy-le-Château” and the “Usines du Midi de Marcinelle, and Hauts Fourneaux” resulted in a company called “Forges et Aciéries de Thy-le-Château et Marcinelle”. By the end of the century, all the plants were concentrated in Marcinelle. In 1962, the company was renamed Thy-Marcinelle and, in 1966, it merged with the “Aciéries et Minières de la Sambre” (formed in 1936 when split from Ougree-Marihaye) and changed its name to “Thy Marcinelle et Monceau” (TMM).

Remember that in 1966  “La Société Cockerill-Ougrée” acquired “Les Forges de la Providence” resulting in the “Société Cockerill-Ougrée-Providence”. This was contrary to the trade unions’ preference for regional consolidation and in order to restore the balance “Thy Marcinelle et Monceau” bought “Les Forges de la Providence” from “Societe Cockerill-Ougree-Providence et Esperance Longdoz” in 1979, thus becoming “Thy Marcinelle et Providence”. This company merged with “Hainaut-Sambre” in 1980 and a year later became part of “Cockerill-Sambre” after the merger of the Societe Cockerill-Ougree-Providence et Esperance Longdoz” and “Hainaut-Sambre”.

The Power Station at HFB

In 1999 the group “Cockerill-Sambre” became part of the French steel group Usinor; in 2002 there was another merger, this time with Arbed and Aceralia of Luxembourg and Spain, to form the continental western European steel giant ArcelorAfter a spectacular takeover battle in 2006, Arcelor was taken over by the Indo-Dutch competitor Mittal Steel Company N.V. and has since been part of the world’s largest steel group, ArcelorMittal, based in Luxembourg