The ironworks, on the site of the present-day Nethermains industrial estate, employed well over a thousand workers at its peak. The Earl of Eglinton employed the firm of Baird & Sons of Gartsherrie in Lanarkshire to build eight furnaces which went into service on Christmas Eve 1846. Iron smelting was a continuous process, and the furnaces blasted away more or less permanently.
A contemporary report talks of "...a long range of flaring furnaces, belching fire and smoke even in the middle of the night where there used to be beautiful fields, and the ground for miles about is now full of deep holes which in the wet season form vast acid lagoons...".
The site covered 70 acres and produced up to 100,000 tons of iron per year. The processes caused a huge slag heap to build up, on the other side of the river, behind the Community Centre. A favourite play area for many generations of local children, it was removed to build the deep water terminal at Hunterston, completed in 1979, and is now Almswall Park.
Lines of single-storey houses for the workers were built at the site. Double Row had 43 two-roomed houses, Brick Row had 34, and Cross Row had 15. Single Row had 60 one-roomed houses. The floors in all were made of brick tiles and tenants slept in built-in beds. Children would sleep in 'Hurly' beds, wooden boxes which when not in use were stored under the adults' beds.
There were no flushing toilets of course. Outside, there was one dry closet for every four households and one wash house for every eight. Apparently, the dry closets had two seats, meaning two persons sitting side by side could use them at the same time! As well as the Institute, the site had its own railway system to allow coal and iron to be brought in and out, a football park, a store and a school. Built in 1857, the school could take about 400 pupils, and was subsidised partly by pennies deducted from workers' wages.
The Ironworks Institute, now the Nethermains Community Centre, was opened in 1900 as a recreation centre for the employees of the foundry, comprising a meeting hall, library and baths. But some of its facilities were more popular than others. At the first AGM in 1901, the Committee reported, "We have met with less success with the baths than anything else. We would like you to take a bath at least once a fortnight, and induce your lady friends to do the same". When steelmaking began in the 1880s, Baird & Sons failed to change to the new processes, and the business gradually declined, closing in 1926. The houses were finally cleared around 1950.
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