The last remaining evidence of a long-lost industry in Whitehaven is about to be demolished and disappear forever.

Two circular stone pillars standing on the foreshore around 800m north of the town are the remnants of the short-lived Lonsdale Ironworks, established in the early 1870s and shut down in 1904.

The pillars, or piers, were part of a structure that carried a waggon-way aloft spanning the cliff-edge railway line beneath it. The wagons carried slag from the blast furnaces and dumped it unceremoniously onto the shore. Environmental responsibility was at that time an issue for the future. This pale coloured slag pile became known locally as Whitey Rock. Any ideas that this was a natural feature that historically gave Whitehaven its name are very much mistaken.

Today, the pillars are now in an unsafe condition, and seen as a threat to the railway. So they are about to be demolished. But before they are, Copeland Council has commissioned a historic and photographic record of them which will be lodged with the local records office.

The Lonsdale Hematite Ironworks was established in 1872 below the cliffs at Bransty with its furnaces located near to coke supplies from the ovens of William Pit. These four blast furnaces were capable of smelting up to 2,100 tons of pig iron per week but the quality was not of the best and the company, with its 10 Ayrshire-based shareholders, soon found itself in liquidation.

Shipbuilding had finished at Whitehaven and cheap foreign iron was being imported. Production was stopped in 1902 and the cliff-foot works were demolished two years later, leaving several local creditors with outstanding bills.

It never produced any steel, though it did have interests in several mines, in limestone quarrying and brick manufacture.

The two cylindrical pillars that remain carried the northernmost of two waggonways and are 2.3m in diameter and 10m high. They are made from blocks of sandstone and some of it has fallen away and there are some visible cracks, raising the concern of possible collapse in the near future. Due to their poor structural condition and the uneconomical cost of repair, they will now be knocked down.

With their demolition, only Whitey Rock will remain to bear witness to this 19th century industry.

Interestingly it was once intended to give the rock a higher profile, using it as the base site for a £300,000 major piece of sculpture by the world-renowned artist artist Eduardo Chillida (died 2002) whose artwork attracts praise and attention around the world.

Alas, back in 1997, Chillida’s design for a large piece of steel found little favour with local people and after much huffing and puffing (and public consultation) the whole idea was abandoned and the arts funding lost.

The decision left the the controversial and creative Spaniard “very disappointed” that the people of Whitehaven had spoken and did not, after all, want a piece of his art in their town as a major ‘Gateway’ project.

The proposed Chillida sculpture, an 18ft high and 15ft wide structure, was described in a public survey as “not meaning anything” and even “unsightly”. One wag likened it to a prototype of the first hip replacement but inspired another to write a poem. Next up came the idea for a giant mirror to be placed somewhere on the coastline to reflect the changing seascape. But that too came to nought.

Back in the 19th century, there had been 13 ironworks in West Cumberland, three of them in the Whitehaven district. The first to be built was the Whitehaven Iron Company’s works at Cleator Moor, promoted by Thomas Ainsworth, a local iron ore proprietor.

The building of it began in 1841 but it was not until December 1843 that the first iron was tapped. By 1859 it had two furnaces, rising to four in 1860 and six in 1866 when steel clad furnaces were introduced. Later, the Lindow family bought into it and it became the Whitehaven Hematite Iron and Steel Co Ltd.

After the war, trade was so depressed that the works were taken over by the Lonsdale Iron Co Ltd of Ulverston, and after 1922 the furnaces were rarely active and were finally blown out in 1929.

The Parton Iron Works was another unsuccessful venture into iron smelting, entered into by one Gilbert Boyle Vance and a Mrs Mary Blair, in 1872. It is thought Mrs Blair wanted to set up her own works after a long legal battle with the partners of Harrington Ironworks following the death of her husband, one of the original partners.

The Parton Hematite Iron Co Ltd was formed in 1874 to operate two furnaces. Most subscribers to this company were from the Manchester and Bolton districts of Lancashire and included several well-known industrialists. However, due to the price of iron the works found it difficult to operate at a profit so in 1883 it too was wound up and the works demolished.

The research of Peter F Ryder and the late Philip Ashforth are acknowledged in relation to this article.