Skip to main content
Home > Blog > The History of Cast Iron Houses

The History of Cast Iron Houses

Cast iron has a long and varied history. The use of cast iron for agriculture, architecture and weapons can be traced back as early as the 5th century BC. And there are references to early high-temperature furnaces over 1000 years ago. Due to its prevalence and longevity, there are numerous examples of early cast iron manufacture. More recently, as engineering technical knowledge improved, cast iron has been used widely in the construction of bridges and structural supports in buildings.

Cast iron is made from pig iron, which is the product of melting iron ore in a blast furnace. Its beneficial properties, including excellent machinability, deformation resistance, and good fluidity/castability, have made it a staple in the production of machinery, pipes, and structural components.

It has immense compressive strength and is well suited to the stack and build construction process used in brick houses.

In 1925, two prototype semi-detached houses were constructed in the Brewery Fields Estate in Dudley and built entirely from cast iron panels. A second pair was built in 1927. This was a post-war experiment in the construction of prefabricated buildings.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain created huge advancements in the use of iron in construction.

Cast Iron in the Industrial Revolution

The 18th Century saw significant developments in the iron smelting process, which led to mass production and put Great Britain at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.

Abraham Darby is credited for his role in the Industrial Revolution. His craft as an ironmaster and foundryman led to him developing a new way to manufacture pig iron on a large scale. Previously, charcoal was used to power the blast furnaces, and large volumes of trees were felled to manufacture the charcoal. However, in the 1700’s wood became scarce following deforestation and the price of charcoal began to rise. In 1709 Darby created a method of smelting iron ore with coke. This presented a major step forward as coal was a huge natural resource. His method was cheaper, more efficient, more environmentally friendly and allowed for the production of iron on a large scale.

Post-War Housing – The Experimental Metal Houses

As Britain celebrated its triumph in the First World War, a new challenge emerged. There was a severe housing shortage, and pre-war slum housing was an embarrassment to the government. So, in 1918, the government introduced its “Homes for Heroes” campaign. Unfortunately, traditional raw materials for construction were scarce at the time, so local planners needed to look at alternative materials. Such was the abundance and versatility of cast iron that an experimental development in the West Midlands was trialled.

The houses did not require a skilled workforce, which was in short supply after the war, and the iron industry’s spare capacity could be utilised. The houses were constructed from 600 panels of precast iron, which could be produced off-site and shipped within a week. Construction took place by bolting the panels together and took 4 men 8 days to complete. The panels were designed with a patented flange that was used in assembly and created a watertight seal.

The prototype was easily scalable and suited to mass production – it seemed a sensible solution all round.

Brewery Fields Estate

In the Brewery Fields Estate, Dudley, four semi-detached houses were built with walls constructed entirely of cast iron. The interior walls were lined with asbestos sheets and the cavities filled with waste wool. The exterior was covered in cement-based enamel and painted white to deflect the heat and protect against corrosion.

The project was experimental and short-lived, as the houses proved costly to build. Brick became more readily available, and as a brick house cost £400 to build, this was a fraction of the cost of a cast iron house, at £1000. The rent charged on a cast house was around 10 – 12 shillings per week, which was too much for most ordinary workers.

Derby Tanks Houses

In nearby Derby, around post-war 200 council properties were constructed from cast iron. They were nicknamed ‘Derby Tanks Houses’. Most remain occupied to this day. The houses are currently part of a major upgrade by Derby City Council, as residents have complained of high energy bills. The renovation has its challenges, however, as contractors must establish safe methods of working without disturbing the asbestos-lined walls. The upgrade of some of the houses was completed in 2022, with the next phase of 150 houses approved for renovation in 2023. Residents have benefited from external solid wall insulation, new windows, doors and lighting which has led to significant energy cost savings.

Thorncliffe Cast Iron Houses

A few hundred cast iron houses were constructed at Thorncliffe. They used pre-fabricated cast iron panels, and the interiors were constructed using traditional wood.

Many other local councils adopted the prototype cast iron house plan to solve their housing crisis, as new modular methods of construction were explored.

Two of the original cast iron houses from Dudley have been moved to the Black Country Living Museum and renovated as part of the Forging Ahead project. Visitors to the museum can visit the 1940 house and the 1968 house to experience everyday life in wartime Dudley.

Call us today for a free consultation

Trust Cast Iron Welding Services for all your cast iron welding requirements. Contact us today to discuss your project and benefit from our expertise in restoring and enhancing the performance of your cast iron components.

Get in Touch

Speak to one of our cast iron welding experts today.

    Bureau Veritas AccreditationISO 9001ABS AccreditationDNV GL AccreditationAEO UK Authorised Economic OperatorConstruction Line Gold AccreditationThe Guild of Master Craftsmen