Almost impossible to separate, Henry Bolckow and John Vaughan were partners in business, married sisters, lived next door to each other, both served as mayor of Middlesbrough, both were magistrates, both sat on the Tees Conservancy Board, and were eventually buried side by side in Marton Churchyard. Yet, for men who worked so well together, they were complete opposites. Henry Bolckow's dexterity lay in the management of money while John Vaughan's skill was in his hands and handling men.
Their backgrounds could not have been farther apart. Henry William Ferdinand Bolckow was born 8th December 1806, the son of a country gentleman in Sulten, a town in Mecklenburg, Germany at the same time as Napoleon was rampaging through Europe. At the age of 15 Henry worked for a corn merchant in Rostock. When his friend went to join a brother's firm, C. Allhusen & Co. in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Henry accepted their offer of a job and emigrated. After 12 years in England he had made a personal fortune of £50,000 on corn speculations.
John Vaughan was born 21st December 1799 in Worcester, the son of an ironworker. He began his working life as a boy in a scrap mill observing all the processes of iron making, moving up until he was a ‘roller’ at the Dowlais works in South Wales. His promotion line exhausted, he left in 1825 to become manager at Carlisle ironworks where he met his first wife, Eleanor Downing. In 1832 he became manager at the newly opened Walker ironworks of Losh, Wilson & Bell. Eleanor died after bearing him 4 children, and while courting his second wife he became firm friends with her sister's suitor, Henry Bolckow.
John Vaughan's knowledge of iron making must have been impressive, for totally ignorant of the subject, Henry Bolckow decided to invest his capital in a joint venture. Vaughan became acquainted with Joseph Pease in 1839 and he introduced Henry Bolckow at a meeting in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle. Representing the Owners of The Middlesbrough Estate, Joseph offered them six acres by the River Tees on easy terms. They visited the new town, Vaughan choosing a site close by deep water. After finalising the deal, he watched the piles driven, fear constantly nagging that they were making a costly mistake.
Coal exporting and a small pottery were Middlesbrough's only industries when Bolckow & Vaughan's Vulcan Street Works opened in 1841. Consisting of a puddling furnace, a bar mill and a wagon-making shed, the works used Scottish pig iron to produce finished articles which slowly built them a reputation for craftsmanship. The first years were by no means easy. While Henry tackled the book-keeping, John took off his coat and laboured alongside his workmen who came to affectionately call him 'Jacky'. In later years when the company had swollen to a giant, their first customers were still given the same attention as more important clients.
As the price of Scottish pig iron rose, Bolckow & Vaughan decided in 1846 to erect four blast furnaces. Vaughan's one big mistake was choosing Witton Park near Bishop Auckland for the site. The idea was to use ironstone which was a by-product of the ‘spoil’ i.e, the waste heaps from the Durham collieries. The lesson was that you get what you pay for – the ore proved inferior, necessitating the purchase of iron ore from Grosmont near Whitby. After transportation by sea to the Tees, rail to Witton Park for smelting, then rail back to Middlesbrough for finishing, production was costly.
1847 was a particularly bleak year. Bolckow & Vaughan were sustained only by orders from the Stockton & Darlington Railway and by financial aid from Joseph Pease. Destiny had yet to show its hand. Only three years later John Vaughan was to make the discovery that would make him and his partner millionaires.
It was also to make Middlesbrough famous the world over.