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Kumaon Iron Works, the British and Traditional Technology     

 By D.P. Agrawal and Pankaj Goyal 

Through this essay on early British iron works in Kumaon, we propose to illustrate the early conflicts of the British with the traditional Indian technologies, as also between iron industries in Britain and India. It is an important chapter in the history of early iron technology in India. 

Kumaon (in Uttaranchal) was under the colonial rule for more than 120 years, first under the British East India Company and then under the British Crown. The mineral wealth of Kumaon drew early and special attention of the British. The colonial rule marked the beginning of exploitation, demolition and commercialisation of the Himalayan wealth for the benefit and expansion of the British Empire. The new government imposed new rules, applied restrictions on the rights of local communities regarding the use of natural resources. They started new land tenure system to maximise the revenues.

Traditional Technology

Archaeological and historical sources reveal that the people of Kumaon were aware of iron smelting practices. Kumaon had an old tradition of iron metallurgy and it was part of their folklore. Some of the irons smelting sites are associated with the name Asur. Iron ores in Kumaon seem to have been worked from about 1000BC as is indicated by a radiocarbon date (PRL-1648, 1022-826BC) from Uleni (Pithoragarh).

The iron technology was evolved and mastered in the First Millennium BC. This new technology improved further in due course of time and came to be known as the blooming process. The hot iron or bloom, thus produced by this technology, generally consists of a mass of spongy solid iron particles surrounded and intermingled with the slag produced. To extract ore from the mines, the local miner first used to cut a passage on the face of the hill. The mine was so narrow that it would not allow a person to move freely inside it. For digging the ore, the miners used traditional implements. They worked during the day using Mashals (wood torches). The helpers collected ore in lather bags and dragged along the floor of the mine by fastening it around their waist to bring it out for refining. The washed material was then given to Dhanauria for smelting. The furnace of Dhanauria was built inside a house and its size was about 3.5 feet long and 2.5 feet broad. The bloom obtained from this process was then sent for further refinement to Khataunia, which was the other group of smelters. And finally Bhadelia would give metal the shape of desired utensils.

This shows that the traditional mining and smelting technology was quite developed in Uttaranchal.

The Kumaon Iron Works

The chronology of iron smelting in Kumaon can be briefly sketched in the  following phases of  the British colonial interest in the Kumauni iron making. High quality iron ore, rich forests for charcoal and an abundance of running water as a source of energy were of major interest at the Kumaon Iron Works.

Phase I: Indian iron making and British exploration (Pre-1850)

The celebrated hunter Jim Corbett passed most of his life in the hill stations of Nainital and Kaladhungi. He described the foothills as being made “almost entirely of iron ore”. In this short, unnoticed passage, Corbett conveyed a living tradition of the richness and use of Kumauni ore. The scientific knowledge of the geology of Kumaon grew through a continuous conquest, incorporation and systematic processing of already existing knowledge. Traditional iron ore mining, manufacture of iron from ore, and its further processing by local blacksmiths possibly attracted British interest towards the mineral resources of the area. Captain J.D. Herbert (1826) made an extensive report on the local mode of mining and also suggested ways to increase the yields. About 30 years later a deputy collector, J.O‘B Becket, wrote a report on traditional iron making in Kumaon. J.O‘B Becket found 7 iron ore mines with 187 families in work, 54 smelting forges with 167 families in work and 86 refining forges with 273 families in work.

Phase II: Detailed Reports and Government Start Up (1850-60)

After the report of the 1850s, a small group of British individuals started to promote and develop iron making. This led to the establishment of iron working sites at 4 places: Dechauri, Kaladhungi, Khurpa Tal and Ramgarh. The European charcoal blast furnace was the chosen technology. Rees Davies was one of the surveyors deputed to investigate the mineral resources. As a government enterprise, the first blast furnace of the works was ignited in Dechauri on 24 March 1856 and as a result of this a piece of iron of “the very best quality” was produced. After one year, Davies resumed his trials and in 1857 the first pig iron was tapped.

These results induced the government to engage in a bigger undertaking in the very last year of the East India Company’s rule and W. Sowerby was appointed manager of the works. A new blast furnace, called “Sowerby’s blast furnace” was built at Dechauri and ignited in February 1860. But the furnace was closed after 43 days and deep controversies developed and the government stopped the project. In the beginning of 1861 Drummond formed a new private company that was soon amalgamated with Davies’s company to form The North India Kumaon Iron Works Company Limited. During this time there were 8 blast furnaces in different stages of development close to Nainital, Dechauri, Kaladhungi, Khurpa Tal and Ramgarh.

Phase III: The Joint Stock Company (1860-65)

The owners of the iron company thought that a professional engineer, experienced in charcoal based iron making was needed to manage the works. Julius Ramsay was contacted in Sweden and later employed. Reed and a Pearson were the trustees of the company in Kumaon. Ramsay managed to restart iron making in the existing blast furnace and during the spring of 1862 and the spring of 1863, a total of 424 tons of pig iron was made during three different campaigns. Another Swedish engineer, Carl Gustaf Wittenstrom, was employed and joined Ramsay after one year and the planning of the new work was intensified. In March 1863 the owners of the company stopped all work, and the works were abandoned for more than a decade.                                                                                        

Phase IV: The Last Government Effort (1876-79)

In 1876 the government made the last attempt and production was again started. The “Sowerby blast furnaces”, now supplemented by hot blast, was used in 7 different campaigns, from January 1877 to September 1878, and a total of 1,080 tons of pig iron were made.

Minerals and Logistics

Ores: Two different areas, with two different qualities of iron ore, were considered. But the most important were extensive fields of easily accessible, low quality surface iron ores deposited in the foothills of the mountains, close to Dechauri and Kaladhungi. These ores were described as Bhabar ores. The ore was found on the ground in blocks of different sizes, and its iron content varied between 20 and 35 percent. The other areas were close to Ramgarh up in the hills, which had long been mined underground by the Indian iron makers. These ores were promising but there were serious difficulties in building good roads in the mountains. They were hard and costly to transport to the works, located by the forests in the foothills. During the last effort to run the iron works, in 1876-79, Ramgarh ore was used.

Coal, Wood Consumption

Not only the amount of coal available, but also its quality is of big importance. The kind of wood used in making charcoal influences the heat content, and also its strength. It has to be strong enough to carry the weight of the ore in the blast furnace.

Water Power, Steam and Transport

Power was not only needed for the blowing machinery, but also to run hammers, the rolling mill and different kinds of machinery in the workshops. The masonry water channels in Dechauri were built partly for irrigation purposes, and partly to supply the iron works with water. Since rainfall was extremely unevenly distributed through out the year, the addition of steam power was needed in the new works. Thus the power was to be delivered by a combination of waterpower and steam power.

Topography was not only important in the physical planning of the works site itself, but it was still more important in a wider geographical sense. Ramsay put most of his efforts into optimising the technological set up at the works. He put emphasis on the transport of raw materials to the works and completed commodities from the works, as tactically crucial for success. But lack of capital did not permit the company to build the road to Ramgarh. When the Ramgarh ore was used during the late 1870s, sheep and goat transported the ore.

 The technical efficiency of blast furnace was measured in two ways: 1) By the amount of coal needed to produce a certain quantity of iron, and, 2) By the quantity of iron produced as a percentage of ore input.

The Indian Workers

Kumaon was, like the rest of India, pre-eminently agricultural, but according to the census of 1872 there was also a section of the population exclusively connected with metalworking. Close to 19,000 inhabitants were classified as Lohars (blacksmiths).

The Agaris, not more than 800 according to census, were miners and ore smelters. 90 blacksmiths were employed in Dechauri, but the traditional blacksmiths were not given any preference in the recruitment of workers. In general Julius Ramsay wrote that the working methods and the tools of the Indian workers were different from those used in Sweden. He also admitted the skilfulness of the workers, but no effort was made to use their traditional skills. There was a tradition of migrant labour in Kumaon. During the summer workers retreated up into the mountains, not only to avoid the heat in the lower altitudes, but also to take part in agricultural work in the mountains. The reason for the seasonal migration was not only the negative push of a malignant climate, but also the positive pull of the work. This type of behaviour of the Indian workers shows that the Indians were part of a society and economy, which was outside the control of the Europeans.

The Market Strategy

One dominating reason for building the Kumaon Iron Works was the probability of supplying iron to a potentially very big Indian market, principally to the big colonial public works, irrigation, transportation infrastructure, the railroads, the telegraph and military establishment.

An important part of the market strategy of the Kumaon Iron Works was the proposed tramway from the foothills, connecting to the main railway stations of India. The Kumaon Iron Works could have used this tramway as a means of transport for the produce and this would have given it access to important markets. To raise capital for the proposed tramway, the owners embarked on a long controversy with the government and the tramway was never built.

Colonial Policy

The history of the Kumaon Iron Works ranged over almost 30 years. A combination of encouragement and lack of decisive support marked the policies of the colonial state in regard to the Kumaon Iron Works. The government handled the affairs of the Kumaon Iron Works with indecision, big delays or even disapproving decisions, thus the ambiguities and inability to make final decisions exhausted the project. The British realised that the working of metals (especially iron and copper) might injuriously affect the import of important British articles and this view recurs throughout history. Therefore the attitude of the authorities to encourage Indian iron making was confusing. One of the several examples was the parliamentary select committee in London, which considered irrigation and agricultural produce to be of major importance than Indian iron works for British colonial interests. When Kumaon iron works were finally closed, the coke based iron making project at the Bengal Iron Works, began to use India’s large resources of mineral coal, which in turn paved the way for the start of Tata Iron and Steel Co. (TISCO), India’s first totally integrated steel works, financed with Indian capital. The closing of Kumaun Iron works also gave the death knell to the local traditional iron smelting activities.  


These brief glimpses not only help explore the history of the Kumaon Iron Works, but also explain why continuous production of iron was not achieved. The outcome of the Kumaon Iron Works project can be seen as an expression of colonial ambitions. The analysis has shown that the Kumaon Iron Works, despite all the difficulties encountered, had a definite possibility of producing iron as a viable option to imports, even in open competition with the British iron. Eventually the British realised that iron smelting in the colonies (like India), be it through modern or traditional technology, was in the long run injurious to their colonial interests and had to be stopped.

Main Sources:

Geijerstam, Jan af. 2002. The Kumaon Iron Works- a Colonial Project: In Tradition and Innovation in the History of Iron Making (Eds.) Girija Pande and Jan af Geijerstam. Nainital: PAHAR. Pp. 157-201.

Pandey, Girija. 2002. A study of Kumaon Iron Works: In Tradition and Innovation in the History of Iron Making (Eds.) Girija Pande and Jan af Geijerstam. Nainital: PAHAR. Pp. 146-156.

Secondary Sources:

Agrawal, D.P. and  J.S. Kharakwal. 1998. Central Himalayas: an Archaeological, Linguistic and Cultural Synthesis. Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Tripathi, Vibha. 2002. The Age of Iron in South Asia. Delhi: Aryan Books International.