21st Century tech and traditional skills restore historic gates

Warrington’s Golden Gates - a 19th Century exemplar of Coalbrookdale’s abilities in cast iron - are shining once more. Cutting-edge technology and thousands of hours of work have breathed new life into the iconic structure.

It all began with Frederick Monks, one of Warrington’s earliest councillors, and a local ironmaster.

Through his business connections, Monks learnt of a magnificent pair of iron gates made by the famous Coalbrookdale works at Ironbridge, which he bought and presented to Warrington in 1895, gracing the Town Hall with a fitting entrance.

These grand gates were originally designed for the International Exhibition of 1862, and potentially for Queen Victoria’s Sandringham home in Norfolk. The story goes that her majesty was supposedly diverted from their trade stand at the exhibition, as clearly visible through the gates was a cast iron statue of Oliver Cromwell. As one of the signatories of King Charles I’s death warrant, Cromwell was understandably not popular with royalty and courtiers realised the Queen would not be amused to see Bell’s statue.

Coalbrookdale had found it difficult to find an alternative market for gates on this scale and Monks was able to acquire them for Warrington.

Such grand gates needed a suitably grand opening and Warrington’s annual Walking Day, on 28 June 1895, provided the ideal occasion, since the Town Hall lawn was crowded with participants and spectators. Monks ceremoniously opened the gates with a golden key to allow the assembled churches to set off on their procession.

Today, the gates are afforded statutory protection as a Grade II* listed structure, along with their associated gate piers and lamps. The setting is further designated as the Town Hall Conservation Area.

A much-loved, iconic symbol of Warrington - and a major landmark in the borough’s cultural and civic heart - the gates were last repaired and re-painted in 1978-9. Having long been virtually black, they acquired a paint finish that was much more in keeping with their original design. Extensive gilding covered their ornate frame, topped by the former coat of arms of Warrington Borough Council. This restoration led to the structure becoming known as Warrington’s ‘Golden Gates’.

Time takes its toll

While the previous refurbishment lasted for nearly 40 years, the gates’ urban location and proximity to a marine climate, meant that they began to show signs of deterioration.  When they were surveyed by Calibre Metalwork Limited in April 2017, they were found to be in need of attention, with issues including corrosion and cracking of the iron work, loss of decorative detail and peeling paint and gilding.

Having identified the need for repairs, Warrington Borough Council began work with international engineering, design and consultancy company, Ramboll, who provided conservation advice, structural engineering design and contract administration. It was vital that, in preserving and enhancing the gates, the work did not harm the Grade II* listed structure. The project, therefore, took a conservation-based approach to ensure that the work complied with national and local planning policy as well as nationally-recognised conservation guidance and standards.

Following a competitive tender process, and consultation with the Victorian Society and Historic England, Warrington Borough Council selected Hall Conservation Limited - one of the UK’s leading conservation firms – to undertake the complex, technical and challenging project.

A hi-tech solution

Russell Geomatics carried out a 3D laser scan survey, and created a sub millimetre high-resolution digital model of the gates. Work by Hall Conservation then began in autumn 2018, when the gates were carefully dismantled and the footings to the gate posts exposed, with an archaeologist employed under a watching and advising brief.

The gate components – totalling almost 600 once fully dismantled - were transported to Hall Conservation’s workshops in London. The individual components of the gates were laser scanned at high resolution and fully inspected, in conjunction with Ramboll. They were then repaired and repainted.

Some elements beyond economic repair were re-created using 3D printing to form plastic replicas that were then sent to the foundry to create moulds allowing casting of new components. Some more complex components were replicated directly from the laser scan data by additive manufacturing and were printed in aluminium.

The restoration is a testament to 21st Century techniques and technologies which, combined with traditional skills and thousands of man hours removing corrosion, re-painting, casting, forging and fabricating new components, have breathed new life into the gates.

Fay Newham, Associate at Ramboll, said: “Our aim was to deliver a high standard of repair and leave a full and detailed record for the next generation. The realisation of these objectives has been made possible with extensive conservation experience and 21st Century technology and techniques, which have enabled us to re-create intricate components accurately, and re-assemble with concealed fixings and strengthening.

“The Golden Gates were originally created by the Coalbrookdale Company to showcase their skills at the Great Exhibition in 1862, and today no one could cast such large, complex pieces, so we have had to take great care with them. It is a special project not only to the Town of Warrington but also for us, as conservation engineers”.

Brian Hall, director of Hall Conservation Ltd, added: "We were honoured to be entrusted with the conservation of the Warrington Golden Gates.  Not only are the gates a piece of important and vibrant local history, but they are also a unique part of England’s very special ironwork heritage.”

The gates return

 

In April 2019, the moment arrived. Following the extensive restoration, Hall Conservation returned the gates to Warrington, to be reconstructed on site, with final painting and gilding.

 

They were officially rededicated to Warrington – restored to their former glory – on 28 June, prior to the town’s 2019 Walking Day procession. Back to where it all began, it was a fitting occasion to unveil the beautifully restored gates, 124 years after they were originally presented to the town – and the Walking Day crowd - by Frederick Monks. To mark the special event, the family of Monks attended the ceremony and procession.

Warrington Borough Council Leader, Cllr Russ Bowden, said: “The golden gates are an iconic symbol of Warrington, and there are none others like them in the world. They are a key part of our history and culture, and we understood, from the outset, the importance of getting this work just right – using the latest technology to preserve our heritage.

“It’s wonderful to see our iconic gates shining once more. The project to repair, enhance and preserve them was a challenging one – but its completion means the gates have been protected for future generations, and have been ensured many more years as a much-loved symbol of Warrington’s civic pride.”