Barrow-in-Furness was one of the few wholly new towns that grew up during Britain’s Industrial Revolution. In the early nineteenth century it was a hamlet in the parish of Dalton with a tiny population. In the early 1840s the Furness Railway opened a wharf from which locally-mined iron ore could be taken away by sea, chiefly to ports on the River Mersey from which it travelled inland to furnaces in the Black Country and North Staffordshire. In 1851 the population was only about 600, but thirty years later it had increased to 50,000. The Barrow Haematite Iron Company blew in its first blast furnace in 1859, and received a great advantage when the completion of distant railway connections in 1862 made it possible to bring in high quality coking coal from County Durham on the opposite coast. By 1872 the company had 16 blast furnaces, 18 Bessemer Converters, and seven rolling mills, and was the largest producer of Bessemer steel in the United Kingdom. The phosphorus-free local ores made pig iron that was particularly well-suited to the Bessemer process. The ironworks enjoyed a thriving export trade in rails with the United States. In 1871 the Barrow Ship-building Company was formed, with the intention of using steel plates produced by the Haematite Iron Co, and it launched its first ship in 1873.
Barrow-in-Furness is one of the few planned cities in England. The rectangular, tree-lined streets are lined with stately terraced houses. The development plan largely goes back to James Ramsden, an industrialist and co-owner of the Furness Railway.
The museum, which originated in 1907, tells the story of the industrial and urban growth of Barrow, and of the Furness Railway, but also looks back to prehistory, and to the activities of Romans and Vikings in the area. It shows something of the many migrant communities that have settled in Barrow, of the impact on the town of the two world wars – the shipyard employed 31,000 people in 1917 – and of more recent changes. The shipyard now specialises in the building of nuclear submarines.