Broseley Local History Society Journal No 17 1995
By Michael Berthoud
Isaac Wilkinson was born about the year 1705, at Clifton near Workington, in what was then Cumberland but is now Cumbria. Little is known of his early years. He has variously been described as a farmer, a part-time shepherd and an ironfounder and may well have made a living by combining all three occupations.
Isaac’s eldest son, John, was born in 1727 or 1728 also at Clifton. Legend has it that he was born in a farm cart on the way to market and that this unconventional entry into the world marked him out for future greatness. At that time, Isaac was working as an overlooker at one of the haematite iron ore furnaces and also working a small farm at Little Clifton. Two years later Isaac’s second son Henry was born. No details of his brief life are recorded. He played little part in the history of the family and died at Plas Grono, Wrexham, in 1756 aged twenty-six. In 1736 Isaac’s third son, William, was born. Had he not been overshadowed by his more famous older brother he would no doubt have made his mark independently as a famous ironmaster in his own right. On the continent his reputation exceeds that of John.
At about this time, 1736, Isaac Wilkinson moved to Backbarrow, a small industrial centre where iron smelting by charcoal had been carried on for the previous twenty-five years. There he took a house called Bare Syke, a few yards from the Backbarrow Furnace. He set up as a ‘potfounder’ and began making smoothing irons for laundresses, flat or ‘sad’ irons and the more difficult box irons.
In matters of religion Isaac Wilkinson was free-thinker. In 1742 he sent his son John to be educated at a dissenters’ academy at Kendal, run by the Reverend Caleb Rotherham. Isaac had two daughters while John was at Kendal. Mary, born in 1744, was later to marry Joseph Priestley. Sarah, born the following year, grew up to marry Thomas Jones, a surgeon of Leeds. Their son Thomas was destined to play a major role in the last act of the tragical farce that unfolded in the years following his uncle John’s death. When John returned from Kendal in 1745 he was again sent off, this time to be apprenticed to a Liverpool ironmonger for five years. Here he no doubt received his grounding in commercial practice that was to ensure the success in business that eventually eluded his father.
In 1755 John married his first wife, Ann, the daughter of the Reverend Thomas Mawdesley of Mawdesley Hall, Croston in Lancashire. She died in childbirth the following year and her memorial, by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, may be seen in Wrexham church. She left a daughter, Mary, who was brought up in Shrewsbury by a Mr and Mrs John Flint. Ann, who was only twenty-six at the time of her death, seems to have been a wealthy young woman and left John with an ‘ample fortune’ which he very quickly set about putting to good use. John’s brother Henry died, aged twenty-six, in the same year.
In 1757 John helped to form the New Willey Company. In the following year Isaac entered into partnership with Edward Blakeway and others to install his new iron bellows at Merthyr Furnace, Dowlais, where they were apparently a great success. Isaac’s Bersham venture collapsed in 1761. His predecessors at Bersham had all experienced financial difficulties. Although the works had changed over from charcoal to coke as early as 1821, the quality of the iron was poor, ruined by impurities. The forests that had supplied the charcoal had by then been largely cut down and there was no going back to charcoal.
Isaac moved to Bristol and continued trying to make a living as an ironfounder but was, for the rest of his life, dependent on his two Sons. He was recorded as being in business as an ironfounder in 1775 and died in 1784. In the last years of his life he signed himself ‘Isaac Wilkinson Esq.’.
In 1763 John married Edward Blakeway’s sister-in-law, Mary Lee of Wroxeter, a lady of forty who brought him another ample fortune. In the same year he acquired the ‘New House’, now called ‘The Lawns’, at Broseley. Mary Lee may also have financed the final take-over of the New Willey Company. Mary had no children.
John’s daughter Mary, by his first wife, had been brought up in Shrewsbury. She may have lived with her father and stepmother for a time at The Lawns as in May 1780 he took her to Coalbrookdale to meet Samuel Darby (Abraham Darby’s brother and a shareholder in the iron bridge) and his wife Deborah and to drink tea in the garden at Sunniside. Deborah thought Mary Wilkinson an ‘amiable, accomplished young woman’.
In October 1787 young Mary, then aged thirty, married the Reverend Theophilus Holbrook at Market Drayton. The marriage took place against John’s wishes and without his consent and he never forgave her. Whether they might ever have been reconciled is open to question; she died in childbirth eight months later, the child being buried in the churchyard at Moreton Say in Shropshire. Randall states that Wilkinson buried his daughter in his garden at Bradley, had the body moved five times and planted a gooseberry bush over it as a substitute for a headstone. This assertion is impossible to verify.
John Took on his nephew Joseph Priestley junior as an apprentice. Had young Joseph proved satisfactory John might well have appointed him as his heir. Despite remaining loyal and generous to Joseph senior throughout his life, John was not satisfied with Joseph junior and dismissed him in 1791. The almost simultaneous death of his daughter and granddaughter had brought his hopes of a direct heir to an abrupt close. His second wife Mary, already forty when he married her, was now in her sixties and childless. His business interests and his estates were growing in value from year to year and the question of an heir must have weighed heavily on his mind. It was probably at this time that he made his rash promise to another nephew Thomas Jones, a promise that was to have such devastating repercussions in later years.
In 1794 William married the daughter of James Stockdale, a wealthy mill owner of Cark in Lancashire. Isaac and John had made bricks for James Stockdale’s cotton mill where John, with James Watt, was later to install one of the early steam engines. Stockdale also had mining interests in Cornwall, Wales and Lindale, furnaces at Leighton and Halon and forges at Cark, Caton and Liverpool from where he supplied James Watt with iron.
William had two daughters. Mary Ann (born 1795) grew up to marry Matthew Robinson Boulton the son of Matthew Boulton and lived in great splendour at Great Tew near Chipping Norton. The younger daughter, Elizabeth Stockdale (born 1799) fared less well. She remained a spinster and in her later years became housekeeper at Aston Hall in Birmingham to James Watt of the steam engine. Her portrait still hangs in the housekeeper’s attic at Aston.
In 1802 John’s housekeeper Ann Lewis presented him with an illegitimate daughter, christened Mary Ann. Two years later they had another daughter, christened Johnina - suggesting that John was by then desperate for a son to carry his name and inherit his fortune. In 1806 Ann Lewis finally had a son, duly christened John. John senior’s second wife, Mary, died at Castle Head in the same year at the age of eighty-three. No doubt deeply affected by the death of his wife and the birth, at long last, of a son, John Wilkinson made his will. He died at Hadley on July 14th, 1808, at the age of eighty. Two other members of the family died in 1808, John’s brother and old enemy William and their sister Sarah (mother of Thomas Jones Wilkinson).
The will left Ann Lewis a life tenancy at Castle Head and an annuity of £200 so long as she remained unmarried. All the residue of his land, securities, ready money, stock, debts etc., were left to Ann Lewis, James Adam of Runcom, William Vaughan on London, William Smith of Birmingham, and Samuel Fereday of Sedgley, in trust for twenty-one years. At the end of that period, in 1829, the estate was to go to ‘the children I might have by Ann Lewis and, living at my decrease or born within six months afterwards, to be divided equally between such children and their heirs, where they share and share alike, provided they take the name of Wilkinson’. This they duly did by Royal Licence and received a grant of arms in the same year.
John must have felt that he had not only sired an heir in the very nick of time and established a Wilkinson dynasty but had made his empire stand safe for generations to come. In fact he had sown the wind and his wretched children were about to reap the whirlwind.
John’s sister Sarah, who had married Thomas, a surgeon from Leeds, also died in 1808. Their son Thomas had been appointed by John as his heir many years before, probably after he had been disappointed by another nephew, Joseph Priestley the younger. This was, no doubt, a verbal promise only - soon forgotten by John but not by Thomas Jones who assumed the name of Wilkinson and claimed the entire estate.
For eleven years he contested the will. Fereday relinquished his trusteeship and backed Thomas’s claim. He was rewarded for his treachery with bankruptcy when that claim failed. Four other trustees died and Ann Lewis and James Adam were left to fulfil the terms of the trust. The case was seized by the grasping hand of the Court of Chancery and the three children were brought up with great expectations at Brymbo Hall. The separation of Ann Lewis at Castle Head and the children at Brymbo was doubtless intended by Wilkinson as a means of ensuring that they were brought up as ‘gentry’ and not as the illegitimate offspring of a former housekeeper.
Even as late as 1824, when the whole estate was falling into decay and confusion, the various properties were still bringing in an annual income of nearly £10,000. James Adam, Wilkinson’s ‘faithful and confidential agent’ successfully fought against Thomas Jones Wilkinson on behalf of the children and an appeal to the House of Lords in 1819 for an injunction against Adam failed.
In 1821 Mary Ann, the eldest daughter, married at Cartmel Church William Legh, gentleman, of Hordley, Hampshire, second illegitimate son of Thomas Peter Legh Esq., of Lyme Hall, Cheshire. William Legh was for many years a Member of Parliament, first for South Lancashire and later for East Cheshire. The couple continued to live for some years at Brymbo Hall, the first two of their eight children being baptized at Wrexham Church in 1832 and 1834. Their fourth child succeeded his uncle Thomas Legh in 1857 and became the first Lord Newton of Lyme.
Johnina, John’s second illegitimate daughter, married Alexander Murray Esq. of Polmaise, Stirlingshire. They too continued living at Brymbo Hall where Murray died in 1835. In 1824 Ann Lewis married Thomas Milson. Presumably this was a love match as she thus forfeited her annuity and the life tenancy of Castle Head, leaving her nothing but the burden of her trusteeship. Palmer records that she was ‘afterwards constantly involved in pecuniary difficulties’. In the same year the loyal and steadfast James Adam died and with him died any hope of salvaging anything from the estate.
Young John was educated at Christ’s College Cambridge and later the sum of £700 was paid to him to purchase a commission in the army and pay his debts. Without the great John Wilkinson at the helm, the empire rapidly crumbled and fell into decay, doubtless being milked by the legal profession who kept the Thomas Jones pot boiling for as long as possible. In 1828, by a decree of Chancery, the greater part of the estate was sold off to meet spurious and inflated claims. The Rotherhithe property was knocked down for £3,400, Ffrith Farm at Brymbo for £2,500 and all the smaller estates surrounding Brymbo were sold off leaving only the initial 500 acres. At this time also Castle Head was sold, Ann Lewis having forfeited her tenancy on her marriage. With the residue of the proceeds of these sales young John and his two sisters attempted to re-start the Brymbo works but the attempt failed.
By 1829, when the entire estate was due to devolve on the three wretched children, those entrusted to its management had succeeded in reducing it to nothing. Shortly afterwards, young John was arrested in London for debt. In 1837 he went to America and never returned. He married in America and later in the century his son visited Brymbo to see the old Hall and works.
Thomas Jones Wilkinson, having waited thirty years for John Wilkinson to die and a further eleven for the outcome of the will to be decided, died a pauper. The celebrated case of Wilkinson and Wilkinson had been milked to the last drop. In all probability Thomas Jones Wilkinson provided the inspiration for Dickens’s ‘man from Shropshire’ in Bleak House.
To sum up, there can be very few legitimate claims of direct descent from John Wilkinson. The surname is common throughout the English speaking world and was probably Dutch in origin, indicating ‘Villiken’s son’ or ‘son of Little Willey’. John Wilkinson’s legitimate line died out with the death of his first wife and then of her daughter in childbirth, his second wife being childless. Of the legitimate line, only young John could claim any direct descent as a Wilkinson, his two sisters having changed their name by marriage. John II went to America in 1837 and John Ill visited England later in the century. It is unlikely that a British claimant will surface and no American claim will stand up if American descent can be traced back to before 1837. There is no financial advantage to be gained by proving descent.
(c) Copyright Michael Berthoud 1994
by Vera Francis
John Robert Stratford Dugdale was President of Broseley’s Wilkinson Society from its inception in 1971 until his resignation due to ill health in 1993. He took a keen interest in our work and was a staunch supporter when his health permitted.
He was born at Merivale in Warwickshire on 10th Mat 1923, the second son of Sir William Dugdale Bt., was was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. After his marriage in 1956 to Miss Kathryn Stanley, they bought and moved into Tickwood Hall, between Broseley and Much Wenlock. Three of their four children - two sons and two daughters - were born in The Lady Forester Hospital, Broseley. John was a devoted family man who, although he loved the peace of the countryside around Tickwood, soon became involved in Shropshire public life.
He was an extremely conscientious member for Broseley of the Salop County Council from 1969 to 1981 - first as a Conservative, then as an independent. One of the Society members - Noel Ward - was his Agent throughout. Many local people bear witness to the help John unstintingly gave them - regardless of their politics. In 1971 he was appointed Chairman of Telford Development Corporation, a post which he held for four years, being deeply involved in attracting new industry to the area, and also - with his wife - in deciding that the new town should be beautified by the planting of thousands of daffodil bulbs. Let’s hope they will continue to bloom for many years in John’s memory.
From 1975 to 1993 he was a local Magistrate and a member of West Mercia Police Authority. For 20 years from 1973 until her retired for health reasons he was Lord Lieutenant of Shropshire. Despite a not too robust constitution and a heart condition he performed these duties with great zeal and dignity combined with his enormous sense of fun, and welcomed members of the Royal Family to Shropshire with great gusto! He had a natural gift of being able to make everyone feel at home. One of my own treasured memories of John will always be of the day when he was escorting the Princess of Wales on her visit to Condover School for Blind Children. I had taken my two grand-daughters to see the Princess and as John got out of the limousine, he saw us across the lawn in the crowd and shouted “Hello Vera, come over here” and, to their delight, my grand-daughters were taken to a spot where they had a most glorious view of the Princess. John will not only be remembered by me - my grand-daughters will never forget him. This was the spontaneous friendly gesture so typical of this tall spare man who was just as much at home in his tattered Harris Tweed sports jacket as in his resplendent uniform. He was certainly “a man of the people” and would always find time to talk to anyone who needed his advice or help. Everyone speaks of him as a friend.
His wife, Kathryn, has been for many years, and still is, a close friend and Lady in Waiting to Her Majesty the Queen. Ten years ago she was made a Dame Commander of the Victorian Order. In the 1994 New Year’s Honours List John was made a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order personally by the Queen - an honour which we felt came rather late in life, although some time previously he had been made a Knight of the Order of St John.
Lady Dugdale accompanied H.M. the Queen on her recent historic State visit to Russia, when she unfortunately fractured her femur. We would express the hope from our Society that she will soon recover from this accident.
Despite all the pageantry of their public lives, they are a most unassuming and modest family and John was a truly gentle man whose loss will leave a great gap in both public life and in all our hearts. Noel and I will always cherish the memory that John came and spent several hours with us a month or so before he died. He was laid to rest in Warwickshire and a Thanksgiving Service for his family was held in Holy Trinity Church, Much Wenlock, on 21st December, when the Royal Family was represented, many national dignitaries and hundreds of friends and those whose lives John had touched gathered to pay tribute to A REAL GENTLEMAN AND A TRULY GENTLE MAN.
by Steve Dewhirst
The South Wales Iron Industry 1750-1885’ by Laurence lnce,
‘Blaenavon Ironworks’, booklet by Jeremy K. Knight for Cadw
‘The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire’ by Barry Trinder
Before the use of coke as a fuel in the blast furnace at Hirwaun in 1757, there had been a long history of iron smelting in Wales, albeit on a relatively small scale. The development of the new coke-fired ironworks in Wales usually using the steam engine to provide blast, was largely by English entrepreneurs. Among these Ironmasters were a number from Shropshire who played a significant part in the development and expansion of the Welsh ironworks. Although many of these ironmasters emigrated to Wales, some still kept close contacts with Shropshire and they must have travelled regularly between the two areas. The written evidence mainly concerns the lronmasters, as they were men of importance. However, it should not be forgotten that they took many of their workers with them. The late 18th Century was a boom period in Shropshire and the records show that there was an influx of labour to the area. Despite this, there seems to have been a significant migration to Wales, presumably of workers whose skills were in demand or moved with their masters. The list of ironworks below gives some idea of the significance of the link between Shropshire and Wales but gives details of only a small number of migrants to Wales.
The Plymouth Ironworks
In 1763 Isaac Wilkinson and John Guest of Broseley constructed a furnace at Merthyr TydfiI which could produce 14 tons a week. Other investors in the works were mainly from Shropshire: Sara Guest, Edward Blakeway (Wilkinson’s son-in-law), Francis Evans, William Peritt and John White & Co. The lease allowed them to build Furnaces, Forges, Mills, Pothouses or Other Works for the making of iron. However, the enterprise was not successful and was sold in 1766.
In 1759 the ironworks was set up by Isaac Wilkinson of Plas Gronow and Edward Blakeway of Shrewsbury. The furnace was blown by a waterwheel with cylinders and pistons which had been patented by Isaac in 1757.
In 1767 John Guest was appointed manager presumably after the sale of the unsuccessful Plymouth Ironworks and by the time Edward Blakeway had relinquished his interest. Guest purchased a 6/10th share in the works in 1782 which gives an indication of his wealth by this time.
In 1784 Peter Onions, who received a patent for making wrought iron while working at Coalbrookdale, came to work at Dowlais. It had been suggested that he was dissatisfied at Coalbrookdale and perhaps came to Dowlais to continue his work on techniques for making wrought iron. His work was soon superseded by Corts patent that started the revolution in wrought iron manufacture, particularly in Wales. In 1784 Isaac Wilkinson died, followed by John Guest in 1787. Guest left a 3/16th share to his son Thomas and the remaining 3/16th of his share to the rest of his family. The works continued to develop, with the Guest family gaining full ownership briefly in 1851. The company started steel production in the 1870s and continued to make iron until 1930. However the company built a new works at Cardiff in the 1880s and gradually production was moved there.
Francis Homfray had been involved in the coal trade at Broseley and owned forges in the Stour Valley. In 1783 he and his three sons Thomas, Jeremiah and Samuel moved to South Wales and in 1784 Samuel & Jeremiah set up the Ironworks.
In 1800 John Thompson of Lye Hall, Quatt was a partner in the works. He operated forges in 1796-7 at Hampton Loade and Eardington. Two furnaces were built each 40’ high blown by waterwheel machinery constructed at Hazeldine’s Foundry at Bndgnorth for £12 a ton. The wheel worked until 1875 when the works closed.
The works was set up by Thomas Hill of Dennis, Staffordshire in a sparsely populated area. Among the immigrants was Thomas Dekin who came to the works in 1798 aged 22. He had worked underground in Shropshire mines, as a haulier pulling trucks with a belt and chain since the age of nine. He eventually became an agent in the limestone mines and became a skilled underground surveyor and map maker.
In 1801 the ironmaster was Peter Price of Madeley. He was born in 1739, trained as a moulder at the Coalbrookdale works and in 1759 was recruited by Dr John Roebuck of the Carron Ironworks in Scotland.
This company became one of the largest iron and steel producers in Wales, continuing to produce steel until the 1970s.
The first furnace was built in 1790 with Jeremiah Homfray being one of the three partners. Six years later he became the sole owner of the works. The works grew rapidly and in 1844 Abraham Darby and Alfred Darby were partners in the purchase of the Ebbw Vale and Sirhowy works. In 1864 a new limited company was set up with a nominal capital of £4 million, Abraham Darby being the chairman, a post which he kept until his retirement in 1873.
Wilkinson’s migration to Bersham 230 years ago was no doubt colourful, eventful and memorable; somewhat similar in fact to the slightly unconventional day trip enjoyed by more than 20 members on June 11.
We boarded a vintage, 1951 Bedford SO bus, the sort synonymous with Sunday school outings to Rhyl, and after enlightening the driver on our motives for trekking to an apparently uncelebrated corner of Clwyd, we set off.
We traversed miles of pleasant countryside, crawled up gradients and swung round corners to the nerve-tightening strains of a screeching transmission system. Eventually we got to Much Wenlock! A deafening run at Harley Bank was followed by a relieving murmur as we coasted down the other side. The 72-piece gearbox then struck up again. At Shrewsbury we stopped for a rest and to take on liquid replenishment - that was for the charabanc.
The Bedford maintained a magisterial 45mph along the A5, turning heads all the way, until we swept into Bersham Industrial Heritage Centre for a picnic. Eric and Dot Cox summoned the party together and, with an Eamonn Andrews-like grin, told Elizabeth R. (Libby) Key that they had brought along a cake and candles to commemorate her birthday — which this year coincided with the official birthday of that other (older) Elizabeth R.
The party was welcomed by Ann Williams, senior museum officer for Clwyd County Council, and expertly guided around the ironworks sites, which stretch nearly a third of a mile, by Fiona Gale.
Although only parts of the once great ironworks remain,~ the scale and complexity of the works was easy to appreciate. Many artefacts are on show, including some 12 or 14-inch cast iron pipes utilised as roof supports, with “Willey” clearly cast in relief (obviously just waiting to return to the location of their manufacture!).
Excavations are continuing, revealing much evidence of the site’s abundant history. The Mill Farm audio-visual interpretation displays provide a compact explanation of the ironworks and conditions in its heyday. Other displays of Wilkinson’s work and the local iron industry are presented in the Heritage Centre.
Finally the bus was coaxed up the long and tortuous climb to the Minera lead and zinc mines site. The restored beam engine house is very impressive.
The journey home necessitated a diversion to avoid the north face of Wenlock Edge, and a figure-of-eight to negotiate the Ladywood hairpin, both too demanding for our veritable old bus. They don’t make them like that any more.
That may sound an unlikely prospect, but not only has one been written, but it had its first performance at Wolverhampton Civic Hall in July 1994.
Eric Cox and Mike Berthoud were invited over to the Wilkinson school in Bradley (near Wolverhampton) earlier in the year to act as historical advisers, along with Ron Davies, a noted authority on Wilkinson, who spoke to the society last year. The musical work was written by Neil Beddow and Robin Grant for children from the primary schools of the Bradley areas with an orchestral accompaniment.
The premiere of this exciting piece of music was attended by several members of the Wilkinson Society. It lasted about half an hour and the words had been memorised by the participating singers - hundreds of them. The orchestra was the excellent Wolverhampton youth orchestra and included various unusual percussion instruments, such as iron tubing (quite a appropriate when you think about it).
Those of us who went will remember for a long while such amazing lyrics as
“Nine hundred and ninety-nine in a thousand don’t believe in the Iron Boar’ — which of course rhymes with “gloat” and float”
and with reference to this forerunner of current marine transport
“We was all gob struck Then this one voice pipes up It was Aynuck, wor it ‘Con you believe it, the old mon’s done it again...”
intended to be voiced in Black Country dialect.
It was an excellent performance it it’s on again try and go. Watch out for the title —iron Mad Wilkinson”.
February 11 1995 Lecture by Dr Paul Stamper on Parklands of Shropshire
March 11 1995 Lecture by Michael Vanns on Early Railways
April 8 1995 Guided Walk with Tony Mugridge
May 13& 14 1995 FLASHBACK Photo-Swop? Copying? + Reminiscences of Broseley during the war. In the Library.
by Rex Key
Pipe making was once again carried out at the famous Broseley pipeworks in September, at the original work benches, and with the original equipment - though perhaps not with the original skill.
Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, with Bridgnorth District Council and English Heritage and European grants, is turning the premises into a museum telling the story of the local clay tobacco pipe industry.
On September 10 and 11 more than 1,000 people visited the former Southorn’s pipeworks for a glimpse of how the project is progressing. The occasion was part of a number of Civic Trust Heritage Open Days up and down the country. Further work has to be carried out on the buildings before the public can be allowed in on a regular basis, from late next year.
Friends of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum have spent several years cleaning and cataloguing documents and business records dating back nearly 100 years which had laid undisturbed in the factory for 30 years while it remained closed as a veritable time capsule. Some of these items were displayed with more than 200 Smitheman and Southorn pipes collected by Rex Key of Broseley.
The local radio station broadcast live from the pipeworks for a couple of hours featuring several local residents. The highlight of the weekend was the making of unfired pipes on site, with advice offered by a number of former Southorn employees who returned to their old work benches. Their recollections and anecdotes date back to the 1920s. Although Eric Cox does not date back that far, he spent his weekend at the works helping to enlighten visitors about what working life was like in the town before smoking attracted Government health warnings.