Broseley Local History Society Journal No 19 1997


  John Wilkinson and the Iron Bridge

Thomas Turner at Caughley

Book Reviews

Betancourt sheds Light on the Wilkinsons

The Industrial Archaeology of Shropshire

Book Reviews

Betancourt sheds Light on the Wilkinsons

The chance discovery of a new book in the Library of the Institution of Civil Engineers provided a new insight into sources for the activities of the Wilkinsons.  A Spanish Engineer, Agustin de Betancourt y Molina (1758-1824), had spent time travelling in England, France and Russia, and recorded what he saw in a large number of detailed drawings similar to those found in encyclopaedias from the period. The range of subjects was enormous, but the immediate interest is in sets of drawings of the new James Watt double-acting engines, prepared from information obtained somewhat clandestinely, and possibly for the same group that had ordered the Watt pumping engines at Chaillot for the Paris waterworks, provided in large part by John Wilkinson about 1780 (for which, see Wilkinson Studies II); and of the cast iron cannon manufactory at Indret, an island in the lower Loire, in which his brother William played a part.

  There are other items of local interest, such as the headgear of the Coalport incline, in a drawing dated from 1793-6 (and actually captionedas the Coalbrookdale lock), which is now in the Library of the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chauss&s, Paris, MS 1558. This archive also holds a series of drawings made by Betancourt of a double-acting engine, dated 1788 (sic) and a Mémoire sur une machine avapeur double effet, dated 1789, as MS 1258.

  A summary of Betancourt’s activities, well illustrated with his drawings, appears in an issue of Ingenieria Civil, No.102, 1996, pp7-2O, published by the Ministerio de Fomento. This contains a bibliography of Betancourt’s work. The authors are D.Romero Muñoz and A.Sáenz Sanz: Un ingeniero espafiol al servicio de dos coronas. Betancourt: los inicios de Ia ingenieria moderna en Europa.

However, this is only linked to the publication of a much larger catalogue, containing sixteen studies on different activities and industries, profusely illustrated with original drawings from collections all over Europe — not all by Betancourt; and also an extended bibliography linked to Betancourt. Unfortunately the scale of many of the illustrations does not do full justice to the detail — particularly so in the case of the Indret works.

The work is: Betancourt: los inicios de Ia ingenierla moderna en Europa, Madrid 1996. Colegio de ingenieros de caminos, canales y puertos; colección ciencias humanidades e ingenieria, No 54. ISBN 84-380-0112-2.

The section concerning the works at Indret (“Yndrid”) is dated 1791, and is from the collections of the Biblioteca del Palacio Real, Madrid, IX-Mesa 97. It is stated that in order to cast the cannon vertically, care had to be taken to avoid problems with inundation of the pit by high tides in the river. The same high tides were originally used to drive a pair of waterwheels for the boring engines. The raw material for the furnaces was primarily defective old cannon, and a tall crane was provided to raise these to a great height, in order to drop and fracture them, to reduce then to manageable pieces for the furnaces — other cannon acting as the anvil. This machine is reproduced as one of some dozen plates also covering boilers, single-acting engines and the building and machinery for boring cannon. The site also had an iron tramway with turntables to move the cannon during production, which reached 150 a year. Wilkinson appears to have had no hand in later developments of sand moulding, and the replacement of the waterwheels with steam engines, which were actually the work of Delamotte, an associate of the Périer brothers, who ordered the 1780 Paris engine from James Watt/John Wilkinson. The text presented does not actually define who built which parts of the manufactory illustrated, but the bib­liography refers to manuscripts by Betancourt which include historical surveys; so there may be a mass of additional informa­tion. There are also sets of drawings for Spanish intallations at Seville and Barcelona.

The text on the double-acting engines is equally brief, but describes Betancourt’s visits to Birmingham and to Albion Mills (Blackfriars) in 1789 (financed by the Périers, it is suggested, with intent to acquire knowledge of the double-acting engine, still only a rumour on the Continent). In Birmingham he was received with courtesy, but obtained no information. At Blackfriars however, he was allowed a limited view of a machine at work — conspicuously without the chain transmission of the single-acting engine, but with other parts such as the centrifugal governor obscured. Betancourt nonetheless presented a Memoria to the French Academy, and the secrets were out. Betancourt appears to have directed the construction of a new double-acting engine for the Périer brothers during 1790. On 23 July 1790 Watt belatedly wrote to Boulton about not trusting foreign visitors. There are three drawings of an unidentified Watt double-acting engine in the book, including one detail sketch of the valve gear, all from the Ponts Ct Chaussées collection.

Again, there is a possibility of significant new information from this source on the role of the Wilkinsons in the dissemination of new technology, though not directly from the two publications described here. The catalogue, however, is well worth seeking out in its own right, as a magnificent collection of drawings of engineering works from the Wilkinson era.

Richard Barker

The Industrial Archaeology of Shropshire

By Barrie Trinder (Phillimore, 1996)

At the outset the author explains that this book springs from nearly three decades of teaching and field work in Shropshire, and he acknowledges the conversations with countless students and colleagues which have influenced his work. The outcome, the first comprehensive survey of the county’s industrial archae­ology, was completed before he took up his new post at Nene College, Northampton. Those who have contributed to and benefited from Bame Trinder’s scholarship over the years—whether as a result of his editorship of the Shropshire Newsletter (the twice-yearly newsletter of the Shropshire Archaeological Society, to which Barrie added a distinctly industrial archaeological flavour in the late 1960s and early 1970s); or his classes, research groups and field trips (when he was Shropshire Adult Tutor for Historical Studies); or his work at the Ironbridge Institute (where he became Senior Fellow in Industrial Archaeology)—wilI particularly welcome its publication. Barrie Trinder has gained an international reputation as a leading figure in the field of industrial archaeology as a result of his enthusiasm and dedication, the breadth and depth of his research and the clarity and readable nature of his many publications—and all these characteristics are present in this volume.

 In his magnum opus of five years ago, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Industrial Archaeology (ed. Barrie Trinder, Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), he offered this definition of a discipline which is now forty years old:

 It is in practice not the study of the whole of the physical evidence of society in recent centuries, but one which centres on manufactures and mining and their associated transport systems, civil engineering works and services, and overlaps into many areas of concern that are shared with other disciplines. (p. 351)

This present volume provides a theoretical foundation for industrial archaeological research of relevance both within and beyond the borders of Shropshire. The method it advocates is to use ‘archaeological evidence in a disciplined manner to enhance understanding of the past, to set up models, to pose questions, to accumulate data about the artefacts, images, structures, sites and landscapes which form the subject matter of Industrial Archaeology, to analyse it and reach conclusions about it which enhance our understanding of the past’. The purpose of industrial archaeology, it suggests, is ‘not merely to summarise nor to ossify but to stimulate, not to bring comfort and congratulation but to provoke, to consider not just questions of local history but the place of mining and manufactures in man’s past’ (Introduction, p. 6).

 Chapters in the book cover rural and market town industries, coalfield landscapes, the textile industries, the landscape of upland mining and the archaeology of transport, and include very useful statistical tables. The concluding chapter on perspectives is followed by appendices on water-power sites in Shropshire, turnpike road data and organisations concerned with industrial archaeology, by a comprehensive bibliography and by indexes on names, places and subjects.

 The national importance of Shropshire’s industrial past cannot be overestimated, and Barrie Trinder’s book, like his earlier The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire, is a major contribution to our understanding of the subject.

 Neil Clarke






A s t.