Broseley Local History Society Journal No 7 1979












organised by the Society on the life and work of John Wilkinson.

 Editor : N.J. Clarke


The Society was formed in 1972 to meet the demand for an organisation to preserve the material and documentary evidence of Broseley's industrial past. Since an important part in this industrial past was played by John Wilkinson, who lived for a time at "The Lawns",  it was decided that the organisation should be known as The Wilkinson Society.

The aims of the Society are :­

(i)     to act as custodian of any relevant material and information

and to make such material and information available to interested individuals and organisations ;

(ii)    to promote any relevant preservation activity and to assist individuals or organisations in such activity where deemed appropriate ;

(iii)   to provide a link with the community of Broseley for individuals or organisations undertaking local historical research.

Any available material will be added to the existing collection of Broseley and Wilkinson relics at "The Lawns", Church Street, Broseley. This collection is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays between Easter and September, from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m., or at other times by appointment.

Administration of the Society is by an annually elected committee. Membership is open to anyone interested in the Society's aims and activities. These activities include illustrated lectures, social evenings, researching and exhibiting the collection, field trips and coach tours. Members are kept informed by newsletters, and this annual Journal presents articles on the history of the Broseley area, John Wilkinson, and industrial archaeology in general.


As one of the Society's contributions to the Iron Bridge Bicentenary Year, we are devoting this number of the Journal to JOHN WILKINSON, one of the prime movers of the bridge project.  In the words of the most recent work on the subject ('The Iron Bridge : Symbol of the Industrial Revolution', by Neil Cossons and Barrie Trinder; Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust & Moonraker Press, June 1979), "the proposal to build an iron bridge between Madeley and the south shore of the Severn originated in a letter written in 1773 by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, the Shrewsbury architect, to John Wilkinson the ironmaster ... It was ... entirely within Wilkinson's character to be connected with the first iron bridge.  He was, except for one short period, a major shareholder in the project throughout the time when the bridge was being built. There is no evidence whatever that he was directly concerned with the erection of the Iron Bridge, but it does seem highly likely that it was he who took the first steps towards making Pritchard's proposition a reality."

In this special number we are reprinting articles relating to John Wilkinson from earlier issues of the Journal and Society Monograph No.l. on Wilkinson and the two Willey Ironworks (all now out of print).  In addition, we include in this issue a short article on Wilkinson's mines and ironworks at New Hadley and a note on the reputed remains of an iron boat connected with Wilkinson at Helton Tarn near Lindale. Finally, a complete list of the lectures and field-trips organised by the Society relating to John Wilkinson is appended.

The regular features of the Journal, together with articles on mines in the Broseley area, the remains of river craft in the Severn at Coalport and an analysis of the 1851 census figures for part of the parish of Broseley, are being held over until the next issue (No.8, 1980), which will be published in January.





 (Note:- A recent publication on this subject is 'The Token Coinage of John Wilkinson', I.G.M.T. Information Sheet No. 2.        Ed.)


 (Note : This is a shortened, revised version of Society Monograph No.l, 'John Wilkinson and the two Willey Ironworks', first published with full references in 1973 - 74. -  Ed.)  John Wilkinson and the Two Willey Ironworks

 Well before Wilkinson's time the Broseley area had something of an industrial tradition: coal, ironstone and limestone were all available in economic quantities near the surface, wood was plentiful, and the River Severn gave relatively easy access to a great part of the Kingdom. By 1600 the area round Broseley was one of the most important coal-producing areas of the country. We find for example that at least three flanged-wheel wooden railways were in use in the Broseley/Jackfield coalfield in 1605 - 8 to carry coal from the mines to the river. If, as is probable, this type of railway was in use in the area for some years before 1605, then Broseley may well claim to be the birthplace of the now world-wide flanged wheel railway. At the time of the Civil War, in 1645, the fate of coal mined at Benthall was a matter of some strategic significance; by 1758 it is recorded that some 100,000 tons of coal were being shipped each year from Broseley and Madeley to places down the river; and the number of vessels registered in Broseley (i.e. in Jackfield, which was part of Broseley at that time) was greater than in any other port between Welshpool and Gloucester. This is a story of continuous expansion, not only in the coal-mining industry, but also in associated transport systems, including developments of national and perhaps even inter-national importance.

The iron industry developed more slowly; small ironworks or "bloomeries" appeared early in the 16th century, and the first blast furnaces in the area appeared in Shifnal in 1564 and at Lilleshall in 1591 Some of these early ironworks were located in the valley we know as "The Smithies", about two miles south of Broseley, and a chain of ponds built to provide water power for the hammers of a bloomery or forge, or possibly the bellows of a blast furnace, may still be clearly seen on the right-hand side of the Broseley-Bridgnorth road where it crosses the valley. The first known reference to a blast furnace at the Old Willey site suggests that it already existed in 1618, and the first Coalbrookdale furnace as we see it to-day is dated 1638. Whatever the origins of these furnaces may have been, they heralded an expansion which was to make the iron industry in East Shropshire of major importance. In 1754 there were three blast furnaces working in the area, one at Old Willey and two at Coalbrookdale; by 1759 there were twelve, including the furnace built in 1757 at the New Willey site. In 1788 Shropshire blast furnaces produced 37% of the total pig-iron made in the country, and one recent writer has observed that "in the 30 years between 1776 and 1806 the Shropshire iron trade reached the apex of its prosperity".

The overall picture that emerges is of an area which, for the two hundred years between 1600 and 1800, cradled the expansion of a very prominent part of the British coal and iron industry. The story of the two Willey ironworks spans this period almost exactly, and may be seen not only as a piece of local history, but also as a story which reflects what was happening elsewhere at the time, links with national developments at many important points, and in its later stages highlights the contributions of John Wilkinson to the industrial revolution.

The first point to be made clear, in developing the Willey saga, is that the sites of the two Willey ironworks are a considerable distance apart. Old Willey ironworks was located on Linley brook, not far upstream from "The Smithies", where a dam may still be seen from the Willey-Smithies road. The site is about two miles south of Broseley. New Willey ironworks was on the Dean or Cod brook, about half a mile south of Broseley. The site is indicated by a sign erected by the Wilkinson Society, near the toll-house on the Broseley - Barrow road. The two sites are thus about one and a half miles apart.

We do not know a great deal about the Old Willey ironworks in its very early days. However, it is clear that when Sir John Weld bought the Willey Estate from Sir Francis Lacon in 1618 he was keen to carry on the iron producing and coal-mining activities of the Lacons. It has been established that Weld spent around £500 on the furnace at Old Willey about this time, a sum of money which, though large for the time, may well point to the conclusion that he was merely rebuilding it, and not building it from scratch. For the next hundred years or so references are scanty, but it is known that Old Willey was working in 1631, 1657, and 1687 - 88. After this it seems to have been leased to one Richard Baldwin. Then in 1733, this lease was taken over by Ford and Goldney, acting on their own accounts while they were partners in the Coalbrookdale Company. They also took over the lease of a furnace at Bersham, near Wrexham, at about this time. Ford and Goldney operated old Willey, using coke, until their lease ran out, presumably in 1754; the furnace then seems to have fallen into disrepair, but was eventually taken over by the New Willey Company in 1757 and operated by them until 1774, when it was finally closed. Thus the Old Willey furnace, having seen many changes of ownership and fortune, operated on and off for at least 150 years; and from 1757 to 1774 it was operated in conjunction with New Willey by John Wilkinson. One of the difficulties which may have led to its closure was that the water supply was inadequate in dry seasons.

The story of the New Willey ironworks ought properly to begin in 1757, with the setting-up of the New Willey Company; but in fact it is relevant to start by going back a few years earlier than this. In 1753 Isaac Wilkinson and his son John took over the Bersham furnace from Ford and Goldney, of Coalbrookdale. One year previously, one John Wilkinson was buying coal from the Weld Estate at Willey. If these events refer to the same man, as seems likely in the light of subsequent events, then it may be concluded that John Wilkinson first came to Broseley in 1752 to buy coal. He may well have heard or seen that Old Willey was about to become untenanted, spotted the potentialities of the area and the imminent developments at Coalbrookdale, and hatched in his mind the plot which led to the formation of the New Willey Company. In the event, the New Willey Company was formed in 1757, with John Wilkinson as a junior partner and as technical manager. The Company was seen at this stage as a supplier of armaments and pig-iron. There were nine other people involved besides. John Wilkinson, but he was the only working ironmaster amongst them. In 1757 Wilkinson was 29 years old, well educated, ambitious and skilled in his trade. His first wife had died a year earlier, leaving him with "ample wealth".

The location of the New Willey ironworks is hardly ideal, as the area is cramped and the way to the River Severn is over a steep river terrace. The brook is now very small and it seems likely that the water supply could not have been more than barely adequate in 1757. This may not have been very important, since by that year steam power had been used elsewhere to pump water back from tail-races to storage ponds. It seems probable that New Willey was designed from the outset to operate in this way using a Newcomen engine; there certainly was a Boulton and Watt "Topsy Turvy" engine on the site from 1777 to 1796, and it is thought that this type of construction indicates a conversion from a Newcomen engine. It seems reasonable to conclude that a Newcomen engine was installed originally in 1757, and was converted to a "Topsy Turvy" engine in 1777. The water complex for the New Willey works appears to have consisted of four dams, but these were not, as is usual, in a single chain. One very large dam, now breached, may still be seen some distance to the W.N.W. of the site, near the Lodge Farm. Two smaller dams may be seen, one on each side of the Broseley - Barrow road; they seem to have been on a tributary which is now dry. The location of the fourth dam, the one nearest the works, is not absolutely clear, but it seems highly probable that the embankment impounding the present pool and carrying the old road to Dean Corner and Willey, is on the site of the fourth dam and may even be that dam.

There are still many questions to be answered about the details of the site of the ironworks itself, which is immediately to the S.E. of the large dam. Although we know that the New Willey Company received authority to build one or more new furnaces, an excavation of the site is still needed to prove the existence of a second furnace. The distinct remains of the top of one furnace can be seen: this was built into the bank which forms the southern boundary of the site and is about 50 feet from what is now a large house. It is possible that this house was originally the engine house for the Watt blowing engine installed in 1776; and that the space between it and the furnace(s) was occupied by the 'regulating bellies' referred to below. Next to the large house is part of a row of workmen's cottages, very typical of the period, and still occupied. The cramped nature of the site is indicated by the proximity of these cottages to the works. From evidence found in the field to the South, it is thought that the coke hearths were situated in the area above and behind the furnace(s).

Just off the Barrow road, next to the Society's sign, are the remains of a small building, which is traditionally known as, and probably was, the weigh-house. It is reasonable to suppose that the works entrance was here. The line of a very obvious old track, generally accepted as being that of the Willey railway to the River, starts from the same spot. Much of the ironstone and coal for the works seems to have come from Benthall, and the remains of a pack-horse track may be seen in the field opposite the weigh house. There may have been a second railway route to the river going northward via Benthall; but the most used route was the railway built by the Company in 1757 from the works to a junction with an existing railway which ran from Rowton down Tarbach Dingle to the Severn. Wayleave was obtained from George Forester. The output of the works must have been considerable, as one track was evidently not enough. In 1759 the Company was granted the right to lay new tracks and make a double railway, the width not to exceed 10 yards, at a cost of £12 a year. Part of the wharfage on the Severn, about Gitchfield, became known as the Willey Wharf. The distance between the Works and Willey Wharf is about 2½ miles.

Since the Company was formed to produce, amongst other things, cannon, there would certainly have been a cannon boring machine on the site before 1774, at which date Wilkinson patented his improvements. In view of the paucity of the water supply, this earlier cannon-boring machine may well have been horse-driven. Hearsay evidence of a hoard of lead shot found on the site some years ago suggests that there may have been a shot tower, but for the present this must remain uncertain.

In 1763 John Wilkinson married his second wife, Mary Lea of Wroxeter, again a lady of some means. He moved at this time into the "New House" now known as "The Lawns", in Church Street, Broseley; and a chimney piece designed by J. F. Pritchard (the Shrewsbury architect who designed the Iron Bridge) is still to be seen in the house, together with a copy of his original drawing which names John Wilkinson as the client.

At some time between 1763 and 1774 Wilkinson gained complete control of the New Willey Company, and it seems to have continued its normal business during this period, J. W. being busy with his works at Bradley and Bersham. In 1773 he wrote from Bradley to his manager in Broseley saying that after four years' experimenting he had not only succeeded in using raw coal for smelting, but he had also doubled the output of the furnace. In 1774 Wilkinson patented a new method of casting and boring cannon, using a machine which caused the work to revolve while the tool was advanced along slideways. In the application for this patent he addressed himself as "Ironmaster, of Broseley", and it is tempting to surmise that the machine, which produced the first accurate cylinder for the prototype of the Watt engine, was developed at New Willey. In any case, Wilkinson was subsequently given a virtual monopoly for the manufacture of cylinders for Boulton and Watt engines. However, his big cylinder boring machine developed for the production models was at Bersham - the New Willey works did not have the room or power necessary.

After the success of the prototype Watt engine, Wilkinson lost no time in ordering a Watt engine for New Willey, which was the second production model. It had a 38" cylinder and was used for blowing the furnace(s) direct. We have a complete diagram of this blowing mechanism which shows two "regulating bellies" giving a continuous blast of 4 1b/in2 through a 3" tuyère. James Watt personally superintended the erection of this engine, completed in 1776, staying at the "New House" in Broseley whilst doing so. Brigadier Marchant de la Houliere remarks on the associated regulators which he saw under construction whilst he was investigating the reasons for the superiority of British cannon, on behalf of the French Government. He also stayed at the "New House".

As already mentioned, the "Topsy Turvy" engine (1777) discussed by Watt is thought to have been a conversion of an earlier Newcomen engine. As the furnace(s) were by now blown direct by the 38" Watt engine, the "Topsy Turvy" engine was used to supply a water-wheel and thus drive a boring mill. The last steam engine at New Willey was one with a 30" cylinder used to drive a boring mill direct; it was apparently built without licence from Boulton and Watt in 1787. Wilkinson built a number of engines without licence, and they are usually referred to as "pirate" engines.

Wilkinson's famous iron boat, the first in the world, was launched at Willey Wharf in 1787. One of the products of the works at this time was bar iron which the iron boat, and others like it, carried via the Severn and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal to the forges in the Birmingham area. From 1778 onwards Wilkinson executed an order for 40 miles of iron pipes for the Paris waterworks and also supplied steam engine parts to France. Some of this work was done at New Willey and taken the Severn for shipment. As England was at war with France at this time, the pipes gave rise to charges of "gun-running". They were 12" and 24" in diameter, in sections weighing up to 8 cwt each. The business was legitimate by the ethics of the time, but-caused Wilkinson "a lot of worry for little profit".

Wilkinson moved from Broseley in 1780, though it was not until 1800 that he leased "The Lawns" to John Rose, the Coalport china manufacturer. New Willey works seems to have closed in 1804; since this was also the date of the opening of Wilkinson's Hadley works, it indicates that he was one of the first to realise that the area south of the Severn Gorge was doomed to become the first part of the East Shropshire coalfield to suffer the eastward retreat of industry because of the exhaustion of mineral resources.

Maurice Hawes and Ralph Pee

(Note : This is a shortened, revised version of Society Monograph No.l, 'John Wilkinson and the two Willey Ironworks', first published with full references in 1973 - 74. -  Ed.) 


 John Wilkinson's last industrial undertaking in Shropshire appears to have been the setting up of the New Hadley furnaces (1804), in an area where he already operated coal-mines. This short article examines some of the evidence we have relating to the colliery and the ironworks.

Letters relating to the operation of the furnaces (1804 - 7)

Letter from Cornelius Reynolds of Broseley to Thomas Pearce, manager at New Hadley, dated 29 March, 1804, in which Reynolds gives instructions for charging the furnace

(full text quoted by John Randall in V.C.H. of Shropshire, volume 1, 1908, p.469).

Letter from Gilbert Gilpin to William Wilkinson, dated May 1804, in which Gilpin gives a list of the blast furnaces operating in Shropshire, including Hadley where there was one furnace in blast producing 30 tons of pig-iron per week.

(Shropshire Record Office, Shackerley Collection, 1781/6/28).

Letter from William Wilkinson to James Watt junior, dated 28th March, 1807, in which William suggests that the ironworks was not notably successful and that most people in the iron trade thought his brother had been mistaken in not confining his activities at Hadley to the colliery.

(Birmingham Reference Library, Boulton & Watt Collection, Box'20, Bundle 2, quoted by B. Trinder in 'The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire',1973, p.62).

Map of New Hadley, showing the extent of the estate (1809)

Entitled "Hadley Estate late the property of John Wilkinson Esq." and drawn to a scale of 33 yards to one inch, the map shows two blast furnaces about 100 yards to the north of the road from Hadley to Wombridge (part of the "Turnpike Road from Wem to Shifnal), immediately before it crossed into the latter parish, and a total of 27 working pits on both sides of that road. Three of the pits have "engines" for winding, and there are also three "water engines" for drainage. Numerous buildings associated with mine-working and pig-iron production are shown counting house, warehouse, smithy (3), machine house (2), saw pit, stable (2), powder house, stove, clay mill, weighing machine, reservoir. There are also coke-hearths between the furnaces and the road, and on the opposite side of the road; two rows of workers' cottages (Rag Row and New Hadley); and a "railway" heading northward towards the Shrewsbury Canal.

Attached to the map is a sworn affidavit of John Jones of Red Lake, collier, dated 1st  January, 1831, which refers to this estate as "sold in or about the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety one by Catherine Freeman, widow, and Richard Emery to John Wilkinson late of Broseley, deceased".

(Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, Lilleshall Company Collection).

Geological section of the New Hadley mines (1812)

Entitled "Parallel Section of Hadley Colliery taken by Chas.W. Pearce, April loth 1812", this is the earliest illustrated geological section of a mine in the Coalbrookdale Coalfield. It shows that some ten seams of coal, seven of ironstone and one of fireclay were being worked at this time in strata aggregating 300 ft. thickness. The shafts were up to 400 ft. deep and the mine equipment included seven horse gins, four whimsey (i.e. steam winding) engines and three steam pumping engines (each of the latter with hand capstan - type winders, probably to assist with shaft repairs). Also shown are the two blast furnaces, the two rows of cottages and some of the other buildings from the 1809 map.

(Apley Park Estate Office, and published in I. J. Brown's 'The Mines of Shropshire', 1976, pp.8 & 9.)

Other evidence

(a)        From the Brierly Hill Tunnel Accounts (S.R.O., Coalbrookdale Collection, 241/145)and the Horsehay Day Book (Shrewsbury Borough Library, now the Local Studies Library, M.S. 334), both quoted by Trinder, op.cit., p.62, it appears that Wilkinson was buying timber for the mines on the New Hadley Estate in 1793 - 94, and pumping equipment in 1796.

 (b)        In addition to the references to the winding and pumping engines noted above, further information on the steam engines used by Wilkinson at New Hadley comes from the Boulton & Watt Collection (quoted by Trinder, op.cit., pp.172 and 408): one of the winding engines was a 'pirate' engine with a 24 in. cylinder built at Bersham in 1795; the engine blowing the blast furnaces was a Boulton & Watt type engine with a 52 in. cylinder, date unknown. Also, it is just possible that the 'hybrid' engine which survived to be photographed in 1899 at the "Rats Pits, beside the Great Western Railway line between Wellington and Oakengates" (i.e.: a double-acting beam engine, apparently without a condenser, geared for winding a pit - see 'An Industrial Relic' in ‘Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological Society’, vo1,53, 1949 - 50, p.23) was the winding engine at pit No. 3 on the 1809 map of the New Hadley Estate.

(c)        Further evidence for the continued operation of the ironworks after Wilkinson's death in 1808 is given by John Randall in 'The Wilkinsons' ( no date-)• pp.50 - 51 and in V.C.H., op.cit., 'p.470 : in 1813 John Bradley and James Foster made an agreement with the executors of John Wilkinson's estate to buy the iron made at the two furnaces at New Hadley for seven years: Trinder (op. cit., p.244) adds that when this agreement expired, the stock at Hadley was valued by Foster's partner, J. U. Rastrick, and the works was apparently taken over by Foster in partnership with Thomas Jukes Collier, a Wellington wine merchant, who had been one of the original partners in John Bradley & Co. of Stourbridge. According to H. Scrivenor ('The History of the Iron Trade', 1967, p.96), the two New Hadley furnaces produced 2,080 tons of pig-iron in 1823, but no iron was made there in 1830. In fact, the end of the ironworks was marked by the sale of the blast-engine in 1835 (Salopian Journal, 2 September, 1835 - quoted by Trinder, op. cit., p.244).

(d)        There is little physical evidence of the Wilkinson period in New Hadley to-day. Over the years waste tips and quarrying for sand and clay for the nearby Blockley's brickworks have obliterated the site of the blast furnaces (Grid Ref

Si 685 116). Brick masonry, visible until a few years ago in the bank on the opposite side of the road to, and about half way between, the Methodist Chapel and the Granville Arms P.H. (Grid Ref : 681 117), was probably the remains of the housing for the "two large water engines" shown on the 1809 map. This 'structure' was photographed in about 1965.

N.J. Clarke 


The 'Trial' of 1787 is usually regarded as the first iron boat (see 'The First Iron Boat', by Ralph Pee in the Shropshire Magazine, 1972); but there is a tradition that Wilkinson built an earlier iron boat for use on Helton Tarn, near Lindale (Cumbria). Richard Barker writes (June 1979):

"The Ironbridge Gorge Museum has recently been in touch with the Windermere Steamboat Museum about the possibility of organising a search with modern techniques for the reputed remains of an iron boat connected with John Wilkinson. It appears that the Steamboat Museum has an option from the landowners to search for and display any remains which might exist. IGMT has expressed interest in any such boat, and asked to be kept informed of progress. It is not thought that a search is imminent. It is not clear whether the 'boat', if it existed at all, was constructed near Lindale, or with Wilkinson's barges built for the Severn. Thus it may have been either earlier or later than an iron boat reported in Yorkshire in 1777, but would clearly be of enormous interest. Hopes for its existence are based on nineteenth century reports that such a boat was abandoned in the silt-filled peat workings in the River Winster known as Helton Tarn."

We await further developments with interest. 


organised by the Society on the life and work of John Wilkinson.


27. 10. 72

John Wilkinson in Shropshire,

a talk by Barrie Trinder.

26. 5. 73

Wilkinson sites in the Wrexham area,

a field-trip organised by Wayne Turner.

4. 5. 74

Historic sites in Broseley, Bridgnorth and North Telford,

a coach tour organised by Maurice Hawes, Ralph Pee and N.J. Clarke.

8. 6. 74

Day Conference on John Wilkinson and the two Willey Ironworks


Lectures by :



R. Machin

Documentary and archaeological evidence


Maurice Hawes

Willey tramway


Ralph Pee

First iron boat


Wayne Turner

Wilkinson's trade tokens


and field-trip to the sites.


28. 2. 75

The travels and exploits of John and William Wilkinson in France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Silesia.

an illustrated talk by Dr. W. H. Chaloner

21. 11. 75

L'Ecomusée at Le Creusot in Burgundy.

an illustrated talk by Barrie Trinder


Weekend field-trip to Backbarrow and Lindale, Cumbria.

10. 11. 78

The Bradley Ironworks of John Wilkinson.

an illustrated talk by W.A. Smith.




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