Gilbert Gilpin



by N. J. CLARKE.



John Randall thought that Gilbert Gilpin; one time agent for John Wilkinson and later for the Botfields; was "about the best trade correspondent and letter writer of that day” [1] .  This praise is all the more remarkable when we consider that the late 18th and early 19th centuries were noted fro the quality and quality of their industrial commentators.  Gilpin’s letters are of particular value for the light they throw on the ironmasters John and William Wilkinson, on developments at Boulton and Watt’s Soho Works, and on the state of the iron trade in Shropshire and Staffordshire during and after the Napoleonic wars [2] .  In addition to his letter-writing concerning others, Gilpin was also an inventor and an industrialist in his own right. He was one of the pioneers of the manufacture of wrought-iron chains, which replaced rope for winding in collieries and for other purposes, and operated two chain works in East Shropshire.  

Born near Wrexham in 1766, Gilpin’s first important job was that of John Wilkinson’s chief clerk and agent for Bersham Ironworks from 1786 to 1796 [3] .  His letters preserved from that period include references to the increasingly strained relations between the two Wilkinson brothers and also the everyday matters of business between the Bersham Company and Boulton and Watt. In June 1796 Gilkpin left Wilkinson’s service and for a short time was employed by Boulton and Watt at Soho.  He then moved to South Wales where he was engaged in opening up a marble quarry and prospecting for lead ore near Neath. Returning to the Midlands in June 1799, Gilpin entered the service of Messrs. Botfield and Sons at Old Park Ironworks in East Shropshire and modernised the forges there.  He remained as agent with the Botfields for several years but eventually ‘left them in consequence of their objecting to his attention being divided between his duties to them and his chain-making [4] .

Gilpin continued to correspond with William Wilkinson from the time of his own departure from Bersham in 1796 until the latter’s death in 1808.  Such letters as are preserved from this period include details of his South Wales exploits; mention of an interesting technical development in Shropshire – the building of small ‘Snapper’ furnaces with an output of 10 to 15 tons a week which could be used to work surplus ore and coal at times of high demand; and references to his impending break with the Botfields [5] .

Unfortunately the collection of preserved letters appear to include few for this next and perhaps most important period of Gilpin’s life – his pioneering work on wrought iron chains in the early years of the 19th century.  John Wilkinson had made some attempt in the late 1770’s to introduce iron chains and wire rope for use in winding and engineering work [6] ; but it was not until the first decade of the 19th century; when the price of hempen rope increased because of restrictions on the import of help from the Baltic during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, that more successful efforts were made in this field.  Shropshire seems to have pioneered the successful substitution of wrought-iron chains for winding ropes in collieries and for other industrial purposes, with the work of William Horton and Benjamin Edge at Coalport, and that of Gilbert Gilpin [7] . According to a contemporary account, Gilpin's "method of working chains in grooves ..... was first put in practice at the ironworks of T.W. and B. Botfield, near Shifnal (i.e.: in 1803-4); and employed in the working of cranes, capable of purchasing from 10 to 15 tons, in the working c the governor-balls of the steam-engines constructed by Boulton and Watt, and in the raising of coal and ore from the mines, for which purposes ropes have before been solely used...." [8] .

Gilpin's work was recognised by the Society of Arts, who in 1805 presented. him with a silver-mounted purse containing 30 guineas and a silver medal; and, as we have seen, it also appears to have led to his leaving the Botfields and. setting up in business himself at Coalport. He possible took over the earlier chain-works of William Horton. We do not know the exact date of this move [9]  but certainly by 1814 he was advertising his wares in the following way: " Gilbert Gilpin, Coalport, near Shifnal, Shropshire, sells chains of the best Shropshire iron, which will. raise upwards of a ton weight in general use at 5d per pound, or 3sh. per yard. Upwards of 8,000 yards of pit-chain by him are now in use in the mines of the Lilleshall Co., Shropshire, and the adoption of such an immense quantity at one concern is a proof of the efficiency of the article. They are also in use in the principal manufactories of England and America." [10]

Although the letters we have for the last ten years of his life say little or nothing about his own chain-making activities, Gilpin provides valuable information about the state of the Shropshire and Staffordshire iron trade in the years of depression and uncertainty following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. For example, letters to Josiah John Guest of the Dowlais Company deal with such matters as the number of working furnaces and rolling mills, the prices of iron, and wages and prices of food in Shropshire (in 1817) and with the fall in the prices of Shropshire iron, which Gilpin attributed to the low prices of inferior Staffordshire iron (in 1819) [11] .

The letters of these later years were sent from Coalport (1817) and "Aqueduct" (1819): They really provide us with the only clue as to when Gilpin established his second chain-works. This was a "capital brick building, with yards, air furnace, etc. connected with it...... and now in full work as a chain manufactory" [12] , situated alongside the Coalbrookdale branch of the Shropshire Canal immediately to the west of the stone aqueduct over the Wellington-Bridgnorth turnpike road, on the very northern edge of the parish of Madeley (SJ 693059). So having established. a chain-works at the Aqueduct by 1819, Gilpin ran a business that was "profitable and extensive" until his death sometime before November 1827, and during these later years of his life he probably lived at Dawley. [13]

Following Gilpin's death; a sale of the property at the Aqueduct took place on the 13th and 14th November, which included the following equipment: "eight pairs of smiths bellows, four anvils, several tons of new iron bars and rods, many thousand yards of iron chains from 21bs to 20 lbs per yard, iron wheelbarrows, baskets, - gawns, etc,.." ; and there was also a sale of Gilpin's "library, collection of fossils. fine engravings and other effects ... at the Elephant Inn, Dawley Green." [14].

Such was the life of Gilbert Gilpin - "the best known...... of the able men whom Wilkinson gathered around him" [15] ;"about the best trade correspondent and letter-writer of that day" ; and "a pioneer of the manufacture of wrought--iron chains" [16]

N. J. Clarke

[1] John Randall, 'The Wilkinsons', (n.d.), Appendix p.3.

[2] . I know of three collections of documents which include letters from and to Gilpin: The Boulton and Watt collection in Birmingham Reference Library; The Lloyd Jones collection in the Shropshire Record Office (SRO 1781 ; and the Dowlais Iron Company letters in the Glamorgan County Record Office. I would be interested to learn of the existence of any other Gilpin letters.

[3] For the earlier part of Gilpin's life see W.H. Chaloner, 'The life of Gilbert Gilpin, chief clerk at Bersham Ironworks, near Wrexham, 1786 -- 1796, and his relations with the Wilkinson brothers', in the National Library of Wales Journal (1960), pp 383-4, quoting letters from the Boulton and Watt collection.

[4] . J. Randall, op.cit'', p.11.

[5] SRO 1781/6/26, 28 and 31.

[6] W.H. Chaloner, op.cit.., p. 384.

[7] Victoria County History of Shropshire, vol. 1 (1908), pp.479-81; and Barrie Trinder, 'The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire' (1973), p. 222.

[8] 'The Mechanic', 1805 and 1807, quoted in V.C.H., om cit.

[9] The reverse of a Gilpin trade token of 1811 proclaimed that he "sells chains for pits, cranes, etc., of the best horse-nail iron at 5d for 1 lb", but does not state where they were made.

[10] 'The Cambrian', 1814, quoted in V.C.H, op.cit.; and I.J. Brown, 'Some industries in the vicinity of the Blists Hill Museum site', in Shropshire News Letter, No.37 (Dec.1969), p. 41:"Gilpin's Chain Factory, Coalport (SJ695029).... situated at the bottom of Coalport Hill on the left hand side when turning towards Coalport village".

[11] Letters quoted in M. Elsas, Ed, 'Iron in the Making' (1960), pp.3 - 7, 199 – 200.

[12] Eddowes Salopian Journal., 7th November 1827. For a fuller description of the industries that grew up at the Aqueduct, see my two articles in S.N.L. No. 39 (Dec 1970) and to. 40 (June 1971): 'The Aqueduct, an East Shropshire Industrial Settlement.'

[13] Around the rim of the Gilpin trade token of 1811 runs the legend "Gilbert Gilpin, Dawley, Shropshire, pays the bearer a halfpenny"; and an anecdote quoted by J. Randall, op-cit., p.13, suggests that Gilpin resided in Dawley. According to A.B. Palmer, "John Wilkinson and the Old Bersham Ironworks" in Transactions of the Cymmrodorion Society for 1897-8 (1899), Gilpin was "buried in Wrexham churchyard.”

[14] Eddowes, op,cit.

[15] H. W. Dickinson, 'John Wilkinson, Ironmaster' (1914), p. 40; though his suggestion that Gilpin was Wilkinson's clerk at Broseley until 1786 hardly fits the facts.

[16] B. Trinder; op.cit., p.,222.






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