John Wilkinson - King of the Ironmasters
“THE KING OF THE IRONMASTERS” by Wayne Turner
(Journal No.1, 1973 republished in Journal 7, 1979)
There are probably more legends surrounding the name of John Wilkinson than that of any other industrialist, either of his own time or since: born in a market cart, later a discoverer of coal-gas, coal-tar, the coke-smelting process in iron, improver of steam-engines, and even (in one learned encyclopaedia) the builder of the famous Iron Bridge. The fact that few of these tales have any basis of truth must not, however, obscure the fact that Wilkinson’s achievements were immense. He was, of course, what we in Britain call a “character”; he was also his own publicity agent and would be the last one to disagree with anyone who laid extravagant claims to his inventive genius. One notion that Wilkinson himself never claimed was the foundation of the “Wilkinson Sword” Company, a firm with which he had nothing to do, despite popular belief to the contrary
Whilst remembering the fact that Wilkinson had an enormous industrial “empire” around which he circulated his own coinage (minted at Soho, not in Broseley, I hasten to add), it is with his doings in the Broseley area that this short article is concerned. Nevertheless, let us not forget the “chief cities” of his “empire”, before looking at his work in the Broseley region; Bersham, Bradley, Hadley, Hollinswood, Snedshill and Brymbo, where he ran extensive and important ironworks; Castlehead and Brymbo, where his agricultural improvements drew forth much contemporary praise from farming experts of the day; his ventures in copper and his big lead concerns at Buckley, and around Minera, Brymbo and Mold, as well as at Rotherhithe; his important share-holdings in three or four canals, and his banking enterprises. Add, too, that in his seventies he sired three children by his housekeeper at Brymbo Hall and one has at least a somewhat remarkable man
Before settling at “The Lawns” in Broseley, Wilkinson had been an iron merchant in Cumberland and an ironmaster under his father at Bersham. When he arrived at Broseley in 1757, it was to join several Bristol and Shropshire businessmen in the taking out of a lease from Lord Forester on a furnace site at Willey. This was confirmed in a further lease of 1759, where it appears that Wilkinson was to be a kind of technical adviser to a company, which would specialize in the manufacture of guns for Board of Ordnance contracts, Britain having in the meantime gone to war with France. It is said that Wilkinson swindled his Willey partners by informing them that the whole venture was a waste of money: the partners therefore sold their shares cheaply and quickly to the ironmaster, who then unearthed a store of good-quality iron which he had buried under Willey, and sold it at a goodly profit! Wilkinson had arrived at Willey as a widower, with a small daughter who was being brought up in Shrewsbury, but in 1763 he married a Wroxeter lady of 40 and settled at “The Lawns”
In 1774, Wilkinson patented a new type of cannon-borer, an engine with which he could bore iron with astonishing accuracy. His skill as a caster and borer brought him to the notice of James Watt and the latter’s partner, Boulton, whom Wilkinson already knew. Wilkinson now produced a cylinder-borer and, in doing so, provided Watt with cylinders “bored to truth”. This was the answer to perhaps the most difficult of Watt’s problems, and with this skill the Broseley ironmaster was to make himself indispensable to the Soho partners, who insisted that all of their engine parts should he made by, and bought from, Wilkinson. The second Watt engine was assembled at Willey, where most of the parts had been bored and fashioned. Watt himself came to look over the workmanship and the setting up of the engine, staying with the ironmaster at “The Lawns”. He expressed his complete satisfaction with Wilkinson’s results and in 1776 the finished engine was working at what Wilkinson had termed, since his acquiring control in 1763, the New Willey Company. It was set up to blow his blast furnace at Willey, the first use for a steam- engine other than raising water, whether for pumping or fountains or providing water for wheels to work bellows.
Between 1768 and 1770 Wilkinson set up a new ironworks, this time at Bradley, near Bilston, in Staffordshire. Here he had another mansion as well as coalmines and blast furnaces, in which he used coke, as he had at Bersham. In time, this became his mightiest ironworks. At Bradley in 1782 - 83 he set up another “first”, in this case a steam-powered forge-hammer, driven by the new ‘Sun and Planet’ gear. Another house purchase was made in 1778 - 79, this time a solitary, marine residence at Castlehead, near Grange (N. Lancs.) on a piece of marshy land which became an island at high tide.
In 1779, Wilkinson’s name appears as one of the chief shareholders in the Iron Bridge project over the River Severn, connecting the two parishes of Broseley and Madeley. In 1787, the ironmaster produced the world’s first iron boat; it was a long narrow barge, made at the Willey ironworks and launched at the Willey Wharf to a salute from Wilkinson’s Willey guns. Other such boats appeared from Wilkinson, mostly for use on the canal near Bradley.
At about this time, too, he completed what was surely one of his most gigantic tasks, that of casting and making 40 miles of cast-iron piping for the Paris Waterworks. Some of these pipes were made at Willey, where they were taken down Wilkinson’s Tarbach Dingle tramway to the wharf on the Severn and from there to the trans-shipment port of Chepstow. Other pipes were made at Bersham from whence they went overland to Chester and from there by sea to Chepstow.
In the 1790’s Wilkinson’s terrible fraternal war took place with his brother, William; and one of the results of this was that William informed Boulton and Watt that his elder brother had been erecting Watt-type steam-engines, not only for himself, but for other customers both at home and abroad, unfortunately without premiums! After a long, undignified period of wrangling, Wilkinson had to pay up, much to his annoyance, for, rightly or wrongly, he considered that his part in the eventual success of the steam-engine had been at least as important as Boulton’s had been. The end of the century found him spending more and more time between Bradley and his new ironworks (acquired in 1792) on the rich Brymbo Estate in North Wales, not far from Bersham, which seemed to be declining in importance. It is not surprising, therefore, that in 1800 he leased his Broseley home to John Rose, the famous Coalport China manufacturer.
In 1804, with Snedshill and Hollinswood having been relinquished some years earlier (1793/97), Wilkinson began producing iron again in that area, on the New Hadley Estate, acquired in 1791. By now Wilkinson was a father again: his housekeeper at Brymbo Hall produced three children between 1802 and 1806. His appointed heir, however, was his nephew, Thomas Jones; provided, of course, that he took the name of Wilkinson - which he did! In 1808, the mightiest ironmaster of the day died at his home in Bradley and he was buried, after several attempts, in his huge cast-iron coffin in the front garden of his home at Castlehead. The grave was surmounted by a tall obelisk, also of cast-iron, on which was inscribed his own epitaph, or at least a watered-down version of the somewhat vitriolic original!
In the years between 1812 and 1817 the Wilkinson empire was brought down in ruins through useless, unprofitable litigation, largely the work of his heir and nephew. In 1828, his coffin and obelisk were removed to the village of Lindale, in order to expedite the sale of his former house, and the end was complete.
Before his death, Wilkinson had threatened his Bradley workers that, seven years to the day after his death, he would come back to see his beloved furnaces, mounted on his big grey. It is surely a testimony to the power of the man’s personality to read in the faded press notice of July 1815, that several thousands turned up to see their former squire and master! Thomas Telford had recognised his stature. When he went to discuss the plans for the new Ellesmere Canal in October 1793 he wrote: “I had the support of the great John Wilkinson, King of the Ironmasters."
“King of the Ironmasters” – comments by L.F. Peltor, Bridgnorth (Nov.1979) – Journal 8, 1980
Further to the article in Journal No.7 (1979), I enclose some notes on the Wilkinson family and its connections, and a correction.
John Wilkinson’s father, Isaac (died 1784), of Clifton, near Workington, was a small farmer and also a pot founder with Backbarrow Company, Colton in Furness. He was described as “shrewd and intelligent” - this is illustrated both by the patent he took out for a laundress’s box iron, and by his sending John to be educated at a dissenters’ academy at Kendal, run by Caleb Rotherham, D.D. (Edinburgh). Rotherham (1694 - 1752) was born at Great Salkeld, near Penrith, and became the friend and correspondent of Dr. Joseph Priestley. These two dissenting divines would obviously greatly influence Wilkinson’s well-known heterodox beliefs.
Miss Jessica Lofthouse, in ‘The Curious Traveller through Lakeland’, states that John built or bought his own little forge and furnace down the Winster river at Wilson House, near Lindale. From the Winster mosses he dug peat to use in smelting haematite ore. For ease in transport he cut a canal into the turbary and used a shallow turf-carrying boat. Tradition says he made an iron boat, the first of its kind, for this work. One was seen to sink in Helton Pool, a small tarn in which, they say, the “first iron ship was tried out”. But when ‘The Trial’ was launched on the Severn in 1787, the Winster folk who had jeered “How dosta think iron’ll float ?" were silenced.
John’ s brother, William (1743 - 1808), was educated at the Unitarian academy in Warrington where Dr. Priestley was a tutor. He too became an ironmaster. Their sister, Mary (1744 - 96), married, in 1762, Joseph Priestley, LL.D. (Edinburgh),F.S.A. (1733 - 1804), who was born at Fieldhead, near Leeds. He was a dissenting minister, and a man of science who discovered oxygen. Mary has been described by one authority as Isaac’s only daughter, but there seems to have been another, Sarah (1745 - 1808), who married Thomas Jones, a surgeon of Leeds; John’s nephew and appointed heir was presumably their son.
In 1755 John married Anne (1733-56), daughter of the Rev. Thomas Mawdesley of Mawdesley Hall, Croston (Lancs), and Margaret (née Godsalve), whose grandfather was a merchant of Amsterdam. Ann’s sister, Margaret (1753-1812), married John Wilson Robinson, Mayor of Kendal, 1756/7. Anne dying at the early age of 23, John later married Mary Lee, of Wroxeter (1723 - 1806). He had a daughter by his first wife but no issue is recorded of his second marriage. However, by Ann Lewis, his housekeeper, John had three illegitimate children - Mary Anne, Johnina and John. These three later assumed by Royal Licence the name Wilkinson, and in 1808 were granted arms as follows :-
Mary Anne:- gu1es a fess compony azure and argent cotised between 3 unicorns passant of the last, in centre chief point the chemical character of Mars (i.e. Iron) or; a bordure wavy ermine;
Johnina:- as above, but the bordure erminois;
John :- as above, but the bordure gold.
The Crest in each case was - a mount vert thereon a greyhound sejant argent collared compony azure and argent, the dexter paw resting on a bezant charged with the chemical character of Saturn (i.e. Lead) sable.
With reference to Wilkinson’s arrival in this area in 1757 (p.2. paragraph 3) the lease on a furnace site at Willey was taken out from George Forester, Esq., (1735 - 1811), the ‘Bachelor Squire’ whose exploits were recorded by John Randall in ‘Old Sports and Sportsmen, or the Willey Country’. George’s cousin Cecil Forester inherited the Willey estate, taking the surname Weld-Forester, and was created the first Baron Forester in 1821.
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