Broseley Local History Society  
Incorporating the Wilkinson Society

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John Wilkinson - Ironmaster Extraordinary


Ron Davis
With Illustrations by the Author

1987, Published by The Dulston Press

© Ron Davis 1987

ISBN 0 9504999 5 1

This page was scanned from the original, not the revised version.  A few pics are inserted for quality checks.  If this page to be included then the text will be proofed and rest of pics added.

Dedicated by the author to his wife, Joan for her quiet patience and encouragement.




‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson.

Early Years.

The Wilkinson Furnace at Wilson House.

Coalbrookdale and the Darbys.


James Watt

The Iron Bridge.

‘The Trial’

James Brindley.

The New Rotative Engine.

The New Village.

Local ‘Coinage’

Iron and Iron- Framed Buildings and Furnishings.

Cast Iron School and ‘Copybooks’


The South Staffordshire Coalfield.

Paris Waterworks.

Bersham Iron Works.

John Wilkinson’s Acquisitions.

Farming Interests.

Brymbo Works.

Wilkinson’s Sense of Humour




Nephew’s Court Action.




Other Information Sources.

Wolverhampton Chronicle 24th June 1793.





Newcomen ’s Steam Engine            . .                    

Newcomen ’s Engine — Diagram            ...            ii

Wilkinson’s Water Driven Lathe                                                    iii

Little Clifton ... ...         ...                                             iv

Backbarrow  ...                         V

Wilson House , Lindale  ...            ~vi

Wilkinson Monument, Lindale .. *            ...            ..vii

Cartmel ... ... ...                        ...            ..          . •         viii

Cark House  ... ..                                                          ix

Castlehead  Mansion .....                                         x

Brymbo  Hall ... ...         ...                                             xi

Bersham  Works ... ...                                          xii

No.1 Furnace, Brymbo  ...            ...            ...            ...            xiii

Lead Smelting House, Caello, Wrexham                                             xiv

The Court and Plas Grono, Wrexham                     ...            . •.            ...            xv

Bunkers Hill Cottages, East Bersham , Wrexham            • •.            xvi

Iron Church, Minera, Wrexham            •..            ...            ...            ...            xvii

The Lawns, Broseley  ...            ~..            ...            ......            xviii

Preens Eddy Bridge, Coalport            ...            ...            ...                                  xix

Smelting House, Broseley ,          Shropshire             ...             xx

Broseley  ... ... ...         ...            * . •            ...            ...            xxi

Old Willey  & New Willey  Ironworks, Broseley                                                ...            xxii

Ironbridge  & Coalport Bridges             ...            xxiii

Iron Church, Button Oak, Wyre Forest                         ...             xxiv

Iron Pulpit, Bradley  Wesleyan Chapel             ...             ...             xxv

Outbuildings at Wilson House             ...            xxvi

An Early Cupola ... ....            xxvii

Forge anglais du Creusot            ...            ...            . .            ...            xxviii

Bradley  Iron Works ...            ...            ...            ...            xxix

One Guinea Voucher             ...            xxx

Token ... ... ...            ....            ...            xxxi

The Ironmaster Inn ...   •..            ...                     ...            xxxii

Monument at Bradley  ..            ...            ...            xxxiii



The following work concerning the life of the celebrated 18th century iron master ‘John Wilkinson’ is intended primarily as an illustrated biography with the object of making a normally serious subject interesting to the public in general (especially in those districts where he prominently established himself) rather than as a reference for hardened historians, but who nevertheless might find a place for it on their bookshelves. 

It covers faithfully the known sites and interests from his early years in the Lake District to the dynamic years spent in the Salop, Staffordshire and Welsh coalfields, at the same time bringing to mind the many industrial innovations and inventions that were to establish him as one of the leading entrepreneurs of his day, resulting in his becoming a legend in his own time, and what we would term today as being a Super Star of the industrial world.

‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson


Iron Mad Wilkinson’ they called him, and it was not an unlikely title for John, who like so many other youngsters of his time was early inured to the arts of the forge and the smelting of iron.

 He was born, according to major works of reference, sometime in the year 1728 whilst his mother was travelling in a cart enroute from her home in Clifton to Workington Fair in the County of Cumberland, where she regularly went to sell her farm produce. Her husband, Isaac, it is believed, was a farmer-shepherd, who did occasional work at a nearby iron-smelting furnace.

 For a child to be born in circumstances such as John, was at that time considered to be a good omen, causing the neighbours to remark, ‘T’lad wod sum daay be a gurt man’ and this was certainly to be true of John Wilkinson, who was to become an Iron-Master exceptional and legend in his own life time.

 Surprisingly, although John was to become famous on the Midland scene where he later established himself, here at Clifton he is hardly known, and by some, never heard of!

 The area of Little Clifton today is completely by-passed by newer and faster roads, so without the aid of a detailed map, it is for a stranger, virtually impossible to locate. It lies cheek by jowl to Bridgefoot village which is set upon the River Marron, a pretty spot, boasting a secluded and ancient water-powered iron forge with an attendant weir and mill house.

 The old furnace where Isaac worked, stood about half mile south from Little Clifton, but today there are no outward visible signs of such, though cinder is seen in fairly large quantities and finding a lump or two of iron is no problem

 As one would expect, the site is known as Cinder Banks, a name which has been adopted to name a new bungalow recently erected upon the site.  Across the field to the west of Cinder Banks finds Furnace House.  It now stands empty in a long and lonely lane and was probably used in days past by managers of the ironworks and possibly the Wilkinsons.


Early Years

 When John was twelve years old, his father, Isaac, with his little family consisting now of three boys and two girls, came to live at Backbarrow, a small industrial centre situated about the River Levens which flows from the southern tip of Lake Windermere .  It was here that, for a suitable consideration that he obtained permission to take out of the furnace there, metal, in its molten state, in large ladles, across the public highway to his own house, where he had suitable moulds into which the liquid metal was poured, and one of the products he manufactured, was the common flat or sad iron.

 In view of this rather humble situation, the actual facts bear witness that Isaac was nevertheless a shrewd, skilled, and most intelligent person. In his own words, speaking later of his former employers, ‘They paid me 12 shillings, I was content. They raised me to l4s, I did not ask them for it; they went on to 16s, and to 18s, I never asked them for the advance. They next gave me a guinea a week and I said to myself, ‘If I am worth a guinea a week to you, I am worth more to myself’ so I left them.’

 And now at Backbarrow , though as yet only in a modest way, his beliefs were beginning to prove true. The work was hard, but with the added income, he was able to give his family an excellent education, proving that he must also have been a person of some culture.

 He sent his first son, John, to the academy of the Rev. Dr. Caleb Rotherham at Kendal, where some of the chief Presbyterian ministers of Lancashire in the last half of the eighteenth century received their scholastic training. A younger son, William, born in the year 1738, was educated at Nantwich, Cheshire , at the school of the Rev. Joseph Priestley, who was to become one of the founders of modern chemistry as the discoverer of oxygen in 1774. As Joseph Priestley did not arrive in Nantwich until 1758, it would appear that William then aged 20 years attended the school simply to further his studies. Through William’s acquaintance, Priestley was to meet and later marry Isaac’s youngest daughter, Mary , in 1762.

 It is said that Mary  made the Rev, an admirable wife with her great understanding and strength of mind. She was a most affectionate and generous person and accomplished manageress of household affairs and a worthy companion to this great man.

The eldest daughter, Sarah, married a Thomas Jones, and their son, Thomas, was later to play a most deciding role in the Wilkinson saga. Of Isaac’s second son, Henry, who was born in the year 1730, there is little knowledge, other than that he died at Wrexham in 1756.

 At the time Isaac Wilkinson  was engaged in this one-rung-up-the-ladder occupation, he lived at the still existing rather good house some yards south of the Backbarrow  Furnace. This was and still is known as ‘Bare Syke’ , or ‘The House in the Grove by the Stream’ and showed even then that the family was fast becoming affluent.

 Isaac being a man of whimsical turn and always full of ideas, aided and abetted by his enterprising son, John, actually cut away the face of the high rocks behind the house and formed them into fruit walls, against which were planted peach, plum, pear and other choice trees.

 In 1872, James Stockdale , in his ‘Annals of Cartmel’ wrote, ‘The fruit trees are now no longer there, though the irons to which the trellis work was fastened may still be seen jutting out from the face of the rock, even to this day, 1872!’ More than a hundred years later than Stockdale’s history, and more than 230 years since their origin, these same irons to which the trellis work was fastened, may still be seen jutting out from the rock face — even to this day, 1985!

 The present occupiers of ‘Bare Syke’  are the Bevin family, who for at least the last three generations have been employed here as water-bailiffs and as such also act as unofficial guardians over this historical site, and like nothing more than to point out the various interesting Wilkinson items to be located there, and include at the rear of the house an out-building partly set into the living rock. It was explained to me by Mr. Peter Bevin that it was here where Isaac and his son John, had carried out their iron-forging and pot-founding. An old chimney-breast, set well against the stone face, showed the ancient heat marks of the old forge, but generally the place appeared to be homely and humble, being now used mainly for domestic purposes and far removed from the toil and the visions it inspired those many years ago.

 At one place in the rock-face where once the fruit trees thrived, Mr. Bevin indicated some beautifully carved Wilkinson initials. There appeared to be several of them, but owing to the inclement weather and the ever coagulating algae seen thriving in these damp climes, found it difficult to establish or give them any order.

 What appeared to be a fair swap of information, occurred when noticing three square recesses set into a low solid wall alongside the old forge. Mr. Bevin had little idea as to what purpose they might have originally served, but had found them useful to store jars, bottles and the like, so I suggested that the Wilkinsons may also have been bee-keepers, for they strongly resembled bee-boles of old, where the skeps or straw hives were kept.

 The small area of Backbarrow, though backed with wooded hills and clothed in the purest verdure, nevertheless, still remains largely as an industrial blot on the Lakeland scene, owing to its principle industry being an ultramarine manufactory (set it is said upon the site of one of the older furnaces) and from which escapes the rather unsightly blue of the aqua—marine. The old, and now disused ironworks, also adds to the disfigurement, but in this case, nature is quickly taking over, and its once proud furnace, said to be the last working charcoal furnace in the country, now has sapling trees growing out of its crown. (The time must surely be ripe for its preservation, or at least for its removal to one of the established industrial museum sites.)


The Wilkinson Furnace at Wilson House

With so much achieved during his seven profitable years at Backbarrow , in which time he also attained a partnership in the Works with partners Job Rawlinson, William Crossfield, and George Drinkall, Isaac with his son John, his education now complete, wished to have a furnace of their own. Once again the family moved, this time even further south, to a place called Wilson House  on the River Winster near Lindale , in the Parish of Cartmel, where for some strange reason they hoped to smelt the rich haematite ore of the Furness with turbary or peat, rather than the long established and sure charcoal methods. For this gamble they chose the site of Wilson House owing to the large tracts of peat which existed in the nearby Winster Valley, through which the tortuous River Winster ran. To facilitate this end, they cut a deep navigable channel through the Lindale Moss as far as Helton Tarn, around which, the richest peat bed lay, and into this channel the River Winster was made to flow.  

 Whilst this feat was being carried out, John, was already working on the idea that an iron boat  might be made to float, and better to carry out the task of transporting the peat, for why should he go to the expense of a wooden boat, when iron and the skill to fashion it he had aplenty? The whole idea, however, was scorned and derided by his friends, but to their great astonishment, he nevertheless triumphed, and the vessel, the first iron boat ever made, was to be parent and forerunner of all the iron boats and ships built since. It appears that the historical vessel worked well and was seen for many long years after it had been abandoned on the lonely Helton Tarn, and supposedly where it still remains though submerged and apparently trapped in the deep mud. However, during the period, September 1979 to March 1980, a systematic search was carried out at the tarn by the Windermere Steamboat Museum, using a proton magnetometer and an underwater version of the same, but disappointingly, no trace of the said iron boat was found.

 The family’s attempts to smelt the ore with the peat was not the success they had hoped for, and they were obliged to turn to the old wood charcoal methods. However, beneath the peat they had cut, was discovered a good quality clay, with which for the first time in this county they made bricks. Here again, James Stockdale  comments, ‘Some of the bricks they made, may be seen in my fruit walls at Cark House, in Cark. They are of rather a large size and are more or less blistered, but they must originally have been made of tolerably good clay, or they would not have remained in the state they are, after the wear and tear of more than 100 years openly exposed to the rain, wind, frost and snow.’

 It appears the bricks were used to face the vernacular stone walls here, but the section used for the fruit walls  (though still in excellent condition at that time) was owing to the building of two new houses on the site, recently removed in favour of the stone wall they covered, leaving only the remains of the original tie-bricks as evidence of their once being there; other remaining faced walls here are faring a little better. But they too are now fast deteriorating, as is the once fine stone-built three storey Cark House .  

 Not only did the Wilkinsons supply the Stockdales with bricks, but they also supplied them with the flat-irons used in their cotton manufactory, which establishment stood at a short distance from Cark House . Later in his life, John Wilkinson was also to supply the mill with a steam engine. Though all has now long since disappeared, an inn near the site is known by the sign of ‘Engine Inn’  and had for many years over the door, a perfect painted sign of the first engine made by John Wilkinson from Watts’ design. Steam engines were in the early days called fire engines, and that was the original name of the inn. The sign-board after being displayed for more than a century was taken down in the wake of alterations and never returned. As it was a particularly fine-grained mahogany, it was made into a table, and is said to be in the possession of a family in the neighbourhood.

 At Wilson House, among other iron making innovations, the manufacture of flat-irons was still carried on, including an improved version which they patented as the ‘Laundress Box Smoothing Iron’, which irons were still popular well into this century. The bottoms of these irons were ground smooth by means of a large grindstone turned by a water wheel erected on the Lindal Beck, at a place called ‘Skinner Hill’ which is located on the west side of Lindale  Town, about 150 yards from the higher public house.

 Although the tiny hamlet of Skinner Hill still exists, the site of the old grind stone has been lost to us owing to the recent introduction of a new Lindale by-pass road.

 Wilson House  and its complex is still on the Levens Bridge Road, and at the present time serves as a dairy. The main stables are reputed to have been the house where the Wilkinsons lived. Noted here, supporting the roof are some stout cast iron pipings said to have been of their manufacture.

 Their hopes to smelt the ore with peat not being the success they hoped for, proved rather a setback to their plans, and having to depend on the old charcoal methods once again, did not allow for any scope or expansion, or afford John the experience needed to nurture his latent talents. So about the year 1748, with a few pounds in his pocket and his father’s blessings, he set out for one of the very few places in the world where he might succeed in his ambitions, this being in the cradle of the industrial revolution at Coalbrookdale in Salop, where the Darbys were enjoying a method of smelting the obstinate ores with coal or its by-product, coke, and John needed no better reason than that.


Coalbrookdale  and the Darbys

 The first acknowledged process of using coal for smelting iron was perfected by Abraham Darby I at Coalbrookdale  about 1709. It was however, the second Abraham Darby who was now continuing the family traditions, and into whose organisation John is believed to have entered, and where for the next few years he was to remain in comparative obscurity. But he seems to have attached himself to the Broseley district, for here we learn in 1752 of a John Wilkinson buying coals from the Weld Estates in that parish.

 During John’s absence from Lindale, Isaac, his father, desperate for recognition as an ironmaster, decided to vacate, though not entirely abandon the comfortable, but uninspired living at Wilson House  to execute a driving desire to be able also to smelt the stubborn iron ores with the abundant, but as yet almost worthless mineral coals.

 Up until this time the Darbys or the Coalbrookdale Company in Salop, were the only ironmasters to achieve any reasonable success in this field. The trouble with iron smelted with coal was, that it became contaminated with its sulphur impurities causing it to become known as Red Short Iron, due to it splitting and crumbling when reheated and worked at the forge.

 The importance of finding a new source of fuel was that up until this time, charcoal was the only efficient method of smelting iron. The charcoal was produced from the great forests and woodlands. These were now in great danger of extinction, as was forecast nearly a century earlier by Dud Dudley, a natural son of Edward, Lord Dudley, who claiming some success with the coal got from his father’s estate, often repeated in his ‘Metalum ’ treatise, the urgency to preserve Great Britain’s wood and timber and the reason why? In simple terms, it needed two loads of charcoal to make one ton of iron, and it needed two loads or two cords (each cord being in size 8’ long x 4’ wide x 4’ high) of wood at least to make one load of charcoal, and with 300 furnaces then working, with an output of at least 15 tons per furnace per week for 40 weeks per annum, then with an average of 500 forges each working at least 5 tons per week, it is easy to see why there was urgency to find another fuel.

 Fortunately for the Darbys  however, their interests in the early days lay in foundry and casting work, rather than the concerns of wrought iron, so this is probably why the process was slow to interest the majority of ironmasters, but among the sites where it was introduced, was Little Clifton in Cumberland, and this may have been where Isaac had worked for his few shillings a week. Such another site was at Bersham  near Wrexham, and it was to here from Lindale  that Isaac went, probably encouraged by his son John to take over the lease of both the colliery and the furnace.

 The previous lessees of the Bersham  works were a certain Richard Ford and Thomas Goldney, who also worked the old Willey furnace at Broseley  where John had settled since coming to the Dale. The Richard Ford known to John Wilkinson was the son of Richard Ford 1, who was son-in-law to Mary  Darby, the widow of the late Abraham Darby  1, whilst Thomas Goldney 1 had held half-mortgage in the Coalbrookdale  works. On the death of Abraham Darby in 1717 aged 39 it was to these that control of the works was passed to form the Coalbrookdale Company, the Darby children having three sixteenths shares, these being obtained and held by one Quaker Joshua Sergeant, a relative of Darby’s widow, Mary (nee Sergeant) until their coming of age.

 The works still continued to be run in the Darby tradition, but Willey and Bersham  were run independently of the Coalbrookdale  Company. It is known that the building of Bersham furnace, possibly on the site of an earlier furnace, was first commenced in 1717 by Charles Lloyd of Dolobran, and from the diary of his clerk, John Kelsall dated 1721. 3. 12. Mo. we learn, ‘Bersham Furnace ceased this day blowing with charcoal, and went on blowing with Coakes for Potting’. As the methods and manufacture were closely allied to the Darby techniques it would appear to show the close affinity of the two Quaker families.

 So with the acquisition of this unique furnace at Bersham , John once again became united with his family, only this time with a furnace that offered the right prospects and a little more experience to go with it, though very little is known concerning these early days. However, it was here that John married Ann Mawdsley , a wealthy heiress about 1754-5. It is said that John became distraught when she died aged only 22 years of age soon after the birth, on April 13th 1756, of a daughter, May, who was brought up at Shrewsbury by a Mr. and Mrs. John Flint and who on October 8th 1785, married a clergyman Theophilus Holbrook, at Market Drayton against John’s wishes. It is said he never spoke to her again. They had a daughter, Mary , but she died immediately and was buried at Moreton Say. Mrs. Holbrook died shortly after on June 18th 1786, it is stated, at Moreton Say. Gilbert Gilpin a trusted agent of John Wilkinson, says she was interred at Bradley  and that John had had her remains interred five times; at present a gooseberry bush substitutes for a tombstone.

 Soon after the death of his young wife, John once again appears on the Broseley  scene, this was in 1757 where and when for the first time he is noted as being, John Wilkinson, Iron Master.

 The old furnace at Willey had lately been allowed to fall, into disrepair by Ford and Goldney who had decided not to renew the expired lease, but owing to the great mineral potential of the area, it was decided to form a partnership to build a new Willey Furnace. The partners were William Ferriday , the Willey estate mining engineer, and prime mover of the partnership, John Skrymster of Shrewsbury, Edward Blakeway a Shrewsbury draper, six Bristol merchants, and John Wilkinson of Bersham , Iron Master: who although only then a minor partner, was reputed to have been the only one with direct smelting experience.

 The old furnace appears to have been established at an early date, for it is known that Sir John Weld on taking over the Willey Estate in 1618 from Sir Francis Lacon, saw fit to continue with the long established iron producing and coal mining activities there, and spent the sum of £500 refitting the existing furnace to full working order.

 It is believed the furnace was first adapted to coke use when Ford and Goldney took over the lease in 1733. They also took over the Bersham  furnace at about this time, both leases being for about 21 years.

 The Old Willey  furnace remained unused’ for about 3 years after 1754 until being taken over by the new partnership. .Again it was refitted then worked in conjunction with the New Willey  furnace until 1774. The reason for its decline was believed to be through an inadequate supply of water in the dry seasons. Other reasons perhaps, were due to the greater efficiency of the new works, with their wider aspects more suited to adapt to the newer steam age, then in the narrow confines of Old Willey.

 The site of the Old Willey  furnace, situated in a secluded valley on the Linley Brook some two miles south of Broseley  is now largely a forgotten back-water, but one cannot ignore the industrial evidence of the area in the way of mill ponds and dams, through which still course a racy flow of water. There are land undulations of former buildings and rich black earth, caused by decades of tons of coal and coke being placed and worked upon it, whilst around the larger pool one notes the existence of large black cinders or slag from the old furnace, now used to strengthen the banks of the pool. Residents at the local cottage will point out Cinder Bank and Furnace Coppice.

 From the time of the formation of the partnership John was also becoming increasingly interested in the undeveloped, mineral rich area to the south of Wolverhampton, and spent much time surveying the possibilities of one day erecting a blast furnace in this hitherto unspoiled countryside. The area he favoured most was the Bradley  district of Bilston , near the boundary of Moxley. But to realize it into an ideal proposition he needed capital and plenty of it. However, John, quite wealthy from his marriage to Ann Mawdsley  and various iron making interests, still lacked the kind of finance to keep the Bankers from his door and the further impediments of partnership, so he languished still as an unfledged Iron-Master of both Bersham  and Willey.

 At Willey, the partners produced mainly armaments such as cannon and shells, along with a growing interest in engineering work for the manufacture of atmospheric engine components. The works here, as all others, still depended upon a good water supply for its power, and at one period, John Wilkinson experimented with an atmospheric engine to blow the furnace direct without the use of bellows. The engine though satisfactory for pumping water, proved far too unsteady for John’s purpose, so the idea was abandoned.

 Meanwhile at Bersham , Isaac also manufactured goods very much along the same lines as the Willey Works, and also found time to patent a few of his ideas, one being the use of iron bellows, Patent (No.713) A.D. 1757 March 12th. In his own whimsical words he said, ‘I grew tired of my leathern bellows and determined to make iron ones; everybody laughed at me. I did it, and applied the steam engine to blow them, and they cried: Who could have thought it?’.(S. Smiles, ‘Lives of Boulton and Watt’ p.213.)

 In the same year, Isaac also took out a patent for a system by which a furnace, forge, or any other works may be blowed from any waterfall... by means of a pipe. (T.S. Ashton, op.cit. p.22.)

 A year later another patent was taken out for a new method of casting, A.D. 1758, April 21st (No.723) ‘Isaac Wilkinson  of Bersham  Furnace, in the Parish of Wrexham, in the County of Denbigh, Gentleman’ ‘A new method or invention for casting of Guns or Cannon, Fire Engines Cylinders, Pipes, and Sugar Rolls, and other such like Instruments in dry sand in Iron Boxes made for that purpose; whereby the said Guns or Cannon, Fire Engines Cylinders etc., will be made and cast in a much more neat, complete, exact and useful, as well as cheap and expeditious manner than any method hitherto known and made use of’.

 Yet for all the apparent success of Isaac, his Bersham  venture for no explained reason, collapsed about 1761 and he retired to Bristol. By 1762 the works were taken over by his sons John and William. From the new Bersham Company’s first ledger of this year, we learn they were making Bos-heaters, calendar-rolls, malt mill rolls, sugar rolls, pipes, shells, grenades and guns, showing the works at that time to be one of the most advanced of its type in the country.



In 1763, now aged 35, John decided to marry for the second time - his bride was Miss Mary  Lee of Wroxeter, which place lies twixt Coalbrookdale  and Shrewsbury, and close to the Roman site of Uriconium. She also was a person of great wealth and sister to the wife of Edward Blakeway, who was a prominent partner of the New Willey  Iron Works. It was from this time that John came into his own and proved himself to be the greatest iron master of his time.

Within three years of his marriage to Mary  Lee, he had acquired the land at Bradley  from one Captain Barber of Somerford, who had not many years since acquired it as a Ilunor from the long-standing Pipe family of Bilston .

Immediately in possession of the Bradley  Manor, John commenced to build, near the place called the Fiery Holes, what was to be the Mother Furnace and beginning of the industrial revolution in South Staffordshire. In 1772, after repeated experiments and alterations to the furnace he at last obtained the desired results he had strived for. It caused him to write to his now great friend Matthew Boulton :

‘I have at last (October 11) succeeded in using coal in my furnace. The coal is got on my estate, and answers well. The produce of the furnace weekly is now twenty tons, instead of ten as formerly.’

How John Wilkinson accomplished this achievement in a water-scarce environ such as Bradley  is little known. The land here is greatly disturbed since his time, the greatest damage being done with the advent of the railways and monster earth-movers. The site of the mother furnace or the lower works as they became known, has been extensively levelled to create a sports field, during which work was discovered the bed of an ancient steam or fire engine, but the work also ruined the possibility of any archaeology ever being carried out here. A small monument marking the site has been erected to commemorate the fact, but the all-important plaque is now missing.

The works at Bersham  had by far a better water supply than Bradley , yet to maintain full working capacity, Wilkinson had to buy, or cajole, at times not too successfully, with owners of both the upper and lower waters for the propriety rights over the stream in order to keep the furnace working. But a far greater power than water was soon to be utilised, bringing about a momentous era of blast furnace perfection, the lack of which until now had caused not only Britain but the whole civilised world to remain in a state of industrial apathy.


James Watt

To seal the final chapter of this impending revolution, there were two great factors yet to slot into position. These were the independent workings of John Wilkinson and a brilliant Scot’s engineer and scientist named James Watt  who had perfected, or almost perfected a steam engine, by far superior to the long established Newcomen  atmospheric engines. It was reserved for John Wilkinson not only to aid in its final development, but also to put the engines to other tasks rather than the intended use of simply pumping water, as had done the earlier Newcomen engines.  

 The problems besetting James Watt , included the difficulty of obtaining cast iron cylinders, machined accurately enough for the working piston to contain the pressure of the steam to keep it in regular and economic motion. The cylinders of the experimental engine had consisted mainly of tin, upon which substances such as horse manure, papier machée, felt, paste board, and tallow had been used in an effort to effect a seal.

 These early experiments were carried out on a full-sized engine which was erected at Kinneal House  near Stirling in Scotland, under the sponsorship of Dr. John Roebuck, (the founder of the Carron Iron Works) who in 1769 managed to obtain his patent, but progress was slow and came to a temporary halt in 1773, when Roebuck got into financial difficulties.

 Watt, however, soon found another champion in Matthew Boulton  of Birmingham, who being owed £1,200 by Roebuck, offered to forego that debt in exchange for his debtor’s partnership with Watt. On completion of this arrangement, Watt, now in partnership with Boulton, was encouraged to remove his experimental engine from Kinneal House to the Boulton Works  at Soho, where he employed a great number of skilled craftsmen capable of taking him from the tinsmiths and blacksmiths, who had previously laboured in a futile effort to furnish him with the precisions he required. Even they failed in their attempts to produce a workable cylinder, that was so necessary to make the engines a commercial success.

 Boulton seeing the hopelessness of Watt’s predicament, encouraged him to seek out John Wilkinson, who had recently taken out a patent for boring cannon from the solid, A.D. 1774, Jan., 27th (No.1063) ‘John Wilkinson of Broseley , in the County of Salop, Iron Master,’ for:

 ‘A New Method of Casting and Boring Iron Guns or Cannon’ which he had proved upon repeated tryals to be a great improvement.’

  ‘The said iron guns or cannon are cast in a mould without no well or core whatever, whereby they are made perfectly solid and entirely free from any cavity. In the boring of them they are placed upon a carriage or frame, on which the gun or cannon is turned round, either vertically or horizontally, by a wheel moved by water or by the application of a fire engine. In either of those positions the gun or cannon turning round, it is pierced by drills of various sizes according to the nature of the gun or cannon until the bore, or calibre thus formed out of the said solid metal is wide enough to admit a boring barr with cutters or knives, in the usual manner, by which the gun or cannon is finished.’ No drawing enrolled.

 This new method was simply a process of reversing the long established procedure, whereby the cutting tool was now held rigid upon a sliding rack, and metal to be bored then made to turn, and is a process still in practice today.  

 Whilst John by now had readily mastered boring the few inches needed for cannon, Watt’s challenge for him to bore cylinders of up to at least 84” in diameter by 9’ O” long seemed little short of madness. But he was not becoming known as Iron Mad John Wilkinson for nothing, and the first cylinder, manufactured at his Bersham  Works, arrived at Soho in the Spring of 1775, and together with an improved piston. It was fitted to the experimental engine and then set to work. The outcome so pleased Boulton that he persuaded Watt that the time had arrived to put the improved engine on the market. Immediately, orders for two engines were received, the first was a pumping engine with a 50” cylinder and was set to work a colliery at Bloomfield, Tipton, near Dudley, on Friday 8th March, 1776.

 This momentous occasion was well attended both by the press and men of science alike. The following week found many published accounts. One notable report published the I following Monday in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette acknowledged the excellence of the engine’s performance, and that the workmanship of the whole did not pass unnoticed nor unadmired, “all the iron foundry parts (which are unparalleled for truth) were executed by Mr. Wilkinson: the condensor, the valves, pistons and all the small work at Soho. From the first moment of its setting to work, it made about 14 or 15 strokes per minute and emptied the engine pit (which is about 9Oft. deep and stood 57 feet high in water) in less than an hour, then according to custom, the machine was named ‘Parliament Engine’.”

 Although it is no exaggeration to say that John Wilkinson’s contribution towards the new type engine was both timely and essential, the idea nonetheless was James Watt ’s brain-child, mainly on account of his research to perfect the system of separate condensors, and full credit that it appeared in its improved form must inevitably go to him.

 To commemorate the Bicentenary of this great moment in our industrial history, a medallion (depicting on the reverse the separate condensor and the cylinder, with a bust of James Watt  on the obverse) both in bronze and silver was struck by the Black Country Society .

 By some strange coincidence it was also in the Coneygre district of Tipton, that Thomas Newcomen  in the year 1712 set to work his first atmospheric engine to pump water out of the mines there. It was for this type of engine that John Wilkinson was about to bore a 72” cylinder designed to work the Bloomfield Colliery, the proprietors, however were persuaded by Boulton to change to his engine, then instructed Wilkinson to cast and bore a smaller, though more efficient 50” cylinder instead.

 On the truth of this new engine, John Wilkinson, (now the sole lessee of the New Willey  Iron Works, having acquired the controlling interest in the Company in 1774) ever quick to take up an original idea, prevailed upon James Watt  to draw up plans for an engine to blow his furnace at Willey, the whole of which, through an agreement with the partners was all but cast by Wilkinson himself, they only supplying the necessary condensers, valves, pistons, and assembly instructions.

 The engine having a 38” cylinder, replaced a 49” Newcomen  type which barely supplied enough air for the furnace, despite a steam supply from two boilers. The new engine supplied more than enough air and needed only one boiler, whilst the fuel consumption was dramatically reduced by as much as two-thirds.

 That the new engine was a success is no understatement for it heralded the first real breakthrough in the history of iron making and set the seal on the second phase of the industrial revolution when it realised the great dream of Dud Dudley, not only truly and cleanly to smelt iron with mineral coal, but also to free the iron furnaces from the bondage of the streams that had long dominated them, the South Staffordshire coal field being a classic example of this proof.

 Contemporary iron masters, also mindful of the need for an industrial breakthrough, watched in great anticipation as Wilkinson showed the way, and it was his great faith and courage to exploit the many engineering innovations, which were becoming available in this great age of industrial enlightenment, that was to earn him the reputation of being the greatest iron master of the age, and ‘Father of the South Staffordshire Iron Trade’

 At Willey today, there is little to suggest the birth of this second industrial phase, for surprisingly, the said works closed down as early as 1804, whilst the neighbouring Ironbridge  and Coalbrookdale  activities (though now on a much reduced scale) progressed well into the 20th century, making archaeology there a more viable proposition. However, unlike the Lower Bradley  Works, which were bulldozed out of existence, the Willey site, minus its main features, has simply been left to allow time and nature to take over.

 A guide board at the entrance to the site, kindly provided by the local Wilkinson Society , indicates the remaining important features to be found there (but at the same time, reminds one that the site is on private property) such as the old Furnace Cottages. The causeway, serving both as a dam to contain the millpond which happily still exists, and as a roadway or former coach-road that leads (for the want of a better expression) to the upper landing of the furnace, where the green undulations and the black earth beneath the sod give the only clues of former industrial activity.

 Also remaining in part, is the track along which Wilkinson laid rails to carry his goods down through the now overgrown Tarbatch Dingle to his wharf and warehouse on the banks of the River Severn. Today in the green and calm of the pleasant Shropshire countryside here, one finds it difficult to imagine the throb of 18th century technology where cannon and other forms of ordnance, besides a host of other wares were manufactured.

 The house in which Wilkinson resided whilst at Willey still exists at Broseley .

 It is said that Wilkinson lived at this house, known as ‘The Lawns’  on account of his being able to see the glow of his Bradley  furnaces at night, and there evaluate whether or not the iron was coming right. If there was the slightest doubt he would immediately set off to put matters right, always seeming to arrive in the nick of time to save the situation. If this were true, it is no wonder he was looked upon with awe by his workmen.

 Within a short time of establishing Watt’s engine to blow his Willey Furnace yet another was set up by him, but this time it was used solely to pump the spent mill-water back into the mill-pond to be used again and again, for it was stilt the main source of power needed to drive his boring-mill. Very little is known concerning this particular engine other than it departed from the usual beam design, having instead, its cylinder turned upside down, so allowing a direct drive for the piston rod. Owing to this inverted layout, the engine fondly became known as the ‘Topsey Turvey’ .

 As there is no known record of similar engines, it is assumed the new idea was not the success hoped for.


The Iron Bridge


Due to the innovation of Watt’s steam engines, the iron trade towards the 19th century began to boom, though perhaps nowhere so spectacularly as at Coalbrookdale . As fast as the iron was turned out in its many forms, so it was transported away by the busy River Severn in sailing boats or trows to Bristol and thence to all quarters of the globe. This same river, however, proved also to he quite a handicap when it came to moving goods or minerals from one side of the river to the other, so it was decided by leading industrialists concerned, to have a bridge built, whether it be of stone, brick or timber. Wilkinson, as one of the subscribers to the project, insisted that it be made of iron, not only because it was the staple trade of the Dale, but also he believed it would give greater impetus to the district as a whole, and set off other branches of industry. ‘Iron Mad’ they called him, but he had his way, to the benefit of all in the Dale for years to come.


The bridge, to be the first of its kind in the world, and giving rise to the Township of , was commenced in the November of 1777 and although its main structure was in position by the October of 1779, it was not until New Year’s day 1781 that it was finally opened to traffic so linking Benthall with Madeley Wood for the first time.


The whole of the bridge was cast in Coalbrookdale  at Abraham Darby ’s Foundry and proved to be the wonder of the age, and still its graceful and ageless beauty attracts thousands of tourists every year.


Yet whilst the innovation of the new bridge was being prepared, a rival scheme for another iron bridge (with John Wilkinson again as a subscriber) was also being carried out about a mile further down-stream, to link Broseley  at Preens Eddy to the parish of Sutton Maddock , so encouraging trade and visitors from the Midlands to use this much quicker route to Broseley and district.


Although the Preens Eddy bridge was opened to traffic in the Spring of 1780, it appears to have aroused little interest or was played down in order to give the impending Iron Bridge  pride of place. The Preens Eddy had two spans, and was said to lack the visible excitement of the single span. The structure though essentially an iron bridge, was, owing to its wooden roadway and parapet, better known paradoxically as the ‘Wood Bridge’. It was to stand for less than thirty-five years before being irreparably damaged by floods, though it is believed the present bridge, built in 1818, in the manner of the Iron Bridge, contains parts of the original. The old abutments were utilised and still serve the present bridge.


‘The Trial’

Six years after the advent of the Iron Bridge , John, always ready to bang the drum in an effort to whip us more trade, did just this. He resurrected, after a lapse of forty years, the idea of an iron boat , having long realised that folks in this part of the world were still ignorant of the fact of iron being made to float in the form of a vessel. In order to bring them up to date he put to task his resourceful blacksmith, one John Jones, to carry out this order.


The boat, named ‘The Trial’ , was eventually launched upon the River Severn from a place called ‘Willey Wharf’ on July 6th, 1787 to the roar of a 32-pounder cannon. John, ever a showman, probably planted hired agents among the crowds (who had come from far and wide to see his boat sink to the bottom of the river) to goad them even further into disbelieving the supernatancy of iron. Then at the very moment of truth he was to turn their jeers into cheers. The boat it is said ‘floated lightly on the water’.


Just one week later on July 14th, he wrote to James Stockdale  of Cark: ‘Dear Sir, Yesterday week my iron boat  was launched. It answers all my expectations, and has convinced the unbelievers, who were 999 in 1,000. It will be a nine days wonder, then be like Columbus’s egg.’


The boat, similar to the narrow wooden canal boats of the period, was 70ft long, and having a beam of 6ft 8½ inches. It was constructed of 5/16” thick wrought iron plates bolted together in the manner of a boiler, its gunwale being trimmed with planks of elm. The total weight was eight tons, and drew 8 or 9 inches when light, and had a capacity of 32 tons in deep water. It was built to serve on both the river and the canal. Her first voyage was to Birmingham, where she arrived before the end of July 1787 with a cargo of 22 tons 15 cwt of iron. For river use, however, iron never caught on, causing the Trial to be nicknamed ‘John’s Folly’.


James Brindley

About the same time that John Wilkinson had established his furnace at Lower Bradley , James Brindley  of canal engineering fame, was commissioned by the would-be promoters of the proposed Birmingham Canal Navigations, to survey a route linking Birmingham with the mineral rich areas of Tipton and Bilston , and thence to join up with the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal at Autherley to the north of Wolverhampton. That this same canal looped enormously to pass through the upper lands of Wilkinson’s Manor, was no mere coincidence and shows the tremendous influence he wielded when requiring things to go his way.


With the advent of the canal, John was able to establish a second works on what is now known as Bradley  Lane North. This site too has been cleared to facilitate a vast new housing estate, so there is little hope of excavations ever being tried out here.


These second works in the year 1783, were believed to have been the site of James Watt ’s first commercial Rotative Steam Engine. This was a completely new concept of steam motion for it allowed machinery to be worked other than by use of the water—wheel for the first time, so freeing industry completely from the bondage of the streams to which it had been tied.


The New Rotative Engine

It appears that since mentioning the possibilities of such an engine to Wilkinson as early as 1777, from which time John never let up on his demands until such an engine was set up in his works, causing Watt to remark much later on, ‘Mr. Wilkinson’s perpetual scheming of new works taxed our brains pretty heavily and used to talk as though by using our inventions he was doing us a favour.’ But in later years he was to write: In the course of 20 years we have not made more than 3 or 4 engines of  which the cylinders were not of John Wilkinson’s manufacture,’ To James Watt , John Wilkinson was a necessary evil who supplied him with components no other could, and proved his inventions when no other would, but John lacked gratitude  which all men need, and he also lacked scruple when it came to pirating Watt’s inventions. However, when the new rotative engine  was set in motion to work a forge hammer, Watt, pleased at the outcome, wrote to Boulton, March 26th 1783: ‘We have got the forge engine at Bradley  set to work yesterday morning which performs very well.  They made it go at the rate of 240 blows per minute thought he hammer weighs 7cwt and lifts 2ft 3inches.’  On the following day, he wrote to John Smeaton  of Eddystone Lighthouse fame: ‘We had a trial of our new forge engine at Bradley, cylinder 42in dia and 6ft stroke, makes from 15 to 50 (even 60 strokes per minute) at pleasure and has struck 300 blows per minute. We are, however, going to make it strike only 4½  blows per stroke.’


From this time on there were many accolades for this new engine, but perhaps one written on a cold December day by Matthew Boulton  sums it all up, ‘There is not a single water mill now at work in Staffordshire, they all, all frozen up, and were it not for Wilkinson’s steam-mill the poor nailers must have perished; but his mill goes on rolling and slitting tens of tons of iron a day, which is carried away as fast as it can be bundled up; and thus the employment and subsistence of the poor people are secured.’ The site now completely obliterated, is still remembered by the older inhabitants as The Gun Barrel or the site of the Bar Iron Works. It was, in fact, a self-contained village comprising of a mission church and two public houses.


Not satisfied with having two works in production at Bradley , John Wilkinson was to establish on the west side of the canal a third or upper works, consisting of a completely new furnace. If Coalbrookdale  was the first wonder of the age, then surely Bradley was the second, for it attracted visitors and writers from all quarters and there was never a more genial host than John Wilkinson... The great Staffordshire historian, The Rev. Stebbing Shaw came to visit the works, guided by the great man himself. He wrote in great detail concerning the works, but at the time of going to print, he apologised for having mislaid the manuscript, so today we have virtually nothing to tell us concerning these former great works.


A traveller passing through Bilston  in 1790 noted... ‘the low, many gabled, half timbered, octagon shaped houses of the Tudor age, dotted about without any regard for regularity and inhabited mainly by the gentry. He also noted the furnaces and foundries, worked by steam engines. He said, ‘I visited Mr. Wilkinson’s Works at Bradley , and was enabled by that gentleman’s permission to see for the first time the process of iron manufacture. The puddlers used sand bottoms in the furnaces, but Mr. Wilkinson told me he was trying experiments to do away with the sand which sometimes injured the iron very materially.’


In the Wolverhampton Chronicle dated July 7th 1790, John is also noted to entertain Royalty, for it states — ‘Upon Wednesday night last, Her Highness the Princess Carbristka , of the Kingdom of Poland, with the Prince her son, slept at the Swan in this town, and after an excursion to see the extensive iron works of John Wilkinson Esq. at Bradley , dined there on Thursday and then proceeded on her way to inspect the curiosities of Coalbrookdale .’


The New Village


In order to run and maintain these great works, labour was encouraged from all quarters of the land, so that a complete new village was created to accommodate them. Salop Street segregated the Shropshire migrants from the Scottish workers in Caledonia Street and so on, but if ever there was such a thing as a boom-village then this was it -John made the estate almost self-sufficient, building potteries, brick works, and glass works, besides encouraging other smaller industries and tradesmen. He even had his own coinage, silver, copper, and even had leather coinage for the lower workers.



Local ‘Coinage’

These coins or tokens , of which there were about three common examples, show on their different reverses, a forge hammer, Vulcan at his anvil, and a brigantine in full sail. This was struck to commemorate the launching of Wilkinson’s iron boat  ‘The Trial’  at Willey, but perhaps the most striking thing about these tokens, was the almost regal bust of John Wilkinson himself portrayed on the obverse, and so uncanny this resemblence to King George III on the contemporary coins of the realm, that it brought about sharp criticism, which led to a satirical verse being published in the London Magazine in 1787, viz...


So Wilkinson, from this example

Gives of himself a matchless sample!

And bids the Iron monarch pass

Like his own metal wrapt in Brass!

Which shows his modesty and sense,

And how, and where, he made his pence.

As iron when ‘tis brought in taction,

Collects the copper by attraction,

So, thus, in him ‘twas very proper,

To stamp his brazen face on copper.



The residential area here was vast and mainly contained in Upper Bradley ; there were small houses, large houses, yards, courts, shops of every description, public houses by the score, with places of worship to match, the whole of which remained intact until about 1960 when it was razed indiscriminately to the ground regardless of history, character or conservation, so ending a way of life that had lasted for two hundred years. Salop Street revealed some interesting iron framed structures, but these appear to have been lost to us. There are, however, some beautifully preserved cast iron trusses noted in the roof of the St. Martin’s Church Centre, but of a later date than John


Iron and Iron- Framed Buildings and Furnishings


For the story of iron-framed buildings, there is need to be reminded of a small incident that occurred whilst John was in residence at his home in Hall Green, which was nearby the Wesleyan Chapel in Hall Green Street, now demolished. Here the elders of the church prayed Squire Wilkinson (as he liked to be known whilst in Bradley ) to build them a chapel, for the present meeting-house was far too small to meet the increasing number of its members, and much to their surprise, with a twinkle in his eye he said, ‘Yes, (for they had given him a splendid idea) I’ll build you a iron one.’ and he did just that, and like the iron boat  of Lindale  Moss, it was likely to have been the parent of all other iron- framed buildings built since.


Not only did he build them a church but he also cast them a pulpit to go in it. Strangely the building caught fire and was destroyed, but the pulpit remained intact, and is now contained in the present chapel, formerly the chapel school, and as one new incumbent quickly learned, when, believing it to be constructed of wood, off-handedly remarked:

‘I think the pulpit would be better sited over there.’

What caused him to change his mind we can only guess, for the pulpit was still to remain where it was.


(The Cast-iron chapel was not burned down. It was the replacement chapel which was struck by lightning in July 1901 causing a great fire which destroyed it.


The Cast-iron chapel had proved to be too small to accommodate the increasing congregation. The new chapel opened for services in April 1835. As for the Cast-iron chapel, all its special iron features were converted, it was said, to more secular uses.)

Cast Iron School and ‘Copybooks’

John was known to have attended service at the chapel at least once and that was to see how the cast iron pulpit looked. He was said to have been very moved by a sermon preached by one of his own workmen. Later talking to Thomas Jackson (one of his foremen at Bradley ) concerning the Sunday School connected with the chapel, he advised that the children, ‘Be employed in writing and arithmetic’, and then, added he, ‘You will be doing something to keep the devil of f them all their lives. If that don’t increase the number of saints it will decrease the number of fools.’ Thomas replied, ‘Very good, sir; but who is to pay for the pens, ink, and paper the children will spoil long before they can make decent pothooks and hangers; and where do the desks come from they must have to write on?’ ‘Bah’ replied John, ‘We can do without pens, ink, and paper, and desks. Give them plenty of iron and a little sand!’ ‘Iron’ exclaimed Tom, stretching his eyes and mouth as though they could compass the width of his shoulders and trying all the while to look as though he did not think Mr. Wilkinson was iron-mad. ‘Yes, iron,’ replied John, ‘Look here, you make a pattern for a square box of thin cast iron without a top, the sides rising only an inch or so, and the whole no longer than a boy can hold on his left hand and forearm, or rest on his knees as he sits. Let the box be filled with the fine sand to be found about here, the surface of the sand made even, and then with a skewer of iron, fashioned like a pen if you like, let the boy learn to make his figures and his straight strokes and round ‘0’s in the sand. He can’t use up that copybook very fast; and the pen will never need mending. You get the patterns ready Tom, and we will soon have a cast-iron school as well as a cast-iron chapel.’


These cast-iron copybooks and pens were still in use long after John Wilkinson’s death, indeed, a good friend of mine, a local Staffordshire historian, Mr. F.A. Barnett of Sedgley in that county, well remembers as a child before 1920 using such a copybook, though it was then of thin galvanised iron, but could never understand where the letters went when he took it to show to the teacher.


(The Victorian school has now been converted into a Wilkinson Museum.)



Other than the noted cast-iron pulpit, there appears to be little else to remind us in Bradley  of this great man in the way of iron products. However, a number of different items were recovered during a very limited archaeological dig on the site of his Upper Bradley furnace in Wilkinson Avenue , about 1961, and include cast iron piping, iron bar, and iron bar test piece, angle iron, and an axe-like tool. Immediately after recovering these items, the site was again quickly covered over with the pit-spoil from later coal workings that had for decades preserved it, and the school built there soon afterwards, now carries his name.


The dig (carried out by the kind generosity of the noted local Darlaston firm of Rubery and Owen) also revealed what was probably the remains of the engine house stack, and underneath the gardens of the nearby houses were discovered neat stacks of case-ball size cinders, the type vernacularly used to build walls, and are seen in this role supporting a bank in the nearby Wilkinson Avenue , which actually runs over the site of the old works, whilst the remaining slag or cinder heap within the school perimeter, (from which most of the immediate houses were built) was rounded off and grassed, so as to be enjoyed as a unique playground by the younger children.


The items recovered by the dig, are now housed in the local Bilston  Museum, along with other Wilkinson pieces, which include various tokens, an oil painting of him in later life, and a grandfather clock, that is supposed to have stood in his house at Bradley . The house unfortunately no longer survives, nor does its former driveway headed by what appeared to be two upturned cannons, which only quite recently were lost to us. Such cast iron features are still to be found in certain quarters of Bilston Town. One other tribute to John Wilkinson, found in Bradley , is a recently built public-house, aptly named ‘The Iron Master’ where its premises are unmistakeably indicated by its sign which depicts an excellent painted likeness of him.


A former ancient custom of this country was the practice known as ‘Beating the Bounds’ but none perhaps with more zeal than that carried out in the Black Country. The idea was for the Lord of the Manor, Clergy and parishioners on certain Rogation days in May, to perambulate the perimeter of their parish in order to determine their boundaries, even to including the climbing over the tops of houses if they happened to have been built astride the said boundaries. Whether or not John Wilkinson (even facetiously) ever determined the boundaries of his Bradley  manor in this way, cannot be ascertained, but, even to this day, during the Spring holidays, very close to the same Rogation days, now switched to August Bank Holiday, with the route only recently a little changed, is staged the popular ‘Bradley Marathon’ which for many, many years, has followed exactly the boundary of John Wilkinson’s former manor!



The South Staffordshire Coalfield

Just as soon as John proved that the mineral rich acres of South Staffordshire were ripe for exploitation, there came other industrialists to build furnaces and sink pits to retrieve the ore and the coals in a pre-Klondike scramble for quick riches, so that not one square inch of virgin land remains to be found in this district today. It is no wonder that folklore soon took over and quoted:—

‘The devil stood on Bradley  Moor

and heard the forges roar,

Quoth he, ‘I’ve heard a row in hell,

But none like this before!’


The Bradley  works, along with the manor, were by far the largest of John Wilkinson’s undertakings, also the apple of his eye; nevertheless his other works were never neglected on this account. At Bersham , the brothers proved to be a thorn in each other’s sides, and William in order to escape John’s constant paternal persecution, spent much of his time in France, where John had been extending his business interests since completing an order for the erection of a James Watt  engine at Le Creusot in 1785, the very first ever seen in France. On this occasion John wrote to Watt as follows:— “Crusal, September 13th, 1785. The engine is in operation. The Frenchmen are delighted. It is a complete success, and the numerous visitors, amongst whom were the Duke D’Angoulesne, M. Bertrand, &c.,, &c., expressed their satisfaction. I wish you had been here.”


Paris  Waterworks

John, about this time contracted for the supply of iron pipes (forty miles in length) necessary for conveying from the River Seine a sufficiency of water for the whole City of Paris . ‘Paris Waterworks’ the wonder of that day was the work of a company of share—holders, and John not only took many shares himself in the undertaking, but induced many of his friends in England to do the same.


William Wilkinson  received £10,000            principle and interest of money invested in these works, as indemnity, after the peace in 1815. Mr. Adam, as trustee of the estates of John Wilkinson, received something like the sum of half million of money. He went over, half fearing that the debt would be repudiated, and was pleasingly surprised to find it discharged to a fraction.


There were many legends concerning these water pipes, for they were believed by many to have been put to use as cannon against us, for during the latter half of this century Britain was one way or another in the constant throes of war, against Spain, Austria, Russia, the American colonies and France. Owing to the numerous quantities of these pipes seen around his different works and awaiting delivery at Chepstow, it was easy for anyone to interpret the worst, causing Prime Minister Pitt to intervene. But there was no legal action taken against either John or William, and may all have been a conspiracy caused by the jealousies of other iron-masters.


Owing to the large number of iron pipes lying disused at Cark near Lindale  and other places, it appears the order was greatly exceeded, so that down through the years they have occasionally turned up, to the delight of historians.


After establishing the steam engine at Le Creusot, John and William also themselves established engineering works and furnaces, besides showing the French how to bore cannon and smelt iron with coal. A blast furnace there is still known as ‘The Four Wilkinson’.


Arthur Young, a much travelled writer and author of ‘Travels in France’ recalled in 1794 one of these establishments concerning William in the following extract:


‘Mont Cenis,—It is the seat of one of ‘Mons. Weelkinsong’s’ establishments for casting and boring cannon. The French say this Englishman is brother-in-law of Dr. Priestley, and that he taught them to bore cannon in order to give liberty to America.’ So it could be, where there was smoke, there was fire. Back home in Wrexham his neighbour friends on knowledge of this were wont later to refer to him as ‘Wicked Will’ rather than the more familiar address of ‘Neighbour Will’ but were still known to patronise him as being a most entertaining companion.


Unlike his brother John, William more or less settled down and made Wrexham his permanent home. He married a daughter of Mill-owner, James Stockdale , of Cark, Lancashire, and had at least two children, daughters, Mary  Anne, born November 27th 1795, and Elizabeth Stockdale, born June 17th, 1799. Mary Anne later married Matthew Robinson Boulton, son of Matthew Boulton . A plaque to their memory is to be found in the church at Great Tew near Bambury.


Bersham Iron Works

By 1790, the Bersham  Iron Works, having prospered under the brothers, were now, owing to the lack of convenient raw materials, gradually being run down, and for this reason, after all these years, John finally saw his chance to break with William when the neighbouring 500 acre Brymbo  Estate came up for sale. Like Bradley  in the early years, it had lacked development of its mineral resources owing to its scarcity of water, but with the steam engine now in an advance stage of perfection, the exploitation of Brymbo was assured. William, for all John’s continual feuding, would still have welcomed a partnership in this new venture, but John was adamant and refused his offers, and angry at this go-it-alone attitude, William, about 1793, marched upon the Bersham works with a large body of men and commenced with hammer and bar to dismantle the expensive machinery and ruin the works. John, hearing of this, also marched to the works with an even greater number of men and did likewise to the remaining machinery. This seemingly unpleasant ending to a once great family concern, may have been carried out in this manner legally to terminate the partnership without the lengthy formalities of court procedure, and also avoid any family animosities that might otherwise have been made public.


This, however, did not fully compensate William’s wrath, and petty-like, he began telling tales to Boulton and Watt of how John had many times pirated their steam-engine patents to avoid the costs of the patent rights, and whilst John was very wrong to deceive them in this manner, he was hardly alone in this field. But the damage was done and after many long and heated battles with his old friends he was finally forced to pay up, so bringing a once great friendship to a sad and sorry end.


Of all John Wilkinson’s works, Bersham  is perhaps the only one whose recognisable likeness has come down through the years to us, by way of two drawings, done in 1780, by one John Westaway Rowe, who lived at the White House, seen to the extreme left of the West Works drawing. The other drawing shows a view of the former East Works, which if compared with a view of the present day site it is noted that very little remains of the old works other than Ivy Cottage, seen to the left of the picture, and the wretched Bunkers Hill cottages seen above the works that were built by John Wilkinson for his workmen and families. So it appears it was mostly this East Works that John and William set about wrecking.


It is known that a paper mill was later set up on the site here, and much later on, a Victorian school, which is now also closed. Excavations of the site in 1976 revealed a number of old foundations of both the paper mill and the iron works, along with brick built pits, sumps, and drains. Other finds here included an old clinker-built road, the remains of an old cobbled yard, broken pottery, glass bottles, clay pipes, slag, iron, and a cannon ball.


The West Works to the left of the weir, have also long disappeared, and may also have been the target for the brothers’ vandalism, whilst on the opposite side of the stream, the former furnace site, Smithy and octagonal building seen in the drawing (above and just to the right of the tip of the stream) still remain and are now used as a farmyard complex. The village area in general having now been naturally restored to a typical Welsh rural outlook, to the uninitiated, is just as though Charles Lloyd of Dolobran and the Wilkinson’s had never existed.


In my initial searches round the village, I looked for signs of cinder or dross that like Bradley  must have plentifully come from the furnace, but there was none, save a simple placed three or four rows seen atop of a stone wall leading up toward the White House.


When Isaac first came to Bersham , he and his family lived in a house at Esclusham Below, known as Plas Grono. Before them, it was the home of Elihu Yale, who gave his name to America’s famed Yale University. The house later became the residence of William Wilkinson , whilst John stayed at ‘The Court’ in Wrexham, and on the dissolution of the iron works it was to the Court that William retired.


Plas Grono was taken down in 1876, and a plaque (recently placed) now marks its site. Fortunately a photograph was taken of it just before this happened, and a sketch taken from it was presented to Yale University. The photograph in possession of its last occupiers, was presented to Wrexham Library by a descendant, one Mrs. Taylor of Penn Fields, Wolverhampton, just a few short miles from where John had his works at Bradley .


Although the Bersham  iron works were greatly devastated by John and William, iron-making to a lesser degree was still continued for a number of years. In 1801, there is a record of a large casting, weighing some 18½ tons, for a glass works at St. Helens  (Lancs), and in 1803, there was an advertisement for a good hand, to puddle pig and scrap iron at the said works.


John Wilkinson’s Acquisitions

Throughout his life, John Wi1kinson was to acquire numerous properties and holdings, and also had interests in canals, banks and landed estates to such an extent that he literally became as a wandering medieval monarch, in order to make sure that all was well within his kingdom. Among his many enterprises were included the Wi1ley Iron Works, Bradley  Estate, Bersham , Hadley (Salop) purchased in 1791, where by 1804 he had a furnace in blast, with a second being prepared, as the Willey furnace was seen to he blown out in this same year (either through exhaustion of the mineral deposits, or the expiry of the lease). It is assumed that the new Hadley Works were created by Wilkinson in order to retain an iron- making interest in the area. However, in this apparently ‘lame venture’ brother William in 1807, reported that others thought him unwise not to have confined his activities solely to the colliery which had earlier been started by him at Snedshill, near to Hadley. Here in the 1780’s John had been developing the area in association with Hollinswood or the Randlay Brook. In the early months of 1780, he erected an engine to blow two new blast furnaces, the first in Salop to have been wholly independent of water—power. Yet by 1793, these were sold off to other iron masters. Snedshill today is seen to be little more than a small industrial wilderness, with pit-mounds flanked by a meagre row or two of neat industrial dwellings, where may still be found the Street signs, ‘Furnace Road’ and ‘Cannon Gate’. 


He also had interests in the Mona Copper Mine Co.; Anglesey; the Cornish Metal Co.; the Birmingham Copper; Greenfields Mills, Holywell, N.Wales; Stanley Co.; St. Helens , Lancs.; wharfs and warehouses at Rotherhithe, London; and appears to have rented a wharf at Chester. He was also a partner in the Eyton Reynolds and Bishop Bank at Shrewsbury and the Bank of Wilkinson & Co. at Bilston . In 1778, he purchased the Castlehead  Estate, near Lindale ; and in 1792 the 500 acre Brymbo  Estate, which he later enlarged to cover some 872 acres.


The list of properties and number of works he acquired and created was not only quite remarkable but to be able to administer them at so high a level of efficiency, with so much going on at the same time, over great distances, surely bears testimony to his untiring energy, determination, and shrewdness in selecting first class agents and managers to control on his behalf, the hourly needs of his individual works. Once an agent was selected, he would have great respect for them, as one letter written by him to one Mr. Hugh Meredith of Plas Gwyn, Minera, shows:


Bradley  Iron Works, nr. Wolverhampton, 4th Oct., 1799.


“Sir, —Mr. T. Jones has mentioned to me your declining, on account of your Health, to take the charge of my Smelting Works at Brymbo , which I should have been glad you had done, if it had been agreeable to yourself, as it is my wish that you should not in any degree be in a worse situation from any changes that take place.


“It is my Intention to build one or two additional Furnaces to my present works, which, when done, I must purchase the different ores which you used to have at Coedpoeth, and as you are acquainted with that Branch of the Business, shall be glad if you will take upon you the buying for me, 1 making allowance to you for it.


“From your recommendation I will get you to make an agreement with John Bond to attend my Smelting Works and the ore-weighings - the Wages or Salary I leave to you to fix with him - I could also wish you to engage the two Smelters, if possible, which Wm. Jones mentioned as being good workmen.


“I find from T. Jones that an account of the coals wanted for the furnace at Brymbo , and the large quantity which must be raised to select a sufficiency from for the furnace supply, that they now begin to stock the Coal, not withstanding the Season for the Sale has been lately at it’s height, and as my stock must necessarily very much increase, unless some means are found to force a Sale-- I am under the necessity of giving directions to lower the price to the Country from six to five shillings the Pit Ton - and as this may to some degree affect the sale at Coedpoeth, I will be obliged to you to mention the circumstance and the reason to Mr. Moore, who is now, I understand, in the Country -- that he may not suppose I have any views inimical to Lord Grosvenor’s Interest, or that of the Coal Masters in the Neighbourhood, which he cannot attribute to me when he is acquainted with my situation.


“I mentioned this to him some time ago as a thing that was certain to take place at a future day -- and as that time is arrived that I have no alternative, for at one pit only I shall rise 200 tons weekly. I wish him again to be informed ‘of it.


“You are not acquainted that Whitley has got to his Coal in the Neighbourhood of Mold, which will take part of the sale from the Vale of Clwydd -- and is an additional reason for my endeavouring to keep what sale I can to the Brymbo  Pits.


“I am, Sir,


“Your very obedient servant,

            (Signed)           “John Wilkinson.


“P.S. -- T. J. will wait on you when he returns, which will not be long.”


AN. Palmer, the annotator of this letter in his ‘John Wilkinson and the Old Bersham  Ironworks’ commented, ‘There is something about this letter which I like, Wilkinson’s honesty and frankness, the friendliness with which he treated his assistants, the trust he reposed in them, are revealed in it.’ The letter shows also how completely the ironmaster kept in touch with all the details of his many and vast operations.


Upon acquiring the Brymbo  estate in 1792, the first of John’s exploits was to found a lead smelting house at Caello, close to the Minera and Chester Road. Its tall bottle chimney, a well-known local landmark for years, was partially demolished for safety reasons in 1962.


The process of lead smelting was not entirely new to John, for in the year 1790, he had taken out a patent (No: 1733) for making lead piping, which mode of manufacture still remained in use until the advent of the extrusion principle a century later.


It is believed that the Brymbo  Estate cost John around the sum of £14,000, of which £2,000 was loaned by Boulton and Watt. On account of Wilkinson’s estimated great wealth, it would appear ludicrous that he would borrow such a small sum, but it may be that his real wealth was rather tied up in his various companies. That he was not entirely free from the worries of financial expenditure one small incident reveals when on an earlier occasion, a friend complained to him lately of an irresistible drowsiness, saying how difficult he found it to keep awake, to which John, rather facetiously, retorted ‘Not keep awake! put my bill book under your head, and I warrant you won’t sleep!”


Farming Interests


Within a year or two of possessing Brymbo , which included the areas of Penrhos Mawr, Mount Sion, and Mount Pleasant farms, also included was the mansion Brymbo Hall, which he occasionally occupied. Within the space of a few years of his ownership of Brymbo, the estate was further enlarged to include other farms, namely, The Ffrith; the Lower Glascoed; Pentre’r Saeson; Ffynnon y Cwrw; The Waen; Cefn Bychan; and the Gorse, bringing the total acreage up to about 872 acres. The following account from the Rev. Walter Davies’s (Gwallter Mechain) General View of the Agriculture and Domestic Economy of North Wales (Published in 1810) and noted by A.N. Palmer, is I am sure, again worth copying:—


‘The late John Wilkinson, Esq., had a farm of about 500 acres at Brymbo , near Wrexham. The situation is bleak, and the soil naturally poor, being a hungry clay upon a substratum of yellow rammel or coal schist, which in some places appears in the clay. However, by good tillage, and manuring with lime at the rate of ten tons per acre, it is so far improved that the tithes of corn, within the township, have advanced £10 a year in value, owing exclusively to his improvements. He had brought under cultivation 150 acres of wild heath, till then abounding only in springs and furze. A crowned head had assisted him in making his compost manure. Offa King of Mercia, had employed men to bring together the soil; and Mr. Wilkinson went to the expense of lime to be mixed with it. Large cavities, of the shape of inverted cones, were cut at convenient distances in Offa’s Dyke, which runs across Brymbo Farm. The cavities were filled up with limestone and coal, and then burnt in the same manner as the sod kilns in the vale of Clwyd.’


Palmer then continued, ‘To what base uses are the great monuments of the past often put! I may add that at the Brymbo  Farm Mr. Wilkinson erected a threshing machine, worked by steam, for he was an advanced agriculturist as well as a great iron—master.’ He was also in 1787 known to have sent to the Society of Arts, a specimen of Hemp, grown from seeds distributed by the East India Company.


Brymbo Works

The agriculture and the lead smelting interests or Brymbo , however, were really only minor aspects of the estate, for they were known to be mineral rich in coal and iron, and by 1796 the first iron smelting furnace had been erected and put into production. An excise return for that year shows that 884 tons of iron were produced, but an annual target of 4,000 tons per year was planned when the second furnace was completed.


Unlike Wilkinson’s other furnace sites of which little or nothing remains, Brymbo  managed to fare a little better, so that today, his first furnace, or the ‘Old Nr.1’ as it was later called, is still in existence, having worked continually until 1894 when it was finally blown out. It is interesting to note that at one stage of it life this furnace had worked for 32 consecutive years on the same lining, and that the man who blew her in, one John Williams, also blew her out. Little is known concerning the No.2 furnace, except that there was an explosion in 1869 killing two men and a boy. The furnace was restarted and worked until 1875, then, after a period of idleness it was put on to making Bessemer iron for a few months, but was finally damped down and demolished in 1892.

The Brymbo  Works are still (1987) in competitive production as an wholly owned subsidiary of Guest Keen and Nettlefold Limited, who as one of the largest producers of Electrically melted alloy and special Carbon steels in the United Kingdom, supply their products in the form of billets manufactured to numerous specifications (British, American, German, Italian, and many others) of the highest quality demanded by a wide variety of trades dealing in modern day engineering techniques both at home and abroad.

I’m sure John Wilkinson would be proud in the fact that at least one of his establishments is still going strong and involved in the many new go ahead engineering developments of the day which he himself never hesitated to pursue in an effort to quicken the pace of engineering evolution. And yet the basics of iron smelting as such have altered little since his day, for here at Brymbo  the steel making process commences at the blast furnace. Here, sinter and iron-bearing materials such as mill-scale, machine-shop swarf and borings, together with the requisite amounts of coke and limestone, are charged into the top of the blast furnace. The burning coke heats the charge of raw materials and this is intensified by a blast of hot air blown through the burden from the bottom. Chemical reactions extract iron from the burden which flows down to the bottom of the furnace, where it is drawn off or ‘tapped’ into a ladle and transferred to the electric melting shop.

Occasionally the molten metal is tapped and run on to a sand bed where it is allowed to solidify. It is then broken up and used in the steel furnaces. The furnace also produces a slag which is tapped separately from the iron and which ultimately is crushed and used for road making.

Waste gas from the furnace is burnt in Cowper stoves for pre-heating the air blown into the furnace and in boilers for steam raising which in turn, is used for driving the blast-furnace blowers and for other steam requirements throughout the works.

From previous pages we learn of the token coinage issued by Wilkinson, but here at l3rymbo he went one better when he actually issued One Guinea Bank notes. These were still being issued after his death. They were signed by one Denton Ackerley, and illustrate what appears to be a representation of the John Wilkinson Coat of Arms.

Another interesting relic of this age, was the composition of a folk song in his honour, which surely must be rare for any iron-master or industrialist, and runs as follows:

Ye workmen of Bersham  and Brymbo  draw near,

Sit down, take your pipe, and my song you shall hear:

I sing not of war or the state of the nation;

Such subjects as these produce naught but vexation.  

Derry Down, Down, Derry Down.


But before I proceed any more with my lingo,

You shall (all) drink my toast in a bumper stingo:

Fill up and without any further parade,

“John Wilkinson,” boys, “that supporter of trade.”

  Derry Down, etc.


May all his endeavours be crowned with success,

And his works, ever growing, posterity bless!

May his comforts increase with the length of his days,

And his fame shine as bright as his furnace’s blaze!

Derry Down, etc.


That the wood of old England would fail did appear,

And though iron was scarce, because charcoal was dear,

By puddling and stamping he prevented that evil,

So the Swedes and the Russians may go to the devil.

Derry Down, etc.


Our thundering cannon too frequently burst;

A mischief so great he prevented the first;

And now ‘tis well known, they never miscarry,

But drive all our foes with a blast to Old Harry.

Derry Down, etc.


Then let each jolly fellow take hold of his glass,

And drink to the health of his friend and his lass,

May he always have plenty of stingo and pence,

And Wilkinson’s fame blaze a thousand years hence!

Derry Down, etc.


Wilkinson, however, was not the first to smelt iron with coke, as the song might suggest. Even so, the early methods, important though they were, even to Wilkinson himself, were by no means the type of success to tempt others to try, and not until he (Wilkinson) proved the only real way was by utilizing the power created by James Watt ’s Steam Engine did the rest of the world take notice.

This new method was so successful that by 1788, there were only 24 charcoal furnaces working in Great Britain, as against 44 using pit coal, a far cry to the half dozen or of coke furnaces working in 1776.

As though tokens, bank notes, and folk songs were not enough to come from the Wilkinson Bersham  and Brymbo  era to remind us of him, there were, quite recently discovered at Minera, some of his cast iron pipes which caused ripples of excitement throughout the country, and even as far as America. The reason was they are among the very few identifiable pieces of ironwork to come from the Bersham Iron Works bearing the name of the great iron-master and carrying the date 1783. They are believed to be among those manufactured for the Paris  Water Works, and are at present housed in the Wrexham Central Library.

Among his inventions of this period, included the Cupola Furnace (patent No.1993) 2nd June 1794. This invention was, and still is used (though now larger and more sophisticated) to make cast metal or pig-iron independent of the mother furnace. But the great innovation here, was that iron-plate was used for the first time, to form the outside shell of the furnace, so doing away with the long established but cumbersome stone. Another important invention of his was the discovery of rifling the barrels of his cannon to give the shot a greater accuracy. (Patent No.1694) 30th Jan. 1789. He invented an Iron Man, designed to cut coal at the coal- face, but was met with opposition from the miners, who feared their jobs were at stake.

Even to the last few months of his life he was still at it, when he claimed on the 23rd Jan. 1808 (patent No.3097) to haze produced pig or cast metal from the ore, which when manufactured into bar iron will be found equal in quality to any that is imported from Russia or Sweden. The witness to this specification was James Adam.

In the year 1843, during the trial of a certain Nelson v Baird, see report of the Trial, Edinburgh 1843, a claim to the invention of the Hot-blast was set up on behalf of Wilkinson to show that about the years 1795-9, he had made an experiment in Bradley  in which the air supplied to a blast furnace was previously heated, but the judge held that no previous use had been established.


Wilkinson’s Sense of Humour

One of the stranger sides of John Wilkinson, was his bizarre sense of humour which came through no more strongly than when he was entertaining guests at his various residences. During the course of their stay, he would ultimately guide them to a certain quarter of the house where he kept number of iron coffins, which he would offer to them a gifts, causing many of his lady guests to throw a quick faint.

 Of all John’s agents, the best known undoubtedly was Gilbert Gilpin, from whose many chatty letters we learn a great deal of Wilkinson’s activities and where, regarding to iron coffins, we glean that he had two ready in his hot-house at Bradley , ‘the first being a blank, with spanners, etc., to screw him up. He sent the order from London, and was very pressing for its speedy execution, which made his people conceive the devil had at length sent him his route and passport’. This same report was also published in the Wolverhampton Chronicle, 24th June 1793.

In this same letter, Gilpin ends on a different not when he recalls a certain person named Wood, who, collecting materials for the life of John Wilkinson, says of him ‘He has sent to me requesting anecdotes or other matter respecting him. I could furnish him with much material from notes mad a few months before I left his employ, but who knows the use that might be made of them? Wood is a brass founder a Wolverhampton, and I have more than once suspected J. W. may have employed him to get such information from me to enable him to do away with the ‘old obligation’ he conceives himself under to me.’ Gilpin nevertheless remained very close, both to John and William until their deaths, acting as a go between during their last unsociable years towards each other.


During his lifetime, Wilkinson had travelled many miles seemingly content to set up house and home where and when i deemed necessary yet as in all men... there is no place like home, and home to John, was close to that Lakeland district at Lindale  and it was here that he decided not only to make his chief residence, but also his main Headquarters. To achieve this he purchased in 1778 an estate known as Castlehead  or Atter-pile, and the site of an ancient Camp Castlehead, as John first knew it, was little more than bare rocky eminence seen protruding from the flat marshland around which the waters of Morecombe Bay lapped. Here the he built walls and dykes around the said marshlands, whilst the rock he had covered in rich soil, the whole being carried up on horseback, then by planting trees and vegetation he thus converted the wilderness into a landscape of great beuty.


The creating of the estate to his liking, involved many hours of labour, including those of the Sabbath, and as the good folk of Lindale  revered this day, he brought over gangs of Irish labourers, who worked uncommittingly all the hours he required, being duly summoned from their work and slumbers by means of an ancient bell which he obtained from nearby Cartmel Priory. This same bell was later acquired by the Lindale parish church of St. Paul when it was largely rebuilt.



It was here in the gardens of Castlehead  that John was eventually (though temporarily) laid to rest in an iron coffin according to his wishes. From the very moment of his death, the legends of John Wilkinson deepened, for like the mystery concerning his birth, so his death became more so. The earliest reports say that he died aged 80 years on July 14th 1808 at Bradley , Hadley, Broseley , or Castlehead. If his death did not occur at Castlehead, then his body, according to historians was escorted from the southern shires to Castlehead, whereupon the last few miles of the journey across the Morecombe Bay (which was negotiable whilst the tide was out) it met with near disaster when a swift and un­suspecting incoming tide caused the bearers to scatter for their lives, leaving behind the heavy wood and lead coffin to its own fate. At low ebb, however, the bearers returned to find it almost totally buried in the sands, and it had to he dug out, then upon arriving at Castlehead the coffin was found to be too large to place in the iron shell or coffin that he kept here for the purpose, so until another could be cast, his body was temporarily buried in the garden walk.


On the arrival of the new coffin, the body was then disinterred (by the same man (and others) who had temporarily buried it in the garden walk) and placed into the larger iron coffin ready to be interred in its proposed permanent site. But here another difficulty arose, for in digging the new grave deep enough, solid rock was met with, causing the body once again to be returned to its temporary grave until it could be enlarged. This being achieved, the body once more was interred and this time successfully reburied by the same man (and others) on the hillside overlooking the mansion. The whole must have presented quite a dominant feature when over the grave was reared a monumental iron pyramid weighing over 20 tons, with the following inscription:-



who died XIV July MDCCCVIII

Aged LXXX Years.


“His different works in various parts of the Kingdom are lasting testimonies of his increasing labours: his life was spent in action for the benefit of man: and as he presumed himself to hope, to the glory of God.”




It was not, however, the epitaph as he himself wrote it, which ran:—


“Delivered from persecution of malice and envy, here rests John Wilkinson, Iron Master, in certain hopes of a better estate and Heavenly Mansion, as promulgated by Jesus Christ in whose Gospel he was a firm believer. His life was spent in action for the benefit of man, and as he trusts in some degree to the glory of God, as his different works that remain in various parts of the Kingdom are testimonies of increasing labour, until death released him the   ….day of   ….   18…., at the advanced age of  …..


This last inscription appears to have been substituted for the one actually put on the monument, by Mr. Wilkinson’s executors, who were not entirely happy with the Wilkinson version.



At the time of his death, he was reputed to have been a millionaire, so as he planned, Castlehead  and his business concerns should for many years to come, be in a secure financial position. Mary , his second wife, however, who had earlier died in 1806 at the age of 83 years, failed to provide him with an heir, so had to rely upon the questionable qualities of a nephew, one Thomas Jones, the son of his eldest sister, Sarah and illegitimate heirs by his mistress, Ann Lewis, who was a servant at one of his houses, and he had by her three children, namely, Mary Ann, born July 27th, 1802; Johnina, born August 6th, 1805; and John whose date of birth is uncertain but it is presumed that Wilkinson was more than 77 years old when he was born. On the death of his wife, John obtained a warrant, under ‘the Kings Royal sign manual’, to enable them as well as their mother, to bear the name of Wilkinson.


Whilst these children were young, John Wilkinson in his will dated 2nd November 1806, nominated Ann Lewis, mother of his children; James Adam Esq., of Runcorn; William Vaughan Esq., of the city of London; William Smith Esq., of Birmingham; and Samuel Fereday Esq., of Ettingshall Park in the parish of Sedgley, Staffordshire, as Trustees for 21 years, to carry on his works at Bradley , Brymbo , and elsewhere, and at the end of 21 years ‘To the children which he might have by the aforesaid Ann Lewis, and living at his decease, or born within six months after, equally to be divided between such children and their heirs, share and share alike’, and if there were no such children, to his nephew, Thomas Jones, and to his heirs, provided he or they took the name of Wilkinson.


Mr. Fereday, however, soon relinquished his trust, and Mr. Vaughan, and Mr. Smith, died soon afterwards, so that Mrs. Wilkinson and Mr. Adam were alone left to fulfil the duties of the rest.


Nephew’s Court Action

As though the Trustee’s responsibilities of running so large an estate were not enough to contend with, they were also forced into the role of defending what was already rightly theirs, against the actions of his nephew, who now having assumed the title Thomas Jones Wilkinson  Esq., used his position as residuary legatee to (relying solely on the illegitimacy of his uncle’s children, and upon the fact that they were not mentioned by name in his Will) lay claim to the whole property. The case dragged on for seven years until coming before the Lord Chancellor, up to which point the decision was in every case given in favour of the plaintiff, but on asking the plaintiff what provision he intended to make in the event of a decision being given in his favour, for the defendants - his uncle’s children, on his replying that he intended to make no provision, the Lord Chancellor’s mind was made up. At all events, he gave judgment for the defendants. Mr. Jones Wilkinson then filed a bill in Chancery to restrain Mr. James Adams from further interfering in the management of the estate, but this demand also, after a long hearing was refused. Mr. Thomas Jones Wilkinson became bankrupt, as also did Mr. Samuel Fereday who had backed him up.


The costs of the case had also severely harmed the finances of the estate, from which time a sad decline had set in. From the onset of John’s death, the Bersham  works were seen to be let until about the year 1815, to Messrs. Thomas Jones and Company. They were followed by Messrs. Aydon and Aiwall, who in 1819 were superseded by Messrs. Poole and Company. At a later date, a portion of the works were let as a Smithy to Edward Mullard, the rest was left to decay. The lease was eventually sold to a Thomas Fitzhugh Esq., of Plas Power.



The decline of the estate must have started quite soon after John’s death, giving impetus to an earlier legend which had prevailed among the Bradley  folk, that if the works should so decline, the great man himself would on the seventh anniversary of his decease revisit the works there, and so strong was this belief, it was reported on that day, several thousand people gathered at Monmore Green on the outskirts of Bilston , fully expecting to see him make his appearance, riding, as the legend predicted, on his grey horse: not only did this circumstance testify to the extraordinary character of riilkinson, but also showed that even then, all was not well within the Bradley Estate.


By 1824, most of the remaining works managers were corn— ple~aly demoralized by the manifest ruin of the estate caused mainly by the unscrupulous demands of lawyers and other so— called respected agents who sought only to look after them­selves that by 1826 James Kyrke of Ffrith Lodge became the receiver of the Estate, until ultimately nothing was left to receive. Thus by 1828 the estate became hopelessly involved and by a decree of Chancery, the greater part was ordered to be sold in order to meet claims upon it. The Rotherhithe property sold in 1829 fetched £3,400 and all the smaller estates adjoining Brymbo  were sold until only the original 500 acres remained.


With the proceeds obtained from the sale of the various estates, John Wilkinson junior, still living at Brymbo  Hall with his two sisters and their husbands, decided to restart the Brymbo works, but soon ran into financial difficulties, and by 1837, he decided to go to America, and never returned. By 1840 the works were sold to a Robert Roy Esq., who engaged a young Scottish engineer named Henry Robertson to carry out an independent study of the works, and who in turn, persuaded William Henry and Charles E. Darby (descendants of Abraham Darby ) to take over as managers of the works, which they and John Henry Darby, a son of William Henry, continued to do so until 1908.


By 1828, the Castlehead  Estate was also included in the dissipation of the estates, upon which sale, the new owners, unsympathetic towards Wilkinson, immediately insisted upon the removal of the ponderous iron obelisk and all that it covered, so that once again, poor old John was disinterred (just as he himself had disinterred his own daughter, May) by the same man (and others) as before alluded to.


The coffin, placed in a strong cart, was pointed towards the Lindale  parish church, and then in the dead of night was conveyed up the steep Lindale brow to a grave there, which had been prepared for it (in consecrated ground) within, it is said, the very beautiful little snow-white chapel of Lindal-in-Cartmel, where it was reburied by the same man (and others) beneath the Castlehead  Pew.


Within the space of 12 months from John’s interment, the Lindale  church was considerably enlarged, from which time the said Wilkinson grave was lost, and since when, every known means to locate it has failed, including the sophisticated use of modern metal detectors, as confirmed to me by the present incumbent; The Rev. A. J. Wilkie.


The only Wilkinson reminder to be found here today, is by way of a small marble plaque to his second wife Mary .


Regarding the iron monument, this for some reason re­mained at Castlehead, though upset, tossed down and neglected, with weeds for company for 35 years until being acquired by an Ulverston Scrap Merchant. He managed to get it as far as the Grange-over-Sands Railway sidings before being stopped by members of the district, who at a last minute appeal had decided to recover it, possibly encouraged by the very man, Mr. Edward Mucklow, then of Castlehead. Actually he had sold it (or his Agent) in the first place. A small iron plaque dated 1863, which fastened to the rear of the monument, clearly states that it was he who had had it removed to its present site at Lindale. Castlehead  today is an extremely well kept estate and now serves as a religious college for those of the catholic faith, the mansion being little changed since Wilkinson’s


The monument, standing at Lindale, on the Grange-over-Sands Road, remains as a worthy tribute to a great man of vision, whose importance both as an engineer and iron master nest never be underestimated, for through his tremendous faith and confidence in all things appertaining to iron, combined with a fearless application to sound, but then seemingly untried theories, he triumphed to lay the foundations upon which our present industrial well-being rests. It would be quite in order to say,

‘What John Wilkinson achieved today. . . . others copied tomorrow’ and no man needs a greater epitaph than that.




Patricia Devall                                              Word Processing

Elsie Homer & Brenda Gould                        Production Processes

Glyn Parsons                                               Cover Design & Coins

A S Hill                                                       Editor

First edition printed at Dudley Teacher’s Education and Development Centre, Laburnam Road, Kingswinford, West Midlands DY6 8EH

The staff of Bilston Library.

The staff of the Salt Library (Stafford)

The staff of the Wolverhampton Reference Library.

The staff of the Wrexham Reference Library.

The staff of the Grange-Over-Sands Public Library.

The late Mr. R. Pee of The Lawns, Broseley.

Mr. F.A. Barnett of Sedgley (West Midlands).

Mr. J. Mathies of the Brymbo Works.

Mr. R. Dolman, Wesleyan Chapel, Bradley.

And all who have in some way contributed or encouraged the work.




A.N. Palmer ‘Bersham and the Old Iron Works’.

B Trinder ‘The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire’.

Paul Mantoux ‘The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century’

James Stockdale ‘ Annals of Cartmel’

John Randall ‘The Wilkinsions’.

GKN ‘The History of the Brymbo Works’.

‘Archaeology at Bersham’ (Wrexham Reference Library)

H. W. Dickinson ‘John Wilkinson’., Hume Kitchen, Ulverston, 1914

W. H. Samson  ‘Man of Iron’


Other Information Sources


Birmingham Reference Library

Shrewsbury Records Office

Warrington Public Library


Wolverhampton Chronicle 24th June 1793


Re John Wilkinson: -

‘He has two coffins in his hot house at Bradley the first being a blank with spanner etc. to screw him up. He sent the order from London and was very pressing for its execution; which made his people conceive the devil has at length sent him his route and passport’.  



The Cast-iron chapel was not burned down. It was the replacement chapel which was struck by lightning in July 1901 causing a great fire which destroyed it.


The Cast-iron chapel had proved to be too small to accommodate the increasing congregation. The new chapel opened for services in April 1835. As for the Cast-iron chapel, all its special iron features were converted, it was said, to more secular uses


Page 24


The Victorian school has now been converted into a Wilkinson Museum.


Page 25:


The farm which took over the site of the works has now gone and the site is being excavated by Industrial Archaeologists. An early blast furnace has already been found and there are prospects of others coming to light.





Abraham Darby, 6, 7, 13, 29

Ann Mawdsley, 7, 8

Backbarrow, 1, 3, 4, 5

Bare Syke’, 4

Bersham, 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 19, 20, 21, 23, 25, 26, 29

Bilston, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 22, 29

Black Country Society, 11

Boulton Works, 10

Bradley, 2, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28, 29

Broseley, 2, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 27

Brymbo, 1, 2, 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 28, 29

Cark House, 1, 5, 6

Castlehead, 1, 22, 27, 28, 30

Coalbrookdale, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 15, 16

Darbys, 6, 7

Engine Inn’, 6

Helton Tarn, 5

iron boat, 5, 14, 16, 17

Iron Bridge, 13, 14

Ironbridge, 2, 12, 13

Isaac Wilkinson, 4, 9

James Brindley, 14

James Stockdale, 4, 5, 14, 20

James Watt, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 19, 25

John Smeaton, 15

Kinneal House, 10

Lake Windermere, 3

Lindale, 1, 5, 6, 7, 17, 19, 22, 27, 30

Little Clifton, 3

Mary, 4, 7, 9, 20, 28, 30

Matthew Boulton, 9, 10, 15, 20

Metalum, 7

Nantwich, Cheshire, 3

New Willey, 2, 8, 9, 12

Newcomen, 1, 10, 11, 12

Old Willey, 2, 8

Paris, 19, 26

Princess Carbristka, 15

rotative engine, 15

Smoothing Iron’, 6

St. Helens, 21

Sutton Maddock, 13

The Lawns’, 12

The Trial’, 14, 16

Thomas Jones Wilkinson, 29

Tokens, 16

Topsey Turvey’, 13

Wilkinson Avenue, 18

Wilkinson Society, 12

William Ferriday, 8

William Wilkinson, 19, 21

Wilson House, 1, 2, 5, 6

Windermere Steamboat Museum, 5