1.  Iron and steel in Bilston in early times.

The production of iron took place in Bilston and the surrounding areas from very early times, there being plenty of ironstone, limestone, wood and coal in the district.  The iron was also made into usable goods in the area.  Lawley, in his History of Bilston, says that “Bilston was famous for its locksmiths, general smiths, chape filers, etc., as far back as the time of Henry IV, at which early period coal was used for the purpose of manufacture …”.    In the 17th century Dud Dudley, in his Metallum Martis, comments that “within ten miles of Dudley Castle there be near 20,000 smiths of all sorts, and many ironworks at that time within that circle decayed for want of wood (yet formerly a mighty woodland country)”.  His figures need not be taken too literally but the picture suggests that iron working was extensive by that time and had been for a long time before.

But though iron was certainly made in the area, it was only in small quantities.  The great amounts of iron being worked were imported from Coalbrookdale and its vicinity whence the iron industry of the Weald of Sussex had migrated.

In 1767 a poet, Richard Jago, described the Midlands iron industry and its processes in suitably ponderous verse (which appears on page vi of Gale’s book):

Nor does the barren soil conceal alone
The sable rock inflammable. Oft times
More ponderous ore beneath its surface lies,
Compact, metallic, but with earthy parts
Incrusted. These the smoky kiln consumes,
And to the furnace's impetuous rage
Consigns the solid ore. In the fierce heat
The pure dissolves, the dross remains behind.
This push'd aside, the trickling metal flows
Through secret valves along the channel'd floor,
Where in the mazy moulds of figur'd sand,
Anon it hardens. Now the busy forge
Reiterates its blows, to form the bar
Large, massy, strong. Another art expands
And yet divides the yielding mass
To many a taper length, fit to receive
The artist's will, and take its destin'd form.

A 19th century print of a rolling mill.

The new iron making processes enabled iron making to start up in Staffordshire and, in due time, to totally eclipse the Shropshire industry.  

It was at Bradley where important developments took place.  It was there was John Wilkinson established the Bradley Ironworks, erected the first blast furnace in 1767 and created the first forge for making wrought iron in 1784.  “In thirty years” says Lawley “Bilston stood unrivalled as an iron making centre”. 

Wilkinson invented a method of boring iron to make very accurate and smooth cannons.  This lead to his getting very large government contracts.  His technology came to the attention of  Boulton and Watt in 1775, who realised that it could be used to improve their steam engines by creating very durable, strong and accurately made cylinders.  It was this which lead to steam engines becoming practical industrial machines and the vital power source of the industrial revolution.

The compliment was returned.  Iron making was a slow, low volume activity, mainly because the blast the furnaces required was provided by bellows which were water driven and inefficient.

Wilkinson realised that steam engines could be adapted to provide a greatly increased blast, not dependent on water power. Boulton and Watt  created such a device. The greatly improved blast meant that coal could be used instead of charcoal, thereby replacing an increasingly scarce resource with one that seemed inexhaustible.

19th century print of an ironworks.

 Using this new system Wilkinson doubled his output from Bradley from 20 tons to 40 tons per week.  “Not only did the steam-engine enormously enhance the strength of the blast, but the work of the furnace could be continued without intermission wherever coal and iron ore were available, instead of being dependent upon access to a water-supply, with its seasonal variations”. (T.K.Derry and Trevor I. Williams, A Short History of Technology, Clarendon Press, 1960, p.475). 

19th century print of a blast furnace.

Wilkinson was the first of many to take up iron making in the area.  Presumably he went to Bradley because of the ready availability of iron ore, limestone and coal. But there was not much water. 

The use of steam engines to a large degree overcame this problem. The arrival of canals in the area greatly eased what was otherwise a considerable transport problem. The area could now be seen as ideal for the industry. In 1796 there were fourteen furnaces recorded in Staffordshire, including two at Bilston and three at Bradley. 

The Napoleonic Wars greatly increased the demand for iron of all sorts and the industry greatly expanded.  There was a recession when the war ended but it gradually picked up again as industry generally expanded.  “In 1862” Lawley says “there were more blast furnaces in Bilston parish alone than in the whole of Staffordshire in 1800”.  The principal ironmasters at that time were, he says, the Bagnalls, Blackwells, Sparrows, Wards, Joneses, Thorneycrofts, Baldwins and Hickmans. Of course Bilston was also a centre for forging and founding, making a vast array of manufactured iron and steel goods.  This will have to be recorded elsewhere.  

Samuel Griffiths’ account of Bilston in 1873

Samuel Griffiths was a Bilston born man who after many trails and tribulations achieved some fame and respectability in later life as an authority on the iron and steel trade.  In 1873 he published his “Guide to the Iron Trade of Great Britain”.

In this he describes the iron processing works in and around Bilston and provides a snapshot of the producers of the time.  He observes that “Bilston is surrounded on all sides by ironworks, collieries, iron foundries and coal mines.

Having mentioned Thomas Perry and Sons of Highfields, he goes on:  “Messrs Thompson and Hatton’s tin-plate works are situated here.  Groucott’s, Bradley Bridge; Messrs Hampton, Breiton and Cole, the Bilston Sheet Iron Company, George Hickman’s works, Mr. Alfred Hickman’s furnaces, and Mr. G. Merrimans’s Lanesfield Iron Works are all in a group, beneath the curtain of black smoke which forms the normal canopy of Bilston.  Here too the iron works of W and S Sparrow are situated, one of the oldest and wealthiest concerns in the Black Country.  Turleys’ and Fowler’s blast furnaces, and also the famous Capponfield furnaces, belonging to James Bagnall and Sons, emit their smoke and flame, and produce iron of their well known brands.  All the above works are situated within the radius of the Bilston group”. 

An advert for the Bradley Bridge Foundry, 1861
And that, of course, is not a complete list.  For example, we know, thanks to the researches of Jaap Arriens,  that in 1866 Thomas and Isaac Bradley were the owners of Brook Furnaces, which seem to have been one of several furnaces by the side of Bilston Brook.  In 1881 they acquired the Capponfield Furnaces from the Bagnalls who had been operating them since 1839.  The second half of the 19th century was marked by periods of boom and bust, usually accompanied by strikes and lock outs in the iron trades. 

Gradually, with the exhaustion of local supplies of raw materials, and the associated high costs of imported materials, many of the foundries and iron works closed, leaving Alfred Hickman in virtually unopposed possession of the field.  The Bradley’s, for example, lasted longer than many others and blew out the Capponfield furnaces in 1920.  By then they had moved onto other businesses, one of which became Beldray.

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Alfred Hickman