Wortley Iron In the Service of Man
In Top Forge, Wortley, we have a workplace where craftsmen applied their strength and skill to making wrought iron from 1640 to 1912. It was done in the service of man.
In so serving man, these workers helped to change England. In 1640 the wealth of this country, then with five million people, seemed to be on the ground crops: animals that fed on grass, fleeces from sheep. Cloth making was our major industry; woollens accounted for nearly half our exports. By 1800 more iron was being made than in 1640, more articles in iron exported, more articles of iron used by the English in their home. Iron in 1800 was going to the forward-looking places where new and better machines were designed and constructed.
What Top Forge contributed was limited by its size., The original building would be about 32 feet by 40 feet just room for one hammer, one finery hearth one chafery hearth, and bellows for the hearths. A visitor in 1640 might see the hammer-man a boy and a man at the finery hearth, and two men at the chafery hearth. The team produced three tons of wrought iron in a good week. What would not be apparent was the number of men employed in preparing the raw materials or in carrying away the finished products. Nor could the visitor see how many were busy putting to use the wrought iron made at Top Forge.
Work at Top Forge meant employment at the furnace and for the furnace that produced the cast iron to be forged into wrought iron. At both furnace and forge until 1750 at least, the fuel used was charcoal. Thus work was found for cutters of wood, for charcoal burners, for carriers of charcoal. (It would need at least four tons of charcoal to make enough pig-iron for one ton of wrought iron, and another three tons of charcoal to turn the pig iron into wrought iron). Indirectly, work at Top Forge led to the employment of men to dig out the ironstone (from bell pits) and of others to prepare ironstone for the furnace. In daylight, the roads leading to furnace and forge must seldom have been without horses carrying raw materials. Both furnace and forge needed keepers of accounts, records of materials received and of finished products sent out. There were regular calls on carpenters and leather-workers (repairing bellows). The key posts: founder at the furnace hammer-man at the forge, were coveted positions to which an industrious boy at Top Forge might eventually climb.
Properly considered, Top Forge’s wrought iron (like Sheffield’s steel) is to be seen as a precious metal. Dr. Johnson’s claim “The use of iron constitutes much of the difference between savage and polished life” may not be excessive. In 1556 Agricola had pointed out “If there were no metals, man would pass a horrible and wretched existence in the midst of wild beasts”. Getting and cooking food, erecting a shelter, providing cover for the body – these can be done in a fashion without metal but with what labour and what limitations!
Man is a tool-using animal. Iron was an essential part of the tools, instruments and appliances used in England up to 1800. Many a tool with a cutting edge of steel was gripped or supported by iron; many of Sheffield’s fine products brought together iron and steel. In 1752 John Cockshutt I (of Wortley) wrote that local iron was “exceedingly well adapted to all manufactures where iron and steel are laid together, as in all carpenters’ and joiners’ tools, whereas its rivals, Swedish and American iron, demanded a more generous heat” which destroyed “the very nature and essence of steel”. Skill in “laying”, splitting the end of an iron pick, inserting a tip of steel and welding them together, enabled the English to take full advantage of their mineral wealth. Without iron and steel as partners, our ancestors could not have got the ironstone to make iron, the clay to make bricks and earthenware, the copper needed in the brewery or in the kitchen, the coal for home or industry, the stone for building houses, churches and bridges. The technique of combining iron and steel was applied to the great machines which bored the cylinders needed for the new steam-engines to produce power – the application of which transformed England.
Many tools and appliances needed in iron-making could be made in the forge itself. Forge and furnace needed dam-hooks, cinder-rakes, long bars to clear floating cinder (“wringers”), heavier and longer bars (“constables”), “furgeons” for working pasty iron in the hearth, and tongs of various sizes (like those now to be seen in Top Forge). Wrought Iron was most suitable for metal-working tools because it withstood a higher temperature than steel.
Other users of furnaces (and kilns) depended on iron. The glass-maker needed a wrought iron blowing glass, ladles, hooks, forks and rakes and in addition special tongs for carrying crucibles full of molten glass (possibly prototypes of what Huntsman used in making crucible steel). For grasping, using pincers or tongs, wrought iron was invaluable.
RODS AND BARS
For the first fifty years, Top Forge sent much of its wrought iron to a slitting-mill. Dr. Mott has shown that there is a record of a slitting mill close to Top Forge, on a bloomery site by the Don, in 1692. (This site with its water-wheel was later used for a tinmill in the time of the Cockshutts.) “Mill” in the seventeenth century did not imply a large building but was the name for an “engine” for doing a particular job (as with a “peppermill”). The customers of Top Forge expected to receive its iron in the form of bars or of rods. The slitting-mill accepted thin bars and reduced them to rods, of a size suitable for making nails.
Bar-iron was needed by the Smith and the ironmonger (who then had a much wider range of activities than their modern counterparts). Try to think what life was like in the horse-age but do not assume that a smith is merely a farrier. The inter-dependence of craftsmen in the past is shown in Defoe’s 1728 picture of a new town based on “fifty families of farmers”. Such a group must “find work for a smith or farrier to shoe their horses, and at least two wheelwrights to make and repair their carts, wagons, ploughs, harrows”. These craftsmen used so much iron in their work that there would be need for two blacksmiths. One might specialise as an ironmonger – fabricating to order and also a stockholder, “laying in all sorts of wrought iron for building” and furnishing a house.
The smith was a versatile man, ready to apply his skill to any problem in an article made of iron. He went out to farms to deal with articles not easily brought to him. A day spent at home would bring a variety of customers bringing articles of or with iron that needed repair and attention. Men with a special need would explain their problem to him and he would try to make something to satisfy the need. With such demands for his skill he needed a good store of iron in bars and rods of differing sizes, and wire.
For the farmers the smith made tongs, bridle-bits, rings for pigs combs for horses manes, branding-irons for animals. Householders wanted sneaks latches. locks and keys, hinges, pipe-racks, mouse-traps, beetles, curtain-rods. sconces, handles for doors and drawers, holders for candies and rush-lights. The smith supplied churches with screens, grates, grills, frames for stained or plain glass in windows. railings for tombs, frames to hold hour glasses. Country houses like Wentworth Woodhouse and Wentworth Castle had decorative ironwork which may have been made from Wortley iron. Maybe in making utilitarian articles for daily use in ordinary homes the smith was demonstrating the value of wrought iron in the service of man.
IRON IN THE HOME
For a small house in London in 1782 the blacksmith’s bill was £67 – 36 cwt. of iron at 5/3 per stone. This bill covered “kitchen ranges, grates. chimney-crane. iron bars to chimneys, iron rails and palissades”. An ordinary house in Yorkshire before 1750 depended on iron for heating and cooking – using wood as fuel. Cooking was based on hanging vessels over or standing pots close to the fire (and these often had wrought iron handles). A chimney-crane (of bar-iron) was essential. A bracket hung against the back wall of the fireplace, swinging over the fire. From it, by means of iron pot-hooks, were suspended oval kettles or frying pans with a semi-circular handle of wrought iron. Few houses had an oven, so that meat or poultry was held before the fire on a wrought iron spit. Housewives used a variety of supporters on which stood smaller vessels or vessels with iron legs – skillets trivets, footmen, brandreths, gridirons. Sometimes the food was in or on a plate or a frame held by hand at the right distance toasters, conjurors, girdleplates. The logs being burned required hand-irons, tongs and fire-shovels. Melting fat was collected in sheet iron dripping pans placed under spits. Many items of the cook’s apparatus combined containers of copper or brass with handles of wrought iron. The kitchen contained many items which came from a smith and in time went back to him for repairs.
Top Forge was built in 1640 in the knowledge that a local industry was ready to take quantities of wrought-iron rods. Makers of nails from rods knew the suitability of Wortley charcoal-iron for their job.
James Cockshutt (of Wortley) wrote of local iron: ‘it will work exceeding soft and consequently may be wrought cheaper because it will expand with little more than half the force (needed by tough iron) under the hammer, and will also point more minutely without cleaving’.
Wortley iron went to the nailers of the area around Mortomly and Ecclesfield. The nails they made went to market towns and to fairs, and some to London for distribution in the South or for export to Africa or America. In the latter continent, rapid expansion demanded speedy building relying on wood, so that settlers needed nails in quantities. Do not think “Couldn’t they use screws?”. The gimlet point of a screw is a development after 1780. What screws were to be had were hand-made and expensive. Four screws for a little chest could cost one shilling (a day’s wage for an ordinary workman) or the same as a hundred “tenpenny nails” designed for posts.
In the Yorkshire of 1640 (when brick houses were the exception) a timber-framed house needed many nails. In 1712 the Worsborough church wardens paid one pound for twelve hundred nails (for repairs to the roof). Under a lead roof was boarding needing 250 nails to a square. With a roof of slate, in 1675 laths were said to need “2 in every slate bigger than 5 inches and to 3 double, that is 2 covered”. In 1765 “John Cockshutt’s works at Wortley” supplied iron to the smith, George Shaw of Leeds, from whom nails were purchased in thousands – for Harewood House.
The variety in nails surprises us. Some were named according to the price per hundred (“twopenny” to “tenpenny”). Names of nails indicating destination included stone, stump, horse, oxen, post, board, floor, boat. Other names showed the form sparrow-bill, rose (faceted head), sprig (headless wedge-shaped or square-bodied with light head on one side), spikes, brads (no spreading head, used by joiners and carpenters where the head was not to be obvious). Clout nails (broad-headed) were for felting; clasp and clamps (flat heads) were for flooring.
In a few square miles around Ecclesfield men combined running a smallholding with making nails at home in an extension of the house (and children could be part of the workforce). Eventually the Americans developed their own nail industry; English and American inventors devised machines which produced nails more quickly, more cheaply, and more reliable ones so that the local cottage industry only just lasted until the early part of 1900s.
Early in the seventeenth century, as wire-drawing at Barnsley was declining, Wortley Wire Mill was built in 1624 on a site just a little further up the Don than Top Forge. It can be presumed that close by was a bloomery producing charcoal-iron – better for wire drawing than the forge product. Thus the area around Top Forge was producing iron wire in the service of man.
Wortley wire was mainly used for wool cards, needed wherever wool was carded in the cottages of the Huddersfield area. Overseers of the poor readily paid five shillings for a pair of wool cards to make the poor self-supporting. A carder took a card and, working with circular motion, produced from the wood a sheet of interlaced fibres. To hold and position these fibres the card had “teeth” points of wrought-iron wire set in leather over an area 12″ by 5″. So necessary were wool cards that in 1762 when American colonists put an embargo on English iron, an exception was made for them.
In ordinary Yorkshire homes could be found articles made from wire, the basis of sieves used in the kitchen for spices. Wire was manipulated into frames for clay-pipes and for meat-safes. Farmers had rat-traps of wire.
Wire played its part in industry. In Sheffield a firm like Dixons used a wire-frame to hold a bag for straining coffee-grounds. Dressmakers incorporated wire into women’s gowns; tailors used wire hooks and eyes for holding up breeches (before buttons came into use). Bricklayers and builders sifted lime by means of sieves with iron wire. The important fishing industry depended on hooks of wire of strength appropriate to the catch (and in those days fish played a bigger part in feeding the English than it does today).
The establishment of wire-drawing beside the Don made it easy for the district to adapt itself to change to making steel wire for stronger needles for sailmakers and those who packed goods for export. When Bolsover proved the advantages of fused silver-plate, it was a natural step to make wire from the fused material. Sheffield silversmiths showed what delicate and intricate touches could be added to articles to grace the table.
COCKSHUTTS AND PROGRESS
John Cockshutt I (1692-1765) of Wortley was a man of vision and enterprise who earned a nationwide reputation as an enlightened and progressive ironmaster. From Wortley he could visit his friend, Thomas Wentworth at Wentworth Castle. There he may have met another visitor, John Hanbury, whose family had made Pontypool the leading works for iron plates (called “tin-plates” because of the coating, but still plated iron). Early mills for rolling bar into plate had been limited to an operational width under 14″ with horsepower. Pontypool works pioneered the application of waterpower. As Dr. Mott has shown, John Cockshutt of Wortley in 1743 set up a tin-mill (i.e. an “engine” for turning hot iron in bars into sheet iron by means of rollers). He used the site of the old slitting mill with a water-wheel.
Sheet iron was of great value in the service of man because of its wide application. English housewives could not do without frying-pans, dripping-pans and fire-shovels of iron plate. Iron in sheet form extended our exports – American colonies paid 45/- for a hundredweight of frying-pans and 65/- for the same weight of pudding-dishes.
A big step forward came with Henry Cort’s grooved rollers through which bars of iron could be passed at a welding beat. In 1787 James Cockshutt (whose father and brother were then at Wortley) visited Cort. He and his partner, Crawshay, with a licence to apply Cort’s methods, experimented at Cyfarthfa with more powerful rollers, separately powered. Cockshutt “helped Crawshay greatly in bringing Cort’s invention to practical success”. By 1793 James Cockshutt was back at Wortley. There he set up the first grooved rolling-engine in Yorkshire. Such an engine increased the production and improved the quality of bar-iron.
In the Cockshutt era, Wortley saw the introduction of an improved method of preparing iron for rolling, that of puddling iron in a specially-designed furnace which could use coal for smelting. With puddling more iron was made and with greater speed. As T. S. Ashton wrote, “Whereas a tilt-hammer had been able with difficulty to produce a ton of bars in 12 hours, no fewer than 15 tons could be passed through the rollers in the same time; and the iron was of a quality which enabled it to be substituted for charcoal-iron in all uses except that of making steel”. Puddled iron came to the rescue of England in the years of wars and blockades when Swedish iron could not be imported. Puddled iron was found good for anchors so that the navy became a principal buyer. Puddled iron did much to meet the ever-increasing demand for iron as the industrial revolution began to change England.
In the Cockshutt era, Wortley was producing iron in many forms. In the 1774 Sheffield Directory Cockshutt and Co. is fisted as “Iron, wire, plate, tin and anvil makers”. Through the Cockshutts, Wortley made their contribution to the role of iron as “the great sinew of England’s strength and prosperity”, and towards making England “an industrial society whose prosperity was largely based on the metal extracted from iron-ore”.
Copyright 1979 by Sheffield Trades Historical Society