The First Top Forge
at Wortley in South Yorkshire
By N. L. C.
1 – The buildings and fittings
Let us imagine that we are in the year 1640 and that we are approaching (in daytime) the first Top Forge, on a working day. We might look out for three chimneys. (We presume that the one hammer, two fineries and one chafery mentioned in the 1658 lease were part of the original equipment.) These chimneys would lead us to look for a barn-like building covering about half the area of the present main building. Our ears would tell us we were getting nearer; we should hear an air from the movement of water-wheels and an underlying rhythm from the beating of a hammer like the older hammer in today’s forge.
We could hardly step inside (through an opening on the side nearest the main road) without getting in someone’s way. Working space is needed by the hammerman controlling the red-hot mass of iron being worked on the anvil and for men round the chafery preparing the iron for the hammerman. That chafery is one of three built-up hearths.
You can now identify in the oldest part of the present forge a working area of about 1300 square feet. A 1635 inventory of ironworks in the Forest of Dean records the measurements of two forges with the same equipment as the Top Forge of 1640 (one hammer, one chafery, two fineries) – Lydbrooke and Sowdley. Each measures 42 feet by 30 feet. The first Top Forge must have been little different in size.
Of the original outbuildings some would have been like those of similar forges in the Forest of Dean. For example, Lydbrooke had “One storehouse floored and tiled built of stone 18 foot long, 13 foot wide, and 10 foot high in side walls. One coal-house 30 foot long, 24 foot wide, I I foot high in side walls”. Appended to one wall was a “house for brazes” 8 foot wide. At Lydbrooke there was a house for the hammerman. There must have been a working place for the storekeeper who kept account of incoming raw materials and the outgoing finished product. It seems that a space of about 700 square feet was needed for the storing and grading of charcoal. For each ton of bar-iron produced, three loads of charcoal were needed, and more than a ton and a quarter of pig-iron, all of which would be under cover. As all raw materials were brought in by horses, there would be stables for shelter and feeding.
Someone with experience of forges must have advised Sir Francis Wortley about the dimensions of the Top Forge of 1640 – probably Sir Francis Fane. Of the very few forges in Yorkshire, two were close by – Kimberworth and Wadsley. The account of a Lancastrian, Nicholas Blundell, a landowner who built a smithy in 1713 (when prices were almost the same) help us to estimate the cost. Blundell paid one pound per rood for slates, then five shillings for dressing and twelve shillings per rood for setting them in position. His masons charged sixpence a yard (with dressed stones) or tenpence if they had to dress the stones. The carpenters’ bill was ten pounds – possibly two men for two weeks. The dauber claimed twelve shillings – possibly 8 days’ work. Leading cost two shillings a day for one wagon and one horse. Two brick chimneys and hearths cost seven shillings. Blundell paid out nearly fourteen pounds and reckoned the value of work by his men and materials supplied at just under sixteen pounds. But erecting the shell of a forge was not the main item of the full cost.
What labour went into the making of the dam and erecting the water-courses to and from the wheels of Top Forge is seldom considered by to-day’s visitors. Nor do the latter realise the skill in making the outlet from the dam at the right height to give the fall at the right point for the water to strike and turn the wheels.
When forge-workers used bellows at the finery hearth or the hammer to shape a lump from the chafery, they needed to be sure of a supply of power to the end of the operation. A dam gave them that assurance. With water in store the workers could take more water than the river could supply direct. A local surveyor reckoned that two dams of normal size would allow two wheels to be worked for nine hours a day for two days. A really dry season might limit working hours to twenty-two per week – then the water collected during the night would not replace the day’s consumption.
Sir Francis Wortley probably found a local millwright to set up the wheels of Top Forge; South Yorkshire’s corn mills and fulling mills, besides all wheels in iron works, would provide work for an expert. The millwright may have been on the site to guide the carpenter when he started work on the whole trunk which was brought in to be shaped into the axle of a water-wheel. Tradition has it that a specially chosen oak tree was used for the hammer. It would be a memorable day when the anvil was set in place on a prepared bed; in Furness the block “rested on cross-pieces of timber, beneath which were placed several cartloads of turf, forming an elastic cushion or spring, without which the iron would break under the hammer”.
Top Forge could begin work only after months of preparation. In 1719 John Vintaine worked 120 days at Attercliffe Forge putting in a new hammer and hammer-wheel. The oldest wheel now at Top Forge is 12 feet in diameter and 20 inches wide, called “breastshot” because of the close-fitting breast of stone, curving with the wheel to reduce loss of water from the “pockets” made by the projecting boards (“bends”). It may be that the existing helve and its wheel are in the same position as the helve and wheel of 1640. No doubt the pace of working the hammer has not changed. Though many more strokes per minute was the right pace for a scythe-smith, the forge hammer operated by a wheel making 35rpm would be fast enough for the hammerman when between downstroke he had to turn over a heavy mass of red-hot iron.
The expert who superintended the setting-up of helve and wheel probably saw to the making of hearths and their wheel. John Vintaine working at Attercliffe took 94 days to put in a new chafery frame and new finery wheel. So, at Top Forge, in the space left after setting up the helve, room had to be found for two finery hearths (6’3″ x 5’3″) and one chafery hearth (5’9″ x 6’0″)- and for men working there, taking in tongs red-hot iron from a hearth at hip-height over to the anvil.
The bellows of the forge needed space too. They were wedge shaped, with flexible skin joining the boards, to direct air through a narrow nozzle. According to Dr. Raistrick, those for the chafery were 9’6″ by 2’9′ (at the widest part), those for the finery 6’6″ by 2’6″. A century later at Tredegar the measurements were 9’9″ by 2’10” and 6’11” by 2’5″. In 1740 at Bamby a bellows-maker claimed over £55 for making bellows; the ash-tree and skin provided for him might cost as much as £5. The carpenter would join in by adding weight to the top board by means of wooden beams (“firketts”) for driving the air. To make the top board spring back at the end of the stroke, “poises” were added (open boxes bound with iron, then weighted). In Furness, tin-plate or sheet-lead lined the inner side of the boards. The leather between the boards was kept soft by liberal application of fat or grease or butter.
The total cost of setting up Top Forge cannot be worked out now; we cannot estimate the number of man hours put in, or how much material came from Sir Francis Wortley’s own resources. We cannot put a price on all the iron used in setting up the forge. Each hearth had five iron plates (cast at a furnace), an iron funnel (“tewyron”) to take the air blast, a ringer, a furgon, a “quasse”. The fineries had pairs of great tongs, a coal rake, clams; the chafery had four pairs of shingling tongs and a sledge. You can still see at Top Forge depressions in the wall worn by constantly setting such iron instruments in position there.
2 – The site
Knowing that the woods of his own estate would ensure a supply of charcoal and that pig-iron would be provided at Bank Furnace, Sir Francis Wortley must have looked closely at possible sites on the banks of the Don before he finally decided on the spot where Top Forge is to-day. His experience of operating a bloomery on the Don would persuade him that the Don could fill dams to turn wheels. So it was a question of taking water from the Don higher up than the bloomery and half a mile was considered a fair distance between competitors for water-power.
We may think it was not economical to have the forge so far away from the furnace where the pig-iron was made or so far from the nearest slitting-mill, We should remember that though transport increased the cost of the pig-iron received and reduced the profit on the bar-iron delivered, it had no effect on the quality. On the other hand, the shorter the distance the charcoal travelled, the less loss from damage. The shaking charcoal received as it was moved on horseback reduced some of it to dust.
Looking out from his home, Sir Francis could see an extensive estate of well-planned woods. There were many patches of woodland in differing stages of growth based on the plan of allowing a section fifteen years to mature. With a cycle of fifteen years for growth, a landowner needed fifteen times the acreage cut to provide one year’s supply. The trees cut in 1640 were probably planted in 1625. Sir Francis was reaping where his ancestors had sown. The woods of the Wortley estate had been supplying charcoal for bloomeries in the sixteenth century if not earlier. We should note that what was cut was branches of fifteen years’ growth, leaving the stumps to send up fresh shoots. Branches of softwood suitable for charcoal-bumers were not depriving ship-builders or housebuilders of trunks of hard wood.
The nearness of ironstone in the Tankersley outcrop seams affected the choice of Top Forge’s site only indirectly. Bloomeries of the sixteenth and earlier centuries were set up near the Don and other streams of South Yorkshire; the planting of plantations of soft wood followed the development of bloomeries. Bank Furnace was placed close to the northern extension of the line of available ironstone.
Leland wrote of the Sheffield district, “Great numbers of smiths … lived in those parts”. Sir Francis would be able to recruit the first workforce from the local pool of labour. Some man may have been persuaded to leave a local forge; a man of promise may have 4 been promoted from bloomery to forge work. Under a good man, a blacksmith’s assistant could be trained, first at the chafery and later at the finery. We expect the first hammerman to have been an experienced worker – the quality as well as the quantity of iron produced depended so much on him. An inscription on a stone in Wortley churchyard announces, “Here lies the body of Francis Askew of Upper Forge, hammerman; died October 24, 1699”. Was he the first or the second of the experts working the hammer of Top Forge?
3 – The starting year
When did Top Forge begin operations? Dr R A Mott, who has spent years unfolding for us the story of iron-making in South Yorkshire, has provided strong evidence that the starting-point was 1640. Previously some had regarded the evidence that a few Wortley Forge cannon-balls were used in 1643 as a pointer – but it was Lower Forge, not Top Forge, that was described as a “shot-forge”. Mr H G Baker found that in 1654 the Corporation of Doncaster had enquired into how much iron had been delivered to their wharf during the preceding 14 years by Mr Cotton of “Watley Forge”. So William Cotton, on whom the landowner depended, was at Wortley in 1641.
We have to remember that Lower Forge and Top Forge are in two separate parishes; the former in Tankersley, the latter (in Hunshelf) in Penistone parish.
Documentary evidence of a forge in Hunshelf is given in a lease of 1658:
“All that forge late in the tenure or occupation of Sir Francis Wortley … in Hunshelf … and two fineries one chafery one hammer”. [Wharncliffe Deed 576]
This is clearly distinguished from “that shot forge called by the name of the New Hammer or Lower Forge and lately erected and built by Sir Francis Wortley”. Here is a document showing that Top Forge had been in operation for some time (“lately” has the sense of “formerly”, not of “recently”). Sir Francis Wortley’s period of building would have been before the war of 1642. This 1658 deed, the oldest surviving deed for Top Forge, must have been preceded by earlier deeds which have been lost. The 1658 deed is probably the third, replacing a second one of 1649. A nine-year lease was then an accepted feature for a new enterprise. It would delight the custodians of Top Forge if good fortune brought to light what we think was the first deed for Top Forge one of 1640.
An even later deed (Wharncliffe Deed 578, of 1683) first names the source of pig-iron on which Top Forge depended – “that furnace for founding or melting Ironstone to Sow Iron commonly called Bank Furnace”. It had been built on part of the manor of Sir Francis Wortley. In 1638 Sir Francis was engaged in a series of transactions, presumably to provide money needed in his new ventures – iron-making depending on a furnace. There was a furnace in 1640 nearer to Top Forge – Chapel (1612) but it belonged to an Organisation that used its own supply of pig-iron and would not be ready to supply a rival. Rockley Furnace, built in 1652, was nearer still but that too would not supply pig-iron to a competitor.
4 – The Men
The building of Bank Furnace and Top Forge in 1640 illustrates the changes taking place in England the change from being an agricultural nation to one in which industry was increasing in size and importance and the shift of iron-making from Sussex, with rapidly declining reserves of timber, to other districts with ample timber (the Forest of Dean and South Yorkshire). There were only two charcoal furnaces in the whole of Yorkshire in 1638.
Landowners were realising that woods could become a source of income. In 1637 Harrison wrote of Sheffield, “There may be within this manor raised an Iron work which would afford unto the Lord … a thousand pounds yearly and all charges discharged”. Yarranton pointed out in 1677 that on top of the “great benefit and advantage” of using wood for charcoal for ironmaking, the value of land near an ironworks could double in value.
There was the local example of the Earl of Shrewsbury. He had built a furnace at Chapel and converted furnaces at Kimberworth and Wadsley Bridge into forges and had so brought to South Yorkshire the indirect process of first making pig-iron from ironstone at a furnace and then working the pig-iron into wrought-iron at a forge with finery and chafery. Colonel Copley, who supplied Sheffield Castle with cannon-bullet to the value of £100, was a local example of a new force, the organiser and adventurer who saw iron-making as an industry.
Sir Francis Wortley had had business dealings in 1621 with a friend, Sir Francis Fane, for some years living at Aston, the son of a Sir Francis Fane who had operated two charcoal furnaces and connected finery forges near Trowbridge. Sir Francis Wortley’s friend in addition to his activities near Wortley was one of four to lease a bloomery on a site near Kirkstall Abbey – another indication of his belief that Yorkshire was well fitted for the operation of furnace with connected forges.
Some time before 1639 Sir William Fownes came to Wortley, bringing experience of operating furnace with forge in Shropshire.. He married the sister of Walter Spencer; her will of 1657 names her son-in-law William Cotton as of “Wortley Forge in Hunshelf”. This is the Cotton referred to on Page 5; he or his son became chief clerk to the Wortley and Kirkstall centres under a partnership in 1658. The landowner Sir Francis Wortley depended on advice from experts – a Fownes, or a Cotton. He needed money. Rovinson in 1613 gave El 500 as the top limit for the cost of setting up a furnace. Dr Mott has shown that a 1638 settlement, one of the steps taken by Sir Francis Wortley to raise his share of the costs, would have referred to Bank Furnace if it had been built. All the evidence suggests that the plan was to start the furnace and forge combination by 1640.