By Ralph Pee (Journal No.1, 1973 republished inNo. 7 1979)
John Wilkinson was just under thirty when he came to Broseley as a partner in the New Willey Company in 1757, leaving his father and young brother, William, to carry on the ironworks at Bersham. His first wife, Ann Maudsley, a woman of ample wealth, had died four years earlier, and his young daughter Mary was in the care of Mr. & Mrs. Flint of Shrewsbury.
He was by no means the senior partner in the new Company, but he was the only working Ironmaster among the ten partners and would no doubt have acted as Manager. Where he stayed or lived in or around Broseley for the next few years is not known, but in 1763 he married for the second time, having taken over the New House in Church Street. His second wife, Mary Lee of Wroxeter, was also a woman of wealth and in the same year he became sole owner of the Company.
The New House, now known as The Lawns, was then over thirty years old, having been built in 1727 by Mr. Stevens, a local mine owner. The name and Phoenix embossed on the magnificent lead rain head, suggest that it was built to replace the builder’s previous home.
The house was originally a typical square Georgian Mansion with the usual central front door, approached by a short flight of steps. The ground in the front was generally lower than it is now and what is now a cellar was then a basement with sunken windows. The area in front of the house was probably bounded, as now, by a low wall, but with a single entrance through a pair of drive gates. The present wall adjoining the road appears to be original, but that separating the stables and domestic entrance from the front lawn is part of the 19th century alterations. Wilkinson provided a new pair of iron gates.
The front door opened into a passage or lobby, which with the main stair well beyond, divided the house from front to rear. Three reception rooms of almost equal size occupied three quarters of the ground floor, while the remaining quarter accommodated what may have been a servants hall and a servants staircase direct to the second floor. The kitchen, back kitchen, scullery and shoe room appear to have been accommodated in a single storey domestic wing on the north side of the house, and one of two very small extensions at the rear. The second of these two small extensions provided what may have been an office, ‘Mr. Wilkinson’s Room’ or ‘The Smoking Room’. There was also a malthouse, a brewhouse and stables apart from the main structure. With garden, paddocks and possibly orchards at the back, it was a well-designed, compact and practical professional man’s residence. It would undoubtedly have had an air of solid, homely comfort, typical of the age.
In spite of extensive alterations around the mid-l9th century, many features of the original layout can still be seen. The original and very fine main staircase with its twisted balusters remains, as does the panelling and beautifully proportioned overmantle in the one reception room, which has not been altered. The large rain-head previously mentioned has the date 1727 on the square down spout and a lead pump in the cellar almost certainly dates from the time the house was built. This pump, with its wooden piston, can still be made to work. That part of the present outbuilding adjoining the road appears to be original, as does a small square building behind the later extensions. This attractive little structure has a bulls-eye glass window.
Although tradition has it that he added two new wings, it is doubtful if Wilkinson made any extensive alterations to the original, and, if he did, they cannot now be traced. The ground floor of one of the small extensions at the back was, or later became, a butler’s pantry with a steel door and barred windows. These and other security measures have been attributed to Wilkinson, but are much more likely to have been part of the later alterations. He certainly did, however, employ Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, the Shrewsbury architect, who designed the Iron Bridge, to provide a new chimneypiece of wood and marble in the panelled room. This chimneypiece can still be seen together with a copy of the original working drawing, which includes a time sheet for Pritchard’s three workmen. There are signs that the chimneypiece is a replacement, indicating that the panelling and overmantle are original.
In 1800 Wilkinson leased the New House to John Rose, China Manufacturer, for thirty guineas per annum ‘the said John Rose paying the whole of the window tax’. We have a copy of the inventory of effects taken over by John Rose which mentions a best parlour with ‘wainscotting all round from top to bottom of room’, and ‘a chimney piece and marble stone’ • The inventory also mentions a new grate in the kitchen ‘in place of a very old one now believed to be in the malthouse’, and in the garden ‘two large furnaces for soft water’. Presumably these were water tanks and two very old cast iron tanks still to be seen may well be those referred to.
From the New House John Wilkinson could have seen the glow in the sky from his furnaces at Willey and from those at Bradley. It was here that Brigadier Marchant de la Houliere was entertained when he was investigating the superiority of British cannon on behalf of the French Government; as was James Watt when he was superintending the installation of one of his first two commercial steam engines at Willey. It seems likely that the first iron boat was designed in ‘Mr. Wilkinson’s Room’ and in his many applications for patent rights up to 1794, he styles himself ‘Ironmaster of Broseley’. Although his Willey works were eclipsed in size by later enterprises and he moved on to more pretentious homes, the foundations of his fortunes were laid in Broseley, and Willey must have played its part in the development of his many improvements to the iron industry. The New House was his home for over thirty of his most active years and the comfortable Georgian House seems to have served him well.
After a period during which debris from a nearby iron foundry appears to have reached almost up to the back door, the house was extensively altered during the mid-19th century. The enlarged reception rooms and huge kitchen, with its elaborate and in some ways impractical cooking arrangements, the high boundary walls and the separation of the main and domestic entrances, indicate a more formal way of life and a change in master and man relationship which would have been quite foreign to John Wilkinson. Similar features can be seen in other contemporary buildings in Broseley and show something of the immediate local effects of the Industrial Revolution.