By N.J. CLARKE originally published in the Wilkinson Journal No.12 1984
The following account is adapted from a talk given by to the Friends of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum in May 1984. References are to the selected extracts at the end.
Looking back over his life, the septuagenarian John Wilkinson felt that he had made a considerable contribution to human progress, but recognised that he had made many enemies along the way. He wanted to say as much in the epitaph which he prepared for himself (extract i), but which his executors watered down after his death. One imagines from the comment he made in a letter to James Watt (extract ii), and from other sources, that anyone who crossed him lived to regret it.
What did his contemporaries really think of the man and his achievements?
John Wilkinson’s relations with members of his own family were bitter at times. He became estranged from his father, who died insolvent in Bristol in 1784; and for the last twenty years of his life his relations with his brother William got steadily worse. This was probably the result of William’s fear of the effect John’s purchase and development of the neighbouring Brymbo estate would have on Bersham Ironworks, which they jointly owned. The outcome of this dispute was the sale of Bersham, which John bought outright, raising the money from the sale of his interests in the mines and ironworks at Snedshill and Hollinswood. William appears to have done everything he could to get back at his brother: he let the cat out of the bag over John making ‘pirate’ steam engines at Bersham, which led to Boulton & Watt setting up their own foundry to make cylinders and to a long legal dispute with John; William also appears to have enticed many of Bersham’ s skilled workers to the Soho Foundry; and he ran down his brother whenever he could - as in a letter to James Watt in January 1800 (extract iii).
However, not all John’s relatives were at loggerheads with him. His brother-in-law Dr. Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian minister and experimental chemist of some note, acknowledged Wilkinson’s generosity on a number of occasions (extract iv) and felt that he had dealt fairly in the dispute with his brother William. Priestley and John Wilkinson appear to have corresponded regularly, and both sympathised with the French Revolution. Priestley no doubt would have concurred with Wilkinson’s maxim that “manufacture and commerce will always flourish most where Church and King interfere least”.
Wilkinson’s reputation for being less-than-honest in his business dealings went back to the Willey Partnership days. Many felt that some of his innovations were copied from others, e.g. the boring mill, copied from continental examples built on the plans of Jan Verbruggen; and that he made claims to have discovered processes rightfully invented by others. This seems to be the substance of Lord Dundonald’s letter to William Reynolds in February 1800 (extract v) in which he goes on to slate Wilkinson in no uncertain terms - “I do believe him to be one of the most hard hearted, malevolent old scoundrels now existing in Britain”!
However, that Wilkinson earned the respect of other industrialists and engineers at the time is shown by the fact that Thomas Telford was able to refer to him in 1793 as the “king of the ironmasters” (extract vi).
John Wilkinson’s relationship with his employees was in general good. On several occasions he took action to overcome local shortages of small coinage by using his own notes and tokens; he was reported to have granted pensions to aged workmen who had served him well; and he was the only Shropshire ironmaster to be commemorated in folk song. Extract vii is the last verse of a popular song of about 1800.
But he did have differences with some of his more senior employees, such as Gilbert Gilpin, chief clerk at Bersham from 1786 to 1796, who was one of the victims of the struggle between the Wilkinson brothers. In the years following his departure from Bersham, Gilpin seems to have corresponded regularly with William Wilkinson and, in addition to providing news of the iron trade, also supplied tit-bits of gossip concerning John - as in the letter of May 1804 (extract viii), written from Old Park and referring to a visit by John and his house-keeper from Brymbo, Ann Lewis, to Benjamin Rowley’s house at Snedshill. It was by this woman that Wilkinson, while his wife was still living at Castlehead, had three children, the youngest of them fathered when he was 77!
Whatever his private shortcomings, Wilkinson certainly made an impact on the iron industry in the late 18th century. This was acknowledged in the obituary, which appeared in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette on 18th July 1808 (extract ix). But the hope expressed in the last line proved unfounded. In the instructions left for the guidance of the trustees of his estate, Wilkinson wrote: "I leave my different works as children in trust for 63 years - that a great example may be given of the importance to the world and benefit to the industrious workman arising from infant works being protected until their arrival at a proper maturity”. He obviously foresaw a continued development of his works and yet, at the time of writing (1806), the seeds of the dissolution of his empire were already sown. Three factors other than the instructions to the trustees were to determine the fate of the works:
Wilkinson and his trustees’ neglect of new processes developing in the iron industry, such as puddling which produced better iron at a cheaper rate;
Litigation, largely the work of his nephew and heir Thomas Jones, over Wilkinson’s attempt to leave his property in trust for his illegitimate children by Ann Lewis;
The depression in the iron trade, which followed the Napoleonic Wars.
In fact, the turbulence that attended Wilkinson’s life continued in death. He had prepared an iron coffin for his own burial. Gilpin, in one of his letters, tells us that: “He has two coffins 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”. In the instructions for his executors, Wilkinson wrote: “It is my particular request and direction that wherever I die my body may be interred as privately as possible without parade or pomp, either in my garden at Castlehead, within a place I have there prepared for that purpose, or within a building called the chapel at Brymbo, or in my garden at Bradley, in such manner as is directed in this book . . . and to the nearest of the said places I shall happen to die”.
In the event, following his death at Bradley, he was buried after several attempts in a huge cast-iron coffin in the grounds of his mansion at Castlehead. His grave was surmounted by a cast-iron obelisk inscribed with his executors’ version of his epitaph (extract x).
However - in the words of his enemies -there was “no peace for the wicked”. In 1828 Wilkinson’s coffin and obelisk were removed to the nearby village of Lindale in order to expedite the sale of his former home; and a further move of the obelisk was made to its present site in 1863. After years of neglect it has recently been repaired; but “the King of the Ironmasters” has an unmarked grave in Lindale churchyard.
(i) Delivered from persecution of malice and envy, here rests John Wilkinson, ironmaster, in certain hope 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 he trusts in some degree to the glory of God, as his different works that remain in various parts of the kingdom are testimonials of unceasing labour.
(Wilkinson’s own epitaph)
(ii) Peace is a most desirable thing and the more so to one of my constitution who cannot be angry by halves. Resentment with me becomes a matter of business and stimulates to action beyond any profits.
(Wilkinson to James Watt, 1784)
(iii) . . . (he was) much taken up in scheming and is now decided to have eight furnaces in blast in the course of this year being decided to have more furnaces than any one man in Britain of his own . . . I think before he makes new ones he ought to make the old ones turn out better.
(William Wilkinson to James Watt, January 1800)
(iv) It was in consequence of Mr. Wilkinson’s proposal, who wished to have us nearer to him, that, being undetermined where to settle, I fixed on Birmingham where he soon found a house for me.
(Dr. Joseph Priestley, his brother-in-law)
(v) I dined with William Crawshay in London, Wilkinson was one of the party. I showed them drawings of the improvements in coking coals which I shall not patent and which gentlemen in ironworks are welcome to use . . . Wilkinson said my improvements were not new, but he had used them for some years. On questioning it appeared his method was that which you employ at Ketley. This is not the only instance in which the Invidiousness, the Malevolence and the Badness of John Wilkinson’s Heart has been apparent to me. He tried to set you and me at variance about 12 years ago and since that time John Wilkinson has never forgiven me and has it in his Heart to do me all the injury in his power.
(Lord Dundonald to William Reynolds, February 1800)
(vi) I had the decided support of the great John Wilkinson, king of the ironmasters, himself a host. I travelled in his carriage to the meeting and found him much disposed to be friendly.
(Thomas Telford, on the cutting of the Ellesmere Canal, 1793)
(vii) Then let each jolly fellow take hold of
And drink to the health of his friend and his lass.
May we always have plenty of stingo and pence,
And Wilkinson’s fame blaze a thousand years hence.
(Popular song, c. 1800)
(viii) . . . He has lately been over at B. Rowley’s for a few days, together with his girl. She, poor creature, while there had nearly died of indigestion from having gorged herself with eating salmon. Old Shylock and her withdrew from the table; and having laid on the bed together for a few hours, she returned perfectly recovered . . . Like Franklin and other great men, J.W. has written his epitaph, and I have been promised a copy of it. I have not heard its substance and am at a loss to devise what he can say in favour of himself. He reads it to all who visit him. In short, the epitaph is now the order of the day! Perhaps by making his own epitaph he conceives he shall avoid a part of the calumny which he would be subject to were he to leave it to the world to make for him.
(Gilbert Gilpin to William Wilkinson, May 1804)
(ix) Thursday, at his works at Bradley, in the County of Staffordshire, at the advanced age of 80 years, John Wilkinson, Esq. Few men are more entitled to the praise and gratitude of his country, for unwearied and successful exertions in raising that important branch of our national production, the iron trade, to a height unknown, until that period which constituted the zenith of his useful powers. Frugal, though not parsimonious, he acquired an immense fortune, presenting to society the satisfactory testimony that, in this free and happy country, industry and prosperity go hand in hand. The loss of such a man, considered in his multifarious connections with the manufacturing class of society, must be great indeed; but the calamity will be in some measure palliated, as a very efficient trust has been appointed to carry on his vast and extensive concerns.
(Aria ‘a Birmingham Gazette, 18 July 1808)
(x) John Wilkinson, Ironmaster, who died 14th July 1808, aged 80 years. His different works, in various parts of the kingdom, are lasting testimony of his unceasing labours. His life was spent in action for the benefit of man, and, as be presumed humbly to hope, to the glory of God.
(Epitaph on monument)