John Wilkinson and the Two Willey Ironworks

By Ralph Pee and Maurice Hawes (Journal No.16 1988)



To set the story of Wilkinson and the two Willey Ironworks into perspective, we begin with a brief look at earlier development in the coal and iron industries in the Broseley area; for without knowing something of these developments it is difficult to understand why Wilkinson built an ironworks at New Willey at all.


From early medieval times until the early part of the nineteenth century, the Broseley area was of great industrial importance because coal, iron ore, and limestone were all available in economic quantities near the surface, wood was plentiful, and the River Severn gave relatively easy access to the greater part of the kingdom. In 1600, the area around Broseley was one of the most important coal-producing areas of the country. We find several flanged-wheel wooden railways in use in the Broseley-Jackfield coalfield in 1605-8 to carry coal from the mines to the river[1]. If, as is probable, this type of railway was in use in the area for some years before 1605, then Broseley may well claim to be the birthplace of the now worldwide flanged-wheel railway. At the time of the Civil War, in 1645, the fate of coal mined at Benthall was a matter of some strategic significance[2]; and by 1758 it is recorded that some 100,000 tons of coal were being shipped each year from Broseley and Madeley to places down the river, and the number of vessels registered in Broseley (i.e. Jackfield, which was part of Broseley at that time) was greater than at any other port between Welshpool and Gloucester[3]. This is a story of continuous expansion, not only in the coal-mining industry, but also in associated transport systems, including developments of national and perhaps even international importance.


The local iron industry developed concurrently. Small ironworks or bloomeries appeared early in the 16th century[4]; and blast furnaces appeared at Shifnal in 1564, and Lilleshall in 1591[5]. Some early ironworks were located in the valley still known as “The Smithies”, about two miles south of Broseley, and a chain of ponds built to provide water power for the hammers of a bloomery or forge, or possibly the bellows of a blast furnace, may still be clearly seen on the right-hand side of the Broseley-Bridgnorth road where it crosses the valley. The first known reference to a blast furnace at the Old Willey site suggests that it already existed in 1618[6], and the first Coalbrookdale furnace as we see it today is date 1638. Whatever the origins of these furnaces may have been, they heralded an expansion, which was soon to make the iron industry in East Shropshire of major importance. In 1754 there were three blast furnaces working in the area, one at Old Willey and two at Coalbrookdale; by 1759 there were twelve, including the furnace built in 1757 at the New Willey site[7]. In 1788, Shropshire blast furnaces produced 37% of the total pig iron made in the country, and one recent writer has observed that in the 30 years between 1776 and 1806 the Shropshire iron trade reached the apex of its prosperity[8].


The overall picture is of an area, which, for the two hundred years between 1600 and 1800, cradled the expansion of a very prominent part of the British coal and iron industries. The story of the two Willey Ironworks spans this period almost exactly, and may be seen not only as a piece of local history, but also as a story which links with national developments at many important points, and in its later stages highlights the contributions of John Wilkinson to the Industrial Revolution.


Before we attempt to describe the histories of the two Willey Ironworks, both of which ceased operation long ago and were on sites, which now appear most unlikely in their rural tranquillity, we must emphasise that the two sites, though they bear similar names, are by no means adjacent. The Old Willey ironworks was located on Linley Brook, not far upstream from “The Smithies”, where a dam may still be seen from the Willey-Smithies road; the site is about two miles S. of Broseley. The New Willey ironworks was on the Dean or Cod Brook, about half a mile S. of Broseley, near the tollhouse on the Broseley-Barrow road. The two sites are thus about one-and-a-half miles apart.


Old Willey Ironworks


We do not know a great deal about Old Willey ironworks in its very early days. But it is clear that when Sir John Weld bought the Willey Estate from Sir Francis Lacon in 1618, he was keen to carry on the already-existent coal-mining and iron-producing activities. It has been established that Weld spent around £500 on the furnace at Old Willey at about this time[9], a sum of money which, though large for the time, may be taken to indicate that he was merely rebuilding it, and not building it from scratch. For the next hundred years or so references are scanty, but it is known that Old Willey was working in 1610[10], 1657[11], and 1687-88[12]. It may then have been leased to one Richard Baldwin[13]; but in 1733, this lease was taken over by Ford and Goldney acting on their own account, whilst they were partners in the Coalbrookdale Company. At about this time they also took over the lease of a furnace at Bersham, near Wrexham. Ford and Goldney operated Old Willey until their lease ran out (probably in 1754); the furnace then seems to have fallen into disrepair, but was eventually taken over by the New Willey Company in 1757, and operated by them until 1774[14], when it finally closed. Thus the Old Willey Furnace, having seen many changes of ownership and fortune, operated on and of for at least 150 years; and from 1757 to 1774 John Wilkinson operated it, in parallel with New Willey. One of the difficulties, which probably led to its closure, was that the water supply was very inadequate in dry seasons.

New Willey Ironworks

The formal beginnings of the New Willey ironworks appear in 1757, with the setting-up of the New Willey Company; but we think it may be relevant to start the story by going back a few years earlier. In 1753, Isaac Wilkinson and his son John took over the Bersham furnace from Ford and Goldney of Coalbrookedale. One year earlier, in 1752, one John Wilkinson was buying coal from the Weld Estate at Willey[15]. If these events refer to the same man, as seems likely in the light of what happened subsequently, then it may be concluded that our John Wilkinson came to Broseley in 1752 to buy coal. He may well have learned that Old Willey was about to become untenanted, spotted the potentialities of the area or heard about the imminent developments at Coalbrookdale, and hatched in his mind the idea of forming the New Willey Company. In any event, the New Willey Company was formed in 1757, with John Wilkinson as a junior partner and technical manager. The Company was seen at stage as a supplier of armaments and pig iron; there were other people involved besides John Wilkinson, but he was the one who had actually worked in the iron industry.


In 1757 Wilkinson was 29 years old, well educated, ambitious, and experienced in his trade. His first wife had died a year earlier, leaving him with “ample wealth”. The location of the New Willey ironworks is hardly ideal, as the area is cramped and the way to the River Severn is over a steep river terrace. The brook is now very small and it seems likely that the water supply could not have been more than barely adequate in 1757. This may not have seemed very important to Wilkinson, as by that year steam power had been used elsewhere to pump water back from tail-races to storage ponds; it therefore seems probable that New Willey was designed from the outset to operate in this way. There certainly was a Boulton and Watt ‘Topsy Turvy’ engine on the site from 1777 to 1796[16], and it is generally accepted that this design is indicative of a conversion from a Newcomen engine. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that a Newcomen engine was originally installed in 1757, and was converted to a ‘Topsy Turvy’ in 1777.


The water complex for the New Willey works seems to have consisted of four dams but these were not, as is usual, in a single chain. One very large dam, now breached, may still be seen some distance W.N.W. of the works site, near Lodge Farm. Two smaller dams may be seen, one on each side of the Broseley-Barrow road; they seem to have been on a tributary which is now dry. The location of the fourth dam, the one nearest the works, is not absolutely clear; but it seems highly probable that the embankment impounding the present pool, and carrying the old road to Dean Corner and Willey, is on the site of the fourth dam and may even be that dam.


On the site of the New Willey ironworks itself, two buildings have survived. One is part of a row of workmens cottages; the other is on a larger scale and is reputed to have been stores and offices. Both were sold to private individuals by the Willey Estate in 1977, and have since been converted into dwelling houses. Although the site has never been excavated on a scientific basis, there is considerable evidence from local contours and ground materials that a furnace (or possibly furnaces) existed against the bank, which forms the southern boundary of the garden of the larger of these two houses. If this is so, the cramped nature of the site is emphasised by the proximity of the cottages to these works. Some 100 yards to the east of the surviving buildings, and now in the middle of an open field, there is a substantial brick culvert, which leads the stream though an obviously artificial bend.


At the N.W corner of the site, just off the Barrow road and near the octagonal tollhouse, which stands at the edge of the present pool, are the remains of a small building, which is traditionally known as the weigh-house. It is very reasonable to suppose that this was so, and that the New Willey works entrance was here, as the line of a very obvious old track, generally accepted as being that of the Willey railway to the river starts from this spot.


Much of the ironstone and coal for the works seems to have come from Benthall, and the remains of pack-horse track leading in the Benthall direction may be seen weigh-house; however, a well-organised excavation on this route a few years ago failed to find any evidence of rails.  In contrast, the Tarbatch Dingle route refereed to in the next paragraph did make use of rails, and was popular enough to justify eventual doubling along much of its length, as referred to below.


The railway built by the New Willey Company in 1757 ran from the works to join an existing railway, which ran from Rowton down Tarbatch Dingle to the River Severn[17]. Wayleave was obtained from George Forester. The output of the works must have been considerable, as one track was evidently, not enough. In 1759 the Company was granted the right to lay new tracks and make a double railway, the width not to exceed 10 yards, at a cost of £12 a year. Part of the wharf age on the Severn, in the vicinity of Gitchfield, became known as Willey Wharf. The distance between the works and Willey Wharf is about 2.5 miles. -


Since the Company was formed to produce (amongst other things) cannon, it seems virtually certain that there would have been a cannon-boring machine on the site before 1774, at which date Wilkinson patented his improvements. In view of the paucity of the water supply, this earlier cannon-boring machine may well have been horse-driven. The current owners of the larger building on the New Willey site found a cannon ball in their garden during shallow excavations in the summer of 1980[18].


Hearsay, evidence of a hoard of lead shot found on the site some years ago suggests that there may have been a shot-tower, but for the present this must remain uncertain.


Broseley and John Wilkinson


In 1763 John Wilkinson married his second wife, another lady of means, Mary Lee of Wroxeter. He moved at this time into the “New House”, now known as “The Lawns”, in Church Street, Broseley, and it seems that some remodelling of the house took place at this time. A chimney-piece designed by J.F. Pritchard (the Shrewsbury architect who later became famous as the designer of the Iron Bridge) is still to be seen in the house, together with a copy of the original design drawing, which names John Wilkinson as the client, and is annotated with the names of the workmen employed to build the chimney-piece and the hours they took to complete their work. About this time Pritchard was commissioned to modernise many large houses in Shropshire, including Broseley Hall, which stands just across the road from “The Lawns”.


At some time between 1763 and 1774 Wilkinson gained complete control of the New Willey Company, and it seems to have continued its normal business during this period, in spite of his absence for long periods supervising his works at Bradley and Bersham; in 1773 J.W. wrote to his manager in Broseley saying that after four years’ experimenting he had not only succeeded in using raw coal for smelting, but he had also doubled the output of the furnace. He was writing from Bradley.


In 1774 Wilkinson patented a new method of casting and boring cannon, using a machine, which caused the work to revolve whilst the tool was advanced along slideways. In his application for this patent J.W. addressed himself as “Ironmaster, of Broseley”, and it is tempting to surmise that the machine, which produced the first accurate cylinder for the prototype Watt engine, was developed at New Willey. Whether this be true or not, the larger machine which Wilkinson developed for boring the cylinders of the subsequent production models was at Bersham, and was never patented!


After the success of the prototype Watt engine, Wilkinson lost no time in ordering a Watt engine for New Willey, and obtained the second production model [19]. It had a 38” cylinder and was used for blowing both furnaces direct. We have a complete diagram of the blowing mechanism used; it has two “regulating bellies” giving a continuous blast 4lb/ through a 3” tuyere. James Watt personally superintended the erection of this engine in 1776, staying at the “New House” in Broseley whilst doing so. Brigadier Marchant de la Houliere, who toured this country on behalf of the French government about this time, also stayed at the “New House” whilst visiting New Willey to investigate the reasons for the superiority of British cannon. In his report he remarked on the design of the regulators for the blast furnaces [20].


As already mentioned, the “Topsy Turvy” engine (1777) discussed by Watt is thought to have been a conversion of an earlier Newcomen engine[21]. Since the furnaces at New Willey were now being blown direct by the 38’ engine, the “Topsy Turvy” engine was employed to supply a water-wheel and thus drive a boring-mill[22].


The last steam engine at New Willey had a 30” cylinder and was used to drive a boring mill direct; it was apparently built without licence from Boulton and Watt, in 1787[23]. Wilkinson built a number of engines without licences, and they are usually referred to as “pirate” engines.


Wilkinson’s famous iron boat, the first in the world, was launched at Willey Wharf in 1787. One of the products of the works at this time was bar iron, which the iron boat and others like it carried via the Severn, and the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal, to forges in the Birmingham area.


From 1778 onwards Wilkinson executed an order for 40 miles of iron pipes for the Paris waterworks, and also supplied steam engine parts to France. Many of these items were made at New Willey and shipped down the River Severn. As England was at war with Prance at this time, the pipes gave rise to charges of “gun-running”. They were 12” and 14” in diameter, in sections weighing up to 5cwt each[24].  The business was legitimate by the ethics of the time, but caused Wilkinson “a lot of worry for little profit”.


It appears that John Wilkinson did not live in his Broseley home after 1780; but it was not until 1800 that he leased “The Lawns” to John Rose, the Coalport china manufacturer. New Willey works seems to have closed in 1804; since this was also the date at which Wilkinson opened his works at Hadley, it seems to indicate that he was one of the first to realise that the East Shropshire coalfield, south of the Severn Gorge, would soon lose its industry to the more accessible parts of Shropshire and the West Midlands.


John Wilkinson died at Bradley in 1808, and his industrial empire disintegrated in the years that followed, due to a succession of legal wrangles involving his legitimate and illegitimate heirs.


Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in May 1974 as a separate document entitled ‘Wilkinson Society Monograph No.1’. The main body of the article was entirely the work of Ralph Pee; I added a simple introduction and a paragraph to cover early wooden railways in Broseley; and I checked Ralph’s bibliography.


In 1974 it was hoped that ‘Monograph No.1’ would be the first of a series of such publications, covering various aspects of the Society’s interests. In the event, no further Monographs have ever been written. Furthermore, as our ideas about the New Willey site, in particular our ideas about the location of the furnace(s), have since undergone considerable revision, it has for some time been quite clear that a major revision of ‘Monograph No.1’ was becoming essential; for this reason, we had allowed the original edition to go out of print, and avoided references to it wherever possible.


We have now decided that, instead of producing a second edition of the Monograph, for sale to any interested individuals, we should publish an updated version in the Journal for the benefit of all members, some of whom may not have had an opportunity to read the original, and possibly did not even know of its existence. We trust this step will meet with your approval.








[1] M.J.T.Lewis:Early Wooden Railways;Routledge/KeganPaul:pp.95-109

[2] Victoria County History of Shropshire:Vol.1:p.454

[3] Ibid: pp.425—6

[4] B. Trinder: Industrial Revolution in Shropshire: Phillimore: p.15

[5] H.R.Schubert: History of British Iron and Steel Industry:pp.179-80

[6] M. D. Wanklyn: West Midlands Studies: Wolverhampton Polytechnic: Vol. 3    

[7] Trinder: Op.Cit: p.92

[8] Ibid: p.55

[9] Wanklyn: Op.Cit: p.92

[10] Ibid: p.96

[11] Ibid: p.99

[12] Trinder: Op.Cit: p.16

[13] V.C.H. of Shropshire: Vol.1: P.462

[14] Trinder: Op.Cit: p.60

[15] Ibid: p.39

[16] Ibid: p.405

[17] Lewis: Op.Cit: p.237

[18] R. Pee: The New Willey Ironworks, a reapprasal of the site: Journal of the Wilkisnon Society N0.9 (1981): pp.3-9

[19] R.J. Law: James Watt and the separate condenser: Science Museum: p.42

[20] Marchant de la Houliere: Report to the French Government 1775: Translated by W.H. Chaloner: Edgar Allen News Dec.1948/Jan.l949

[21] I. Edwards: Notes and Documents J. Wilkinson—Boulton & Watt: Denbighshire Hist .Soc. Transactions Vol.21 1972 (Reprint):p.l11

[22] Trinder: Op.Cit: p.405

[23] Edwards: Op.Cit: p.111

[24] Ibid: p.115