General State of Industry - Coal-Mines and Iron-Works

There is a history of geographical discovery other than the chronicle of long voyages and hazardous expeditions, it is the story of the discovery of the mineral wealth of a country. This task of discovery, started in England by the monks and the Jews, and carried on by the lay landlords, was turned into a financial success by capitalists from other industries in the eighteenth century, and finally taken over by the Government in 1835.1

For the greater part of history, wood was the obvious and most universal fuel. The monks are usually credited with the introduction of coal as fuel, for in 852 the Abbey of Peterborough received twelve cart-loads " of fossil or pit-coal."2

During the Middle Ages the coal trade continued to develop, especially in Northumberland and Durham, where in 1239 a charter was granted to the freemen of Newcastle-on-Tyne to dig coals in the castle fields. From this time considerable quantities began to be used by brewers and smiths,3 an extension of use that was quickly followed by complaints about the injurious effects of the smoke. In 1379 the first tax was laid upon coals, and in 1421 a duty of twopence per chaldron was paid to the Crown by all persons, not franchised in the port of Newcastle, who bought coals.4

The development of the coal industry continued, and provides an example of the chaotic condition of early economic legislation. On the one hand, the Government was endeavouring to conserve its timber for shipbuilding by enacting penalties against the felling of trees " to make coals for burning irons," and on the other, the burning of pit-coal was prohibited by commission from the King, and fines were levied to prevent it.5

The early methods of coal mining were rude and ineffective, shallow bottle-necked pits being universal, which, owing to the impossibility of drainage, had to be abandoned after a very short period of working. However, the demand increased, and as the restrictions on the use of wood for smelting iron became more vigorous, efforts were made to use pit-coal for this purpose. In the reigns of James 1 and Charles 1, many persons unsuccessfully attempted to do this.

As a result of their non-success, in many parts of the country iron works were closed down.6

Dud Dudley became manager of his father's iron works in Worcester in 1610, and he successfully smelted iron with coal.7 He says, " Wood and charcoal growing then scant and Pit-coal in great quantities abounding near the Furnace did induce me to alter my furnace, and to attempt by my new invention, the making of Iron with Pit-coal, assuring myself in my invention the loss to me could not be greater than others, nor so great, although my success should prove fruitless. But I found such success at first trial animated me; for at my tryal or blast I made Iron to profit with Pit-coal, and found facere est adders Inventioni."8 Dudley, however, was unfortunate in his enterprise, for his works were swept away in a flood, and on restarting his fellow ironmongers attacked him so fiercely, both on the ground of monopoly in Parliament, and as defenders of the workmen, through mob violence outside, that he was compelled to close down.9

During the Civil War the iron trade had a bad time, and it was not until 1713 that coal smelting was revived as a profitable undertaking. In that year Abraham Darby again attempted to use coal for smelting iron in his furnace at Coalbrookdale.10 Thus the country was on the eve of a tremendous increase in the demand for coal, for agriculture was improving its methods and ever increasing the amount of land under cultivation, and sweeping away the tracts of forest that had formerly kept the furnaces employed.11

More coal was needed, could the coal-mines supply it ? The depth of the pits was increasing, and the difficulty of keeping them free from water was consequently growing greater; however, the increased demand stimulated the improvement of pumping machinery. Cunningham quotes the case of a Mr. Beaumont, who in 1649 " adventured into our mines with his thirty thousand pounds and who brought with him many rare engines, not known then in these parts: as the Art to boore with iron rodds to try the deepnesse and thicknesse of the coale, rare engines to draw water out of the pits­ within a few years he consumed all his money and rode home upon his light horse."12 The development of pumping machinery, however, is due, not to the coal miners, but to the adventurers in the Cornish tin and copper mines, who had experienced the difficulty much earlier, and to them is due also the introduction of various types of power from complicated windlasses to the steam-engine itself.

The localities in which the coal had been worked to any great extent at the end of the seventeenth century were surprisingly small. There is no doubt that at this time the Newcastle coal-field was easily the most important as it was also the first to be worked.

Dudley, in Worcestershire, was the centre of an iron and coal industry, and Coalbrookdale, in Shropshire, was also a busy coal-mining area, but the main producer of coal was Newcastle. The fact that London's full supply was carried by sea from the north gave it the name of " sea-coales."13 It is then fair to assume that London chiefly used its coal supply for domestic purposes, and that away from the actual coal-fields little coal was used in industry, and it is to the fact that our coal and iron seams are found close together that the development of both our coal and iron resources are due. Consequently, during the next century we have to look to the neighbourhood of the coal-fields for the development of the iron trade. In the north, at Gateshead, an iron works was opened in 1747, an establishment which has developed into one of the largest engineering works on the Tyne;14 while in 1793, millwright work was undertaken at Chester-le-Street, where paper, lead, corn, and other mills were constructed for all parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and abroad.

But the more interesting coal-fields for their connexion with the early iron industry were those of Furness and Staffordshire. These are interesting as the cradle of one of the pioneers in iron-work and engineering, who did so much to develop the industry and improve it. Some time after the beginning of the eighteenth century Isaac Wilkinson occupied a small farm either in Cumberland or Westmorland, and also was employed as a workman, or perhaps as an overlooker, in one of the numerous haematite iron furnaces and forges in that part of the kingdom.15 In 1740, Isaac, who had been receiving about 14S. a week, removed to the village of Backbarrow, in the parish of Coulton, in Furness, where he had a house, and began to make flat iron heaters with the assistance of his eldest son, John. They had, at first, no furnace of their own, but got their melted metal from a furnace across the road, bringing it over in large quantities and pouring it into moulds. However, in 1748, or perhaps a little later, they built or purchased the iron furnace and forge at Cartmel, intending to smelt the haematite ore of Furness with the peat moss which surrounded the furnace. In order to bring their moss to the furnace they dug a canal and transported it in an iron boat, the first the world had seen.

The attempts to smelt with peat were unsuccessful and they had to fall back on the wood charcoal and continued their work with that.16 Soon after this, John Wilkinson left his father, removed to the Midlands, and obtained work first at Wolverhampton, then at Bilston, where after ten years he succeeded in obtaining sufficient capital to enable him to build the first blast furnace ever constructed in Bilston, which he called " Bradley Furnace." Here he ultimately, after many failures, attained complete success in substituting mineral coal for wood charcoal in the smelting and puddling of iron ore. It is, however, certain that he owed more to his predecessors in the adjacent Coalbrookdale than he seems to have acknowledged.17

The history of the rise of Wilkinson is typical of one type of the capitalist class, which was evolving; he was shrewd, intelligent, and far from uneducated, pushed his snowball of capital hard and was not very scrupulous about what it picked up on its way. He used other people's ideas and was more of a strong, determined imitator than an inventor.

The iron works of Bersham, which Wilkinson subsequently took over, were of greater antiquity. Iron smelting had been localized there from 1699 in various hands and the foundry experimented with coal for smelting. In 1726 Mr. Lloyd, who then owned them, got into financial difficulties and disposed of his interest to a John Hawkins, who also found difficulty in remaining solvent, but with the assistance of his brother-in-law, Mr. Richard Ford, of Coalbrookdale, was in 1733 turning out nearly five tons of pigs per week.18 Finally in 1753 most of the Bersham works came under the control of Isaac Wilkinson, and were worked by him with great profit. Nevertheless, the vast superstructure which his son John Wilkinson raised, rested more than has been acknowledged on the foundations which others, his predecessors, had laid, and other persons less energetic, but equally capable, had opened, by their sacrifices, the way which he and others were able to follow to their own great advantage. 19

1 Memoir of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, 1835.

2 R. Meade, The Coal and Iron Resources of the United Kingdom, p. 1 It seems doubtful whether many of the discoveries and achievements in art and industry which are attributed to the monks are their just due. There is a strong probability that the fact that the monasteries kept records and wrote histories when the activities of the rest of the world were unchronicled, secured their claims to invention and discovery.

3 Meade, Op. Cit., p. 1.

4 Industrial Resources of Type, Wear, and Tees, p. 7. Jusserand, English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages, p. 235, n. (i): " The English coaling trade had greatly increased in the fourteenth century; large quantities were brought by water from Newcastle and other places to London and partly consumed on the spot, partly exported."

5 Scrivenor, History of the Iron Trade, 1854 Edition, p. 35-6: " In 1558 an Act was passed . . . that no timber of the breadth of one foot square at the stub and growing within fourteen miles of the sea . . . shall be converted to coal or fuel for making iron." Further Acts limiting the places where trees could be felled were passed in 1581 and 1583.

6 Scrivenor, op. cit., p. 37.

7 Doubt has been cast on the justice of Dud Dud]ey's claims by recent antiquarians. A. Rollason, Seamy Side of Dud Dudley, 1921.

8 Dud Dudley, Martellum Martis, reprint of 1665 Ed., p. 4. Sturtevant, a German, skilled in mechanical operations, was the first to try to smelt iron with coal. Several other foreigners also made unsuccessful attempts. See Sturtevant, Metallica; Smiles, Industrial Biography. p. 45-6.

9 Smiles, op. cit., p. 45-53. He followed the fortunes of the king, but like many others he failed to obtain compensation at the Restoration.

10 Philosophical Transactions, 1747: " Mr. Ford from iron ore and coal both got in the same dale (Colebrook) made iron brittle or tough as he pleases, there being cannon thus cast so soft as to bear burning like wrought iron." Whether Darby used pit-coal is uncertain. Smiles says he can find no record and gives the whole credit to Ford, who was Darby's son-in-law, and manager at Coalbrookdale in 1 747. This will be clearer when the records of that firm are finally analysed by Mr. Ashton, of Manchester University, who has been working on them.

11 Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations. p. 152.

12 Cunningham, Industry and Commerce, Vol. 11, p. 529.

13 The port of Newcastle vend rose as follows:

1660+ Sunderland..537,000

Industrial Resources Tyne, Wear, and Tees. p. 20.

14 Industrial Resources of Tyne, Wear and Tees, p. 291. The firm in 1864 was Hawks, Crawshay & Co.

15 H. W. Dickinson, John Wilkinson. Iron Master, p. 6.

16 They invented the common box smoothing iron. J. Stockdale, Aonnales Carmoelenses

17 Dickinson, op. cit., p. 7.

18 A. N. Palmer, John Wilkinson and the Old Bersham Iron Works, 1899, pp. 41-2,

19 A. N. Palmer, op. cit., p. 43-4.

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