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Bersham Ironworks
west of Bersham, Wrexham, Wales, UK
Bersham Ironworks
associated engineer
John Wilkinson
date  c1717
era  Georgian  |  category  Factory/Industrial Plant  |  reference  SJ306492
photo  © Crown copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales | © Hawlfraint y Goron: Comisiwn Brenhinol Henebion Cymru
Bersham Ironworks was the first in Wales to try making pig iron using coke rather than charcoal. It was also the first works to use John Wilkinson’s method for accurately boring cast metal cylinders for steam engines and cannon. The site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and the surviving cannon foundry, a Grade II* listed building.
The ironworks was established at Bersham, west of Wrexham in northern Wales, in around 1717. However, it's likely that iron making was taking place in this area from about 1640, and that cannon were manufactured in the area for the English Civil War (1642-51).
The Bersham Ironworks complex was founded by blacksmith Charles Lloyd (1662-1728) from Dolobran, Montgomeryshire, who constructed a blast furnace to supply iron to local forges, such as the one at Pont y Blew in Chirk. Lloyd was a Quaker and a friend of Abraham Darby (1678-1717) of Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, who in 1709 had pioneered smelting iron ore with coking coal.
In 1721, Bersham’s blast furnace became the first in Wales to use "coakes for potting". Lloyd experimented with coke instead of charcoal for the production of pig iron, and he cast a range of hollow ironware such as box heaters, cooking pots, pipes and possibly cannon barrels. His attempts met with varying success, as he failed to consistently replicate Darby’s methods. In 1727, he was bankrupt.
John Hawkins (1698-1739), Darby's son-in-law, acquired the works and set up an agreement between the Bersham and Coalbrookdale works. Bersham would continue making cooking pots and pipes while Coalbrookdale cast components for Newcomen steam engines. In 1733, the Coalbrookdale Company funded the construction of extra iron making facilities at Bersham.
However, the 18th century was a difficult period for ironmasters. The cost of raw materials was increasing and the selling price for iron fluctuated, decreasing as new technology enabled economies of scale. Smelting with coke wasn't always successful and charcoal, derived from timber, was scarce owing to the over-exploitation of woodlands. A lack of charcoal meant that furnaces operated intermittently, and income was uncertain.
In 1753, Bersham Ironworks was taken over by industrialist Isaac Wilkinson (1695-1784) of Washington (UK), now in Tyne and Wear. Under his stewardship the works produced cooking pots, pipes, rollers and armaments, especially cannon for the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). He also maintained a subcontracted casting business.
On 12th March 1757, Wilkinson was granted a patent (No.713) for a blowing machine or 'iron bellows' he had devised for forges and blast furnaces, operated by three cast iron cylinders powered by a waterwheel. One was soon in use at Bersham. On 21st April 1758, he took out a patent (No.723) for making dry sand moulds and used the process in the casting enterprise.
In 1759, he went into in partnership with Edward Blakeway (1718-1811) and seven others to found Dowlais Ironworks (SO067077) at Merthyr Tydfil, and installed his machine to blow its blast furnace. Versions of his invention were also used at Hirwaun Ironworks (SN957058) in the Cynon Valley, New Willey Ironworks (SJ674006, site of) in Shropshire and (later) Bradley Ironworks (SO958951, site of) in Bilston, West Midlands.
While Wilkinson was busy with Dowlais and his patents, Bersham was run by his son John Wilkinson (1728-1808). John had been a partner in the works since 1755, and his younger brother William Wilkinson (1744-1808) was to gain his early training here.
John also had a connection with his father’s partner Edward Blakeway, as they had formed the New Willey Company in 1757, together with four others, taking over the lease on the New Willey Ironworks where previously Isaac had had a share of the lease on the original furnace.
Nicknamed Iron Mad, John Wilkinson was an astute and ambitious man who foresaw huge potential for iron in military and civilian uses, and was able devising methods for manufacturing high quality products. Between 1758 and 1761, he managed to perfect a reliable method of smelting iron ore with coke, which could be produced readily from the abundant coal supplies from Welsh mines.
By 1760, Blakeway was bankrupt and his unmarried wealthy sister-in-law Mary Lee bought his shares. In 1761, Isaac sold his share of Bersham Ironworks to the New Bersham Company, in which his son John was the main shareholder. In December 1763, John married Mary Lee and under the laws of the age, gained control over her financial assets. His mastery of the Bersham and New Willey Ironworks was now complete.
With John in charge, Bersham began making calendar rolls, shells and grenades as well as cooking pots, pipes and cannon. The works became known for its high quality castings and ordnance. Later on, the works also made wrought iron and wire.
On 27th January 1774, John patented (No.1063) a "new method of casting and boring iron guns or cannon". His technique consisted of boring gun barrels from solid iron castings — a new development for iron cannon such as those used by the Royal Navy, though the method was already in use for bronze ones. The barrel was held at the required alignment and the bore made by rotating the barrel rather than the boring bar. Previously, barrels had been cast as tubes, with internal irregularities later removed by hand fettling. If this was not done properly, a cannonball could stick in the barrel and explode.
In 1775, John devised a milling machine for boring smooth holes in gun barrels, powered by a waterwheel, and constructed one at Bersham. The barrels were made in an octagonal brick and sandstone building, which is still standing, that contained four furnaces casting simultaneously. His invention proved very timely as the American War of Independence (1775-83) significantly increased orders for naval ordnance.
In 1779, a steam-powered boring mill was constructed. By this time, Bersham was using the technology to bore steam-engine cylinders up to at least 2.1m in diameter and 2.7m long for James Watt (1736-1819), and had become the main cylinder supplier to Boulton & Watt.
The manufacture of accurately sized barrels and cylinders enabled Bersham Ironworks to expand and prosper. In 1789, it was valued at over £40,000 and reached its peak in about 1795.
John, however, was always looking for greater opportunities. In 1792, he purchased a 202 hectare estate at nearby Brymbo, north east of Wrexham. It had reserves of coal and iron ore on site and, in 1793, he constructed the first blast furnace there. The event marked the beginning of Brymbo Ironworks (SJ294535, later Brymbo Steelworks) and its growth heralded Bersham's decline.
Moreover, in the 1790s, John and William Wilkinson were at loggerheads over money. William, who had been a partner since 1774, wanted to increase his share holding at Bersham and resented John’s sole ownership of Brymbo. It is said William led a gang to wreck Bersham Ironworks and that the damage they did was matched by John’s rival gang. The matter went to court. John eventually bought William's interest in Bersham but was also compelled to pay him over £8,000 in share dividends.
While supplying Boulton & Watt, John was also producing his own steam engines at Bersham. Customers for these pirated engines profited by not paying the Boulton & Watt premiums (fees for using their patented engines, based on the fuel saved compared with using Newcomen engines). Following legal action, John made reparations to Boulton & Watt for 19 engines he had built for customers and after 1798, Boulton & Watt stopped using his cylinders and manufactured their own at Soho Foundry in Birmingham. William sided with Boulton & Watt and recruited workers from Bersham for Soho.
Bersham, with few nearby sources of raw materials and insufficient space to extend, declined in the early years of the 19th century. Part of the ironworks had also been dismantled in the 1790s by the Wilkinson brothers’ feuding.
Nevertheless, in 1801, a large metal table of iron or copper (reports vary) was cast at Bersham and its surface rendered level with a cast iron plane of some 900kg powered by a waterwheel. The table weighed 18.85 tonnes and was to be used for making plate glass at a factory in St Helens, Lancashire (now Merseyside), whence it was transported on a purpose-built eight-wheeled carriage drawn by 12 horses.
John Wilkinson died on 14th July 1808, and was buried in a cast iron coffin beneath a cast iron obelisk in the grounds of his estate at Castlehead in Lindale, Cumbria. He did not rest in peace but was moved in 1828, when Castlehead was sold, and lies in an unmarked grave in Lindale churchyard. The obelisk (SD418803) stands at the junction of the B5277 and Dixon Wood Close in Lindale.
Bersham Ironworks closed in 1812, and the premises and plant were advertised for sale that year and in 1813. The site was later used briefly for a paper mill, then for agricultural purposes in the 19th century. The boring machine building was converted into a corn mill by heightening its sandstone walls using brick (still standing).
The Bersham Ironworks site is now an industrial museum and Scheduled Ancient Monument. Surviving buildings include the cannon foundry (SJ307492, Grade II* listed) with adjacent fettling shop and the corn mill (SJ306492). Excavations were carried out in 1987-1990, revealing substantial remains including sections of timber tramway, furnaces and the former accounts house. Associated with the site are the two weirs (SJ304493 and SJ308491) on the River Clywedog that diverted water into a leat to supply the ironworks.
RCAHMW_NPRN 34051, 24854, 26752, 336752, 34053, 34404, 40427
Research: ECPK
"Wilkinson, John (1728–1808)" by J.R. Harris, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn September 2013
"John Wilkinson: King of the Ironmasters" by Frank Dawson, The History Press, November 2011
"Isaac Wilkinson (c.1705–1784) of Bersham, Ironmaster and Inventor" by A. Stanley Davies, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, read at the Science Museum, London, 8th February 1950
reference sources   BDCE1

Bersham Ironworks