John Wilkinson was the ‘Ironmaster’ of the industrial revolution
Iron ran through the veins of John Wilkinson, who was fortunate enough to be born into the heart of the industrial revolution, both literally and figuratively. He was born in 1728, the son of Isaac Wilkinson. He worked in the iron industry at a blast furnace close to Little Clifton, Cumbria and saw a little of the future potential of iron working. The influence of Abraham Darby and his development of the use of coke, instead of charcoal in the blast furnace was adopted in the foundry. Isaac worked as a sub contractor and would then buy the iron, to produce his own goods. He took out patents for a number of inventions, including a cast box smoothing iron, for smoothing fabrics. He influenced his son John from the very start in terms of iron working and manufacture but he was a hopeless business man and died insolvent.
His family were non conformists
In this he was fortunate. Dissenting families chose to send their children to separate schools and John Wilkinson was sent to a dissenting academy at Kendal. Here, different approaches and ideas could be discussed. It was acceptable to think in a challenging way and many like minds stimulated each other. John was not an easy man to deal with. He could be willful, opinionated and ruthless in his pursuit of his beloved iron kingdom. If oysters could have been persuaded to form iron pearls he would have farmed them. His entire life was centred upon iron. He was however a good employer, wherever new works were established, cottages were built to accommodate employees and their families. He introduced a token system for paying his workers but whether that was a wholly fair situation for his employees, is a moot point.
With a financially unsuccessful father, it was important for John to marry well and in 1755 he married Ann Maudesley, a wealthy woman. He could now afford to produce high quality cannon and gun barrels. Demand for his product grew when Britain entered the Seven Years War with France. Precision engineering of the bored cylinders made the armaments much more effective. John Wilkinson’s business took off.
In 1757, at Bradley in the Black Country, he set up the first furnace to produce coke smelted iron. His skill as ironmaster was spreading and he became technical advisor to a consortium made up of Bristol merchants and Shropshire landowners. They were building a foundry at Willey, close to the Darby works at Coalbrookdale. He soon took control of the Willey furnace and exploited to the full, the niche he was creating for himself. In 1762, he entered a partnership with his father at Bersham near Wrexham, which, given his father’s poor business record might have seemed strange. He exploited his father however by perfecting his blowing machine and then kicking him out of the business.
In 1774 Wilkinson took out his most important patent
He developed a method of boring cannon from solid castings. The casting would be rotated whilst keeping the boring arm fixed. He then developed a cylinder boring lathe and it was this that gave British armaments superiority over all other cannon. The lathe had a much bigger impact though. It enabled James Watt and Matthew Boulton to bore the cylinders of their steam engines, to a far higher precision than before, thus making them more efficient. John Wilkinson began to supply them with the castings they needed but shot himself in the foot when Watts and Boulton realised he was stealing their steam engine designs, to build his own. They ousted John Wilkinson, took him to court, where he was forced to hand over large sums of money and then promptly built their own foundry.
A man with no heir, he took himself a mistress
After his first wife died, John married again in 1763, to Mary Lee but they had no children. With no male heir, he engaged his nephew Thomas Jones but then took a mistress, Ann Lewis, who was a maid on his estate in Brymbo Hall. He had purchased Brymbo Hall in 1792 and founded Brymbo Ironworks, which continued as a steelworks late into the 20th century. His mistress bore him three children who he later declared legitimate, much to the annoyance of Thomas Jones who, after John’s death in 1808 took the dispute to Chancery.
John Wilkinson, a man of many parts
By the time John Wilkinson died at the age of eighty, he had had a hand in building bridges, founding banks, minting his own coinage in the form of tokens, invested his money in canal building and copper mines and supported many others in their pursuit of business success during the late 18th century. He supported his sisters husband, Joseph Priestley, another non – conformist and gifted natural scientist, a Fellow of the Royal Society. His connections included Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Banks. So many great brains colliding. He was a complicated man but without his entrepreneurial risk taking skills, many aspects of the industrial revolution would have taken a different course. He left the world encased in an iron clad coffin under an iron obelisk.