Wealden iron industry

Wealden iron industry

The Wealden iron industry was located in the Weald of south-eastern England. It was formerly an important industry, producing a large proportion of the bar iron made in England in the 16th century and most British cannon until about 1770. Ironmaking in the Weald used ironstone from various clay beds, and was fuelled by charcoal made from trees in the heavily wooded landscape. The industry in the Weald declined when ironmaking began to be fuelled by coke made from coal, which does not occur accessibly in the area.

Prehistoric ironmaking

So far only about a dozen sites have been identified where iron was made before the Roman invasion.

Roman ironmaking

The Romans had made full use of the brown- and ochre-coloured stone in the Weald, and many of their roads there are the means of transport for the ore. The sites of about 113 bloomeries have been identified as Roman, mainly in East Sussex [J. S. Hodgkinson, "The Wealden Iron Industry" (The History Press, Stroud, 2008)] . The Weald was in this period one of the most important iron-producing regions in Roman Britain. Excavations at a few sites have produced tiles of the "Classis Britannica", suggesting that they were run by (or supplying iron to) this Roman fleet. Total iron production has been estimated at 700-800 tons per year, but under one third of that after 250 AD.


In all some 30 unpowered medieval bloomery sites are known in the Weald, but most of these remain undated. Accounts survive of the operation of just one, at Tudeley near Tonbridge in the mid-14th century. [J. S. Hodgkinson & C.H.C. Whittick, 'The Tudeley ironworks accounts' "Wealden Iron" 2 ser. 18 (1998), 7-38]

Powered bloomeries

From about the 14th century, water-power began to be applied to bloomeries, but less than ten such sites are suspected.

The introduction of the blast furnace

A new ironmaking process was devised in the Namur region of what is now Belgium in the 15th century. This spread to the "pays de Bray" on the eastern boundary of Normandy and then to the Weald. The new smelting process involving a blast furnace and finery forge. It was introduced in about 1490 at Queenstock in Buxted parish. [Brian Awty & Chris Whittick (with Pam Combes), 'The Lordship of Canterbury, iron-founding at Buxted, and the continental antecedents of cannon-founding in the Weald' "Sussex Archaeological Collections" 140 (2004 for 2002), 71-81] The number of ironworks increased greatly from about 1540.

The mature industry

Nearly 180 sites in all were used for this process, having a furnace, a forge or both between the 15th century and 18th century. Waterpower was the means of operating the bellows in the blast furnaces and for operating bellows and helve hammers in finery forges. Scattered through the Weald are ponds still to be found called ’Furnace Pond’ or ’Hammer Pond’. The iron was used for making household utensils, nails and hinges; and for casting cannon. The first blast furnace was recorded at Buxted in 1490.

The industry was at its peak towards the end of Queen Elizabeth I's reign. Most works were small, but at Brenchley one ironmaster employed 200 men. Most of them would have been engaged in mining ore and cutting wood (for charcoal), as the actual ironworks only required a small workforce. The wars fought during the reign of Henry VIII increased the need for armaments, and the Weald became the centre of an armaments industry. Cast-iron cannon were made in the Weald from 1543 when Buxted's Ralf Hogge cast the first iron cannon for his unlikely employer: a Sussex vicar who was gunstonemaker to the King.

In the 16th century and the early 17th century, the Weald was a major source of iron for manufacture in London, peaking at over 9000 tons per year in the 1590s. [P. W. King, 'The production and consumption of bar iron in early modern England and Wales' "Econ. Hist. Rev." 58(1) (2005), 1-9. ] However, after 1650, Wealden production became increasingly focused on the production of cannon and bar iron was only produced for local consumption. This decline may have begun as early as the 1610s, when Midland ironware began to be sold in London. Certainly after Swedish iron began to be imported in large quantities after the Restoration, Wealden bar iron seems to have been unable to compete in the London market.

Cannon production was a major activity in the Weald until the end of the Seven Years' War, but a cut in the price paid by the Board of Ordnance drove several Wealden ironmasters into bankruptcy. They were unable to match the much lower price that was acceptable to the Scottish Carron Company, whose fuel was coke. A few ironworks continued operating on a very small scale. The last to close was the forge at Ashburnham. With no local source of mineral coal Wealden iron industry was unable to compete with the new coke-fired ironworks of the Industrial Revolution.

External links

* http://www.villagenet.co.uk/history/1543-ironmasters.html
* http://www.wealdeniron.org.uk/ Webpage for the Wealden Iron Research Group
* http://www.bushywood.com/wealden_iron_industry.htm
* http://www.fernhurstsociety.org.uk/furnace.html Fernhurst's iron industry 1614-1777

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