Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilkinson, John (1728-1808)

WILKINSON, JOHN (1728–1808), ‘father of the south Staffordshire iron trade,’ was born at Clifton, Cumberland, in 1728. His father, Isaac Wilkinson, had a small farm in Cumberland, but was also a workman or overlooker at an iron furnace in the neighbourhood; he was a shrewd, intelligent man, and sent his son to the academy of Dr. Caleb Rotherham [q. v.] at Kendal. In July 1738 Isaac took out a patent for a laundress's box-iron, and, having migrated with his eldest son John to Blackbarrow, near Furness, they began to manufacture those articles, thus laying the foundation of the family fortunes.

About 1748 John left his father and got employment, first at Wolverhampton and then at Bilston, Staffordshire, where he eventually succeeded in obtaining sufficient means to enable him to build the first blast furnace in that place, to which he gave the name ‘Bradley Furnace;’ and there, after many failures, he finally succeeded in substituting mineral coal for wood-charcoal in the smelting and puddling of iron-ore. In the meantime Isaac Wilkinson had moved his works to Bersham, near Wrexham in Denbighshire. There, after a short period, he was about 1756 joined by John, who constructed an improved plant for boring cylinders with accuracy; these new cylinders were from 1775 employed with great benefit by Watt in building his Soho engines. John became manager and owner of the Bersham works from 1761–2; he next set up a forge upon a much larger scale at Broseley, near Bridgnorth, and commenced the manufacture of wrought iron; and it is said that the first engine completed at Soho was ordered by John Wilkinson to blow the bellows at the Broseley ironworks. His improved bellows and the extended use that he made of coal in place of charcoal in all his foundries enabled Wilkinson to supplant most of his rivals in Coalbrookdale, while his improved boring appliances proved of the greatest value in the construction of cannon. He soon obtained orders from the government for swivels, howitzers, mortars, and shells. Many of the cannons used in the Peninsular war were made at Bersham and Broseley. A quantity of artillery material is also said to have been smuggled through (down the Severn) to France. For purposes of transport, having experimented with his father many years before upon an iron boat, Wilkinson built iron barges to carry castings down the Severn from his Coalbrookdale works. The first of these barges was launched near Broseley on 9 July 1787 (Universal Mag. lxxxiii. 276). ‘It answers all my expectations,’ wrote Wilkinson, and ‘it has convinced the unbelievers, who were 999 in a thousand’ (Smiles, Men of Invention and Industry, 1884, pp. 52 sq.)

In the meantime, during 1779 Wilkinson was chiefly instrumental in casting the pieces for the first iron bridge in the country—that over the Severn between Madeley and Broseley. In the following years, at his new additional works at Bradley, Staffordshire, Wilkinson cast tubes and ironwork, and also erected the first large working steam-engine in France in connection with the Paris waterworks. His patent of 1790 (No. 1735) for making lead-pipe is of great importance. James Watt had such a high opinion of the work done at Coalbrookdale that he sent his son to study there in May 1784. A claim to the invention of the hot-blast has been set up on behalf of Wilkinson, and in 1843, during the trial of Nelson v. Baird [see Nelson, James Beaumont], it was sought to show that Wilkinson had made an experiment at Bradley in which the air supplied to a blast-furnace was previously heated. The date of the experiment was variously assigned to the years 1795–9, but the judge held that no previous use had been established (see Report of the Trial, Edinburgh, 1843, pp. 21, 88–103, 163–210, 316).

His accumulated wealth alone made Wilkinson a great local figure. He cultivated with success a five hundred-acre farm at Brymbo, near Wrexham, where he is said to have erected a threshing-machine worked by steam. In 1787 he sent to the Society of Arts a specimen of hemp grown from seeds distributed by the East India Company (Trans. v. 171). In 1791 he sent to the same society an account of his coke ovens near Bradley (ib. ix. 132). In 1799 he was high sheriff for Denbighshire. He issued numerous tokens, both silver and copper, and also ‘guinea notes’ for private circulation, which had a wide currency in Staffordshire and Shropshire. Though he could be very generous to those who served him well, he is not depicted as an amiable figure, and seems to have been not over-scrupulous whether in his treatment of rivals or of his own relatives. He was in a state of constant feud with his brother William, who migrated to France at one period in order to escape this fraternal persecution, and made large sums there by the introduction of coal for the manufacture of iron. Arthur Young wrote in 1794 of ‘Monsieur Weelkinsong's’ ordnance factories near Nantes and elsewhere. ‘The French say that this Englishman taught them to bore cannon in order to give liberty to America.’ A blast-furnace is still known in France as a ‘four Wilkinson.’ William Wilkinson died in 1808. There was another brother, Henry, and a sister Mary, who was married to Joseph Priestley on 23 June 1762; after the destruction of Priestley's property at Birmingham, John Wilkinson came forward with substantial assistance for his brother-in-law. The local celebrity of John Wilkinson, who was vulgarly reputed an atheist and a disciple of Tom Paine (cf. Kenyon Papers, Hist. MSS. Comm. 14th Rep. App. iv. 536–7), found vent in a number of humorous ballads, some of which are still extant in ‘Grinning made Easy’ (Oswestry, n.d.) and similar repertories of the Welsh border.

The ‘great iron-master’ died at Bradley, Staffordshire, on 14 July 1808, and was buried on 25 Aug. in an iron coffin at his seat of Castle Head, near Ulverston (whence his remains have three times since been removed). His first wife, Anne (Mawdsley), whom he married in 1755, died on 17 Nov. 1756, aged 23. He married secondly, in 1763, a Miss Lee of Wroxeter, ‘with an ample fortune.’ The bulk of his immense property appears to have been lost during twelve years of litigation between his nephews and his three illegitimate sons (see Lords Journals, 1823, pp. 760 a and 1773 b, where the facts disclosed reveal that Wilkinson's domestic arrangements were of a very peculiar character). A portrait of Wilkinson hangs in the town-hall at Wolverhampton; another portrait is in the possession of Mr. Edward Jones of Wellington, and formerly of Brymbo.

[John Randall's The Wilkinsons. [1876] (with a reproduction of the Wolverhampton portrait); Bye Gones, i. 251, ii. 37, 5C, iii. 189, 2nd ser. r. 348-9; Cymmrodorion Society Trans. 1897-8; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. xii. 289, 377; Commercial and Agricult. Mag. November 1799; Gent. Mag. 1808, ii. 662. 849; Stockdale's Annales Carmoelenses, 1872; E. M. Jones's Wrexham; Palmer's Wrexham, 1893. p. 279; Palmer's Older Nonconformity of Wrexham, p. 135; Nicholson's Cambrian Travellers' Guide, 1813; notes very kindly communicated by D. Lleufer Thomas, esq., and by R. B. Prosser, esq.; Birmingham Weekly Post, 16 Nov. 1895; Muirhead's Life of Watt, 1859, pp. 240, 251, 285.]

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