The Acton Forge & The Vale Royal Company

Thomas Baylies (1687–1756)

wantingcaution !! this is an initial draft ... these notes are on my server for safe keeping !!




Blast FurnaceAn epic description of the entrepreneurial economic history of The Vale Royal Company and the associated iron technology has been researched by P W King in Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire & Cheshire, 1993 - 'The Vale Royal Company & its Rivals'.

The furnace at Vale Royal was probably typical of the blast furnaces in the late 17thcentury and consisted of a vertical shaft lined with refractory stone and supported by a brick structure, may be 30 feet high. The top of the furnace was reached by a bridge, sometimes from an adjacent hillside. From there the furnace was charged with ore and charcoal, usually with a small amount of limestone as a flux. The base of the shaft narrowed like a hopper (the 'bosh'), so that the charge descended gradually into the lowest and hottest part of the furnace (the 'hearth'). At the base of the stack were a blowing opening and the casting opening, leading to structures known as the blowing house and the casting house. The blowing house provided a blast of air delivered through a pipe called a tuyere from a pair of large bellows, which were operated by a water wheel. In the casting house slag and periodically molten iron were removed as accumulations at the bottom of the furnace. The metal was typically run off into channels resembling suckling 'pigs'.

The Vale Royal Furnace was a huge iron furnace built in 1696 by Thomas Hall and the 'Cheshire Partnership' for the Foley family. The site was just where the brook runs out of Petty Pool in the middle of rural Cheshire. It continued to be used during the 18th century. The exact site was not located but the bellows were driven by streams draining Petty Pool. The road name, Cinder Hill, may have be connected with this furnace and field walking located a large quantity of iron slag in the area immediately to the west of the Great House.

The iron masters of the time were dominated by several interbreeding families - The Foleys were perhaps the most prominent. And the Kendall family also featured, ...

Witley CourtRichard Foley (1580–1657) of Stourbridge in the Forest of Dean was a prominent Midlands ironmaster. His eldest of his second marriage (to Alice Brindley) was Thomas Foley (1616–1677). Thomas made his money in the 1650s supplying iron, cannon, ordinance, grenades, shot and pike heads to Prince Rupert and nails, spikes, cross garnetts, grommets, scrapers, cannon, mortars and demi culverins to Cromwell's navy. He bought estates and built Witley Court. His business was carried on by his sons; Thomas Foley, Paul Foley and Philip Foley ... the Foleys also had interests in Staffordshire the Moorlands Works (Abbots Bromley, Cannock and Rugely) ...

... the Foleys together with the some guys originally from Wortley came to dominate in Cheshire ... what was going on?

Before the civil war the usual practice was to site the furnaces near the source of iron stone or 'mine', transport problems tended to dominate the economics.

The earliest Cheshire forges were in the south near the Staffordshire coalfields at Doddington & Lea.

After the civil war some of the iron industry magnets gravitated from the denuded south to the timber endowments of the north west. In 1993 Brinley Thomas outlined the rationale for the siting of a furnace at Vale Royal ... an energy crisis.

In 1650 John Leadbeater purchased the Hermitage Estate at Holmes Chapel. Then in 1658 John Turner came from Staffordshire to Cheshire and took out a 21 year lease on an old corn mill at Lawton and converted it into a grand furnace. This was a substantial enterprise, he invested some £3000 in the furnace and associated forge at Cranage. Subsequently the iron making business was leased to the Foleys who moved up from Stourbridge & the Forest of Dean to establish themselves as the great iron masters in the 17th century. The deal included charcoal from the Cholmondeley Estate at Holford and the haematite ore from Furness via the Frodsham port.

Between 1692-96 the Staffordshire interests were sold and the Vale Royal furnace and Warmington forge built ... these made up the Cheshire Partnership ...

The construction of the Vale Royal furnace was highly significant for iron production in north west England. Vale Royal smelted haematite ores, producing tough pig iron, some of which was directed to the forge at Bodfari, in Flintshire, to supply industry in North Wales.

 Intrigue, financial difficulties, tenancy changes, legal actions, product quality, bankruptcy, competition, impossible transport ... all resulted in turmoil. Some semblance of order emerged when a group of Yorkshire iron masters came to Cheshire in 1680s ...

Who were these guys who came to Cheshire for its wood?

William Cotton, Denis Heyford & Thomas Dickin from Yorkshire and Cotton's cousin Thomas Hall from Worcester,

Tony Bonson suggests in 1696 the likely organisation of the Cheshire Partnership was -

Thomas Hall at the Lawton Furnace

Daniel Cotton (son of William) at Vale Royal

Edward Hall (son of Thomas) at Warmington

in 1698 Dennis Heyford sold Cranage Forge to Hall and Cotton

The Hall family became involved in the iron trade with the marriage, of Michael Hall (1623/4-1670), son of Richard Hall of Greet, Shropshire, who married Elizabeth Cotton, sister of the ironmaster William Cotton (-1675) ... they had nine children.

Thomas Hall (1657-1715), a younger son, was one of the most successful of the early iron masters. He was born at Tenbury, Worcestershire and operated the furnace at Madeley, Staffordshire, from 1683. By 1687 he was a partner in the Cheshire ironworks with his cousin William Cotton ... Thomas Hall was also the established operator for the Foleys of the Lawton furnace and the Cranage forge on the Dane ... a furnace at Street and forge at Bodfari were added in 1700 ... things were looking good in Cheshire, so good that in 1702 Thomas Hall was able to purchase the Hermitage Estate from the Leadbeaters, he was now landed gentry! In 1706 further acquisitions absorbed the Staffordshire Works, in 1710 Doddington furnace and Lea forge followed ... Holmes Chapel was the centre of the universe!

 During the 1690s he managed this partnership which from 1696 onwards was closely linked with the Staffordshire works. Hall married in 1697 to his cousin William Cotton's sister, Joanna (-1721). Thomas's younger brother Edward (1664-1750) invested 10,251 pounds in the Cheshire works. In 1706 he took responsibility for Vale Royal furnace and Bodfari forge. Edward's eldest son was Thomas (1702-1748), and he also mentioned an interest in Bodfari Forge.

William Cotton (1648-1703) was Thomas Hall's cousin and by the 1690s he was managing the Cheshire partnership. After the building of the Vale Royal furnace in 1696, he was of major importance for the development of the iron industry in north west England. Lawton & Vale Royal were two of the largest furnaces of the period. Thomas was a great benefactor for Holmes Chapel, the village and church ... and two Blue Coat Schools ...

 Eventually the male line in the Hall family died and with the changes within the iron industry and the transition from charcoal to coke smelting, saw the Halls and the Cottons, withdraw from the iron trade after a century of involvement.

When Abraham Darby died in 1717 his production breakthrough had established an ascendency in the industry and he had agreed to purchase the Vale Royal furnace. The agreement was implemented by Thomas Baylies who formed a new company to exploit the opportunities; The Vale Royal Company.

It was The Vale Royal Company that built The Acton Forge in 1718.

Darby PotsThomas Baylies (1687–1756), a Quaker, was born in Alvechurch, Worcester, and in 1706 he married the lovely Esther Sergeant (1687-1754) in Solihul. It was a smart move because Esther had a sister Mary who was married to Abraham Darby (1678–1717) ... and many said that it was Abraham and his Quaker mates from The Bristol Brass Company at Baptist Mills who grew the industrial revolution in England ... 

But iron production was a more difficult business than brass and the difficulties were compounded by a shortage of charcoal. ... but the iron masters were having big problems ... culminating in disaster when the furnace at Coalbrookdale blew up ... the big breakthrough came in 1709 ...

In 1709 Darby took over the wrecked Coalbrookdale furnace and began the manufacture cast iron pots for the population masses in central facilities with economies of scale ... pots that changed the world ...

Abraham Darby's technical breakthrough at Coalbrookdale was threefold -

the use of 'coke'  in blast furnaces. The traditional charcoal fuel was in short supply and 'coke' avoided the coal problem of troublesome sulphur contamination of the metal.

the 'blast' from water powered bellows enabled increased the scale of production and raised the furnaces temperatures for efficient production of some 10 tons per week of 'pig iron'.

the 'green' moist  reusable sand & clay moulds for hollow casting of pots, complemented the scale with a patented process which lowered production costs ... Abraham's pots consumed less expensive iron ...

... this three pronged attack produced thinner lighter cheaper pots than hitherto ... just what the customers wanted ... what enterprise!

In 1714 Thomas joined his brother-in-law at Coalbrookdale in the exploitation of this gravy train. Abraham Darby renewed the lease of the Coalbrookdale Works and formed a partnership with John Chamberlain and Thomas. He lost interest in the brass works and concentrated on making iron.

When Abraham died in 1717, only 39 years old, it was Thomas Baylies who took up the the Coalbrookdale Company's expansion plans which included the purchase of the Vale Royal furnace in Cheshire.

In 1718 Thomas Baylies formed a new partnership, The Vale Royal Company, to operate the furnace. And to raise the necessary capital for the new venture he recruited three powerful partners -

Charles Cholmondeley was an established Cheshire landowner, resident at the old Cistercian Vale Royal Abbey which after the dissolution had been converted into a mansion by the Holcrofts and came into the Cholmondeley family in 1615.

Richard Turner of Pettywood, Middlewich was an entrepreneur involved with coal mining at Thatto Heath, St Helens. Turner persuaded his partners to build a second furnace at Sutton, near the St Helens coal ...

William Watts of Newton, Middlewich was an local attorney most remembered for representing those parties opposing the Weaver Navigation scheme.

John Langton has described some of the significant issues which impacted on the fortunes of the Vale Royal Company, and led to its eventual demise in 1737 when bar iron production in Cheshire almost halved from 490 to 290 tpa and imports of foreign pig iron surged -

The funding problem. Profits from Coalbrookdale had been reinvested in the business and were illiquid and injections of new 'landed capital' were needed from folk like Charles Cholmondeley, Richard Turner & William Watts.

The location problem. Why remote Vale Royal? 'Path dependency' was an explanation; John Turner of Stafford, Thomas Hall & his cousin William Cotton and the Foleys, the pioneers of the Cheshire Partnership came for charcoal and had already established a successful furnace location suitable for the situation in 1696 where charcoal from Delamere Forest was close at hand.

No doubt the location by the Pettypool Brook supplied some water power for the bellows. Furthermore the output of the new blast furnaces out paced the forges; more forges were needed and more locations adjacent to water power were needed.

Coalbrookdale success was based on coke and Richard Turner had coal at St Helens.

The technology problem. The science was not understood, the ironmasters were flying by the seat of their pants, they trialled and errored. They discovered different ores or 'mines' produced different qualities of iron ... a blend of 'redmine' from Furness and 'iron stone' from Staffordshire produced better results ... which considerably complicated supply logistics.

The transport problem. Coastal shipping from Furness to Frodsham port, deplorable roads and no Weaver Navigation all added to costs. Rick Szostak described the transport problems in 1991. And William Albert also identified some solutions ... turnpike concessions for local interests.

The competition problem. Profits funded success. There were no bailouts, instead there was space for growth of the efficient. Economic growth resulted from diversity and the weeding out of the inefficient. The profits were in Coalbrookdale and new manufactures in Birmingham ...

Charles Cholmondeley was scathing about the debts that piled up ... in a letter in 1729 he wrote -

'The melancholy state of my affaires hath often turned my head & my resolution hath failed me, the fretting hath once or twice given me a fit of illness, to see myself bought into such unfortunate circumstances by the obstinacy of one man (Richard Turner) & being engaged with him in that unlucky partnership has lost me £10,000 besides other disadvantages'.

The furnace was probably never financially viable.

P W King wrote about the demise of The Vale Royal Company and noted -

'It was not Thomas Baylies's fault that the company collapsed in a mass of debt around 1735, their iron business was in too remote a place to be capable of profit'.

Thomas Baylies lived at Marton, near to the furnace, and not far from the Acton Forge but he left The Vale Royal Company and moved to Abernethy in 1729 where he built an iron works in the Highlands of Scotland for the York Buildings Company.

In 1737 Thomas Baylies followed a well trodden Quaker path to Massachusetts as the iron business in England collapsed in 1737.

He was first associated with Richard Clark & Co, Boston, Massachusetts.

Thomas died at Rhode Island in 1756 after establishing a successful iron business which was continued by his son Nicholas ... The Baylies Iron Works flourished on the Three Mile River in Taunton, Massachusetts ... Nicholas's son Hodjah was remembered for a great forging feat in 1797 ...


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