The Acton Forge & The Vale Royal Company
Thomas Baylies (1687–1756)
caution !! this is an initial draft ... these notes are on my server for safe keeping !!
Our rampage thru family history started in 2011 just before ancient Eda died at 103 and left us with so many unanswered questions. Our notes on Hindley & Birchall family history turned out to be the same thing as a fascinating trip thru Cheshire history! The theme and focus throughout seemed to be on 'production processes', and the time line progressed from a Bronze Age settlement at Eddisbury via a forge at Acton Bridge, where the ancient saltways crossed the river Weaver, and culminated in The Weaver Refining Company of the early 20th century. Wot a fun story!
Around 1900 the riparian site at Acton Bridge hosted The Weaver Refining Company, a company founded by our great grandfather Edward Hindley. However long before 1900 this propitious location had intimate connections going back to the activities Cistercian monks of Vale Royal Abbey and the notable Vale Royal Company and one of its associates, the 'Acton Forge'.
The Cheshire Prophet, Robert Nixon, spoke of the pathetic rivalry between the Augustinian Canons of Norton from 1210 and the Cistercians at Vale Royal from 1276 which was only resolved after the dissolution when stones and timbers from the ruins of these local institutions, together with oaks from Delamere Forest, were combined and used to reconstruct a new bridge over the Weaver. This, during the reign of Henry VIII, was the first stone bridge across the Weaver at this crossing on the modern A49 on the path of the Roman road from Whitchurch to Stretton.
Vale Royal Abbey itself was founded in 1270 by Edward I (1272-1307) and without doubt these monks were no slouches and their legendary shenanigans were always complemented with their custodianship of production technology ... not only cultivation & husbandry, stone masonry, flour milling, brewing & cheese making ... but also, as early as 1280, they were the manufacturers of alkali and Cheshire Glass. The only other early reference to glass making in the country was around 1388 in Chaucer's the Squire’s Tale which mentioned ‘fern asshen glass’. This was window glass, primarily for church use, and was the mainstay of the glass industry. Procured from Delamere Forest, glassmaking would have consumed a vast quantity of wood as fuel ... and, for sure, the monks of Vale Royal would have required charcoal fuel for their blacksmiths who worked with iron ... all this was well before the Vale Royal blast furnace was built in 1696.
The blacksmith's art had always been highly prized ... the blacksmith produced weapons & tools ... perhaps by 1610 blacksmiths were in their heyday ... lead, copper, bronze were easy ... but iron was different -
there were distinctly different iron ores.
Ironstone, found in Staffordshire and usually mined with coal, was largely iron carbonate. often contaminated with phosphorous which made the resulting iron to be brittle when cold 'cold short'. Iron ore was expensive to transport.
Haematites, iron oxide ores, were either brown limonite found in the Forest of Dean & Cardiff or redmine found in Furness, Cumbria shipped into Cheshire through the Port of Frodsham.
iron dissolved carbon readily and mixtures of carbon and iron could form a number of different structures with very different properties; understanding these was essential to making quality metal.
Wrought iron = contained slag and was malleable and responded to the blacksmith's labour.
Cast iron = >2.1 and up to 5% carbon and was brittle impossible to re-shape or welded. Cast iron as 'pigs' had to be 'fined' in a finery furnace to make it malleable and useful. Generally it was cheaper to transport pig iron to the blacksmiths rather than the 'mine'.
Steel = iron, with carbon content between 0.02 and 1.7 percent by weight and was strong and could take an edge.
iron did not immediately go from a solid to a liquid at its melting point. Iron was solid at 427 °C, but over the next 820 °C it became increasingly plastic as its temperature increased. This extreme temperature range of variable solidity was the fundamental material property upon which blacksmithing practice depended.
the melting point of iron was much higher than that of bronze. In western Europe the technology to make fires hot enough to melt iron was not available until the 16th century, when smelting operations employed large bellows from water power. Such forced draft produced blast furnace temperatures high enough to melt the ores; the result, cast iron. Cast iron was produced in a foundry, not a blacksmith's shop.
the original fuel for forge fires was charcoal, to create the reducing atmosphere for the 'direct process'. Coppicing was used to manage the wood supply and extend production. Coal did not begin to replace charcoal until the forests of Britain were depleted during the 17th century and the costs of fuel began to drive the economics.
from the 1550s the 'direct process' was replaced by the 2 stage 'indirect process' where pig iron was produced in large blast furnaces and several, separate, smaller associated forges refined the pig into usable iron for the iron mongers. Cannock Chase led the way in Staffordshire.
coal was an inferior fuel for blacksmithing, because of sulphur contamination, which made iron and steel 'red short', at red heat the material became 'crumbly' instead of 'plastic'.
blacksmiths of old made tools from small pieces of steel which were
forge welded into iron to provide the hardened steel cutting edges of tools
- notably for nails, swords, axes, chisel & ploughshares. The re-use of
expensive steel was the reason few steel artifacts were found.
Iron masters specialised in economies of scale with furnaces exploiting water power.
Iron mongers specialised in iron wares.
hardening and tempering processes were invented to improve the qualities of iron.
iron was abundant, but good quality steel was rare and expensive until the industrial developments of Bessemer process in the 1850s.
Prior to the industrial revolution, a 'village smithy' was a staple of every town. What better place for the local blacksmith than the riparian site by the bridge at Acton?
From the onset of the 'Iron Age' wrought iron was produced in 'bloomery' furnaces with charcoal and iron ore. The ancient trade involved -
'forge' = a hearth for heating the ore or metal
'forging' = shaping the hot metal, with hammer and anvil
'black metal' = black fire scale forms on the hot metal surface as it oxidises as worked in contrast to the whitesmiths who worked cold white metals, pewter, brass, tin ...
'smiting' = (smith) with hammers.
The tools of the trade were the forge furnace, anvil, hammer, tongs, vice & file.
The bloomery furnace produced a 'bloom' directly from ore which was then processed into wrought iron. The ore was smelted with charcoal and draft air was used to raise the temperature sufficiently to separate most of the slag from the 'bloom'.
The bloomery consisted of a pit and chimney made of earth, clay, or stone. Near the bottom, clay pipes, tuyères, entered through the side walls to allow air to enter the furnace, either by natural draft, or forced with bellows. Limestone was often used as a 'flux' in a bloomery to aid in the removal of impurities. In operation, the iron ore, limestone and charcoal were introduced through the top, in a roughly one to one ratio. Inside the furnace, carbon monoxide from the incomplete combustion of the charcoal reduced the iron oxides in the ore to metallic iron, without melting the ore; this 'direct method' allowed the furnace to operate at lower temperatures than the melting temperature of the ore.
The bloomery furnace didn’t actually melt the iron, the 'bloom' was a spongy lump of iron & slag produced as bits fell to the bottom of the furnace and became welded together to form the mass of the bloom. The bottom of the furnace also filled with molten slag, often consisting of fayalite, a compound of silicon, oxygen and iron mixed with other impurities from the ore.
Because the bloom was a highly porous mix of slag, partially reduced ore, unburned fuel and bits of furnace clay, the bloom had to be reheated and worked with a hammer to drive the molten slag out of it. The bloom was consolidated by manual hammering (later by water-powered hammering) and then returned to the heat of a hearth and more hammering to produce the 'wrought' iron.
Once water power was available for bellows, temperatures could be raised in 'blast' furnaces which were capable of producing the molten metal; cast iron or pig iron.
The blast furnaces used charcoal more efficiently than the bloomeries. First the pig iron was produced in the blast and then it was further processed into the bloom in a finery forge and finally the wrought iron was produced in a chafery forge. This separation of pig iron production and the forges increased flexibility in location at a time when charcoal was increasingly scarce.
Finery & Chafery Forges.
In the finery forge, the blacksmith re-melted cast iron or pig iron, so as to oxidise the carbon impurities and produce the malleable 'bloom'. The fuel in the furnaces was usually charcoal, because impurities in any mineral fuel would adversely affect the quality of the iron.
The finery stage meant work by the hammer men. Repeated reheating and working was required to oxidize carbon and remove impurities. The task was to beat the heated bloom with a hammer, to drive the impurities out.
A second stage involved reheating, if necessary at higher temperatures, in the chafery, the task was then to draw the bloom out into a bar. The result of this time consuming and laborious process was 'bar iron'; a malleable but fairly soft alloy containing some slag but little carbon.
Although they were unaware of the chemical basis, smiths were aware that the quality of the iron could be further improved by heating & forging. From a scientific point of view; the reducing atmosphere of the forge could remove oxygen rust and soak more carbon into the iron, thus developing an increasingly higher grade of 'steel' as the process was continued.
From 1709 at Coalbrookdale, coke was used as fuel for the blast furnaces and pot founding with coke pig iron and green casting led to a divergence in the iron industry. One branch produced cast iron goods, and the other used charcoal to make forge pig iron, from which all bar iron came.
Cast iron or pig iron were the starting materials also used in the puddling furnace used coal as fuel from 1784.
The learning process was continuous and intensive; different ores, different refining techniques and different fuels produced different wrought iron with different properties ...
Puddling was the processes developed in the second half of the 18th century for producing bar iron from pig iron without the use of charcoal. It gradually replaced the earlier finery forges. It was invented by Henry Cort at Fontley in Hampshire in 1783–84 and patented in 1784. Cort's process consisted of stirring molten pig iron in a reverberatory furnace in an oxidising atmosphere, thus decarburising it. When the iron became a pasty consistency, it was gathered into a puddled ball, shingled, and rolled. This application of the rolling mill was also Cort's invention.
Cort's process only worked for white cast iron, not grey cast iron, which was the usual feedstock for forges of the period. This problem was resolved if the pig iron was melted in an old finery hearth and run out into a trough. The slag separated, and floated on the molten iron, and was easily removed. The effect was to desiliconise the metal, leaving a white brittle metal. This was the ideal material to charge to the puddling furnace. This version of the process was known as 'dry puddling' and continued in use in some places as late as 1890.
The alternative to refining gray iron was known as 'wet puddling', also known as 'pig boiling'. This involved adding scrap iron to the charge. The result was spectacular in that the furnace boiled violently. This was a chemical reaction between the oxidised iron in the scrap scale and the carbon dissolved in the pig iron. The resultant puddle ball produced good iron.
The production of mild steel in the puddling furnace was only achieved in about 1850 and was patented in Great Britain on behalf of Lohage, Bremme and Lehrkind. It worked only with pig iron made from certain kinds of ore. The cast iron had to be melted quickly and the slag to be rich in manganese. When the metal came to nature, it had to be removed quickly and shingled before further carburisation occurred.
The process was widely used prior to Henry Bessemer's breakthrough in 1850.
In 1538-44 after the dissolution a wave of new ownership & risk investment was unleashed as the new kids on the block were inspired and entrepreneurial activity buzzed as Cheshire Partners became thriving Liverpool Merchants in the burgeoning Atlantic iron trade ... interestingly explored by Chris Evans & Goran Ryden in 2007 ... they described a global network of cooperative trade, everyone but everyone was contributing in one whole shebang & caboodle creating new wealth, not organised by Nation States, but outputs of a social system, the discovery & accumulation of synergies of specialisation & scale -
Enlightenment science fed on nails, bolts & precision instruments.
Swedish iron making was on a roll, Uppsala imports came into England from the Baltic.
The westward advance of British capitalism drew strength from this northern hinterland that was rich in the mineral & vegetable resources that Britain lacked.
Inventory in the Deptford warehouse recorded humble tools that lay oiled and wrapped, immobilised goods that were in transnational flux. Made by artisans in south Staffordshire who had hammered them out for utility for a society in which the ‘exchange of forms of mobile property’ had a new salience, threatening, as many contemporaries saw it, the eminence of land as the embodiment of wealth. These were novel commodities which proliferated as freshly minted financial instruments hastened the circulation of the goods.
Was wealth being redefined?
Mercantilist thinkers believed that wealth was a finite substance and thus effectively the exploitation of labour rather than new wealth created by commerce. The workshop was encroaching upon the warehouse.
Production and trade were functionally integrated and led to respect for the craftsmen and the expertise of artisans.
This increase in the productive powers of labour brought about by the division of labour in the pin factory and the extent of the market.
The trade in iron in the eighteenth-century was in dealing and manufacturing, it was second to the seniority of wool.
The Iron Trade, beyond all dispute was defining the sector as extending far beyond blast furnaces and forges.
Those capital intensive installations gave work to few men by the mid century, but far larger numbers were employed in the making of the tools and hardware.
International merchants secured finance and imported Baltic iron from Stockholm and shipped hardware to the New World.
--- ‘Notes on the English Iron Trade’ Schroeder 1749 surveyed the bar iron making at English forges.
--- 'Iron and steel, in the Industrial Revolution' T S Ashton 1924, a magisterial treatment focused on technological change.
--- 'Technological change and the British iron industry 1700–1870' Charles K Hyde 1977.
A new conceptual construct first deployed by Immanuel Wallerstein and his World-System school, the global commodity chain, a network of labour and production processes, which end resulted in a finished commodity.
Global commodity chains, by their very nature, traversed national frontiers and thereby posed questions about why certain functions were spatially distributed in the way that they are? Decision-making and profit extraction powers were spread unevenly? Commercial networks, dynamism and path dependency?
Buoyant markets required an advanced social division of labour, and a relatively high level of urbanization.
Venice of 1450 was surpassed by the Antwerp of 1550. Dutch hegemony over international trade was lengthy, stretching across the seventeenth century. After 1713 it was London that rivaled and then surpassed Amsterdam as the organising centre of European and global commerce. After 1492 the Americas furnished the precious metals that allowed the Portuguese and then the Dutch to buy their way into the Asian spice trade.
Firstly, the iron trade was the principal source of the manufactured goods that flooded into both the African and the American segments of the Atlantic economy. Secondly, Europe was the principal market for New World commodities. European merchants and brokers took a disproportionate share of the earnings to be had in shipping, insuring, and handling the cargoes, animate and inanimate.
The triangular trade encouraged the spread of market relationships around the entire Atlantic zone. A network integrated by trade.
Without a stutter the slave trade was replaced by the trade in materials, goods and service.
Here was a network, a multitude of peoples, an infinity of things, a babble of tongues, and an inexhaustible medley of faiths and beliefs ... glued together by synergies and mutual benefits. A fluid environment inhabited by traders, refugees, slaves, sailors, scientists, and religious seekers who habitually evaded mercantilist regulation and bypassed state edict.
What future the nation state had amid the surge and counter eddy of globalization? Ponder the origins of those nation states. Atlantic economy as a scene of ebullient commercial endeavour, swarming irresistibly over hapless officialdom.
Capital accumulation for investment was disrupted by antinomian pirates and mutinous slaves and Mercantilist regulation from imperial bureaucracies. Pirates were defeated by navies, slavery was abolished. English iron trade was hobbled by a seemingly insurmountable supply problem: the volume of charcoal available for smelting and renewal was strictly limited. By 1680 imports of iron had achieved parity with home sources. Demand soared hence the Baltic trade with Sweden & Russia.
The indirect method of iron making - the two-stage process involving a blast furnace at which ore was smelted and a forge at which the output was refined - had been introduced to the British Isles in the 1490s.
Burning coal removed the need to keep large areas of land forested, and if woodlands were no longer needed as a source of fuel then the space they occupied could be devoted to other productive uses. British iron industry in the closing decades of the
eighteenth century, changed to coal.
In 1690-6 the Cheshire Partnership of iron masters under the Foley finance
kings, commissioned Thomas Hall to build the blast furnace at Vale Royal.
B G Awty 1957 told the story ... Vale Royal was the only contemporary
English furnace to be situated as far as
fifteen miles from its nearest possible source of ironstone in the north Staffordshire coalfield. This suggested that the site was selected primarily to obtain easier access to the haematites from Furness, Cumberland. The mixed haematite 75% / ironstone 25% charge improved the pig quality and avoided 'cold short'. Previously the haematite ores had to be carried from Frodsham to the Lawton furnace for smelting. A horrific pack horse journey. The effects of land and water transport on costs for ore were shown by the fact that haematite was inventoried at 30/- a ton at Vale Royal, whilst its price put on board at Whitehaven or Piel was 16/- in 1696/7. Usually about a quarter of the ore charged into this furnace was Staffordshire ironstone inventoried at 15/- a ton, so that carriage across the Cheshire plain approximately doubled its cost. Whilst Lawton furnace was one of the cheapest of the contemporary furnaces to run, Vale Royal was the only one at which more was laid out in payments for iron ore than for charcoal. Delamere Forest to the rescue?
By 1718 the Cheshire Partnership needed a fillip and landlord Charles Cholmondeley living in the Vale Royal mansion was eager to improve his lot with investment in the latest technology. With an august band of brothers he founded The Vale Royal Company.
An epic description of the 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'.
Thomas Baylies (Abraham Darby's brother in law) formed The Vale Royal Company on 28 May 1718 to take over the blast furnace built by Thomas Hall in 1690-96 for the Cheshire Partnership of iron masters. Fuel from Delamere Forest, mixed iron stone 'mine' from Staffordshire & hematite ores from Cumbrian ... the company also purchase 'some waste land at Acton for the erection of forges.
By May 1719 a forge and splitting mill had been built at Acton' ... 'our' Acton Forge? ... P W King suggested the lease from Thomas Fleetwood was arranged by Lord Cholmondeley 'on some waste land at Acton'?
The landowners including Mr Fleetwood were shown as annotations on the Billington map of 1721 but there was no forge, the Vale Royal Company sites were shown on a 1725 map and included the Acton Forge.
At the dissolution oligarch Thomas Holcroft stepped in and bagged an interesting array of the privatised assets -
Reference: Chester Records Office DDX3 - Title: Letters Patent -
Description: - To Thomas Holcroft, esq. -
House and site of the late monastery of Vale Royal; Connersley Grange with dovecot; the pastures of Wyldemere hey 10a., the Conymere 40a., Wryght Eye 6a., Sutton Field 16a., Milne Field 5a., Sterre Medowe 3a.; all waste land; the Newe Pool and fishery; the pastures known as Blackhouse Hey, the Intak tenant William Gorton, Lytle Intak tenant Robert Penkett, Olde Intak tenant Richard Harryson, Connersley Hey and the Marsh tenant John Goodryche; Cokers Medowe tenant Robert Penkett; Blackfeld tenant Thomas Herwer, Rough Hey tenant Roger Crime part of Ernesley Grange; Lytele Clayfeld tenant Peter Barker, Ryddynge tenant John Gerrard, Sandefelde and Lytle Intak tenant Jacob Hunter part of Connersley Grange; Bradford Grange, Bradford Mill Pool with its fishing rights, and everything connected with the grange; Bradford Wood and Perke Wood; Blackfelde tenant Henry Catnall; Grete Cleyfelde, Redhyll Felde and Medow, and Ferdermoste Ende of the Conyngre from the old ditch called Byrche Rawe to Closseyate and Cappersyate tenant Thomas Bromfield; Hey Wood; Earnesley Grange tenant Thomas Bromfield; Pety Poole Hyll, Pety Poole Damme, Okemere, with all profits etc. belonging tenant Sir John Done; Bradford Mill tenant Richard Leftwich; Marton Grange with all appurtenances; Blackdon Medowe tenant Robert Manwaryng; Marton Coppice, Hefferston Grange; lands tenants John Cowper and wife called Barn Acre Croft, Little Barn Croft, Mayos Flatt, medowe Hey, The More, Lytell Bradford Hyll, Grete Bradford Hyll, Kechyn Croft, Three Brook Feld, Maggote Hey, Crokeland, Blackfeld, Hallowe Medowe; all messuages, lands etc. belonging to Hefferston Grange; Owston al. Ownstan Mill and all its rights with fishery of the Trough in Weaverham; a house and land 15a. with Pedlar's Meadow tenant Peter Barker; a house and land 20a. tenant Thomas Barker; a house and land 12a. tenant William Smyth; Eernesley House tenant John Goodryche; and all other commons, profits etc. belonging to Vale Royal in Whitegate, Marton, Weaverham, Over and Delamere forest, with court leets, view of frankpledge, assizes of bread and ale, waifs, strays, felons' goods, free warren, etc. to annual value of £32.16.8d.
In consideration for service and £450.10s.6d. premises are granted to be held in chief by service of twentieth of a knight's fee, subject to an annual rent-charge of £3.5.8d. payable each 29th September, and the profits accruing since last 29th September shall be added as a gift. The estate to be held free of all other claims except the life interest of John Goodrich.
Great Seal and laces missing.
The Holcrofts lived at Vale Royal from the dissolution until 1615. Mary
Cholmondeley née Holford (1562–1625) widowed & rich, purchased the lavishly
reconstructed Vale Royal mansion and estate in 1615. The mansion became a
home for herself when her eldest son inherited the extensive family estates
Wikipedia notes that in August 1617, Mary entertained James I and a stag-hunting party at Vale Royal.
The king enjoyed himself so much that he knighted two members of the family. When Mary died the abbey and estate went to her fourth son, Thomas who founded the Vale Royal Cholmondeley branch. Landowning development interest persisted and Charles Cholmondeley (1685-1756) became the powerful landowner and investor in the Vale Royal Company.
The furnace at Vale Royal was probably typical of the blast furnaces which superseded the bloomery furnaces in the late 17th century 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 located by local historian Frank A Latham at the ancient Bradford Mill, the bellows were driven by the stream draining Petty Pool; Petty Pool Brook.
Bradford Mill 1721 map Billington --- Bradford Mill 1777 map Burdett --- Bradford Mill 1850 map Tithe Plot 536 --- Bradford Mill 1875 map OS --- Bradford Mill 1898 map OS --- Bradford Mill modern map OS ... no sign of a mill at Domesday Map 1066.
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. However the Whitegate Village Design Statement summarised the latest knowledge in 2003 which suggested 'Cinder Hill' had different connections -
'Carrying on past the new Vicarage and up Cinder Hill between a parade of
lime trees, one arrives at what until recently was the Village Post Office
with the adjoining thatched Old Post Office (7) built around 1650 to house
It became the Village Post Office in 1914 and served the community until the 1950s when the new Post Office was built. The communal bake-house was located next to the old Post Office, the cinders from which were used to surface ‘Cinder Hill’ to give horses a better grip. Off the linear route at the end of Mill Lane is the ancient Bradford Mill (10). A water mill on the site of Bradford Mill is mentioned in Vale Royal Abbey records of 1283 and 16th century records show at least four mills working at Bradford. In 1690 iron smelting was carried out there for several years before it reverted to a corn mill until the mid-1930s. It was converted for residential use in 1968'.
The Petty Pool Brook runs down the rather steep escarpment from Cinder Hill down to the Weaver and the modern Vale Royal locks. Richard Atherton was optimistic that more field walking may add to knowledge of the lie of the land between Petty Pool and the river, and to check what weir heights there were and what escarpments which could be used for charging access. There certainly seemed to be enough power in the stream and its buffering capacity to work a few small engines. Richard's story got interester ... and even more interesting -
connection with the smelting and forging issues around Petty Pool Brook, I
will need to do a bit of investigation of the lie of the land between Petty
Pool and the river, to see what weir heights there are and escarpments which
could be used for charging access, but there certainly seems to be enough
power in the stream and its buffering capacity to work a few small engines,
separately or in combined operation. The stream runs through my garden, so I
keep an eye on it! Also, when I used to grow vegetables, I kept digging up
lumps of slag with lumps of green glass embedded in it. I thought that
perhaps it had arisen through waste clearance from the local Smithy, now a
private house, which is only a few yards down the lane. Now I'm not so sure?
I will see if I can get the 19th century OS map from the NLS website.
Charles Cholmondeley was the landlord and put up one third of the investment capital for the blast furnace at Vale Royal in 1696 (and 'our' Acton Forge in 1718).
I’m still betting on a site location on the steep escarpment down from Whitegate to the Weaver via Petty Pool Brook.
An excerpt from Vale Royal a 1993 publication (Frank A Latham & local history group), aims to prove a furnace operated at Bradford Mill. Must find some confirmatory slag though!
My house is in Grange Lane, at the base of Cinder Hill. The route of the brook is often shown on maps as being culverted down the North side of the lane, but in fact it forms a field boundary and keeps cows out of my garden! It runs past 'Smithy Cottage' and meets Bogart Brook and then flows through Paper Mill Wood northwards towards Bradford Mill pool. No info at all on the history of the paper mill. Bogart Brook drains Sixes Hole.
Mill Lane used to be called ‘Abbots Walk’
Looks like the Petty Pool Brook escarpment powered several ‘mills’ over the years.
1772 map of Petty Pool Brook indicates Petty pool level = 84m asl, Bradford Mill Pond estimated at 21m asl.
1882 OS map of Bradford Mill shows 2 wheels, 3 leats, mill cottages now demolished but in 1881 census housed total of ca 60 people.
Searching for slag ... a beautiful morning, so I strode across the fields to Bradford Mill in my search for elusive signs of slag, which would definitely prove the one-time presence of the 'Vale Royal Blast Furnace' ... oft quoted in the literature, but with only vague indications of its exact site. Taking the footpath to the South of the shallow depression which once would have contained the Mill Pond, I entered a fairly overgrown area bounded by a wooden fence on the left side and a roughly built stone wall on the right. The wall was reinforced in some few places where it was looking a bit weak, and the whole was covered in moss, young birch trees and brambles. The stone work was very irregular and brittle, bits broke off as I prodded it with my stick, was this the ancient slag? ... for all the world the bits were like the lump of lava I purloined from a visit to Etna years ago. I collected some for verification purposes. The slag heap was built, I think, in a depression in the terrain just below where the Mill Cottages had been. See my 1882 OS map markings.
Points to ponder further ...
Were the cottages Bass Houses?
The Vale Royal Company made nails and cooking pots. Did much of the pig iron go to Acton and did they make wrought iron for salt pans? (about 1700 they started to make pans from iron ... not lead ... and the pans got bigger, because lead got a bit soft if a span greater than 4 feet was heated.
The river was made navigable ... in 1721?
Abraham Darby was going to try coke and coal in the VRF but he died before he had any results. Thomas Baylies took over for a while and then went to the USA, and after that the VRF got run down and was closed. Why did the economics go wrong?
The locations of the wheels on the 1880s OS map don't seem very practical when you look at the layout of the mill buildings….and I can't really pinpoint the exact location of the furnace, although it must be near the slag heap because the slag is pretty heavy and some of the chunks are quite large. Axles and bevel gears can contribute a lot of friction!
To move 40 tons of stone from Frodsham to Vale Royal on dire roads required 400 pack horse trips - the same 40 tons could be moved by barge with 2 horses ... no wonder the Weaver was eventually opened up in 1721 😉
... but 3,000 plus carters lost their jobs ...
... 'plus ca change plus la meme chose' ...
... so the contractors working for the Cheshire Partnership should have done their sums and started dredging the river first before hiring all the carts!
Wotever it looks like the monks were milling flour at Bradford Mill from 1283, a propitious site for the later Foley & Cholmondeley investments in a blast furnace in 1696?
The iron masters around this time were dominated by several interbreeding families - The Foleys were perhaps the most prominent, the Kendall family also featured ...
Richard Foley (1580–1657) of Stourbridge in the Forest of Dean was a prominent Staffordshire ironmaster. His eldest of his second marriage (to Alice Brindley, also in the trade) was Thomas Foley (1616–1677). Folk rumour had it that in 1627 'nailer' Richard brought back from Holland or Sweden the slitting mill technology that made Hyde Mill famous ... by stealth and subterfuge?
The slitting mill was a variety of rolling mill: firstly a piece was cut off a bar using water powered shears; it was then rolled through plain rolls into a thick plate, which was then passed between grooved rolls or 'cutters' dividing it into rods. There was also a variety of iron known as mill iron, which was probably distinguished from other bar iron only in its being drawn as a thick plate rather than with a squarer section.
In 1627 Richard Foley's Hyde Mill driven by the river Stour had a monopoly
on which slitting lasted only four or five years, not long enough for him to
build up a substantial fortune. The vast Foley fortune being accumulated by
son Thomas Foley in the 1650s and 1660s.
The need to control the charcoal supply was a principal reason for the concentration of the industry in so few hands.
Thus Richard Foley's Hyde Mill was neither the earliest in England, nor even in the Midlands, and the story of industrial espionage by a wandering minstrel should be consigned to the realms of myth.
The pattern of ironmasters owning slitting mills primarily to cut iron from their own forges was found in the Cheshire Cranage Forge before 1695.
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.
Thomas 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 the Great House on the site of 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 via marriage to the Holford's of Holford Hall.
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.
Vale Royal was the only contemporary English furnace to be situated as far
as fifteen miles from its nearest possible source of ironstone the north
Staffordshire coalfield. This suggests that the site was selected primarily
to obtain easier access to the hematite of
Cumberland and Furness, which otherwise had to be carried from Frodsham to Lawton furnace for smelting. The effects of
land and water transport on costs or ore are shown by the fact that hematite was inventoried at 30/- a ton at Vale Royal, whilst its price put on board at Whitehaven or Piel was 16/- in 1696/7. Usually about a quarter of the ore charged into this furnace was Staffordshire ironstone inventoried at 15/- a ton, so that carriage across the Cheshire plain approximately doubled its cost. Whilst Lawton furnace was one of the cheapest of contemporary furnaces to run, Vale Royal was the only one at which more was laid out in payments for iron ore than for charcoal.
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 ...
'Cheshire obtained the name of Vale Royal of England' - 'the Weaver the principle river, the heart of Cheshire' - 'there are many considerable estates possessed by gentlemen who have residences within the county and no county in England has preserved more of the race of its ancient gentry, and another species of freeholder has increased where a number of farms have been purchased by manufacturers of cotton' - 'three fourths of the county is pasture, the other fourth ploughed' - 'manured with marl, lime. dung, compost. Sand is frequently used on stiff clays with great success. Foul or dirtied salt is a most excellent manure' - 'potatoes are cultivated in Frodsham to as great an extent as any other parish' - 'the most noted part for the production of cheese is the neighbourhood of Nantwich. The best cheeses run from 60 to120 lbs. Their excellence depends on the size and the nice and minute circumstances in the making, only learned by experience of the very able and careful dairy women. The cheese is chiefly sold in London, being exported from Chester, Frodsham bridge and Warrington. The Liverpool merchants buy some.' - 'Cheshire is a very wooded county, and a large supply of hides from the manufacturing town of Lancashire have led to great numbers of tanners settled in the middle and north parts' - 'salt is found in two states of solid rock and brine springs, Coals are procured in considerable quantities near Poynton' - 'quarries of stone of various kinds are wrought in different parts, almost every village on the north side is situated on a bed of red rock. Mole Cop near Lawton large quantities of limestone are dug' - 'At the time of the Romans the county was inhabited by Cornovii' - 'County Palatine was that the earls of Chester enjoyed palatine jurisdiction, the inhabitants were tenants in chief to them alone. earls becoming extinct in the reign of Henry III, the king made his eldest son the earl of Chester, which title has ever since been attached to eldest sons of the crown' - - 'the great advantage accruing to trade from water carriage have at all times been well known to commercial nations' - '1720 Irwell & Mersey' - '1720 Weaver, certain persons had the power to be undertakers and borrow a sum of money to be advanced by others at 5% interest, to be paid out of the first rates and duties accruing from tonnage, the clear produce of these rates and duties was directed to repairing public bridges in the county and such other public charges as the justices appoint' - '1758 Bridgewater' - '1776 Trent & Mersey' - '1776 Grand Trunk, salt, limestone, iron stone, hematite for tough iron, cheese, grain. pottery, Birmingham iron ware, flint' - '1770 Liverpool Leeds' - '1772 Chester' - 'Delamere Forest earlier was a fair and large forest abounding with red and fallow deer but now a black and dreary waste chiefly inhabited by rabbits' - 'tradition reports a place called Chamber of the forest once the centre of the woodland and a large town once existed of the name Eddisbury' - 'Tarporley chiefly remarkable for being the place where a number of the principle gentlemen meet for an annual hunt, The neighbouring open heaths o Delamere Forest offered a favourable ground for the latter pastime' - 'the house at Vale Royal is said to have been 53 years in the building. The Abbey was granted at dissolution to Thomas Holcroft, whose grandson sold it to the Holfords, from whom it came by marriage to the Cholmondeleys' - 'Frodsham Bridge over the Weaver, from a warehouse near it much cheese is shipped for Liverpool, and a work for refining rock salt is on the bank of the river. In the parish of Frodsham potatoes are cultivated to a great extent'
Sir Hugh Cholmondeley (1552-1601) MP = Mary Holford (1562-1625) only daughter & heiress of Christopher Holford of Holford Hall. Died at Vale Royal on 15 August 1625 and was buried at Malpas.
1st son Robert Cholmondeley (1584-) of Holford Manor Hall
4th son Thomas Cholmondeley (1594-1652) = Elizabeth Minshall
Thomas Cholmondeley (1627-1701) = Jane Tollemarch in 1644, the ancestor of the Cholmondeleys of Vale Royal.
Charles Cholmondeley (1684-1756)
Thomas Cholmondeley (1726-)
Thomas Cholmondeley (1787-) 1st Lord Delamere
Hugh Cholmondeley (1811-55)
The Weaver Refining Company