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Wealden Iron Industry

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Location: Weald area of Kent and Sussexmap
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Brief information on the iron making industry in the Weald and names of those involved.

For two periods – in the first two centuries of the Roman occupation, and during Tudor and early-Stuart times – the Weald was the main iron-producing region in Britain. Julius Caesar first drew attention to iron being produced in the coastal parts of Britain. Archaeologists have found evidence of iron working from the late Iron Age at sites near Crowhurst and Sedlescombe in the south-eastern High Weald.

When the Romans invaded in AD 43, they found a well-established local tradition of iron making, using small, clay bloomery furnaces. With growing markets generated by the building of towns, villas and farms, the Romans encouraged this native industry. Sites from the period have been found all over the eastern part of the High Weald. Towards the end of the period, water-power began to be used for forging iron, heralding the introduction, in 1496, of the blast furnace.

Introduced from northern France, and operated by skilled, immigrant workers, the blast furnace was a much larger, and more permanent structure than the bloomery; and instead of a few kilos of iron being made, daily output was nearer a tonne.

By the mid-16th century there were 50 furnaces and forges, and that number had doubled 25 years later. All over the Weald, the iron industry was having an effect, with large numbers of people employed in digging ore, cutting wood and transporting both raw materials and products

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. A lot of French workers were brought in to work the iron works. 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.

Richard Woodman was an ironmaster from Warbleton in Sussex who was one of the 17 Lewes Martyrs burned at Lewes, Sussex, during the Marian persecutions of Protestants during the 1550s. The Bonfire Societies in Lewes remember these martyrs in their November 5th Bonfire Night celebrations where effigies of the Pope of the time are burnt as well as effigies of the Enemies of The Bonfire which can be any public figure. In the past The Riot Act has been read at Lewes due to the antics of the Bonfire Societies 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. However, after 1650, Wealden production became increasingly focused on the production of cannon; and bar iron was only produced for local consumption. 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. With no local source of mineral coal, the Wealden iron industry was unable to compete with the new coke-fired ironworks of the Industrial Revolution. The last to close was the forge at Ashburnham in 1813. Little survives of the furnace and forge buildings, although there are still scores of the industry's hammer and furnace ponds scattered throughout the Weald.

The iron indiustry families tended to marry into other iron industry families. Many were made extremely wealthy and the Wealden Iron Research Group has extensive information on names associated with the Wealden iron industry in it's database and publications [1]

This page is an attempt to put together a list of names associated with the industry in the Weald which can help to find relationships of profiles on Wikitree


  1. https://www.wealdeniron.org.uk/
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