Guest Contribution: 17th Century Iron Making in South West Herefordshire, by John van Laun
17th Century Iron Making in South West Herefordshire
A more unlikely situation for heavy industry does not seem possible yet in the 17th Century abundant sources of charcoal and unfailing supplies of water for power encourage the establishment of an ironworking complex, comprising the blast furnace at St. Weonards and the forges of Llancillo, Pontrilas and Peterchurch. In spite of distances of up to 13 miles separating the primary process of reduction of iron at the furnace from the secondary process at the forge. The complex survived in part well into the 18th Century.
St. Weonards furnace and Llancillo forge were probably established by the time of the Civil War as a Richard Kemble is reported as Clerk to the two concerns during the plundering of the Scots in 1643.
Pontrilas Forge was established before l623 and together with Peterchurch Forge, was held by the Hall family. In 1671 the Foley family entered upon the first of a series of agreements that were to continue until 1736 with one or more parts of the complex. Paul Foley acquired a one half share with William Hall, comprising the furnace and the three forges. By 1674 Paul Foley had taken his brother Philip into partnership with all his Forest of Dean undertakings including the St. Weonards complex. It was intended to buy out Hall. In 1677/8, the value of bar iron sent from the three forges to Monmouth storehouse was over £3,000. The following year the brothers showed an interest in disengaging themselves from the complex and in 1683 went as far as drawing up an agreement with William Hall and his brother to hand back Llancillo and Pontrilas, Peterchurch having remained Hall property all along, but on lease to the Partnership. In 1692 an entirely new " Ironworks in Partnership" was drawn up by the Foleys and the St. Weonards complex was outside this. St. Weonards furnace was blown out and Peterchurch and Llancillo forges continued to function drawing pig from Bishopswood and Redbrook furnaces. About this time Pontrilas forge ceased operations. Because of the blowing out of St. Weonards there was a shortage of locally produced pigs for the surviving forges and this led to the blowing in again of the furnace in 1706, the furnace being readmitted to .the Foley Partnership soon after. Llancillo forge drew pig iron from St. Weonards but remained outside the Partnership. From 1717 to1725 St. Weonards was again independent. It was rebuilt in 1720 by William Rea and was carefully monitored for production after this period by the Partnership. Llancillo drew most pig iron from St. Weonards and some " cold-short" pig from Llanelly in the Clydach. In 1725 both the furnace and Llanelly forge returned to the Partnership. The furnace ceased production in 1731 and was disposed of around 1736/7.
Peterchurch forge continued under the Halls and occasionally traded with the Partnership. It is quoted as being in existence as a forge in 1736, although not in production.
Llancillo, after finally leaving the Foley Partnership, increasingly drew " cold-short" (coal measure) iron from Llanelly and was, because of better communications, stimulated to adapt to changing technology and probably survived into the early 1800’s. Duncumb writing before 18l2 describes it as ''lately been destroyed" .
The location of the St. Weonards furnace was approximately 8 miles from its nearest source of ore in the Forest of Dean and 6 miles from Whitchurch, a source of “cinder" left over from the " bloomery" period of iron production. From surviving campaign records production per 24 hours does not seem high, as low as one and a half tons in 1706. Over twice as much cinder was used as ore in a charge, and about two and a half loads of charcoal was needed to produce a ton of iron. Inventories for the period 1725 to 1731/2 give an idea of organisation at the furnace. A large number of ancillary staff were employed such as " colliers" (for charcoal production) and carriers. The furnace produced between 80 and 33 tons annually of tough iron suitable for making merchant bar iron.
The forges were of the 'old type' throughout their existence - two fineriess and one chafery inventories give sufficient details to re-construct the workings of these forges for much of this period. ln the l660's it cost around 58/- in charcoal to produce one ton of bar iron, and about 27 cwt of pig iron was needed to produce a ton of bar iron. Wood for cords was obtained locally at 6s.8d. a cord. Carriage to the forge was as high as 5/- a load (three and three quarter cords to a load). It is possible to calculate that in the 1660’s the final production costs were between £15 and £18 a ton; much of this iron finding its way. to Bristol with land carriage to Monmouth at 18/- a ton, and water carriage to Bristol at 5/- a ton. Llancillo had the highest production figures, 150 tons in 1677/8. Peterchurch only produced around 50 tons annually.
Within the accounts for the period of production there are references to maintenance which shows that the forges were typical of the time. " Plates" in the fineries were " tuyeres" , '" fore spirit" , " hare" , etc and similarly for the chafery with the addition of " great plate" over the vertical hareplate. " loope plates" were in the floor so that the " blooms" could be dragged to the hammer. References to the hammer show normal construction - " helves" bound with hoops. The helve was contained in a " hurst" and the operation of the hammer effected by " arms" (cams) on the axle-tree. That bellows to the chafery were of a greater size than the fineries is born out by the higher maintenance costs. The importation of hammer heads from Hales furnace in the Stour Valley is of interest and amounted to about one and a half tons annually in the l660's.
The four sites are identifiable today. A brief outline of the remains follows:
St. Weonards (SO492234)
The site of the furnace can be identified as abutting from a low bank. A leat from the Garron brook can be traced to near where the bellows water-wheel house stood. A later building on the furnace site contains a plaque inscribed " This furnace was rebilt [sic] by William Rea Gen in 1720" . There is much slag on the site.
Llancillo Forge (SO 376252).
A building remains built on a slag tip; by the combined use of the Tithe Map and the 25 inch map of 1904 it is possible to determine the site of the forge as being 50m due east of this. The water system is of particular interest as there are a series of holding ponds, constructed by Paul Foley in 1672, in a dried up meander of the River Monnow.
Pontrilas Forge (SO 399264).
A map of 1665/6 shows the full layout of a 17th century forge with " finery ditch" and " hammer pond" fed from the forge pond which is in its turn supplied from the River Dore. The site of the forge is identified by a very heavily slagged area with lumps of hammer scale weighing up to 25 Ibs. Charcoal can be recovered from the area of the " coalhous" . The take-off point for the leat can be found at a natural fall in the river. This is a site long abandoned which requires a fair amount of interpretation.
Peterchurch Forge (SO 342389)
At the forge itself are the burnt remains of a two storey building of unusual type with the dwelling above a barn. This was of 17th century date. A large holding pond of over 3 acres can easily be identified and part of the watercourse that supplied this from the river Dore.Up until the last decade there were large areas of slag but these have now been removed, although some can still be found.
To present an outline of the history and technology of the complex much generalisation has been necessary. Nevertheless, the basis of both is contained above. The isolated sites were determined by the availability of wood for charcoal plus the fact that few sites remained where water power could be utilised, the more accessible sites having been taken up for corn milling.
Throughout their lives, the forges were providing " tough iron" from Forest ores and cinder. Parts of the complex were taken on or shed by the Foley Partnerships according to their needs and they were finally forced to rationalise the complex by keeping St. Weonards in blast to supply Llancillo and Monmouth forge. With the closing down of St. Weonards, Llancillo because of its nearness to the coal measures of South Wales, was encouraged to adapt to the change in iron technology brought about by the coke blast furnace and survived another 60 years.
Above taken from a handout by John.van .Laun. in April 1978
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