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Wealden iron industry

The Wealden iron industry was an formerly important one, producing a large proportion of the bar iron made in England in the 16th century and most British cannon until c.1770.


Prehistoric Ironmaking

So far only about a dozen sites have ben identified where iron was made before the Roman invasion.

Roman Ironmaking

The Romans had made full use of the brown- and ochre-coloured stone in the Cranbrook-Tunbridge Wells area, and many of their roads there are the means of transport for the ore. The sites of about 70 bloomeries have been identified as Roman, mainly in east Sussex. The Weald was in this period one of the most important iron-producing regions in Roman Britain. Excavations at several sites have produced tiles of the Classis Britannica, suggesting that they were run by (or supplying iron to) this Roman fleet. Total iron production has been estimated at 700-800 tons per year, but under one third of that after 250 AD. The decline continued and only one ironmaking


In all some 500 unpowered bloomery sites are known in the Weald, but most of these remain undated. Accounts survive of the operation of just one, at Tudeley near Tonbridge in the mid-14th century.[1] Only about 10 sites have been securely dated as medieval unpowered bloomeries.

Powered bloomeries

From about the 14th century, water-power began to be applied to bloomeries, but less than ten such sites are known.

The introduction of the blast furnace

A new ironmaking process was devised in the Namur region of what is now Belgium in the 15th century. This spread to the pays de Bray on the eastern boundary of Normandy and then to the Weald. The new smelting process involving a blast furnace and finery forge. It was introduced in about 1490 at Queenstock in Buxted parish.[2] In early 16th century ironworks existed at Cowden, Ashurst, Tonbridge, Brenchley, Horsmonden, Lamberhurst, Goudhurst, Cranbrook, Hawkhurst, and Biddenden . The number of ironworks increased greatly from about 1540.

The Mature Industry

Nearly 180 sites in all were used for this process, having a furnace, a forge or both between the 16th century and 18th century. Waterpower was the means of operating the bellows in the 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 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. Most of them would have been engaged in mining ore and cutting wood (for charcoal), as the actual ironworks only required a small workforce. The wars fought during the reign of Henry VIII increased the need for armaments, and the Weald became the centre of an armaments industry. In particular, iron cannon were cast in the Weald from about 1540.

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.[3] However, after 1650, Wealden production became increasingly focused on the production of cannon and bar iron was only produced for local consumption. This decline may have begun as early as the 1610s, when Midland ironware began to be sold in London. 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. The last to close was the forge at Ashburnham. With no local source of mineral coal Wealden iron industry was unable to compete with the new coke-fired ironworks of the Industrial Revolution.


  • E. Straker, Wealden Iron (1931).
  • H. Cleere and D. Crossley, The Iron Industry of the Weald (2nd edn, Merton Priory Press, Cardiff 1995).
  1. ^ J. S. Hodgkinson & C.H.C. Whittick, 'The Tudeley ironworks accounts' Wealden Iron 2 ser. 18 (1998), 7-38
  2. ^ Brian Awty & Chris Whittick (with Pam Combes), 'The Lordship of Canterbury, iron-founding at Buxted, and the continental antecedents of cannon-founding in the Weald' Sussex Archaeological Collections 140 (2004 for 2002), 71-81
  3. ^ P. W. King, 'The production and consumption of bar iron in early modern England and Wales' Econ. Hist. Rev. 58(1) (2005), 1-9

External links

  • Webpage for the Wealden Iron Research Group
  • Fernhurst's iron industry 1614-1777
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Wealden_iron_industry". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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