Shropshire History

John Wilkinson


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1728 - Wilkinson was born in Little Clifton, Cumberland to Isaac Wilkinson and Mary Johnson. Isaac made pots at the blast furnace there and was one of the first to use coke instead of charcoal, a process pioneered by Abraham Darby. John was raised in a non-conformist Presbyterian family and educated at a dissenting academy at Kendal.


1745 - At the age of 17, John was apprenticed to a Liverpool merchant for five years and then entered into partnership with his father at Kirkby Lonsdale in Westmorland.


1753 - His father moved to Bersham Ironworks near Wrexham but John remained behind and married Ann Maudesley. He moved to Shropshire later in the year and became a partner at Willey Ironworks near Broseley.


1755 - John became as a partner in the Bersham Ironworks.


1757 - Wilkinson and partners erected a new blast furnace at Willey Ironworks and built another furnace and works at New Willey. He made his home in Broseley in a house called “The Lawns” which became his headquarters for many years. He had houses either side which served for administration, one being named “The Mint” and used for distribution of thousands of tokens, each valued a halfpenny. In the same year he bought the forge at Moreton and patented a hydraulic-powered blowing engine for blast furnaces.


1761 - He took over Bersham Ironworks, which became well known for high-quality casting and a producer of guns and cannon.


1767 - Edward Blakeway and Wilkinson leased land to build Bradley Ironworks in Bilston. It became his most successful enterprise and was the site of experiments in getting raw coal to substitute for coke in the production of cast iron. At its peak, it included a number of blast furnaces, a brick works, potteries, glass works and rolling mills.


1774 - Wilkinson patented a technique for boring iron cannons from a solid piece, rotating the gun barrel rather than the boring-bar. Historically cannons had been cast with a core and then bored to remove imperfections. The new technique made the guns more accurate and less likely to explode. He also invented a boring machine in which the shaft that held the cutting tool extended through the cylinder and was supported on both ends, unlike the cantilevered borers then in use. With this machine he was able to bore the cylinder for Boulton & Watt's first commercial engine and was given an exclusive contract for the provision of cylinders. Wilkinson's achievement was a milestone in the development of boring technology, as its fields of application broadened into engines, pumps, and other industrial uses.


1777 - He became a partner in the Iron Bridge which opened in 1781.


1778 - Wilkinson built Snedshill Ironworks.


1787 - Wilkinson built Hollinswood Ironworks.


1792 - He bought the Brymbo Hall estate in Denbighshire and built furnaces and other plant.


1796 - At the age of 68, he was producing about one-eighth of Britain's cast iron.


1804 - He built New Hadley Furnace and Castle Ironworks.


1808 - Wilkinson died and was buried at his Castlehead estate at Lindale. He left a very large estate in his will but it was contested in the Court of Chancery and was dissipated by lawsuits and poor management. His corpse, in its distinctive iron coffin, was moved several times over the next decades and is now lost.