Shropshire History

Shropshire

Lead Smelting

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Smelting is the process whereby lead ore (galena) is heated until it melts at 327°C. The sulphur comes off as fumes of sulphur dioxide and the molten lead metal flows into moulds called “pigs”.

 

Smelting has been carried out in Shropshire since at least Roman times and it is recorded that Roman smelting sites called “boles” were frequently found on the slopes of the Stiperstones. These boles were just shallow holes in the ground surrounded by a low wall of stones. Alternate layers of wood and lead ore were laid in the bole and set alight. The action of the wind acted like bellows to increase the temperature of the fire. Afterwards, the lead metal was found solidified at the bottom of the fire. A lot of wood was required for the process so it was common practice to carry the ore to the fuel source and thus the old "slag hearths" are often some distance away from the ore veins. 

 

Lead was much in demand at one time for roofs and plumbing. The Pipe Roll of Henry II for the years 1179-1184 has several references to lead obtained in the. county. In 1179, the Sheriff of Shropshire accounted for the sum of £55 received for the King's lead from the mine at Shelve. Another entry shows that, in 1181, some 110 loads of lead valued at £38 were sent from Shrewsbury to Gloucester. This was presumably by river and the cost of carriage was 68 shillings.

 

The lead fumes given off in the process contained arsenic and were very harmful to workers. Common problems were palsies, consumption, the “byon” (resembling the quinsy) and a disorder of the bowels called the “belland”. This also affected cattle which fed on the grass or heath contaminated by the smoke. It made the vegetation taste sweet and the cattle thus ate greedily, with fatal consequences. The proprietors of lead works were often forced to pay damages for the cattle which are killed by it.

 

The Flintshire reverberatory smelting furnace was first introduced in 1698 but little was done to improve the working conditions of the workers until 1778. At that time, it was found that the effects could be reduced by collecting the fumes and condensing them by passing through a horizontal chimney of suitable length, ie a flue.

 

Some of the Shropshire smelters were visited by a Frenchman, M L Moisssoney, in 1862. He wrote a detailed description of the smelters including drawing plans.

 

The working conditions at the Pontesford smelting works were vividly described by John Warter, "Formerly at the Pontesford smelting houses, great quantities of oil were drunk by the smelters to counteract the evil effects of the arsenic. In examining the works last year, I was told that much oil was still used but not so much. Years ago, many experiments were tried on the smoke as it issued from the chimneys by a well-known practitioner in the neighbourhood. Among other things, it was observed that no bird could pass through the volume unscathed, but fell down dead. " 

 

 

 

Gazetteer of Smelters

 

Benthall Lead Works

Benthall (SJ673033)

Thomas Barker was chief agent in North Wales for the London Lead Company and in 1731 he leased land at Benthall for a lead works. The availability of large quantities of cheap coal locally probably decided them to move here. Barker built a smelter to his own design with two coal-fired reverberatory furnaces and by April 1732 these were in operation. The plan was to use lead ore from the company's mines at Llandrinio in Montgomeryshire and coal from Little Dawley. However, the supply of lead ore from the mines was insufficient to make it pay and in 1736 the works was leased to Matthew Dore & Partners of the Bog Mine, who used it until the mid-1740s. The smelter closed and in 1765 the site became a malthouse. The buildings were subsequently demolished and some material rebuilt into a garage. The rest of the site is rough ground and the stone retaining wall of the river bank has partly collapsed. A layer of brick, ash and slag can be found about one metre below the modern ground surface.

[British History Online]

 

Bower Yard Smelter

Ironbridge (SJ670034)

Francis Chesham 1788

 

The smelter is shown on various plans, notably on a plan of proposals in the late 18th Century for locks to improve the navigation. It also appears on contemporary paintings and prints as it stood within sight of the Iron Bridge. Nothing is known about it except that it must predate 1788 when the illustration above was drawn. In the same year, materials from a smelter in the gorge (possibly this one) were sold to the proprietors of the Arrow Smelter at Aberystwyth.

[Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

Burr’s Lead Works

Shrewsbury (SJ494123)

 

Thomas Burr was a London plumber who decided to move to Shrewsbury. In 1813 he set up a business on the corner of Beeches Lane and St Julian’s Friars where he patented “Burr’s Lead Squirting Press”’. This allowed him to make lead pipes more cheaply and efficiently than his competitors and his business prospered. In 1829 he bought the old linen weaving factory in Kingsland and moved there, enlarging the site as required. As well as lead piping, the factory also produced lead sheets for roofing and lead oxides for use in other industries, such as paint and cosmetics. The works was powered by two steam engines and had a rolling mill, melting furnace and casting bed. The business was continued by his sons Thomas junior, William and George in 1836 and they got involved in the Snailbeach lead mines and a lead smelting works in Pontesford. In 1853 they built a tall shot tower 150ft high, 30ft in diameter at its base and 12ft in diameter at the top. Molten lead was passed through a copper sieve at the top of the tower and allowed to fall to the bottom into a water bath. The action of gravity turned it into small lead balls which were used in shotgun cartridges. In 1894 George Burr decided to close the works. As the contractors were about to demolish the shot tower it collapsed and ended 80 years of lead manufacturing in Shrewsbury.

 

The lead works caused serious pollution and one resident of Quarry Place wrote that “When the wind is in a certain point the smoke is blown to the Crescent, and it is of so nauseous a description, having a metallic taste as well as smell, that it is absolutely necessary to shut the windows, and even then it is not entirely excluded”. Another resident commented that, “When the factory is at work the whole place is enveloped in a cloud of smoke. The manufacture of red lead is carried on in a low building and the roof and chimney of this place can be perfectly red with the deposit”. The adjacent Kingsland Lane was at one time temporarily renamed to Burr’s Lane and the old Cann Office Ferry became Burr’s Ferry. Some remains of the works remain today, such as part of the chimney flue and a building.

 

  

 

In 2004, twelve test pits were excavated to obtain soil samples to determine the level of pollution. Chemical analysis of the ground showed that there was about 780 grams of red lead per square foot and the modern recommendation for a safe blood lead level is less than one 10 millionth of a gram. It is not surprising that the old workers and neighbours suffered early deaths from lead poisoning. Even today the factory site is too contaminated to be used for agriculture or housing. Several of the test pits exposed brick footings relating to the old lead works. The massive brick base of the old shot tower was found to be bonded with very solid lime mortar and built on a raft of wooden beams.

[Shrewsbury Local History]

 

Coalport Smelter

Coalport (SJ693029)

In 1760, the Bog Mining Company was seeking land at The Lloyds with the intention of “having a smelthouse down at the coals for the smelting of lead”. It was expected to cost about £200 and consume 400-800 tons of coal per year. It is not known if this was ever built but the company did have a smelter somewhere in 1761. A smelter existed here in 1790, when William Reynolds developed the town of Coalport, and in 1810 the smelter was pulled down and re-erected. In 1849, a row of cottages called Smelthouse Row appeared on the Madeley Tithe Map.

 [Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

Dale End Smelter

Coalbrookdale (SJ6603)

A Coalbrookdale Company document dated 1774 mentions a lead smelter adjacent to their land at Dale End.

[Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

Ironbridge Smelter

Ironbridge (SJ6703)

In 1730, documents by John and Robert Myddleton of Chirk, as well as the Coalbrookdale Company, mention equipment for a lead smelter.

[Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

Madeley Wood Smelter

Madeley Wood (SJ6903)

A Coalbrookdale Company document refer to a lead smelter at Madeley Wood on the north bank of the River Severn, adjoining land they leased in 1756.

[Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

Maesbury Smelter

Maesbury (SJ3025)

In 1837, the Shrewsbury Chronicle advertised “for sale or let by auction on 15th November a Lead Smelting Works at Maesbury”. It went on to claim that a new design of flue would cause no nuisance to locals. There were 6 furnaces (one of which was complete), a dwelling and a workshop, with a further dwelling to be completed. The description suggests that the works were in the process of being built. No other information is known.

[Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

Malehurst Smelter

Malehurst (SJ384064)

Two lead smelters were built here, the first one adjoining Malehurst Colliery was built in 1778 by Jonathon Scott and Edward Jeffreys, who leased the land of both the colliery and smelter. By 1783, they had sub-let the smelter for 14 years to Francis Lloyd and partners, who were probably processing lead ore from White Grit Mine. In 1790 it was sub-let to John Lawrence, who built a second lead smelter on site in 1793. One of these had an early Boulton & Watt steam engine to operate bellows. A disagreement arose in 1795 when the landlord Thomas Boycott found that Lawrence was bringing in coal from his own collieries rather than buying it from him as stipulated in the lease. The main lessees Scott and Jeffreys lost the resultant court case and had to pay Boycott the lost royalties. All parties agreed to cease operations on site and, during March 1796, Lawrence’s men demolished the smelters. Lawrence was further obliged to “fill up and make good the watercourse coming to the slag hearth and a basin to hold water”.

[Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

Pontesbury Smelter

Pontesbury (SJ 394061)

In 1796, when John Lawrence realised that he was going to lose the Malehurst smelters, he built a new smelter in Pontesbury using materials from the demolished Malehurst ones. It was close to the Horseshoe Inn and continued to process lead ore from the White Grit Mine. It was still operating in 1814 when it was included in a valuation of the mine and its buildings. Lawrence went bankrupt in 1830 but retained ownership of the smelter, sub-letting it to Pennerley Mine until Autumn 1831. An inventory at that time lists ore hearths, slag, blacksmith shop, ore bins and buddle house worked by a steam engine. There was also a separate steam engine with 33” cylinder, 50 yards of 12” pipe and sundry items. The smelter was then sub-let to the Bog Mine Company and a visit in 1834 recorded 3 reverberatory furnaces, slag hearth with blowing engine and a flue to a 120ft high chimney which was 36ft in diameter at the bottom and 6ft at the top. This chimney was known locally as “The Tower”. The furnaces could produce 24 pigs of lead in 24 hours. The Bog Mine Company ran it until they went bankrupt themselves in 1845. The smelter then ceased operations and was auctioned off, together with its contents. It has now been converted into two cottages and adjacent land is known to be contaminated with the waste from the lead smelter process.

[Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

Pontesford (Snailbeach) Smelter

Pontesford (SJ409062)

 

There are two lead smelters at Pontesford which are on opposite sides of the road. To avoid confusion, they are generally known as the Stiperstones and Snailbeach smelters, after the mines they served.

 

 

Built in 1784 by the Snailbeach Company (Thomas Lovett & Partners) to process their lead ore.  The works were extensively rebuilt in 1828 with reverberator furnaces and slag hearth with a blower worked by waterwheel. The fumes were taken away by a flue to a 180ft high chimney built in 1832. The site was visited by a Frenchman, M L Moisssoney, in 1862 who wrote a detailed description of the smelters including drawing plans. In 1863, Snailbeach Mine built a new smelter next to the mine site and this smelter was closed. The shell of the building still survives and is used to store animal feedstuffs.

[Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

Pontesford (Stiperstones) Smelter

Pontesford (SJ410062)

 

The White Grit Company had been having its lead ore processed by John Lawrence at the Malehurst smelter and subsequently the Pontesbury smelter. However, in the mid-1820s the management of the company changed and there was a disagreement with Lawrence. He ceased to process their ore so they built their own smelter at Pontesford. It was originally a small building but increased in size, with a chimney built on the eastern edge of the site in 1832. The site was visited by a Frenchman, M L Moisssoney, in 1862 who wrote a detailed description of the smelters including drawing plans. In 1843 it was recorded as having 3 reverberatory furnaces, slag hearth and a 4 h.p. blowing engine. The smelter was sub-let in 1844 to Messrs Ward & Jones, who had taken over the White Grit Mine. It was then sub-let in 1852 to Messrs Stainsby & Horton who operated it until 1870. At that time it was taken over by the Burr Lead Works of Shrewsbury. They continued operating it until at least 1880 but certainly no later than 1894 when they ceased operations at Shrewsbury. The shell of the building still survives but it is now used by a transport firm.

[Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

Pulley Smelter

Pulley (SJ4709)

In 1766, a lease was granted for coal and lime workings in the Pulley area with permission for a lead smelter at The Hanleys or on other waste ground of the Powis Estate. Hanley House is at NGR SJ468093. Both the landlord and lessees were shareholders in either Snailbeach or Pennerley Mines. Although coal was mined locally, it is not known if the smelter was built.

[Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

Snailbeach Mine Smelter

Snailbeach (SJ373030)

 

 

Opened in 1863 to replace the smelter at Pontesford. It was more economical to run since ore could be taken in wagons directly to the smelter along a tramway, rather than being moved by road. A flue for the fumes ran from the smelt works up the hill to a chimney above the mine site. The condensed lead fumes were recovered from the flue at regular intervals and estimates of the amount of lead in the flue were always included in the four monthly estimates of stock. For example, 35 tons of lead was estimated to be in the flues in May 1872. Despite the long flue, it was recorded that, since opening, there had been a good deal of illness amongst the men working in the smelter. The smelting mill was closed in 1895 after output fell at the mine and it was no longer economical.

[Lead Copper & Barytes Mines of Shropshire – M Shaw]

 

The Lloyds Smelter

see Coalport Smelter