11 July 2019

Bromford Forge, and the Interior of the 18th Century Iron Forge

An Iron Forge, by Joseph Wright of Derby (1772)

The first mention of the Bromford mill as a forge was in 1605, but the site had previously worked as a water-powered mill, possibly dating back to Domesday, but definitely the thirteenth century. Like many mills it had been converted from corn grinding to fulling, the pounding of wool to remove oil and dirt.* From working as a fulling mill it was an easy conversion to become a forge to hammer iron instead of wool, as seen in Joseph Wright’s 1772 painting of an iron forge (above). Wright was inspired by the industries of the Midlands, and although there is no reason to believe that he visited Bromford, there would be similarities.

In 1638 the mill was described as “all that forge or hammer mill and also all the houses, cottages, lands, [...] crofts & closes” which was in the possession of John Jennens of Birmingham, a wealthy ironmonger (Jennens Road, near Millenium Point, is named after him).*** The houses and cottages would have most likely been for the mill workers, with Bromford being, at that time, in the countryside, and about four miles from the Birmingham industries. Jennens himself had worked mills further up the River Tame in Wednesbury, but according to Victorian historian F. W. Hackwood, had relocated further downstream to Bromford and Aston due to a shortage of fuel, namely charcoal, in the Black Country. But Wednesbury was still rich in iron ore, which was taken by either cart or pack-horse from Wednesbury to Aston, Bromford and Perry Barr.

Jennens’ forge at Bromford was only part of his "iron empire", and would have been used as a forge for refining the brittle pig iron into more malleable wrought iron for making horse shoes, nails, tools and wire elsewhere. Inside there would have been at least a couple of furnaces, as well as bellows, and, of course, the water powered trip hammers; making the forge both a sweltering and noisy place to work, with raging flames, and the pounding of the heated iron (or bloom) between the hammer and the anvil. The pig iron would be heated for at least an hour in the furnace, whilst being blasted with air, to form a glowing ball. Once ready, it was removed with a hook and tongs to the trip-hammer, where it would be pounded. The pounding or hammering was a process to remove the carbon from the iron; too much carbon and the iron would be brittle, too little, and the iron would be too soft. This process could be repeated another four or five times before the iron was ready.

From the middle of the eighteenth century Edward Knight and Abraham Spooner became involved in Bromford Forge. They were nail makers and had built a water-powered slitting mill, called Nechells Park Mill, on the site of an old blade mill, near the confluence of the River Rea and the Tame. The slitting process literally ‘slit’ bars of iron into rods by taking them through two sets of water-powered rolls. Bromford was used to make the iron that was then transported to Nechells to ‘slit’ into rods, and then the finished nails would have been made elsewhere again. Knight and Spooner also ran Aston Furnace.

In the early years of the nineteenth century machinery was introduced to press nails at Bromford, which marked its move from forge to rolling mill. Abel Rollason rented the mill from the 1830s, and from 1849 shared the site with a firm utilising the water for the trade of wire drawing. The Rollason Wire Company were still in occupation in 1956, marking over 100 years of drawing wire on the site, though the power of water slowly made way for that of steam, and then electricity.

Bromford Forge in 1753, drawn by R. R. Angerstein.**

In 1753 Reinhold Angerstein visited Bromford Forge, drawing and describing the interior. He also described some of the surrounding area, which is included below:

Bromford Forge
In the morning of the 8th I went to Bromford Forge, which is located three-and-a-half English miles from Birmingham […], and is provided with water by the river ‘Edsborsen’ [river Tame] which flows past and partly through the town. In the forge, which is built out of wood, the hammer and its drive and other equipment were the same as in Sweden. There were three hearths in operation, two of them finery hearths using charcoal, and the third a chafery hearth heated with mineral coal. It required two hours to make a bloom weighing 1 ¼ cwt. The weekly production was 7 tons, and last year the total production amounted to 340 tons. The wages were 99s.6d, which is divided between ten people. The finers, numbering six, get 10s.6d each, and the four hammermen 9 shillings each. The iron made here is cold-short. The works belong to Messrs Knight and Spooner, who also own the blast furnace that lies on the other side of Birmingham, to the west.

Nail Smithies
On the way to Bromford I saw several nail factories, where there were generally four smiths for each small hearth.

On the way I encountered a large number of rabbits that had dug their holes on a sandy heath. Here stood a watchman’s hut, indicating that they belonged to a farmer in some village in the neighbourhood.

*British Histoy Online: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol7/pp253-269
**R. R. Angerstein's Illustrated Travel Diary, 1753-1755, translated by Torsten and Peter Berg (2011): https://books.google.co.uk/books?redir_esc=y&id=YK_siPOmoVAC&q=birmingham#v=snippet&q=birmingham&f=false
***Birmingham Archive: https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/2671bbb2-fef1-4d36-87a2-2885a602a8a1

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