John Wilkinson was a British entrepreneur who pioneered the manufacture of cast iron and found its novel applications during the ‘Industrial Revolution’. Born in England to a part-time ironworker and inventor, John was an intelligent child with a creative mind who was exposed to iron-furnace work at a young age. After completing his early education, he became a partner with his father in iron business and moved to Staffordshire where he built Bilston’s first iron furnace. Subsequently, he erected several more blast furnaces and established iron works before inheriting his father's ironworks in Bersham and founding the New Bersham Company. Soon, Bersham led the world in the field of iron technology and John became known as ‘The great Staffordshire ironmaster’. Later, he constructed a boring machine essential to the success of James Watt’s steam engine that could bore engine cylinders and cannon barrels with unique precision. He was also influential in the design of cannon and invented a cannon-boring machine which produced safer and more accurate cannons. He was the major force behind the construction of an iron bridge, the world's first arch bridge made entirely of cast iron, and also launched the first iron barge. He was an 18th century industrialist who made his fortune by selling good quality goods made of iron and was renowned as ironmaster John "Iron-Mad" Wilkinson
Childhood & Early Life
John Wilkinson was born in 1728 in Little Clifton, Bridgefoot, Cumberland, England to Isaac Wilkinson, an ironworker and inventor, and his wife, Mary Johnson. He had a sister named Mary and a 17-years younger half-brother, William.
John grew up in a non-conformist Presbyterian family and received his early education from an academy at Kendal which was run by Dr Caleb Rotherham, an English dissenting minister and tutor.
In 1745, John apprenticeship under a Liverpool merchant for five years. Subsequently, he became a partner with his father in iron business.
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In 1755, John Wilkinson entered into a partnership with the Bersham Ironworks and two years later, he erected a blast furnace at Willey, Shropshire, with his partners. Subsequently, he was able to build another furnace at New Willey.
In 1757, he patented a hydraulic powered blowing engine for blast furnaces.
He also established iron works at several other locations including Snedshill, Hollinswood, Hadley and Hampton Loade. He also leased land to build another at Bradley works in Bilston parish.
With Bilston as the start of the Black Country, an area which became one of the most industrialized parts of Britain during the Industrial Revolution, John became known as the Father of the extensive South Staffordshire iron industry.
In 1761, he took over Bersham Ironworks. By 1763, he became operator of his own furnace and soon emerged as a leading supplier of castings and armaments.
In 1774, he patented the design of his first boring machine, specifically constructed for cannon-making. Because of its solid design which enabled precise cutting, the machine proved to be a success in boring engine cylinders to James Watt's exacting standards.
In 1775, he became the prime force behind the construction of the Iron Bridge which connected the town of Broseley with the other side of the River Severn. Opened in 1781, it was the first arch bridge in the world to be made of cast iron.
Later, he bought shares in eight Cornish copper mines and entered into partnership with Thomas Williams, the 'Copper King' of the Parys Mountain mines in Anglesey. In 1785, the duo jointly set up the Cornish Metal Company as a marketing company for copper with its warehouses in Birmingham, London, Bristol and Liverpool.
John also bought lead mines at several places and installed steam pumping engines to make them viable again. He exported most of the produced lead and used some of it at the lead pipe works he owned at Rotherhithe, London.
In 1792, he acquired the Brymbo Hall estate in Denbighshire, where more furnaces were installed. He also became a church warden in Broseley and was later appointed High Sheriff of Denbighshire in 1799.
He made pathbreaking progress in the manufacturing of cast iron and the use of cast iron goods, which helped immensely in the Industrial Revolution. He invented a precision boring machine that could bore cast iron cylinders and patented a blowing device for blast furnaces that allowed higher temperatures thereby increasing their efficiency..
Personal Life & Legacy
John Wilkinson married Ann Maudsley, daughter of a wealthy family , whose dowry helped John to secure a share in the New Willey Company. They had no children.
After Ann’s death, he tied the knot with Mary Lee whose money helped John get a hold over his company by buying out his partners. The couple had no children.
When John was in his 70s, his mistress Mary Ann Lewis gave birth to his three children; a boy and two girls.
John Wilkinson died on July 14, 1808, at his works in Bradley, Staffordshire, England. He was originally buried in a cast-iron coffin of his own design at his Castlehead estate in Lindale. Over the decades, his corpse was moved several times and is now lost.
He was a large-hearted person and wherever he established his works, he built cottages for his employees’ accommodation. He provided iron troughs to schools—that had no slates—to hold sand for the practice of writing and arithmetic, and also provided a cast iron pulpit to a church at Bilston.