27 May 2010

Historical metallurgy in Cumbria

On 22nd and 23rd May we joined the Historical Metallurgy Society at their Spring Meeting in Cumbria. This was centred around a stay at Castle Head, the former country retreat of 'iron mad' John Wilkinson - the well-known eighteenth century ironmaster. On Saturday, we first paid homage to the great man at his memorial.

This was originally located in the grounds of the mansion itself - over the site where Wilkinson was buried in his cast iron coffin - but was removed after the estate was sold. The rocky ground on which the house was built was originally encircled by salt marshes, which Wilkinson drained as part of a series of agricultural improvements. At the top of the hill was a series of post-medieval buildings, including a crenellated mock-enclosure with a cast-iron water tank; however given its prominent and defensible location, it is reasonable to assume that earlier settlement did once exist on the site - perhaps even an Iron Age entrepot?

We then moved on to the nearby Wilson House Farm, formerly the home farm of the Castle Head estate, and where David Cranstone and I did some fieldwork a few years ago. Wilson House is notable for its surviving Wilkinson-cast columns (some dated 1784) and its role as the location of Wilkinson's experimental blast furnace (where he smelted iron, copper and lead, using coal and peat) and the second Boulton and Watt engine. Little trace of furnace or engine survives today - although the entrance to what may have been an early canal warehouse is still visible.

After some interesting discussion, we moved down to Newland Furnace, a charcoal blast furnace in operation from 1747 to 1891. The vigorous Newland Furnace Trust have been extremely active in conserving and caring for the site over the last 25 years or so, and we were shown round by their Secretary, John Helme.

The view above shows the new corrugated-iron roof over the furnace stack (largely funded by English Heritage), as well as the charging ramp, blowing house and casting house. Below we see several HMS members in the furnace stack.

As well as the furnace itself, we also visited several possible sites of a forge, as well as a rolling mill (said to be "the first in the north of England"), and the various associated water-power features. The forge is important as it contained a unique hearth arrangement, reported on in the early 19th century by the Swedish industrialist Gustav Ekman and subsequently adopted in that country as the 'Lancashire Hearth'. We also investigated the iron-roofed blacking house.

Discussion again was animated and enthusiastic, and many new ideas were brought forward on both sides. Here David Cranstone is discussing hot blast stoves with John Helme.

Due entirely to the enthusiasm of HMS members and our hosts, our stay at Newland was longer than anticipated, and the hot weather was already taking its toll.

So, after a quick lunch, we moved on to look at bloomeries. Our first stop was the iconic site of Stony Hazel - built in 1718 and abandoned within a few years. This was excavated by Mike Davies-Shiel in the 1980s, and interpreted by him as a finery forge; however recent work by David Cranstone and others has re-evaluated this as a bloomery forge, using a variation of the Catalan process.

Time was moving more quickly than the heat-exhausted metallurgy group, and so we only had time to visit two more sites - a so-called 'Mega-Bloomery', and the more comprehensively-investigated site at Cunsey Forge. This is another 'type-site' which has been subject to much recent debate: a 'bloomsmithy' of the 17th century was subsequently developed in the early 18th century. There is the suggestion that there may have been a blast furnace as well, although perhaps not on the same site. The forge went out of use in the later 18th century. Impromptu sampling techniques were devised...

After this we returned to Castle Head for dinner, and lectures by Warren Allison and Sam Murphy on the lead mining, lead smelting and silver extraction industries of the northern Lakes - from Roman to post-medieval periods. This set us up nicely for the field trips on Sunday. Our first stop was up at Caldbeck, where lead mining and smelting activities have left their mark upon the landscape. Most obviously this was in the form of the lead smelting site itself...

...which has been radiocarbon dated to around the 11th century. However, as various HMS members made their way around the landscape, it was clear that this smelting site was associated with buildings, a water-power system and slag/spoil heaps, suggesting a long-lived and intensive occupation over many centuries. Just over the hill, and not visited (sadlty) were the extensive 'German' mines of the sixteenth century, which have been painstakingly investigated by Warren and his team (an arduous undertaking involving the removal of tonnes of spoil). From here we moved a short distance to another smelting site. Here we found litharge cakes suggesting silver extraction, as well as the remains of the later water-powered carding mill. There was so much discussion and analysis here...

...that the promised pub lunch was cancelled, and we had to eat our sandwiches on the bus down to the last site visit of the trip - the Greenside Lead Mine. First mined in the 17th century, the present remains date from 1825, and by the 1850s Greenside was the largest lead mine in  Lake District with over 300 employees. The mine was run down by the 1920s, but major investments were made during the second world war, when it was the only source of lead for the country. The mine closed in 1962, and was largely demolished; the spoilheaps have subsequently been landscaped and the archaeology somewhat compromised as a result. Alas we were not able to visit the underground workings; however there was still plenty of interest above ground.


This view is looking down the valley, with the remains of ore-processing buildings in the foregroud, and the stabilised spoil heap along the base of the hill to the left. We returned to Castle Head via a very picturesque route, and were back home in time for a curry and glass of wine!

1 comment:

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