30 March 2011

Stirchley Furnaces

This very interesting project has developed over the last couple of months from a short bit of building recording to a multifaceted conservation project with community archaeology. Happily our client (Telford and Wrekin Council) - and their funder (the Heritage Lottery Fund) - have helped us develop a flexible approach to dealing with these remains.

Barely half a mile from the Hinkshay rows that were the scene of last year's community archaeology project, the Stirchley furnaces have lain largely forgotten, somewhat overshadowed by the impressive chimney. Initially we were required to record the upstanding remains of the furnace structure, exposed by the removal of vegetation.

However it became clear during the course of this work that there were in fact two furnaces, and that the visible part of the structure was only the tip of the iceberg. So we excavated around the furnaces to enable us to record the full extent.

This pair of furnaces was built by William and Thomas Botfield in the 1820s, and remained in use until May 1859. The Botfield brothers has extensive iron and coal mining interests in Stirchley and Dawley, with other furnaces at Old Park and Hinkshay (they also built the Hinkshay rows). Documentary evidence suggests that there were in fact four furnaces on the Stirchley site, although this is not certain. With the collapse of the Botfield concern in the early 1860s the site was sold to the Wellington Coal and Iron Company, who rebuilt large parts of it (including the iconic chimney). The furnaces appear to have been in use briefly in the 1880s, but after that the ironworks closed.

The site was later used by the Wrekin Chemical Company, who appear to have further modified the furnaces.

The 1820s saw the transition from the classic 'masonry stack' type of blast furnace (such as the 1750s Bedlam Furnaces) to the later type with a masonry base and iron superstructure (such as the Blists Hill furnaces of the 1830s and 1840s). Survival of furnaces from this transitional period is quite rare - indeed the Stirchley ones are probably the only ones that have been excavated or examined archaeologically.

Further work will continue on the site next week, as volunteers from the Wrekin Historical Group will join us in completing the record of the southern furnace, as well as making a wider 'landscape survey' of the site as a whole. Numerous other buildings and structures appear to be lurking in the undergrowth, and given the extent to which the ground level was raised in the 1970s it is quite likely that they will be well-preserved. We may even find two more furnaces!

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