CUMBRIANS: JOHN WILKINSON etc
Only a limited amount of ironworking is done in Cumbria, but its influence is important because of the ironmasters involved.
Remarkable how often they seem to be related. Charles Wood's wife Jemima is William Brownrigg's sister. Brownrigg's wife Mary is Anthony Bacon's cousin.
Unrelated to other Cumbrian ironmasters, as far as we know, is Isaac Wilkinson.
He evidently comes from Washington, County Durham. An Isaac Wilkinson baptised at Lorton, Cumberland, in 1704 is a red herring.
His career begins at Little Clifton furnace near Workington, and moves ever southwards: first to Backbarrow in Furness, where he duly sets up his own works; later to Bersham, near Wrexham.
In the meantime he sires five children, at least three of whom deserve our attention: "iron mad" John, the eldest; John's brother (or half-brother, according to one account) William, who also becomes an ironmaster; and Mary their sister, mostly remarkable for marrying the noted scientist and philosopher Joseph Priestley.
Though most of John Wilkinson's wealth can be ascribed to his ingenuity and enterprise, some of its origins can surely be traced to two astute marriages.
By the age of 32 he is already a partner with his father at Bersham, member of another partnership at Broseley (across the Severn from Coalbrookdale) and sole proprietor of a blast furnace at Bradley near Wolverhampton.
The Bradley furnace may have broken new ground, as there is no sign of a stream near Bradley strong enough to drive bellows. Likely explanation is that the blast is produced using a Newcomen steam engine.
“Iron Mad Wilkinson” they called him, and it was not an unlikely title for John, who like so many other youngsters of his time was early inured to the arts of the forge and the smelting of iron.
From monograph by Ron Davies
John's second wife, née Mary Lee, is sister-in-law of one of the Broseley partners, Edward Blakeway, an enterprising draper from Shrewsbury.
According to the ODNB, she takes over Blakeway's holdings when he is bankrupted in 1759.
Meanwhile Isaac Wilkinson is involved in a new venture at Dowlais near Merthyr Tydfil, which later brings him back into contact with fellow Cumbrians William Brownrigg and Anthony Bacon.
It is to Isaac's son John that Bacon turns in anticipation of the American war, requesting a way to make cannon fire more accurately.
John obliges with a method whereby the cannon barrels are cast solid, then bored by rotation while advancing over a static blade.
The device is patented, and Bacon starts making cannon at his Cyfarthfa works near Merthyr Tydfil.
Soon hostilities break out across the Atlantic. The Government needs cannon urgently, and wants to use all the suppliers it can. When a contractor named Jones foresees problems in agreeing terms with Wilkinson, it cancels his patent.
This is less of a worry than it may seem, because Matthew Boulton can see another use for the process.
The cylinders of Watt's steam engine need an accurately machined bore, and Wilkinson's process is just right to provide it.
From this point his fortunes are closely linked to those of Boulton and Watt. But he jeopardises his chances by secretly selling cylinders in competition with them.
They eventually find out after he falls out with his brother William, who spills the beans.
John Wilkinson's business has prospered nevertheless, but his legacy is undermined by a liaison that produces a crop of illegitimate children.
Like Anthony Bacon, he leaves his property to these bastards, but his executors are less cooperative than Bacon's when his will is challenged by a nephew.
A long legal battle ensues, which consumes all the Wilkinson fortune and leads both his heirs and their challengers into bankruptcy.
Among numerous websites with information about John Wilkinson, I have found a comprehensive one at www.iron.oakengates.com
There is also the Broseley History Society site.