John Wilkinson, born near Workington, is a Cumbrian little known to most people today. However, he was well known during the industrial revolution for his involvement in iron works and eventually garnered the title “Iron Mad John” for his experiments with using iron in unconventional ways. He even made his coffin out of iron.
He was educated in Kendal at what was called the Dissenting Academy (the family, not being Anglican, did not want him attending the local school). His father, Isaac, who worked at the Backbarrow Ironworks foundry in Backbarrow, Furness taught him the skills necessary for ironworking. Isaac opened his own ironworks at Wilson House, near Lindale-in-Cartmel, in 1748. John was 20 years old at the time.
After finishing his education John was employed in 1748 at an ironworks in the midlands. In 1753 Isaac moved the rest of his family near Wrexham to run the Bersham company. The business was not a success and caused a falling out between John and his father. Isaac became involved in a south Wales furnace but this business, also, was not successful.
In 1755 John married Ann Maudesley at Kirkby Lonsdale. She died in childbirth a year later. He was left a great deal of money from the marriage and used it to build an industrial empire, encompassing smelting iron, manufacturing lead and iron pipes, steam engines, cannons, barges, and much more. Around 1761 he and other investors took over the Bersham company. Isaac eventually moved to Bristol. In 1763 John married his second wife, Mary Lee, (1724-1806) who brought her fortune to the marriage.
John built an important ironworks at Bradley in south Staffordshire c1766-1770. He also owned ironworks at Willey in Shropshire. In 1777-78 John bought, near Lindale-in-Cartmel, the Castlehead estate and Wilson house with its farm and ironworks (once his father's property). He proceeded to build a mansion at Castlehead. About the same time he built and successfully launched an iron barge.
He built an iron bridge across the Severn river at Broseley (one mile from Coalbrookdale). It was opened in 1781. Its 98.5 feet length weighed 378 tons. The bridge was held together with joints, keys, and pegs rather than screws, nuts, and bolts. In 1789 he invented and patented a way of adding spiral grooves to cannon, allowing a cannon ball to have a greater distance and truer aim.
He also got involved in issuing copper tokens from about 1787 to 1795. They were worth a half penny and had his portrait on them. He designated himself as an iron master on them.
He and his family ended up moving back to Backbarrow. St Paul's church, Lindale, has a plaque dedicated to his wife, Mary, on its south wall. John died in 1808. He was first buried at Castlehead, but his coffin was later removed to Lindale church. Where it is buried there is a mystery.
A series of historical essays on the Wilkinson family and their enterprises and inventions can be found at www.iron.oakengates.com There are also many photographs of interest on the site.
Please note: This website it down at this time.
Photo courtesy of www.iron.oakengates.com
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