The production of iron took place in Bilston and the surrounding areas from very early times, there being plenty of ironstone, limestone, wood and coal in the district. The iron was also made into usable goods in the area. Lawley, in his History of Bilston, says that “Bilston was famous for its locksmiths, general smiths, chape filers, etc., as far back as the time of Henry IV, at which early period coal was used for the purpose of manufacture …”. In the 17th century Dud Dudley, in his Metallum Martis, comments that “within ten miles of Dudley Castle there be near 20,000 smiths of all sorts, and many ironworks at that time within that circle decayed for want of wood (yet formerly a mighty woodland country)”. His figures need not be taken too literally but the picture suggests that iron working was extensive by that time and had been for a long time before. But though iron was certainly made in the area, it was only in small quantities. The great amounts of iron being worked were imported from Coalbrookdale and its vicinity whence the iron industry of the Weald of Sussex had migrated.
In 1767 a poet, Richard Jago, described the Midlands iron industry and its processes in suitably ponderous verse (which appears on page vi of Gale’s book):
Nor does the barren soil conceal alone The sable rock inflammable. Oft times More ponderous ore beneath its surface lies, Compact, metallic, but with earthy parts Incrusted. These the smoky kiln consumes, And to the furnace's impetuous rage Consigns the solid ore. In the fierce heat The pure dissolves, the dross remains behind. This push'd aside, the trickling metal flows Through secret valves along the channel'd floor, Where in the mazy moulds of figur'd sand, Anon it hardens. Now the busy forge Reiterates its blows, to form the bar Large, massy, strong. Another art expands And yet divides the yielding mass To many a taper length, fit to receive The artist's will, and take its destin'd form.
The new iron making processes enabled iron making to start up in Staffordshire and, in due time, to totally eclipse the Shropshire industry. It was at Bradley where important developments took place. It was there was John Wilkinson established the Bradley Ironworks, erected the first blast furnace in 1767 and created the first forge for making wrought iron in 1784. “In thirty years” says Lawley “Bilston stood unrivalled as an iron making centre”. Wilkinson invented a method of boring iron to make very accurate and smooth cannons. This lead to his getting very large government contracts. His technology came to the attention of Boulton and Watt in 1775, who realised that it could be used to improve their steam engines by creating very durable, strong and accurately made cylinders. It was this which lead to steam engines becoming practical industrial machines and the vital power source of the industrial revolution.
The compliment was returned. Iron making was a slow, low volume activity, mainly because the blast the furnaces required was provided by bellows which were water driven and inefficient. Wilkinson realised that steam engines could be adapted to provide a greatly increased blast, not dependent on water power. Boulton and Watt created such a device. The greatly improved blast meant that coal could be used instead of charcoal, thereby replacing an increasingly scarce resource with one that seemed inexhaustible. Using this new system Wilkinson doubled his output from Bradley from 20 tons to 40 tons per week. “Not only did the steam-engine enormously enhance the strength of the blast, but the work of the furnace could be continued without intermission wherever coal and iron ore were available, instead of being dependent upon access to a water-supply, with its seasonal variations”.