Wilkinson was the first of many to take up iron making in the area. Presumably he went to Bradley because of the ready availability of iron ore, limestone and coal. But there was not much water. The use of steam engines to a large degree overcame this problem. The arrival of canals in the area greatly eased what was otherwise a considerable transport problem. The area could now be seen as ideal for the industry. In 1796 there were fourteen furnaces recorded in Staffordshire, including two at Bilston and three at Bradley. 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.
The Napoleonic Wars greatly increased the demand for iron of all sorts and the industry greatly expanded. There was a recession when the war ended but it gradually picked up again as industry generally expanded. “In 1862” Lawley says “there were more blast furnaces in Bilston parish alone than in the whole of Staffordshire in 1800”. The principal ironmasters at that time were, he says, the Bagnalls, Blackwells, Sparrows, Wards, Joneses, Thorneycrofts, Baldwins and Hickmans. Of course Bilston was also a centre for forging and founding, making a vast array of manufactured iron and steel goods. This will have to be recorded elsewhere.
Samuel Griffiths’ account of Bilston in 1873
Samuel Griffiths was a Bilston born man who after many trails and tribulations achieved some fame and respectability in later life as an authority on the iron and steel trade. In 1873 he published his “Guide to the Iron Trade of Great Britain”. In this he describes the iron processing works in and around Bilston and provides a snapshot of the producers of the time. He observes that “Bilston is surrounded on all sides by ironworks, collieries, iron foundries and coal mines.
Having mentioned Thomas Perry and Sons of Highfields, he goes on: “Messrs Thompson and Hatton’s tin-plate works are situated here. Groucott’s, Bradley Bridge; Messrs Hampton, Breiton and Cole, the Bilston Sheet Iron Company, George Hickman’s works, Mr. Alfred Hickman’s furnaces, and Mr. G. Merrimans’s Lanesfield Iron Works are all in a group, beneath the curtain of black smoke which forms the normal canopy of Bilston. Here too the iron works of W and S Sparrow are situated, one of the oldest and wealthiest concerns in the Black Country. Turleys’ and Fowler’s blast furnaces, and also the famous Capponfield furnaces, belonging to James Bagnall and Sons, emit their smoke and flame, and produce iron of their well known brands. All the above works are situated within the radius of the Bilston group”
And that, of course, is not a complete list. For example, we know, thanks to the researches of Jaap Arriens, that in 1866 Thomas and Isaac Bradley were the owners of Brook Furnaces, which seem to have been one of several furnaces by the side of Bilston Brook. In 1881 they acquired the Capponfield Furnaces from the Bagnalls who had been operating them since 1839. The second half of the 19th century was marked by periods of boom and bust, usually accompanied by strikes and lock outs in the iron trades.
Gradually, with the exhaustion of local supplies of raw materials, and the associated high costs of imported materials, many of the foundries and iron works closed, leaving Alfred Hickman in virtually unopposed possession of the field. The Bradley’s, for example, lasted longer than many others and blew out the Capponfield furnaces in 1920. By then they had moved onto other businesses, one of which became Beldray. (Read an account of Bedray's History here)