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Wilkinson, John

WILKINSON, JOHN (1728-1808), "the great Staffordshire iron-master," was born in 1728 at Clifton, Cumberland, where his father had risen from day labourer to be overlooker in an iron furnace. A box-iron, patented by his father, but said to have been invented by the son, helping laundresses to gratify the frilled taste of the dandies of the day, was the beginning of their fortunes. This they made at Blackbarrow, near Furness. When he was about twenty, John moved to Staffordshire, and built, at Bilston, the first furnace there, and, after many experiments, succeeded in utilizing coal instead of wood-charcoal in puddling and smelting. The father, who now had works at Bersham, near Chester, was again joined by his son, who constructed a new boring machine, of an accuracy heretofore unequalled. James Watt found that the work of this machine exactly filled his requirements for his " fire-engine " for cylinders bored with greater precision. Wilkinson, who now owned the Bersham works, resolved to start the manufacture of wrought iron at Broseley on a larger scale, and the first engine made by Boulton and Watt was for him to blow the bellows there. Heretofore bellows were worked by a water wheel or, when power failed, by horses. His neighbours in the business, who were contemplating installing Newcomen engines, waited to see how his would turn out. Great care was taken in all its parts, and Watt himself set it up early in 1776. Its success made the reputation of Boulton and Watt in the Midland counties. Wilkinson now found he had the power alike for the nicest and the most stupendous operations. The steam cylinder suggested to him the plan of producing blast now in use. He was near coal ; he surrounded himself with capable men, whom he fully trusted; he made a good article, and soon obtained large orders and prospered. In 1786 he was making 32-pounders, howitzers, swivels, mortars and shells for government. The difficulty of getting barges to cany his war material down the Severn led him, in 1787, to construct the first iron barge creating a wonderful sensation among owners and builders. Wilkinson taught the French the art of boring cannon from the solid, and cast all the tubes, cylinders and iron work required for the Paris water- works, the most formidable undertaking of the day. He also erected the first steam engine in France, in connexion with these works.

Wilkinson is said to have anticipated by many years the introduction of the hot blast for furnaces, but the leathern pipes, then used, scorched, and it was not a success. His were the first coal^cutting machines. He proposed and cast the first iron bridge. It connected Broseley and Madeley, across the Severn, and its span of 100 ft. 6 in. was considered a triumphal wonder. Wilkinson was now a man of great means and greater influence. He issued tokens of copper, bearing his likeness and on the reverse a forge and tools of the trade, silver coins for 33. 6d., and also pound notes, as other tradesmen of that day did. He never wrote a letter without using the word iron, indeed he was ironmad, and provided by will that he should be buried in an iron coffin, preferably in his garden at Castle Head, near Lindal. He died on the 14th of July 1808.

Wilkinson was twice married without issue. His very large property was frittered away during a lawsuit brought by a nephew against the illegitimate children whom he had named as his heirs. It was carried from various courts in the kingdom to the House of Lords and then to the Court of Chancery. Here Lord Eldon decided for the defendants, thus reversing all previous decisions taken upon the law of the case.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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