Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Bromford Forge

An Iron Forge, painted by Joseph Wright (1772)

The first mention of a water-powered iron forge on the Tame at Bromford is in 1605, which itself had been converted from a mill possibly present since the Domesday, but definitely from the thirteenth century.

Like many mills it had converted from corn grinding to fulling (pounding wool to remove oil and dirt), and from working as a fulling mill it was an easy conversion to become a forge to hammer iron instead, as in Joseph Wright’s painting of 1772 (see above). Wright was inspired by the industries of the Midlands, and although there is no reason to believe that he visited Bromford, there is also no reason to think that he didn’t.

In 1638 the mill was described as “all that forge or hammer mill and also all the houses, cottages, lands, [...] crofts & closes” which was in the possession of John Jennens of Birmingham, a wealthy ironmonger (Jennens Road, near Millenium Point, is named after him). The houses and cottages would have most likely been for the mill workers, with Bromford being, at that time, in the countryside, and about four miles from the Birmingham industries. Jennens himself had worked mills further up the River Tame in Wednesbury, but according to Victorian historian F. W. Hackwood, had relocated further downstream to Bromford and Aston due to a shortage of fuel, namely charcoal, in the Black Country. But Wednesbury was still rich in iron ore, which was taken by either cart or pack-horse from Wednesbury to Aston, Bromford and Perry Barr, over pack-horse bridges like the one that still survives in Perry Barr.

John Jennens lived at Erdington Hall, near the banks of the Tame, not far from his forge at Bromford. Jennens
had built the house in 1650, to replace the old, timber framed, Erdington Hall. The old hall had utilised the Tame
to form part of a moat around the building. 

Jennens’ forge at Bromford was only part of his ‘iron empire’, and would have been used as a forge for refining the brittle pig iron into more malleable wrought iron for making horse shoes, nails, tools and wire elsewhere. Inside there would have been at least a couple of furnaces, as well as bellows, and, of course, the water powered trip hammers; making the forge both a sweltering and noisy place to work, with raging flames, and the pounding of the heated iron (or bloom) between the hammer and the anvil. The pig iron would be heated for at least an hour in the furnace, whilst being blasted with air, to form a glowing ball. Once ready, it was removed with a hook and tongs to the trip-hammer, where it would be pounded. The pounding or hammering was a process to remove the carbon from the iron; too much carbon and the iron would be brittle, too little, and the iron would be too soft. This process could be repeated another four or five times before the iron was ready.

Gypsies camped near Bromford Forge, painted in 1807 by
Joseph Barber. There was a long heritage of gypsies camping
in the area.

From the middle of the eighteenth century two families called Knight and Spooner became involved in Bromford Forge; they were nail makers, and had built a water-powered slitting mill, called Nechells Park Mill, on the site of an old blade mill, near the confluence of the River Rea and the Tame. The slitting process literally ‘slit’ bars of iron into rods by taking them through two sets of water-powered rolls. Bromford was used to make the iron that was then transported to Nechells to ‘slit’ into rods, and then the finished nails would have been made elsewhere again.

In the early years of the nineteenth century machinery was introduced to press nails at Bromford, which marked its move from forge to rolling mill. A man called Abel Rollason rented the mill from the 1830s, and from 1849 shared the site with a firm utilising the water for the trade of wire drawing. The Rollason Wire Company were still in occupation in 1956, marking over 100 years of drawing wire on the site, though the power of water slowly made way for that of steam, and then electricity.

Map of Bromford in 1811, with a wild, meandering Tame, that has now been, literally, 'tamed'!

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