Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Saw & Gun Barrel Making at Wednesbury Forge

Fig. 1. Wednesbury Forge in 1753, showing the windmill known locally
as "Willetts' Folly".

From the early 1700s Wednesbury Forge passed into the occupancy of the Willetts family, namely a John Willetts, who ran it as a rolling mill (at this time rolling was often called plateing or plating). The mill remained in the hands of the Willetts for over 100 years, for four generations of the family, and the family expanded the mill-site extensively, at first making saws, and then expanding into gun barrel making which became their staple trade by the 1750s.

In 1753 the mill was sketched by a Swedish visitor called Reinhold Angerstein, who also described the site. He noted that Willetts ran a rolling mill powered by two water wheels; one of the wheels, which stood in the centre of the mill, drove two rollers on one side, the other, with the use of a gear system, drove the slitting machinery on the other side of the mill. Metal would be rolled on one side, either to be taken over to be slitted, or would be rolled out as 'flats' for other uses. Leading up to this time the ‘flats’ (flat rolled metal) would have been used on-site for making saws; one man would hold the rolled metal under the blade punch (fig 2) while another would hit the top of the punch with a sledgehammer to make the teeth (fig 3).
Fig. 2. Blade punch for saw making, drawn
at Wednesbury Forge in 1753.

Fig. 3. Saw blade.

Angerstein also described that "under the same roof as the rolling mills were two hearths for gun forging", which utilised the rolling mills to hasten the process of getting the metal for the gun barrels the correct thickness. In other barrel forges the iron would have been forged by hand to the right size and thickness. The barrels were then welded by hand and then heated to a ‘cherry-red’ and “planed with a long plane-iron”, fashioned like a small saw (as in fig. 4). The next part of the process of making the gun barrel was to send it to a water-powered boring mill to be bored on benches, which would have been on-site, and powered by the River Tame. Lastly, the barrel would be polished on a bench (fig. 5) to a high polish.
Fig. 4. Planing a gun barrel with a plane iron.

Fig. 5. A polishing bench for gun barrels. 

All this needed a lot of water power, which sometimes ran short in dryer times, so the second Mr. Willetts had attempted to support this by wind power, building a brick windmill on the site (fig 1). It was a consummate failure as Willetts was unable to work out how to take down the sails without stopping all the mill machinery, and it didn’t help that he’d built it over the mill pool, making it difficult to do so even under the best circumstances. The windmill became locally known as “Mr. Willetts’ Folly”. The windmill was later converted into a new grinding and boring mill for the barrels, where three new grinding pits were built, cooled and lubricated by Tame water. Paul Belford states that it was “probably the only wind-powered grinding and boring mill in the history of ferrous metalworking”, but this was probably because it was not one of those ingenious ideas that marked so much of the industrial period. Water power definitely won the day!

The grinding itself, whether water or wind powered, involved using grindstones to wear the metal to size and shape. This work produced a fine dust, which the grinders often inhaled, and was very hazardous to health. Grindstones could also explode, and the death of a grinder due to a stone breaking was recorded at Wednesbury Forge in 1767. The making of gun barrels continued past the death of the fourth and last Mr. Willetts in 1794, when Wednesbury Forge was taken on by his widow, who partnered with Hyla Holden, a local gun barrel maker, and related by marriage to the Willetts family (he had married a Mary Willetts in 1788). The mill was run by the two families until both Mrs. Willetts and Hyla Holden died in 1816; in 1817 Edward Elwell bought the site for making edge tools.

Fig. 6. The second Mr. Willetts built a fine house on the
site for himself and his family, which stood well into the
nineteenth century on the edge of the south pool (later
becoming known as Mrs. Willetts pool, as it was extended
under her watch). Image taken from Elwell's catalogue from
about 1868. 

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