This page is part of a website based on the life and achievements of eighteenth-century inventor Henry Cort.  Please email site controller Eric Alexander with any comments or queries.

 

 

Later Merthyr connections

 

It was in the field of iron refining that Crawshay made his most significant contribution to the iron trade.  He was the sponsor of the “iron puddling” technique of Henry Cort, which was pioneered as a commercially viable process at his works in the late 1780s and which revolutionized the production of malleable bar iron in Britain.

  From entry for Richard Crawshay in Oxford DNB.

 

Two characters, Richard Crawshay and Samuel Homfray, stand out among those in the Merthyr Tydfil area whose life has a significant impact on Cort and on the fate of his inventions.

 

Much of Crawshay's early history has been gleaned from a speech made by his grandson William in Merthyr in 1847.

 

How he comes from Normanton in Yorkshire, leaving after a quarrel with his father at the age of sixteen.

 

How he sells his pony on arrival in London, to buy himself an apprenticeship to an ironmonger named Bicklewith.

 

How he advances in the firm, taking it over when Bicklewith retires.

 

Other fragments of the story emerge from Samuel Smiles's accounts, and from Crawshay's Letterbook.

 

These tell us of a burgeoning business in London, and of contacts with ironmasters such as the Wilkinsons in other parts of the country.

 

His first interest in iron manufacturing comes around 1774, when Brownrigg retires from the Cyfarthfa partnership.  Crawshay takes over his share in the cannon foundry, becoming partner with Anthony Bacon.

 

There is no evidence, however, of Crawshay visiting Wales until after Bacon's death.

 

The Homfrays’ involvement also begins in Cyfarthfa.

 

When in 1782 Clerke’s Act was passed prohibiting government contractors from sitting in the House of Commons, Bacon circumvented this problem by subletting the mill and forge to another operator, with the stipulation that the concern had to purchase his Cyfarthfa iron.  He turned to Francis whose wide experience in slitting iron and manufacturing nails, selling iron and iron goods, operating forges and blast furnaces, and boring cannon had gained him all the necessary skills.

  From entry for Homfray family in Oxford DNB.

 

The Homfrays are asked to take over Cyfarthfa’s foundry.  Father Francis signs the lease, but he sends his three youngest sons to run it: Jeremiah, Thomas and Samuel.

 

They do not feel themselves bound by the conditions accepted by their father, and upset Bacon by making items other than cannon.

 

Then they transgress further by entering into a partnership with one of their customers, Richard Forman of Ordnance at the Tower of London.  This new partnership leases land at Penydarren east of Cyfarthfa, where they start to build a blast furnace in flagrant violation of the terms of the agreement with Bacon.

 

He takes them to court, citing (amongst other sins) a confrontation involving fisticuffs between his agent Richard Hill and the young Samuel Homfray.

 

The Homfrays surrender the foundry's lease and concentrate their efforts at Penydarren, where Samuel duly becomes dominant.

 

Meanwhile Bacon has acquired the Hirwaun ironworks, a little way to the west, to add to his investments at Cyfarthfa and Plymouth.  When he dies in January 1786, he leaves one of the works to each of three illegitimate sons.  All far too young to take on the responsibility.

 

Eldest son Anthony gets Cyfarthfa.  William Stevens, one of Bacon's executors, becomes his effective guardian.

 

Stevens and Crawshay form a partnership with James Cockshutt (son of John), who has been running the foundry for a few years.

 

Cockshutt takes over management of the whole Cyfarthfa complex on behalf of the partnership.

 

Crawshay meanwhile has heard about Cort's process.  He realises that the other ironmasters are missing something.

 

They have dismissed the process because it gives them no better yield than the "potting and stamping" they are using.  They consider only how much wrought iron is produced from a fixed quantity of pig.

 

But Crawshay sees how much faster Cort's process is, and how it's possible to optimise its output by feeding the output of eight puddling furnaces through two shingling hammers to one rolling mill.

 

Following the agreement with Cort and Jellicoe in May 1787, Crawshay invites Cort to Cyfarthfa to oversee building of puddling furnaces there.  Some of Cort's workmen come to instruct the workers in puddling technique.

 

Initially he has no mill, but sends his shingled "blooms" to Gosport or Rotherhithe to be rolled.

 

During this period he tries to persuade other ironmasters to use the process.  Only Samuel Homfray shows any interest.

 

I will see Mr Jellicoe on Messrs Gibbons matter.  I am sure the quality of our Iron is not Inferior to Shropshire.

 From letter of Richard Crawshay to James Cockshutt, 19 June 1788.

I may probably require the assistance of the Messrs Homfrays.

 From letter of Henry Cort to James Cockshutt, 8th January 1788.

 

And there are problems.

 

Cort at Gosport tells Crawshay in London that the quality of iron from Cyfarthfa is variable.

 

They both blame Cockshutt and expect him to sort it out.

 

By mid-1789 Crawshay has lost patience.  He ends the agreement with Cort & Jellicoe.

 

Apparently he has paid little or nothing in the way of royalties.

 

But he has built a rolling mill, and goes on to install a Watt engine to drive it.

 

At this point Adam Jellicoe dies and the Navy's axe falls on Cort.

 

Poor Cort & Jellicoe are ruined & will become bankrupts,

From letter of Richard Crawshay to James Cockshutt, 18 September 1789.

 

"Perseverance" is Crawshay's motto.  He refuses to give up attempts to produce high-quality iron at Cyfarthfa.

 

In 1792 he moves there, and instigates a series of changes which help to produce the desired result.  By this time Stevens and Cockshutt have left the partnership.

 

Robert Thompson, who has been chief clerk at Cyfarthfa for some time, seems set to benefit from these developments.  But he blots his copybook by marrying Crawshay's widowed sister Elizabeth Moser.

 

Crawshay dismisses him, and he moves to the works at Dowlais, which has been plodding on while Cyfarthfa and Penydarren have seen most of the action.  Later he sets up his own works in the Forest of Dean.

 

Crawshay makes a will in September 1809.  By this time his espousal of the puddling process has brought enormous wealth.

 

He leaves Cyfarthfa to son-in-law Benjamin Hall and nephew Joseph Bailey.

 

Nothing for his son William.

 

But the following May he relents, and leaves William a share in the works.

 

Just in time.  He dies the following month, reputedly worth £1.5 million.

 

Samuel Homfray has also been successful, marrying into a rich local family (but still philandering, according to some accounts).

 

He has other iron interests including the works at Tredegar.  In 1813 he gives up his interest in Penydarren.  Later he becomes an MP.

 

Dowlais and Plymouth, the two other ironworks near Merthyr, have continued with few changes.  Dowlais is expanding, and has adopted puddling.  Plymouth has been concentrating on ore extraction and smelting.

 

In time, Dowlais and Penydarren will merge, forming the nucleus of Guest, Keen and Nettlefold.  By then steel manufacture will be surging ahead, replacing puddling, and Merthyr will become less important as an ironmaking centre.

 

 

RELATED TOPICS

Iron manufacture

Cort’s patents

Cort’s promotion efforts 1783-6

Smelting of iron

Fining before Cort

The Crowley business

London ironmongers

Shropshire and Staffordshire ironmasters

Cumbrian ironmasters: Wilkinson etc

Early works at Merthyr Tydfil

Scottish iron

Iron hoops

Puddling after Henry Cort

Life of Henry Cort

 

 

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