What do you need to make iron?

To make an amount of good quality iron needed a number of important raw materials from the surrounding countryside and some other important things. Some of the materials are obvious but some of the other things needed are not so easy to spot or understand.

1. Raw Materials

a. Iron Ore. This is rock that is very rich in particles of iron. Iron ore usually occurs in seams of rock, sometimes near coal deposits.

b. Charcoal. This is wood that has been partially burnt so that it becomes a hard, brittle black material. Charcoal can be burned to give a much higher temperature than ordinary wood and high temperatures are a key to the success in making good iron. Charcoal was made throughout Wales and the Midlands and was used in a number of industries.

c. Limestone. This was used with the charcoal and iron ore. It would help to remove the impurities in the iron ore and leave a purer form of iron behind.

d. Woodland. This was needed to produce the charcoal.

Above: Charcoal being gathered for packing into sacks. The production of charcoal could be very destructive for woodland, although it usually grew back within a few years. Making charcoal was an important part of agriculture in the 1700s, as many industries wanted the material in increasing quantities.

e. Water. Water was needed to turn waterwheels. Places where there were fast flowing streams were best.

2. In addition to raw materials there were some other things that were important.

a. Money. Someone was needed to build an ironworks and start a business. A good example is Richard Crawshay (pictured below), who originally came from Normanton in Yorkshire. Crawshay hade made his money as a London iron merchant and he had a broad understanding of the needs of the business and how to make money. He took over the already successful Cyfarthfa works in 1783 and used his money, contacts and commercial experience to dominate Merthyr's iron industry.

b. Labour. An ironworks needed a lot of people to make it work. Men, women and children would work in an ironworks. In  the 1700s many people preferred industrial work to working on farms because the wages were frequently better. Also, people would often work in an ironworks when there was no work on nearby farms.

Sometimes very highly skilled labour was needed. Making good iron took a lot of knowledge and experience. The knowledge was not written down in books (and anyway, most people could not read). Fathers would frequently pass their knowledge to their sons and the skills of these new kinds of craftsmen became important. Other skills were also important, carpenters and joiners were needed to make moulds for the cast iron and blacksmiths were needed to make things out of wrought iron. 

c. A market. The owner of an ironworks needed somewhere to sell the iron products they had made. If transport was very poor (and remember in the 1700s roads were bad and iron things were very heavy), the market had to be close by or easy to reach.

d. Landscape. Iron making was best done in hilly areas with steep sided river valleys, lots of woodland, and fast flowing streams. This is because of the way in which blast furnaces were built. ‘How is iron made?’ will explain why.


SHW's Book of the Month:

Salt by Mark Kurlansky

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This is not a local history book and Mark Kurlansky is a journalist not a local historian. Nevertheless he has produced a fascinating history of one of the world's basic commodities. I first came across Kurlansky with his book about the history of Cod. I think anyone who wants to know about the history of the Bristol Channel has to be familiar with the fish and how it encouraged Bristol fishermen to discover the Grand Banks. Salt is another offbeat yet fundamental bit of our history. We've had a popular web page on salt for ages and Swansea had a Salthouse Point at the mouth of the River Tawe for centuries. Kurlansky takes you on a journey across space and time to discover the importance of salt for mankind. From Jericho to Gandhi, salt has had an important part to play. This is a lovely book that enhances the quality of history for it adds depth and value to something we use every day. (Nigel Robins)

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