What was iron used for?

Although there is long history of iron being used for all sorts of things in the Middle Ages, the use of iron expanded dramatically after 1750. The long established military uses of guns, swords, and cannon were joined by increasing numbers of commercial and domestic products. The growing factories and mines of the Industrial Revolution needed all kinds of iron for building, working, cooking, and everyday use.

Above: A cast iron wheel from an early nineteenth century coal truck. Basic small cast iron products like this were needed in massive quantities to feed the new coal mines appearing all over England and Wales.

Craftsmen quickly realised that cast or 'pig' iron had useful properties that were very different to wrought iron. Although cast iron was brittle it could be cast into very strong shapes for building or engineering. Locally, a number of works were built to produce cast iron in hundreds of different shapes from whjeels for coal trams to bollards for local ports. In times of war, cast iron cannon were produced in many Welsh ironworks.

Iron was essential for most activities by the mid 1700s. It played a similar role to plastic in the present time. Cooking pots, nails, buckles, chains, knives, forks, garden spades, and hundreds of other small things.

At the other end of the spectrum, iron was increasingly being used in ships, building, bridges, weapons, and the 'new' technologies of steam engines and iron ships. As confidence grew in using iron more and more ideas came forward for its use. Early buildings used small amounts of iron, often in place of wooden beams and supports. By the early 1800s, larger cast iron beams were being used to build much bigger buildings than had been possible using wood.

Greater experience of working iron enabled teams of men to work to produce quite massive things such as ships' anchors and components for steam engines. Large iron foundries were established that grouped men together in massive teams that worked very closely together in very dangerous conditions to produce what were to become marvels of the time.

Above: An early cast iron mooring bollard from Swansea's New Cut(River Tawe). The SHT stands for 'Swansea Harbour Trust'. The bollards were cast at the Yniscedwyn Iron Works. The design was based on an upturned cannon with a cannon ball stuck in the muzzle. This was a traditional design, ideal for mooring sailing vessels.

Below: A team of ironfounders work on a large Admiralty pattern ship anchor. Theyare using a crane to carefully move the massive anchor between the furnace and steam hammer. Bottom: A surviving Admiralty Pattern anchor in central Swansea.



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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