For centuries the Forest of Dean was one of the main iron making areas in Britain. Before 1750 the iron industry was fuelled with charcoal but a change to coke was underway. Locally, none of the ironmasters converted their works, and it was left to others to introduce the new technology. The coke-fuelled blast furnace was built at Whitecliff between 1798 and 1801 by a local coal owner, James Teague together with ironmasters from Shropshire. Some of the iron made at Whitecliff was destined for the tin plate works lower down the valley at Redbrook.  Records of iron making at Whitecliff in 1808 indicate a weekly output of about 20 tons of pig iron.  The quantity of raw materials consumed was  uneconomic.

By 1808 Thomas Halford, a stockbroker from London, owned a major share in the Whitecliff Ironworks. Unhappy with the furnace’s output and the lack of return on his investment, Halford sought advice from David Mushet, the leading metallurgist of the day. In 1810 Mushet became a partner and his family moved to Coleford from Derbyshire in 1811. By then, Mushet had rebuilt the works and begun a series of smelting trials. Success was elusive. After six months of experiment Mushet could see no way of making a profit and resold his shares to Halford. In 1816, Thomas Halford was declared bankrupt and the works were abandoned. Whitecliff’s short commercial life was probably due to the poor coking quality of the local coal, and the rich, but alkaline, iron ore of the area and frequent falls in the market price of iron.

David Mushet

Born near Edinburgh into an iron-making family, David Mushet (1772 – 1845) worked as an accountant at the Clyde Iron Works where his attention was drawn to, ‘the remarkable conversions which iron underwent in the process of manufacture’.  He began experimenting and analysing and ‘became in a few years one of the first authorities at home and abroad upon all points connected with the manufacture of iron and steel.’ His discovery of Black Band Ironstone in 1801 helped Scotland to  become an important iron making nation. In 1806 he moved to the Alfreton Ironworks in Derbyshire, before moving to Whitecliff in 1810.

When Whitecliff failed, Mushet chose to stay in Coleford. He owned and developed coal and iron-ore mines in the Forest and had shares in the mineral tramroads. He also set up a new ironworks at Darkhill and a laboratory in Coleford where he studied both iron and steel.

In 1840, his life-long experimental work was published in his Papers on Iron and Steel. His knowledge and love of metallurgy was carried on by his youngest son, Robert Forester Mushet who, in later years, solved the early failure of the Bessemer process and went on to invent the world’s first, high speed, special steels which revolutionised the use of machine tools.

See: Darkhill


Sources of more information

Mushet, David. 1840. Papers on Iron and Steel, practical and experimental. John Weale, London.

Standing I J. 1980, 1981 and 1986. The history of the Whitecliff Ironworks. Jnl. Glos Society for Industrial Archaeology for those years. Available on line: www.gsia.org.uk/reprints

Standing I J. 2017. The rescue and conservation of the Whitecliff Ironworks. New Regard No 32, in press.

Osborn, F M. 1952. The story of the Mushets. Thomas Nelson, London.

Anstis R, 1997. Man of iron – man of steel; the lives of David and Robert Mushet. Privately published,  Coleford.

Lewis, C. 2016.  David Mushet and his contribution to the ‘map that changed the world’. New Regard, Jnl of the Forest  of Dean Local History Society, No. 30.


Scheduled Monument No 1021420

Location NGR: SO 56870 10149

Address 1 Whitecliff, Coleford GL16 8NB, UK

Reg. Charity No. 114775. A company limited by guarantee No. 6859885.

Registered Office: Security Office, Whitecliff Quarry, Coleford, GL16 8NB

Mushet, David. 1840. Papers on Iron and Steel, practical and experimental. John Weale, London.

Osborn, F M. 1952. The story of the Mushets. Thomas Nelson, London.