An early coke-fired blast furnace (1798 – 1816)
Whitecliff, a Scheduled Monument, is a rare survival of an early coke-fired furnace. In 1978, a small trust was formed locally to purchase the furnace to prevent its loss. Acting as a sub-committee of the Historical Metallurgy Society, five stages of emergency repairs were made. In 1984 the rest of the site was purchased by Dean Heritage Museum Trust.
Major archaeological work was undertaken but no further conservation repairs took place until 2010-11. New impetus came from the Heritage Lottery funded Landscape Partnership: Project Overlooking the Wye which completed a massive conservation repair of the furnace and stabilised its lining.
In 2012 the entire site was gifted to the newly formed Forest of Dean Buildings Preservation Trust. Since then the Trust has initiated a structural engineering survey of the site and undertaken a major conservation repair to the third charging bridge.
The Trust is very grateful to the Wye Valley AONB, English Heritage and the Forest of Dean Local Action Programme for funding that work.
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. A coke-fuelled blast furnace was built at Whitecliff between 1798 and 1801 by a local coal owner, James Teague, in association with ironmasters from Shropshire.
Some of the iron made at Whitecliff was destined for the tin plate works lower down the valley at Redbrook, from where river trows on the Wye carried goods for the burgeoning markets of the British Empire. Records of iron making at Whitecliff in 1808 suggest that about 80 tons of iron-ore and 120 tons of coking coal were carted to the furnace for a weekly output of about 20 tons of pig iron. The quantity of raw materials consumed was probably 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 from Derbyshire to Coleford 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.
Born near Edinburgh into an iron-making family, David Mushet (1772 – 1845) worked as an accountant at the Clyde Iron Works where, ‘the remarkable conversions which iron underwent in the process of manufacture began to occupy his attention’. He started to experiment with metals 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 become an important iron making nation. In 1806 he moved to the Alfreton Ironworks in Derbyshire, before coming to Whitecliff in 1810.
When Whitecliff failed, Mushet chose to stay in Coleford. He had been buying and developing coal and iron-ore mines in the Forest and acquiring 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. In later years, Robert 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.
The Trust is now repairing the ancient culvert which carries a major brook across the site. This work will also include landscaping the road frontage to improve the setting of the Monument. The generous funding for this from the Gloucestershire Environmental Trust is warmly appreciated. The site is now about 80% conserved and it attracts a steady stream of visitors.
Outstanding tasks include conserving the ruins of the engine house, a high retaining wall and upgrading the Furnace Cottage.
© 2014 Forest of Dean Buildings Preservation Trust
Reg. Charity No. 1147757; A company limited by guarantee No. 6859885