“From History, Gazetteer and Directory of Staffordshire, William White, Sheffield, 1851 it says: Mr Elwell, of Wednesbury Forge Works, employs about 300 hands, and machinery, propelled by water and steam power, in the manufacture of spades, shovels, hoes, axes, and other edge tools, for the home and foreign markets”.
The forge was developed by William Whorwood in the 16th century, possibly on the site of a medieval mill.
Its first appearance in the history books came in 1597 as the result of a pitched battle between Whorwood’s workmen and those of a rival forge owner, Thomas Parkes.
By the early 18th century the forge was used for saw-making, and later for grinding gun barrels.
It was used to manufacture edge tools in the early 19th century under the ownership of Edward Elwell, a process continued by Spear and Jackson until it too closed down.
“The excavation has revealed the remains of the water-power system and furnaces”.
The history as we know it
Wednesbury Forge was leased by Edward Elwell in 1817 and purchased by him in 1831. His father, William Elwell, an ironfounder at Walsall became Mayor of the town in 1778 and 1787.
Edward trained as a surgeon and served with the Royal Artillery from 1807 to 1811.
After returning to Walsall and practicing there for a while he set himself up as a maker of edge tools at Sparrow’s Forge in Wednesbury.
In 1831 Wednesbury Forge consisted of a forge or iron mill, a grinding mill which had previously been a windmill, 2 mill pools covering 25 acres, with a watercourse, a house and 13 cottages, which were previously workshops.
The machinery at the forge was driven by steam and water power, and the water rights provided a worthwhile income from the canal company and other local firms.
By 1851 management of the business had passed into the hands of Edward’s son, Edward junior.
Unfortunately Edward junior died prematurely and so his father, now elderly, resumed control of the business until his death in 1869.
Edward Elwell never recovered from the death of his son and became a sad and morose man.
He helped to establish St. James’ Church and a school for the children of his workmen.
After his death Alfred Elwell, a grandson, took over the running of the business, and on his death in 1902 it became a private limited company.
Around 1930 Edward Elwell Limited and the Chillington Tool Company of Wolverhampton combined and formed a holding company; Edge Tool Industries Limited.
But back a bit to the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) and the company sold large quantities of edge tools to America, greatly benefiting from the war, and also exported its products to many countries.
The company’s catalogue listed over 1,200 types and sizes of heavier hand tools, such as axes, forks, hoes, pick axes, shovels, and spades.
By 1889 there were around 200 employees.
And then the excavations began in 2004 …. and it was big news!
Spectacular discoveries at an archaeological dig in Wednesbury are set to cast new light on the nation’s industrial history
Archaeologists from Shropshire’s eminent Ironbridge Archaeology team have been busily excavating an iron-making forge just half a mile from Ikea at junction 9 of the M6 which was first fired up in the reign of Elizabeth I.
The forge was operated for more than 400 years, finally ceasing operations in the 21st century.
The team say that the site provides invaluable evidence of early forging techniques and a fascinating record of industrial production preparing the way for the steam driven industrial revolution.
Among the discoveries are gun flints, pottery shards, tools and grinding wheels.
The dig is being undertaken at Opus 9, the Black Country’s largest industrial development scheme, at junction 9 of the M6.
The £45 million, 33-acre site is being developed by West Midlands-based Opus Land and funded by Arlington Securities and includes the former Spear and Jackson factory site off St Pauls Road, where the findings have been made.
The excavation in Wednesbury has revealed a labyrinth of underground channels where thousands of gallons of water would have flowed, turning the wheels of early industry to power the processes of the iron forge for 4 centuries
Paul Belford, Director of Ironbridge Archaeology, said: “This is a tremendously exciting project as we have found evidence for all of the different processes taking place on the site.
“The scale of operations here at such an early date is very impressive.
Our excavations have recovered artefacts going back to the 16th century, and have explored workers’ and managers’ housing as well as the industrial processes themselves.”
Sandwell Council’s archaeologist Dr Graham Eyre-Morgan said: “This is a site of national importance for our understanding of early forging and the glimpses it provides into Wednesbury’s industrial make-up and prosperity over four centuries.
“The size, capacity and complexity of the site has amazed everyone.
Taking the local pottery industry and coal mining operations into account, it suggests a large and affluent local community and a centre for life in the West Midlands.”
“Analysis and research into the results and artefacts will continue for several months before being published“.
Through a huge brick covered culvert, the water gushed out of the forge where it flowed into the River Tame between Wednesbury and Walsall.
On the opposite side of the site water flowed into the forge from two large ponds.
Councillor Bob Badham, Cabinet member for Regeneration & Transport, said: “This is a superb site which shows how important Wednesbury was in our industrial history.
It’s important that an excavation like this has taken place as part of the planning process so that the industrial history of the site can be recorded and look at by future generations.
It is heartening that a historic site like this is to going to get a new lease of life with a state-of-the-art £45m development.”
One of the most significant projects in the Black Country in recent years, Opus 9 is set to regenerate a strategically located brownfield site as part of the wider renaissance of the Black Country by providing an important boost to the local economy.
There has been a forge in Wednesbury since the days of Elizabeth I. By the 17th century a large industrial complex had developed, fed by water power from the River Tame.
In the eighteenth century this substantial site produced guns, a process which for a time appears to have involved a windmill to provide additional power.
Later, during the nineteenth century, the Elwell family specialised in making pipes and tubes.
They built housing, a church and recreational facilities for the workers.
This included a football field which may have been West Bromwich Albion’s original ground.
The Elwells developed the tool making side of the business, which in the 20th century was taken over by Spear and Jackson.
Archaeological fieldwork on this site revealed parts of the eighteenth century and later forge and water power system. It was clear that the forge was much larger at an earlier stage than first thought. Late medieval pottery suggested that men forged iron on this site a long time before the first documentary record.
Excavations uncovered substantial remains of the water power system, including fully intact sluice gates and grilles, wheelpits (still containing the early 20th century turbines) and culverts.
We have also found a large number of grinding wheel pits, forging areas and associated flues and furnaces.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery has been the remains of the only windmill ever built for metallurgical use.
An open day attracted over 700 visitors to the site.
And back to 2013 ….. what do we know?
Go here to download the full results in PDF form or read on line:
SUMMARY: Archaeological excavations undertaken between 2004 and 2008 at Wednesbury Forge, Wednesbury, West Midlands encountered extensive remains of timber and masonry structures and other features.
Historical and archaeological evidence revealed a sophisticated iron working complex in existence by c. 1600, which was subsequently continually adapted and redeveloped until the site closed in 2005.
Processes included ﬁnery and chafery forges, nail-making,saw-making, gun-making and edge-tool manufacture.
Later developments included a wind-powered grinding mill, internal railway networks, water turbines, rolling mills, housing and worker’s recreational facilities.
Archaeological investigations comprised documentary research, excavation,building recording, oral history and process recording.