A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 11, Telford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1985.
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By the mid 16th century what woodland remained in Wombridge and Priorslee was probably coppiced; (fn. 1) in 1556 there were said to be 38 a. of wood in Wombridge, worth 10s. an acre. (fn. 2) Among the coppices in the later 17th and 18th century were Queenswood and Wallamoor wood in Wombridge, managed by a keeper, and Snedshill coppice (82 a.) in Priorslee. (fn. 3) By 1847 only 6 a. of wood remained in Wombridge and none in Priorslee. (fn. 4)
Atcham furlong, presumably once open-field land, lay 500 metres south-east of Wombridge church in 1847. (fn. 5) Four or five ploughteams belonged to William Charlton's Wombridge tenants in the years 1693-8; most of the parish's other inhabitants were cottagers and colliers. (fn. 6) Little is known of the cottage economy of Wombridge and Oakengates but it probably differed little from that of Wrockwardine Wood. (fn. 7) By the late 18th century the eastern edge of Snedshill coppice marked the eastern boundary of the main industrial area, and it remained so throughout the 19th century. That part of Priorslee east of Snedshill coppice remained as farmland and was little affected by mining or industry until a few deep pits were sunk around Priorslee village and near Lower Woodhouse Farm in the 19th century. (fn. 8)
Considerable changes in land ownership and management occurred in the early 20th century. In 1901 Sir Thomas Meyrick's Wombridge estate was sold. Rent levels had become unrealistically low: a cottage rented from the estate for £2 was sublet for £6 10s., and five cottages with a gross annual rent of £4 10s. were sold in 1901 for £360. Many tenants purchased their own properties. (fn. 9) In 1922, because of increasing unprofitability, the Lilleshall Co. leased out its Woodhouse and Priorslee farms, which until then had supplied the company's managers with milk and potatoes on advantageous terms. (fn. 10) By 1936 motor transport had become so common that there was reputedly no demand in Oakengates for accommodation grazing for tradesmen's horses. (fn. 11)
There was an iron mill at Wombridge at the Dissolution, probably near the priory on the stream draining north-westwards through the parish. That was probably the site of later mills known in the parish. (fn. 12) In 1672 Richard Adney rented the upper and lower mills in Wombridge, almost certainly to grind corn; probably at least one of the mills was converted from the earlier iron mill. (fn. 13) By 1709 there were three mills or wheels at Wombridge, and they remained in use until at least 1760. (fn. 14) A mill lay immediately east of Wombridge church in 1847; it apparently closed between 1882 and 1902, when the mill pond was filled in. (fn. 15)
Coal and ironstone.
In 1535-6 there were two mines on the Wombridge priory demesne, worth £5 a year. (fn. 16) It is likely that both coal and ironstone, found in alternate bands, were raised. James Leveson acquired the mines with the priory demesnes (fn. 17) and reserved them when he sold the lands to William Charlton in 1547. (fn. 18) By 1578 Andrew Charlton of Apley owned a mine in Oakengates or Wombridge. (fn. 19) Both Leland and Camden mentioned the mines, by then firmly associated with Oakengates. (fn. 20) By the third quarter of the 17th century mining was established at Coalpit (later Ketley) Bank and probably at Snedshill. (fn. 21)
By the early 1720s the Charltons' Wombridge mines were let to Robert Brooks and John Lummas for £250 a year. By 1728, however, they owed the Charltons £950 and then gave up the mines, which were leased to Richard Hartshorne for £200 a year. (fn. 22) Hartshorne, who had leased the Ketley Bank mines from Lord Gower since 1715, (fn. 23) improved and expanded the local mining industry: c. 1730 an atmospheric pumping engine was installed at Wombridge, and by the time of his death in 1733 he was mining in the Greenfields and New Sough areas of the Charltons' Wombridge estate, and probably at Hollinswood and Snedshill in Priorslee, the property of the earls of Stafford. (fn. 24)
After 1733 Hartshorne's widow Jane (d. 1737) apparently continued to work the Ketley Bank and Priorslee mines (fn. 25) while the Wombridge ones were brought directly under the control of the Charlton estate, administered by Thomas Dorsett. In 1747 the Charlton estate promoted exploratory borings around Greenfields and in the previously unexploited Horsepasture area northeast of Oakengates. In six months of 1748 coal amounting to 2,375 stacks was raised from Wombridge, 74 per cent coming from the new Horsepasture area. The success of the local ironworks led other estates to take an increased interest in their mineral resources, and in 1755 the 4th earl of Stafford's agent Francis Paddy suggested that the granting of long leases of the Priorslee mines would encourage the tenants to build pumping engines. (fn. 26)
On his succession in 1754 the 2nd Earl Gower (cr. marquess of Stafford 1786, d. 1803) expanded his family's existing holdings by long leases from the earl of Shrewsbury and St. John Charlton, and became the main mine owner in the district. (fn. 27) That interest became the Lilleshall Co. in 1802. (fn. 28) One of the initial Lilleshall partners was John Bishton the elder (d. 1803), who in 1793 with Benjamin Rowley leased mines in Priorslee from the Beaufoy family. Bishton formed a partnership with other lessees soon after, and in 1793-4 they apparently acquired the Snedshill mines from John Wilkinson (d. 1808), who had held them since at least 1778. Those interests did not come into the Lilleshall Co. when Bishton became a partner in 1802, and were only brought into the company in 1807 when Bishton's sons and executors negotiated a new partnership with Lord Granville Leveson-Gower. (fn. 29) In the 1780s Richard Reynolds's Ketley Co. began to mine under Wombridge, gaining access from a shaft in Wrockwardine Wood. The enterprise had been made possible through the draining of the area by an underground level at Wrockwardine Wood. (fn. 30)
Although Richard Hartshorne had installed a Coalbrookdale pumping engine at Wombridge c. 1730, it was only in the late 18th and early 19th century, after major technological improvements, that steam engines came to be widely used in the coalfield. (fn. 31) One of John Wilkinson's Boulton & Watt engines was installed at his Snedshill mines in 1778; Richard Banks, who operated pits in Wombridge in 1796 in association with a group of entrepreneurs known as the Wombridge Co., owned the 'Wombridge water engine', and William Reynolds the 'Bank water engine' at Ketley Bank. All were draining engines. The first pitwinding engine known to have been installed in the coalfield began work at Wombridge c. 1789. Designed by Richard Reynolds, it was so successful that similar engines were rapidly erected elsewhere: at Hollinswood in 1790, and at least three at Wombridge in 1795-6. (fn. 32) By 1793 so much coal was being raised around Oakengates that its carriage by road to Shrewsbury had become a problem, and the construction of the Shrewsbury Canal was proposed. (fn. 33)
Deep mining began early in the 19th century. The Lilleshall Co. opened the Lawn pit near Priorslee on land it had purchased in 1809; in 1841, at 900 ft., it was the deepest pit in the coalfield. The two nearby Woodhouse mines were probably sunk in the second quarter of the century. (fn. 34) Most of Priorslee, however, was leased in 1840 to John Horton & Co. (fn. 35) During the earlier 19th century coal production came to be concentrated at those deep collieries although ironstone was still got from smaller pits; in 1870 five of the existing ten pairs of pits at Priorslee produced ironstone. (fn. 36) In 1818 the Charltons' Wombridge mines were leased to James Foster, and in 1852 to John Bennett & Co. (fn. 37) Bennett died in 1870, and in 1884 his executors were working Wombridge colliery. (fn. 38) In the later 19th century the minerals were mainly leased to Hopley Bros. (fn. 39)
By the early 20th century there was little mining in Wombridge. In Priorslee the Lawn pit closed in 1906 (fn. 40) and activity was concentrated at the two Woodhouse pits, where both coal and ironstone were raised from shafts up to 311 yd. deep by a workforce of over 740 in 1922. Those pits closed in 1931 and 1940. (fn. 41)
Iron and steel.
About 1414 Thomas Ferrour, a Wolverhampton ironmonger, was robbed near Oakengates of six 'sharys' and 200 horse nails, worth 12s.; (fn. 42) it seems probable that he had purchased them locally. At the Dissolution Wombridge priory had an iron mill (probably a water-powered bloomery) and possibly a smithy, which were let for £1 6s. 8d. (fn. 43)
Whether the priory's ironworks was linked in any way to the Foleys' mill and furnace at Wombridge, working by 1663, is unknown. The Foleys' furnace, run with their works in Brewood, sent pig iron to many of their other iron-making concerns in the Stour Valley area. Thomas Foley (1616-77) paid the Charltons £60 a year for the furnace and two mills until he transferred his interests to his son Philip (1653-1716) in 1669, when the stock and equipment were worth £1,739. (fn. 44) The furnace produced 239 tons in 1669 and 289 in 1670. (fn. 45) Philip does not appear in surviving Charlton rentals, and the two mills were apparently let in 1672 to Richard Adney, probably for corn milling. While the furnace was frequently listed in rentals with the mills until 1753, the low rental and lack of other evidence suggest that the furnace probably closed soon after 1670. (fn. 46)
Not until c. 1780 was iron making reestablished in the Oakengates area. In that year John Wilkinson, the leading Shropshire ironmaster of the 1770s, installed a Boulton & Watt engine to blow his two new blast furnaces at Snedshill, the first in the county on a site completely independent of water power. By the late 1780s Wilkinson had opened another furnace nearby, on a brook at Hollinswood. It was associated with those at Snedshill, a Newcomen engine being installed at Hollinswood by 1793. After what was probably a business dispute with his brother William, Wilkinson sold the Snedshill ironworks to John Bishton the elder, John Onions, and others in 1793-4 and the Hollinswood furnace closed. It was the first purposebuilt coke blast furnace to go out of use in the county; it had apparently not been commercially successful. (fn. 47)
Bishton subsequently consolidated his family's holding in the partnership. In 1796 the two Snedshill furnaces reputedly made 3,400 tons of iron, and in the quarter to midsummer 1799 there were 758 tons of iron sold from Snedshill: 158 of melting-pig, 533 of forge iron, and 40 of 'hard' iron. The principal customers were Crawshay & Co. and Boulton & Watt for melting-iron, and John Knight (Stour Valley), John Addenbrooke (Wollaston and Lightmoor), Wright & Jesson (Wren's Nest near Linley), and Pemberton & Stokes (Eardington forge) for forge iron. (fn. 48) Trade at Snedshill was apparently similar to that at Horsehay, where Snedshill blooms and slabs were occasionally rolled. (fn. 49) The Snedshill ironworks, of which at least one furnace was managed by John Horton, was brought into the Lilleshall Co. under a new partnership agreement negotiated in 1807. (fn. 50)
By then there was at least one other ironworks in Wombridge, at Queenswood at the southern extremity of the parish. A large blast furnace was built there by the Coalbrookdale partners c. 1800 to supply the Ketley works with pig iron. By 1802 iron was being made that Boulton & Watt 'found to answer very well'. The works' subsequent history is not known. (fn. 51)
A major new iron-making enterprise began in 1818 when James Foster, the eminent Midland ironmaster, leased mines at Wombridge with an obligation to build two blast furnaces within 18 months. The original two furnaces produced over 5,000 tons of iron in 1825, and a third had been added in 1824. In 1830 the three produced over 7,000 tons. The prosperity of the works was, however, short-lived; in 1837 Foster bought out his two partners in the Wombridge and the associated Hadley works, and in 1843 began to build his Madeley Court blast furnaces to replace those at Wombridge, perhaps already shut. Not the least of the problems with the Wombridge works was apparently the inability of the Windmill farm inclined plane (in Madeley) to raise fully laden boats; that effectively prevented Foster from supplying his Wombridge works and Shrewsbury with his own coal. (fn. 52)
Production at the Snedshill furnaces declined after the construction of the Old Lodge furnaces at Lilleshall in 1825; only 317 tons were made in 1830 and the works seems to have closed later that year. (fn. 53) It apparently soon reopened when a forge was built on the site to make wrought iron under the nominally independent partnership of Horton, Simms, & Bull, which had close links with the Lilleshall Co. and used its pig iron. In 1854 Samuel Horton became sole owner of the firm, which he brought into the Lilleshall Co. in 1855 when a new Snedshill Bar Iron Co. was founded. The firm rapidly became established as one of the country's leading wrought iron makers, its products including bar, flat, cable, rivet, and horseshoe iron, boiler plates, sheets, wire rods, and structural sections. In addition to 35 puddling furnaces, about eight charcoal hearths were retained until c. 1873 to produce - slowly, expensively, and wastefully - the charcoal iron demanded by conservative customers. (fn. 54)
In 1851 the Lilleshall Co. built four blast furnaces at Priorslee. Unlike the Donnington Wood and Old Lodge furnaces (fn. 55) they usually worked on hot blast, and they effectively doubled the company's pig iron production capacity. In 1870 three of the furnaces were using hot blast to produce 230 tons a week each while one used cold blast to produce 140 tons. Fuel came from 42 round coke ovens, and the blast from rotative beam engines known as David and Sampson (sic). A steam hoist lifted the charge. (fn. 56)
Three Basic Bessemer converters were installed soon after 1879 at Priorslee, producing c. 700 tons of 'Lilleshall Steel' ingots a week. By 1886 the primary rolling of steel was being undertaken, possibly using a mill moved from Snedshill, to produce structural sections as well as billets and blooms for re-rolling at Snedshill. (fn. 57) About that time the Snedshill company was absorbed into the Lilleshall Co. (fn. 58)
In the early 1900s the Lilleshall Co.'s iron and steel operations were rationalized. Thereafter pig iron and steel were made at integrated works at Priorslee while wrought iron was made at Snedshill. New plant installed at Priorslee at that time included a Siemens open-hearth furnace to supplement the Bessemer converters; it was slow but, unlike the Bessemer, would accept any amount of scrap in the raw material. In 1910 carbon refractories in the blast furnace hearths were installed, an innovative development. (fn. 59)
With the closure of Blists Hill (in Madeley) in 1912 the blast furnaces at Priorslee became the only ones left in Shropshire. That year the Lilleshall Co. made an agreement with the German company Distillation AG to erect coke ovens and a by-products and benzole plant. It was Shropshire's only 20th-century integrated cokeovens and by-product plant to use chamber-type ovens in place of the open heaps or circular ovens that had served the iron industry since the days of Abraham Darby (I). (fn. 60)
While there was no similar investment at Snedshill, the works remained sufficiently important in 1916 to be one of only two outside the Black Country that were members of the Marked Bar Association, effectively a price-fixing body. By 1920 capital expenditure had been suspended at Priorslee, and by 1922 both works were on a three-day week as cheap foreign steel took over the home market. In 1922 the converters at Priorslee were shut, and thenceforth steel was only rolled there. Wrought iron too was being dumped in Britain, and c. 1925 the Snedshill works closed. Those measures, particularly the closure of the Priorslee steelworks, lowered demand for Priorslee iron and by 1926 only one furnace was in use. (fn. 61)
In 1948 a separate company, the Lilleshall Iron & Steel Co. Ltd., was set up in anticipation of iron and steel nationalization. The new company, which took over the blast furnaces and steel rolling mills, was in public ownership from 1951 until 1953 when the Lilleshall Co. re-purchased the works. After 1947, however, pig iron production nationally had become increasingly concentrated at a few large steelworks, and Priorslee changed over to foundry iron production, which used a large proportion of scrap, especially baled tin cans, in the charge. In 1959 the one furnace remaining in blast was blown out; like the whole works it would have required major structural refurbishment, and in general there had been little modernization at Priorslee after the early 1900s. (fn. 62)
The closure meant that the furnace's waste gas could no longer be burnt off to provide steam power to the Priorslee steel re-rolling mill. Accordingly the mill was electrified in 1960 in the same year that it was joined with Spartan Steel & Alloys Ltd. of Birmingham to form the Shropshire Steel Co. Ltd., which rolled stainless steel there. (fn. 63) The Priorslee rolling mill, the last in Shropshire, closed in 1982.
About 1951 the Fairmile Engineering Co. of Bradford, then under Lilleshall Co. ownership, took over the latter's bulletproof-rivet shop at Priorslee, which had been established in 1939. A steel stockholding business was established, and from the mid 1960s Lilleshall Stockholders Ltd. benefited from the rapid growth in steel's distribution through stockholders. (fn. 64)
In the later 19th and in the 20th century companies other than the Lilleshall Co. engaged in iron making and iron founding in Wombridge and Oakengates, but in general their operations are ill-documented. In 1854 a forge was built for the Wombridge Iron Co. a little way north of Wombridge church on the former site of Foster's ironworks. The company was owned by John Bennett. Products included merchant bar, guide iron, and wire rod (fn. 65) and in 1873 the company reputedly had ten puddling furnaces and three mills and forges. (fn. 66) Between 1891 and 1895 ownership of the company probably passed to Rollason & Slater of Birmingham, wire manufacturers. The works closed in 1902. (fn. 67)
John Maddock manufactured nails in Stirchley in 1869 and moved to Oakengates in 1878 when John Maddock & Co. was founded. At the firm's Great Western Nail Works a wide variety of malleable iron products was made, such as boot protectors. Later bicycle parts, cylinder blocks, and axles were cast for the early cycle and motor trades, necessitating extensions of the works into Station Road. About 1938 the company bought the Lilleshall Co.'s old Snedshill works and laid down there what was reputedly one of the most modern casting foundries in Europe. After the war pipe fittings became the principal manufacture. In 1983 parts for commercial vehicles were the main product. William Lee Ltd. took the works over in 1980. There were 200 employees in 1891, 575 in 1960, and 86 in 1983. (fn. 68)
Other little-documented companies included the Hollinswood Iron Works (fl. 1856), (fn. 69) perhaps the predecessor of the Eagle Iron Co. (fl. 1870-91) that produced shovels in West Street, St. George's, and was one of the main local suppliers of iron to C. & W. Walker of Donnington. The Eagle Iron Co. was later taken over by the Snedshill Co. (fn. 70) Martin & Sons, iron founders, of Slaney Street, Oakengates, operated between 1879 and 1891 and were perhaps succeeded by the Nitram Foundry Co. (fl. 1909-26). (fn. 71) The Shropshire Iron Co.'s works in Hadley were extended into Wombridge in 1873. (fn. 72) The Capewell Horse Nail Co. Ltd. had a works at Trench Pool c. 1909- c. 1917. (fn. 73)
Gasel Ltd., iron founders, were open in Leonard Street, Oakengates, c. 1952, (fn. 74) and c. 1960 H. L. Cornaby Ltd. of Oakengates made grey iron and nickel alloy castings for all trades. (fn. 75) Both had ceased by 1983 but Boliver Preece & Co., a small engineering firm founded in 1923, remained at the Charlton forge, Oakengates. (fn. 76)
Clay was available both as a local drift deposit and as a waste product from mining. Bricks were generally made locally on site as required, whether for industrial or housing construction. There were brick kilns in the mid 18th century at Oakengates and by the 1780s at Hollinswood, where two former ovens were inhabited in 1793. (fn. 77) In the early 19th century there were two groups of kilns at Mumporn Hill, known as the upper and lower brickworks, and a further kiln on the site later occupied by Chapel Street. (fn. 78) By 1850 the Lilleshall Co.'s Snedshill brickworks was established in that area, making not only red bricks but also tiles, quarries, white bricks, fire bricks, and land drainage pipes from fireclay. (fn. 79) The company got fireclay from its own pits. (fn. 80) In the early 1900s the brickworks was improved and salt-glazed pipes and refractory bricks were added to the product range; glazed bricks were made from 1917. 'Belfast' glazed sinks, used nationally in new council estates, were a profitable line from 1918. New kilns and glazing technology were introduced in the 1930s. Nevertheless coal nationalization in 1947 reduced the supply of deep mined clay, which became difficult to obtain although some was got from a private pit at Ketley Bank. Moreover the growing popularity of plastic and stainless steel sinks in the 1950s reduced demand, and c. 1960 the Snedshill works was one of the enterprises taken into the Lilleshall Co.'s Building Materials Division. Ceramic manufacture ended there in 1977. (fn. 81)
In 1878 the Lilleshall Co. was making concrete blocks at Snedshill, and in 1903 a concrete works was built on the site of the former Snedshill blast furnaces to make blocks, fencing posts, and slabs. Furnace slag from Priorslee was used as aggregate. In the 1920s the works expanded and a wide range of pre-formed blocks and other structural elements began to be produced. About 1960 the works was taken into the company's new Buildings Materials Division, and 'Dorran' bungalows began to be made. In 1977 Lilleshall Homes Ltd. was sold and concrete making by the Lilleshall Co. ended. (fn. 82)
Lime was produced at Snedshill before 1788 and in the early 19th century, and there were sandstone quarries east of St. George's. (fn. 83) Several sandpits were dug to get the drift sand between Trench Pool and Oakengates in the later 19th and 20th century. (fn. 84)
Glass making began in the coalfield in the mid 1670s when Abraham Bigod, a glass maker from Amblecote (Staffs.), built a glasshouse near Snedshill. Window panes and bottles were still made there in 1696, (fn. 85) but the glasshouse was 'decayed' and out of use by 1720. (fn. 86)
Products and by-products of the local mining and iron and steel industries were at times used by firms established to exploit them. In the late 18th century there was a sulphuric acid works at Wombridge, which used iron pyrites from local coal as the basic raw material. About 1799 John Biddle began to make alkali there using the process developed in France by Malherbe and Athénas. It was apparently unsuccessful and the works evidently closed about the time (1800-3) that Biddle's interest in the Wrockwardine Wood glassworks began. (fn. 87)
About 1890 a coal distillation plant was built at Priorslee, apparently with German backing. The Lilleshall Co. bought the plant in 1920 and established a new private subsidiary, the Lilleshall Coal Distillation Co. Ltd.; the products were coke, benzole, naphthalene, and ammonium sulphate. Demand for coke, the main product, fell as blast furnace output declined. The works closed c. 1928 and such coke as Priorslee needed was subsequently purchased from outside suppliers. (fn. 88)
In 1912 an asphalt plant was built at Priorslee; it used tar from the coke ovens. At the same time crushing and screening plant was built to convert slag to agricultural fertilizer. (fn. 89) The Lilleshall Co. also owned the Basic Slag Works, Trench Pool, which it bought from Sir Thomas Meyrick in 1901. The works was still open during the First World War. (fn. 90)
Between c. 1900 and c. 1909 a Chemical Works (late H. & E. Albert) made phosphate powder fertilizer next to the Basic Slag Works. (fn. 91)
In the 1940s Russells Rubber Co. Ltd. set up a factory in the former Capewell nail works, making rubber components for motor vehicles. In 1980 there were c. 400 employees. (fn. 92)
From 1973 Telford development corporation provided new factory sites on its Stafford Park industrial estate, Priorslee. (fn. 93)
Market and fairs.
About 1826, when William Charlton of Apley began to patronize Oakengates, (fn. 94) a market place was formed on the south (or Shifnal) side of Watling Street near Pain's Lane. Like so many developments around Oakengates at that time, the provision of a market owed much to entrepreneurs connected with the Lilleshall Co. The first market place and shambles belonged to John Horton of Priorslee Hall and by 1842 another, smaller, market had been built by Richard Corfield, publican of the Ewe and Lamb, on property let to Horton by the lord of Shifnal manor, the 8th Baron Stafford, in what was becoming the centre of the town. (fn. 95) The lords of Shifnal seem not to have enforced any market rights (fn. 96) in Oakengates. (fn. 97) In 1842 accommodation was said to be still insufficient and there were proposals to build another market in the town centre, opposite the Lion inn. (fn. 98) In 1869 the market hall was rebuilt, (fn. 99) probably by shareholders. (fn. 100) Four fairs a year evidently retained some commercial character c. 1850 but pleasure fairs eventually took their place. (fn. 101) From the 1850s, after the arrival of the railways, the town centre market too became a popular social occasion on Saturday evenings. (fn. 102) Traders also used Market Street, whose coincidence with the Shifnal-Wombridge boundary prevented the sanitary authorities from exercising due control over the market. Oakengates had a reputation as a good pig market, and industrial workers sold their pigs direct to the pork butchers. About 1890 butcher's meat and vegetables from the surrounding countryside were a staple. No tolls or dues were collected then, but c. 1935 the Green, at the west end of Market Street and in Wombridge manor, was said to be partly in private ownership and subject to market tolls. (fn. 103)
The Saturday night street market maintained its popularity throughout the district until extinguished in 1939. Saturday remained market day after the Second World War, and in 1963 the market was moved to a site off New Street that was owned by the urban district council and soon afterwards became the forecourt of the new town hall. An annual 'old tyme' market was instituted some years before 1975 and was still held in 1982. (fn. 104)