Wealden Iron Industry: ca1400-1760

There had been iron extraction and forging of iron products in West Kent since pre-Roman and Romano-British times.  However, the main period of the Kent iron industry was from the end of the 15th century until around 1760 after which the furnaces were superseded by the new industrial revolution processes.  This article by Jeremy Hodgkinson MA FSA looks at the iron workings fairly near Leigh.

In Romano-British times, iron had been extracted from largish quarry sites; but from mediaeval times until the 18th century, the ore was normally dug from circular pits – holes up to 35ft deep – which were then in-filled by waste material from the next pit.  So all that remains today are large groupings of saucer-shaped indentations.  A good example is at Tugmore Shaw, at Hartfield, where a Romano-British quarry is side by side with later pits   The nearest sites to Leigh are almost certainly associated with the various furnaces and finery forges in the area which are mentioned below.  The siting of the furnaces would have been near to where there was a ready supply of the ore.  The furnaces were powered by water-driven bellows which blew on local charcoal which in turn heated the locally mined iron ore.  The furnaces were usually made of local stone and about 26ft high and the finished iron would be ready in 24 hours or more.  After several months the iron and the waste – slag – were dragged out.  The slag was usually 3 or 4 times the amount of iron and was sometimes used on roads.  If the water supply failed, men had to walk round the wheel to keep the bellows going.

Most of the cast iron – in the form of ‘sow iron’ (up to 9ft long bars) or the ‘pig iron’ (much more manageable pieces) was taken to a nearby ‘finery forge’, just downstream which was also powered by water.  There the iron was formed into wrought iron bars by a large water-driven hammer.  There were a variety of cast products – fire-backs; iron memorials for churches (including ones in Cowden and Chiddingstone), cannons, mortars and various other guns: iron sledges; fire irons; railings – including St Paul’s, which took a year to make at the Lamberhurst Furnace; and even some stocks.

These furnaces were often on smaller streams – although there was one on the upper Medway at Ashurst, towards East Grinstead.  Because it was important to have a steady flow, there was usually a large ‘hammer pond’ above the furnace and occasionally linked series of smaller ponds above that.  The main period of activity was between October and June – primarily because of water supply.

The nearest sites to Leigh were the Vauxhall Furnace in Tonbridge and the Barden Furnace and Forge at Bidborough which was still working until the early part of the 18th century.  There were also furnaces at Bough Beech; Cowden (1743); Brede (1636); Robertsbridge; Lamberhurst; Pippingford in the Ashdown Forest; Chingley (Bewle Water covers it); Maresfield; Etchingham, etc.  But there are no remains of any furnaces/forges above ground in Kent.  The industry waned in the mid-17th century; had a revival early in the 18th century; but had virtually disappeared after 1760.

The Cinder Hill Site at Leigh was active at an earlier period – although the date is not clear and could be either Romano-British or mediaeval.  There is a separate article by David Forster about this site.

Parish Magazine Article: May 2011: by Jeremy Hodgkinson MA FSA