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The Talented Mr Wilkinson

John Wilkinson was born in 1728 in the village of Clifton, near Penrith in Cumbria. He had a good education and served as an apprentice to a Liverpool ironmonger (18th century ironmongers were manufacturers and dealers in the iron trade). He also worked alongside his father, Isaac, in the foundry and learned how to make cast iron.

He married Anne Mawdsley, his first wife, in 1755 and moved with her to Wrexham. She died a year later and left him enough money to start his own business.

John Wilkinson, c. 1780s. - © Science & Society Picture Library

In 1757 Wilkinson took over a struggling ironworks at Willey in Shropshire. It was well-timed as the Seven Years War (1756–63) increased demand for the cannons the ironworks made. Wilkinson could also see the new peacetime markets for iron and gained a reputation for producing high quality cast iron parts for Newcomen steam engines.

Wilkinson managed Bersham Ironworks for his father, but he was ambitious. His marriage to Mary Lee, his second wife and a Bersham Ironworks shareholder, was not solely for love. Gradually he bought out the partners in his father’s business. By 1763 Isaac Wilkinson had to accept his son was in charge.

John Wilkinson was not only a shrewd businessman. He was a great experimenter and inventor.  He constantly looked for new and better ways to make iron, to run an ironworks and to make accurate castings.

Wilkinson’s search for 'truth' as eighteenth-century industrialists called accuracy in castings made him a central figure in the Industrial Revolution and a very wealthy man.

An Iron Forge at Merthyr Tydfil, Julius Caesar Ibbetson, watercolour, 1789. - © Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery

I think it better to work than write. Indeed a man that hath not the former to do – may amuse by penning long.

John Wilkinson, on work and probably aimed at his brother.