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Wicked Will

William Wilkinson moved to France in 1777 at the invitation of the French Government. He modernised the State Ironworks at L'Indret (near Nantes), established a new ironworks and cannon foundry at Le Creusot (Burgundy), acted as an ironworks consultant in Germany and Scandinavia, and made himself a wealthy man.

Returning to Bersham just before the French Revolution, William soon fell out with his older brother, John, over money and the management of his business. William felt he had not received his share of the profits. The dispute turned bitter as neither man would back down. John stopped William from seeing the accounts, excluded him from his new venture at Brymbo and halted production at Bersham.

In 1795 the dispute went to arbitration, neither brother would be in the same room as the other and it was agreed to sell Bersham Ironworks so William could have his share of the business. William tried to buy the works, but Boulton & Watt declined to back him financially. John Wilkinson bought the works, paid his brother £10,650 for his share, and moved the equipment from the eastern works up to Brymbo.

An embittered William took his revenge. He told James Watt Junior that John had been selling pirated versions of Watt's steam engines and had been pocketing the royalties for himself. William even showed James Watt Junior the pirated engines at Brymbo when John was away on business. Boulton & Watt pursued John for the royalties. The long friendship between the three men came to an end and John had to pay Boulton & Watt £4,425 to avoid charges of embezzlement. Meanwhile William spread increasingly vicious gossip about his brother and secretly encouraged skilled workers to leave Bersham and Brymbo to work at Boulton & Watt's new foundry in Birmingham.

William and John were never reconciled.

'The End of Bersham Ironworks' - A story written by James Stockdale in 1872

"William Wilkinson collected a great number of men in the town of Wrexham in Wales, and marched with them to the large ironworks at Bersham, and there, with sledge hammer and other instruments, began to break up the expensive machinery. On intelligence of this reaching John Wilkinson, he collected a still greater number of men and followed exactly his brother's example, so that in a very short time the famous Bersham Ironworks became a great wreck, each brother appropriating to himself as much of the spoil as came within his reach."

I was at Bersham three days ago... All the mills in the meadows are completely dismantled. The axe and saw with a number of horses have been fully employed these 3 weeks in pulling all to pieces.

William Wilkinson on his bother's dismantling of Bersham Ironworks, letter to James Watt Jr., January 3rd 1798

William Wilkinson (possibly), Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1776 - © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

Wilkinson cylinder made at Bersham, delivered to Le Creusot Montcenis, France. - © Wrexham Heritage Service