William Gilpin (1755 – 1834)

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This is a classic rags-to-riches story that came to light when I was researching one of my razors. This razor was made by William Gilpin in about 1823, when George IV was king of England. The razor was probably made under the direction of Cornelius Whitehouse – an accomplished sword smith. I believe that my razor was made as a test piece for an aborted venture into razor manufacture. This is William’s story:

William Gilpin was born on 22 Feb 1755, to Thomas and Hannah who ran a butcher’s shop and nearby The Red Cow Inn at 19 Dudley Street, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England.

At the age of 14, William became apprenticed to a Mr Fieldhouse (a shell auger maker, established 1763). Fieldhouse frequented the Red Cow and was well known to William’s father – who would have paid Fieldhouse a large sum of money to take William as an apprentice. In those days, apprentices had to live with their Master for the entire seven-year period of their apprenticeship. Fieldhouse had a little smithy at the back of his house in Hollow Lane, Wolverhampton – making tools and shell augers for the shipwrights in his Majesty’s dockyards in London. The only edge tool makers in Wolverhampton in those days were blacksmiths, who confined their work to agricultural implements. 

 

At some stage, Fieldhouse decided that, as transport was confined to using cart horses on mud roads, it would be more profitable to make his augers nearer to the dockyards that needed them, and he therefore moved to London, taking William with him. Here William was to discover the huge variety of edge tools used by shipwrights, and the future potential for a lucrative business of his own. Apprentices rarely stayed with their master, but it was not uncommon for them to take over the business by marrying their master’s widow!

 

William completed his apprenticeship at the age of 21 and returned to the Red Cow to start his own smithy. So, his father cleared out his few pigs from the barn at the back of the inn, and William set up his forge there, trading as Wm Gilpin & Co. He almost certainly bought Fieldhouse’s auger business – together with the lucrative Government contracts. As orders increased, he employed Edward Smith a horse nail maker by trade, but who’s family had been making augers for many years elsewhere in Staffordshire.

 

On 6 May 1784 William married Jane Bradney (1761 – 1817). Jane’s father George had long frequented the Red Cow and was well known to William’s father, who probably made the match. Initially, George Bradney was a ‘coal higgler’ – someone who buys coal at the pit and sells it around the houses for domestic use. But in recent years he had become a very successful and wealthy gentleman farmer and cattle dealer in the Cannock area. However, at first, he thought Jane had married beneath herself, and was a reluctant father-in-law to William who was still working in a converted pigsty!

 

As orders increased, more space was needed and so, in 1786, William bought an existing smithy in London Row, Wolverhampton, where he started his first rudimentary edge tool works. Here he never had more than three hearths; he used one, Edward Smith another and an apprentice, Morgan, the third. 

 

Hearths comprised a bellows and hot bed of coals and were used to heat steel to enable it to be forged (hammered) into the required shape. The steel was then ground on a series of rotating abrasive wheels to give it a cutting edge.

 

And now William’s genius began to show, that would eventually found a long standing and wealthy dynasty. Because of limited space at his Red Cow workshop he had been buying in steel and paying others to finish off the grinding of his edge tools – which naturally reduced his profit.  With his larger workshop he now had a gin horse to power a grinding wheel (steam then not having been thought of for that purpose, and no water power being available).

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Typical ‘gin horse’ supplying power to a workshop.

Soon William realised that he needed water power to drive the grinding wheel faster and thereby improve the quality and speed of his grinding, and he also needed more space in which to expand his growing business. Then, a series of events arose that were to change his life. 

In 1790, his wife Jane’s father bought a disused water powered mill called Wedges Mills near Cannock. This was formerly a Blade Mill (for making edge tools) and included two acres of land. He initially left it vacant, being undecided what to do with it.

Then, in 1792, The Wyrley and Essington Canal was inaugurated by an Act of Parliament and received the Royal Assent on 30 April 1792, entitled “An Act for making and maintaining a navigable Canal from, or from near, Wyrley Bank, in the county of Stafford, to communicate with the Birmingham and Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, at or near the town of Wolverhampton”. This opened up the whole area around Wedges Mills to industry, as raw materials could now be brought in and finished goods could be moved more quickly and efficiently to where they were needed.

As the canal neared completion in 1794, Jane’s father gave William, and William’s son George Bradney Gilpin (1785 – 1841), his land and property at Wedges Mills, and William moved his business there, eventually building a grand house at nearby Longford (in recent years a ‘Beefeater Restaurant’). This was to be the Giplin family home for many years.

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William built an arm and corresponding turning basin from the new canal directly to his works at Wedges Mills to supply it with coal, iron ore and limestone – so that he could produce his own steel, rather than buy it. Tramways led from the basin to the mill. The canal however did not last very long and was largely derelict by the 1840s and abandoned ten years later due to improving road and rail transport becoming available in the area. Wedges Mills gave William the space to expand his business, making a huge variety of edge tools – which are still prized today for their quality.

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Gilpin’s basin and works at Wedges Mills

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As the works expanded, William took on many more workers and, ever the businessman, built cottages to rent to them.

The row of three-storey terraced cottages that William built. One of the last rows of ‘back-to-back’ housing in the district, it was pulled down in the 1950s.

During his early days at Wedges Mills, William was buying his coal for the works mostly at the nearest coalfield at Essington Wood. But he realised that, all about Wyrley, coal could be mined and he came to the conclusion that the richest fields were on the land owned by his neighbour, farmer Brown, at Wyrley. So, he rented some of the land, and formed his own mining company, and soon William had some thirty miners at work. He then opened a large wharf on the canal at nearby Churchbridge and found a profitable market for his coal in the more immediate neighbourhood. 

As with the coal, William initially bought his steel, generally patronising the works at Rugeley, but he decided to be his own iron-master so that he could supply his own works and cut out the middle man. So, in 1806, he opened a second larger works at Churchbridge in Great Wyrley, 1 mile east of Wedges Mills. This was situated opposite his coal wharf, and soon he had a forge, a tilt hammer, rolling and grinding mills, and furnaces for converting and refining iron into steel. This also supplied steel for his works at Wedges Mills for working up into edge tools. 

 

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By 1820, William had a very large and still growing business and decided to move his main operation from Wedges Mills to Churchbridge. It was at this point that the 25 year old Cornelius Whitehouse joined the firm, bringing with him invaluable expertise in the manufacture of fine quality swords. 

Cornelius (1795 – 1883) was born in Oldbury and his father Edward was a master sword-smith, producing high quality swords at a time of high demand during the Napoleonic Wars and the 1812-1815 war with North America. Cornelius and his brother worked for their father in his Birmingham workshop and became recognised expert sword-smiths and gunsmiths in their own right. Cornelius was even offered a job as a Government sword inspector, but turned it down. After the defeat of Napoleon, the demand for guns and swords naturally declined and so the Whitehouse family moved to Wyrley to work for William at Wedges Mills. Interestingly, for a short period, some of the firm’s tools were stamped Gilpin & Whitehouse. At the same time, William’s eldest son George had just returned from time he had spent improving his knowledge of edge tool making in other parts of the country, notably with a large and flourishing firm in Liverpool. As you can see, industrial espionage is not a modern concept.

Cornelius would have been using steel made from the finest Swedish iron ore to manufacture his guns and swords and would have found that it was almost impossible to use William’s local steel for the manufacture of fine cutlery such as knives and razors. So, after making my razor, William probably decided to stop production rather than import the very expensive Swedish cast iron. Following this venture, Cornelius left the works and moved to Wednesbury Forge in 1824 to work for Edward Elwell making edge tools. He eventually opened his own works in Churchbridge and continued in the metal wares industry for the rest of his life, notably making high quality iron and steel tubing.

Iron ore found in Britain has many impurities, such as sulphur, that could not be removed in early days and resulted in steel that could not take a fine cutting edge. Whereas Swedish iron ore contains beneficial impurities and was used almost exclusively in British cutlery manufacture until the late 19th century.

In the 1820s and 1830s the Gilpin empire continued to grow and William even opened two pubs in Churchbridge (the Red Cow – in memory of his father’s pub in Wolverhampton, and the Robin Hood) and also a brewhouse on the Walsall Road. These pubs were conveniently located opposite his Mill gates and enabled William to brew and sell beer to his employees (he may well have paid his employees partly in tokens that could only be used in his own establishments).

In 1834 William died on a business trip to Birmingham, and his eldest son George Bradney Gilpin took over the business. But, only seven years later George died, his son Bernard (1824 – 1902, later to become a County magistrate) and William’s son Frederick Henry (1804 – 1887) jointly took over the business. 

The family continued to run the business for more than forty years until, in 1885, the Churchbridge and Wedges Mills works were closed and work focused on a sister company W. Gilpin Senr & co, at Halesowen. 

I believe that this was due to a veritable revolution in steel making at that time caused by the introduction of the Bessemer converter process which could produce huge quantities of good quality steel quickly and cheaply. Essentially, the Gilpin works were outdated and inefficient.

From the Chase Courier (August 1885) – I don’t think that the pun was intended:

“TOOL PLANT SHUTDOWN: 57 JOBS FACE AXE 

More than 50 workers at one of Cannock’s oldest firms face redundancy because of a manufacturing shutdown. Fifty-seven jobs are to go at William Gilpin Co. Ltd., hand tool and forging manufacturers of Churchbridge. Twenty-two workers have already left and a further 35 will join the dole queue at the end of the month. 

The firm, launched in the West Midlands in 1763, is to cease manufacturing operations on the site off the A5. The company has been crippled by a drastic cutback in orders and a general decline in the hand tool industry. 

Redundancy talks have already been held with Transport and General Workers’ officials representing the employees. Sheffield hand tool manufacturers, Burgon and Ball, have bought plant and machinery from the Cannock site. Only two management staff will be transferred from Cannock to Gilpin’s sister company in Halesowen. 

Recession 

Company secretary, Mr Kenneth Peters, said today “We are ceasing manufacturing operations on the site, and the operation is virtually complete. Announcements have already been made to customers and suppliers. The remaining 35 workers will be made redundant at the end of this month. We have been a victim of declining orders and the general recession hitting the hand tool and forgings industry in recent years.” He added “It is very sad as the Company was founded in 1763 and has been operating on that particular site for over 100 years.” 

The following year Ernest Wildman Burnett (the husband of Fanny Adelaide Gilpin –  Bernard’s daughter), bought the business, together with the Red Cow and Robin Hood inns, and here the Gilpin family involvement in the business ceased.


William Gilpin,Senr.,& Co.(Tools ) became a limited company on 20 December 1922 and finally ceased production in the 1980’s, and was eventually liquidated on 5 Dec 2014. 

An interesting receipt of the time. Notice the “Established in 1763” this was when William would have been 8, and so it probably refers to the business of Fieldhouse.

 

 

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1926 Aerial photo of the old Gilpin Works and canal lock system at Churchbridge

 

 

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From a converted pig sty in the 18th century, to a huge company selling a huge variety of edge tools all over the world into 21st century – didn’t the boy do well!

 

“Articles By Eric Gilroy”

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