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British Industrial History

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William Wilkinson (1744-1808)

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William Wilkinson (1744-1808), Ironmaster

1744 Born the son of Isaac Wilkinson and his wife, Mary Johnson (d. 1786), and brother of John Wilkinson. At the time of his birth his parents were living at Backbarrow in Lancashire.

He entered Joseph Priestley's school at Nantwich, Cheshire, probably in 1759, and followed Priestley to Warrington Academy in 1761.

1762 Priestley married Mary, sister of John and William. William's training was probably at the family ironworks at Bersham, Denbighshire, where in 1774 his brother John admitted him to a partnership.

1775 the French brigadier Marchant de la Houlière, who was trying to develop iron smelting with coal in France, visited John Wilkinson at his New Willey (Broseley, Shropshire) works. He was particularly interested in John's achievement in the boring of cast-iron guns from solid, and wished to bring him to France. John could not go, but proposed the services of William

William Wilkinson made a preliminary visit to France within weeks. It was probably at this early stage that the Isle of Indret on the Loire near Nantes was identified as a site for water-powered mills to bore cannon. Early in 1777 he returned to France, Indret works was built, with the help of Pierre Toufaire, and Wilkinson was granted 12,000 livres salary, soon rising to 50,000.

1779 The first cannon was cast at Indret, when Britain and France were at war.

After a return to Britain in 1786 Wilkinson made some further extensive European journeys, finally settling again at Plas Grono near Wrexham in 1789.

He quarrelled with his brother John over the management of Bersham, and his profit from his shareduring his absence abroad. Lawsuits began in 1794, and he was at law with John Wilkinson and other family members until his death.

Wilkinson objected to John's continued development and diversification of his own industrial interests outside Bersham, and wanted the maximum return from Bersham and associated enterprises. During the dispute Wilkinson became an ally of Boulton and Watt, with whom John had long worked as a supplier of cylinders for their engines.

They hoped William Wilkinson would be of use to them in creating their own engine-making works at Soho, Birmingham, begun in 1795. He made available to them John's newly invented cupola furnace. John arranged to sell Bersham, moving much equipment to his new works at Brymbo. William set about seducing Bersham workers for Boulton and Watt.

The case went to arbitration, and the works were put up for sale, being taken over by Thomas Jones, nephew to William and John, with capital supplied by John. Subsequently there were bitter lawsuits of great complication between the brothers

1791 Married Elizabeth Kirkes (d. 1808) of Liverpool, a widow, and daughter of James Stockdale of Cark Hall, Cartmel

He died at Plas Grono in March 1808, having appointed the younger James Watt to be guardian to his daughters.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  • DNB
  • 'John Wilkinson - King of the Ironmasters' by Frank Dawson, The History Press, 2010