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Rchard Williams

Had a chat with Peter King at Ironbridge yesterday and understand that there is a proposal to produce something from this string for publication in the newsletter.  I think that’s a good idea and then we can send the article or a link to organisations that we think should be directly informed.


I was approached by Historic England last week asking should they be prepared to change their texts around the Derwentcote forge.  Perhpoas people would be interested in my considered reply.  Also my congratulations to Ray on his scholarship in chasing up the Abby/Portsmouth visit seems to have got lost somewhere.  Great stuff, Ray


‘The summary is that I personally think that Jenny Bulstrode’s paper is a shoddy piece of work, written by somebody with a fixed agenda.  Unhappily it seems that a lot of organisations, such as the Guardian, have taken it as gospel and it most certainly should not be.  Her thesis is very much unproven and actually almost certainly fundamentally wrong.

She suggests that Henry Cort’s invention of profiled rolls, for fagoting strips of wrought iron together, was actually a black Jamaican invention, stemming from a crossover of sugar cane rolling practice into the iron industry and suggests that therefore the invention of puddling, which became a key feature of iron production in the 19th century, should be attributed to slaves, ‘black metallurgists’ who worked in an iron works in Jamaica, who in turn learnt their skills from the indigenous iron industry in West Africa, from whence they were transported, of course against their will.

It’s actually quite difficult to decide where to start to pull her thesis apart, simply because it is so faulty.  Perhaps the first question is whether the rolls used in the sugar industry were in any way similar to the rolls that Henry Cort used, firstly for fagoting scrap iron together, subsequently, and more importantly for Cort’s puddling patent, for shingling, for working down loops from the puddling furnace into relatively slag-free wrought iron bar.

A simple study of 19th century reports on cane sugar rolls shows that sugar rolls were completely different from the fagoting/shingling rolls that Cort used, and there is no way that one design could have led to the other.  Sugar rolls were described as grooved, as indeed were Cort’s fagoting/shingling rolls, but the grooves in the otherwise plain sugar rolls were shallow and longtitudinal, simply there to provide a serrated grip for the sugar canes.  Cort’s rolls were better described as profiled.  The ‘grooves’ were circumferential, wider, and much deeper, forming dies in which scrap or loop iron was compacted into a long and narrower shape with each pass.  There were different sized profiles for rolling the bar from some 100mm plus down to about 25 mm.

One of the more disturbing things about the paper arises from the author’s claim that the technology from Jamaica was passed to Henry Cort by a ‘cousin’, John Cort, (no true relationship claimed or proved) who captained a boat sailing regularly between Jamaica and England.  She claims that he was caught up in a storm which obliged him to put into Portsmouth instead of Lancaster, which was the opportunity for H Cort to learn about the Jamaican practice!    She cites a report from which some detail she quotes verbatim, but it seems that when this reference is studied more closely, it refers to a totally different boat from the one that she claims John Cort to be the captain of.  It is difficult to imagine that this misquote arose out of a mistake or misunderstanding and casts doubt on the scholarship of the whole work.  This discovery is not mine, it is down to a colleague in the Historical Metallurgy Society, Ray Powell, who has also been moved to look more deeply into Bulstrode’s facts.  There has been considerable discussion on the Hist Met webpages.

Furthermore, Jenny Bulstrode does not understand metallurgical processes at all, and certainly not the the true features of Henry Cort’s invention.  She thinks that his development was entirely about turning scrap wrought iron back again into re-usable bar.  It was not.  Its importance was in the turning of high carbon pig iron from the blast furnace into low carbon wrought iron.  He did use rolls for compacting scrap barrel hoops first though.  Bulstrode seems to think that the recycling of scrap wrought iron was a black metallurgist invention, but recycling of scrap wrought iron was practised as soon as wrought iron was invented over 4,000 years ago and in the 1750s, English companies were importing scrap iron via Holland just to convert it and send it back again, the practice depending on the English use of coal in reverberatory furnaces for its economy.  Henry Cort almost certainly developed the idea of compacting the scrap with rolls because his feed was entirely old barrel hoops, ie he had an exclusive supply of long scrap iron, for which compaction by rolling was a fairly obvious solution.  He was not the first to use profiled rolls to shape iron, there is some considerable English and French prehistory, but he was the first to use it for shingling

The black metallurgists, supposedly 76 of them, were employed in an iron works (Bulstrode describes it as a foundry, but casting metal was only a minor part of its function) which was entirely set up by an English entrepreneur, equipped with the latest English furnaces, hammers and rolling mills, and initially staffed with English artificers.  Over a period of ‘a few years’, these English workers handed over the physical operations to the black workers, whilst some English managers remained.  These ‘black metallurgists’ would in fact have been a mixture of labourers and general assistants with a few genuinely skilled blacksmiths operating the hammers and the rolls.  Bulstrode suggests that iron might have been smelted from the ore, but she clearly does not know what this would have involved.  If there had genuinely been people amongst the workers who had learnt skills before they had been transported from West Africa, they might have been able to extract iron from the ore in a bloomery, which by the mid 18th century had become obsolete in England following the adoption of the blast furnace 200 hundred years before.  There is no known record of a blast furnace ever being built in Jamaica, and it would surely have been remarked upon if one had.  The operation of a blast furnace, never used in black Africa, was a very sophisticated process, the skills for which for many years were passed from fathers to their sons.

There is much more criticism which could be levelled against the paper, but in summary, Bukstrode’s thesis is a collection of facts which she has very speculatively and wildly drawn connections between, connections which almost certainly did not exist.  The reason why so many people/organisations have taken it so seriously is because it has supported a modern agenda that has undoubted popular appeal, but surely we should support historical accuracy, the truth, rather than encourage the adoption of a romantic fable.

My own attitude would be to ignore it totally, but by 2024, unless we can stop this romance in its tracks, it might have spread to the point that you will feel obliged to mention it as an unlikely story in passing.’