When Philip 11’s Spanish Armada sailed up the English Channel in July 1588, to be challenged by Sir Francis Drake and Howard of Effingham, not only were Wealden-made cast iron guns evident on the 120 auxiliary ships of the English fleet, they also formed a good part of the armament of the opposing Spanish fleet.
Much of the wealth, structure and history of the Weald were shaped by the iron industry, but this was restricted by a number of obstacles, including political intrigue, prejudice, erratic sales and protests from conservation lobbyists determined to stop the mass destruction of trees for the furnaces. In spite of this, for the best part of 300 years Sussex cast iron guns were considered to be the finest in the world. David Hyme, in ‘History of England,’ wrote: ‘Ship building and founding of iron cannon were the sole arts in which England excelled.”
Guns were first used in warfare in the early 1300’s and although they were being actively manufactured on the Continent, England was slow to follow. The first blast furnace and forge capable of turning them out appeared in Sussex in 1496, built on Crown property at Newbridge, in the parish of Hartfield.
In 1498, Frenchman, Pauncelett Symart, took out a seven year lease, at £20 a year, on this Newbridge furnace. One of many French immigrant ironworkers, he attempted to make iron guns, although the original design of brittle wrought-iron strips bound together by metal hoops, often proved more lethal to their users than to the enemy, having a tendency to explode when used. But his attempts to make safer, two part guns appeared successful as he sent guns to Portsmouth to arm one of Henry’s new navy ships, Le Sovereign.
Although the Tower of London placed an order in 1508 for ‘Gonnes of iron late caste in the fforest of Ashdowne in the Countie of Sussex’, orders were slow and by 1509 the Newbridge works had been run down.
When Henry VIII came to the throne the same year he appeared to have little interest in buying Wealden guns, preferring to spend money from the royal coffers on proven, but more expensive, bronze ordnance from the Continent. But with large scale military and naval re-equipment, Henry overstretched himself financially, and by 1522 he had to look around for more economic alternatives. In a change of policy he decided that bronze guns could be made more cheaply in England and he engaged the services of experienced foreign gun founders to work foundries in and around London.
In the face of threatened invasions during various times of his reign, Henry needed large supplies of readily available armament at an even more economic cost. There was much to recommend sustained efforts by the expanding Wealden iron foundries to find a successful method of producing reliable iron guns in one piece.
Parson William Levett, who appears to have managed some blast furnaces near Newbridge, Ralph Hogge, an experienced furnace master and Frenchman Peter Baude, who regularly supplied the Crown with ordnance, pooled their respective talents to find a successful way of casting a safe, one piece, iron gun. In 1543, a significant date in gun-making history, after many attempts and numerous testing on Hawkhurst’s Gun Green, the trio perfected the technique of casting one-piece iron guns that would rival bronze. This gave rise to the popular couplet:
‘Master Huggett and his man John
They did cast the first cannon.’
Guns were required for the coastal artillery forts, but Henry and the experts of naval ordnance were still wary of the new iron guns, perhaps suspicious of their long-standing problems. But by 1545, with the imminent threat of a French invasion, Levett was urged to deliver as much shot and as many guns as he could.
In a ten-year period from 1540 to 1550, there was a rapid expansion to twenty-one furnaces in the Weald. But by 1550 the country was at peace. Henry had died in 1547, Queen Mary now reigned. And ominously, two new rival blast furnaces had opened up in Kent and Surrey.
The iron works were also facing attack from the ports of Hastings, Rye and Winchelsea, which, in 1548, complained that their extremely profitable timber export trade was drying up by being burnt up in the expanding number of some fifty iron works.
In 1554 William Levett died, leaving Ralph Hogge in his will, ‘the sum of four pounds and six tonne of sows’ [long pieces of cast iron]. As Levett’s principal furnace master and founder, Hogge naturally stepped into his partner’s shoes. By 1559 he had become widely recognised as a skilled maker of both guns and shot and was given the grant for life of ‘maker of ironstone for guns,’ to be supplied to the Office of Ordnance in the Tower of London, a position that paid a fee of sixpence a day.
After Mary’s death in 1558, Elizabeth I came to the throne, and between 1559 and 1564 she began an active policy of building or buying fifteen new naval vessels. But like her father, Henry VIII, she made little attempt to arm them with Wealden cast iron guns.
But if Queen and country were not overly interested in buy the Wealden guns, there were others prepared to pay good money for them and no questions asked. Spanish and French pirates became increasingly interested in these cheaper cast iron guns, which could easily be purchased through ports on the south-east coast. Dutch Calvinists were fighting the Spanish as privateers, they too, needed arms. A flourishing and lucrative trade in Sussex guns began flowing to the Continent, perhaps as much as three quarters of the output of Wealden furnaces. This situation began to worry the government, which foresaw serious military danger and damage to national security. The Low Countries, France, Spain and Portugal were all now clamouring for these English cast iron guns. This brought about resurgence in the industry and new furnaces appeared outside the Weald in Glamorgan, Monmouth, Shropshire and Staffordshire.
Ralph Hogge was given exclusive rights in 1568 to manufacturer guns and shot for export. In theory this was to be done under the watchful eye of the Master of Ordnance. But other gunfounders, eager for a share of this now extremely lucrative trade, soon found questionable ways around this ban. Thus by 1573, Wealden iron production was reaching an all-time high, forcing Hogge to complain to the Privy Council that because of unauthorised export of guns abroad ‘hostile vessels were becoming better armed than English ships.’ He pointed out how easily guns could be turned out from furnaces that were claiming to be making iron bars, and smuggled across the Channel in clandestine shipments often, straight into enemy hands. There were also agents willing to handle Wealden ordnance of any shape or size, confident they could sell it to any interested party at a good profit.
This produced a thorough survey by the Privy Council of the ironworks of the Weald and from this, in 1574, in a move to protect the realm, it issued a blanket veto stopping the sale of all guns abroad. This was later replaced with a control system, which, being underfunded, was largely ineffective. The gunfounders, agents and middlemen soon found ways around the embargo, mostly the time honoured Sussex trade of smuggling. Wealden guns were still being shipped abroad, often aided by corrupt officials.
Most of Spain’s fighting ships originally carried bronze guns, but the country badly needed more ordnance and Wealden cast iron guns were the only source of supply. Spanish agents in Flanders were offering £19-£22 a ton for iron guns against the market price of £10-£12. Small wonder that many English merchants were prepared to smuggle guns out. In 1591 there were fourteen cases of such contraband seizures at Lewes and Newhaven.
Even after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Spain was still actively seeking supplies with which to arm a new fleet for another invasion. The Privy Council desperately tried to halt the flow. In 1592 the Master of Ordnance was given wide powers to oversee and control the forges and furnaces. But by the end of the century clandestine shipments were again carrying guns abroad, frequently to Spain. Foreign vessels often smuggling guns out as ballast. Again, government restrictions seemed to be little more than paper exercises. In spite of the risks, good money and high profits in a buoyant market proved far too attractive.
From the early 1600’s there was a substantial shift towards the use of iron guns on English warships. Much of this was supplied by founder John Browne, whose father, Thomas Browne, had owned furnaces at Bough Beech, Chiddingstone, Ashhurst and Horsmonden, and who had been a gunfounder to the Crown, with large scale business commitments with the military and mercantile. Merchant shipping involved in long distance trading, needed ordnance to tackle the growing problems of piracy. The East India Company, in particular, armed most of its fleet with guns purchased from Thomas Browne.
His son, John, succeeded to the title of King’s Gunstonemaker in 1615. An astute businessman, he endeavoured to keep the gun making business ticking over efficiently, a difficult talk with irregular requirements from the Crown and irregular payments for goods delivered. Cash flow became a problem. Additional income came from legal and approved shipments abroad. This continued for five years until by 1618 the government, fearing too many guns were again being channelled to doubtful destinations and the stock levels of arms in England was getting dangerously low, decided to terminate the permission to export. The Swedish ordnance industry quickly stepped in to sell low priced, but inferior, arms in Europe.
The Civil War brought its own problems. Gunfounders had to decide which side their loyalty and their guns lay. John Browne, as a supplier to the Office of Ordnance, appears to have, in the main, chosen to equip the Royalist side. His employees were not pressed into military service, so that orders could be fulfilled.
As blast furnaces gradually spread into South Wales and the West Midlands, London merchants began buying the cheaper Swedish iron, the number of Wealden furnaces began to decrease. Some formed a type of co-operative. With the outbreak of war in 1739, a long-standing iron founder, William Harrison, joined up with William and George Jukes at Robertsbridge furnace and in 1741 formed a partnership with a Wadhurst founder, John Legas. A London merchant, Samuel Remnant, who manufactured iron goods for the Board of Ordnance, offered to act as an agent for the co-operative, negotiating deals on their behalf with the board and subcontracting advantageously in order to complete lucrative contracts. This integration of several gunfounders seemed to work well until the late 1740’s when John Fuller became suspicious that Remnant was ‘apparently not working in their best interests.’ Not long afterwards Remnant was accused, along with a number of Board of Ordnance officials, of defrauding the Board out of some £10,000.
At the start of the Seven Years War, the fortunes of the Wealden gunfounders took an upturn, but this proved to be the last period of major activity for the industry. As the board stockpiled ordnance, orders slumped, especially when peace was declared. Many founders had prepared for this and found alternative outlets with domestic requirements. At this point Roebuck and Company, from the Carron ironworks at Falkirk, made a calculated gamble to seize some business. In November 1754 it offered to cast guns and shot for the Board for the low price of £14 a ton.
A number of Wealden gunfounders, especially the co-operatives, were badly hit and a number went bankrupt. At least 50% of active Wealden iron works closed. Roebucks, now using the more economic coke for smelting, saw the financial opportunities and grabbed them. Wealden furnaces had thrived and prospered in the short term but with little investment for the future, whereas, Roebucks had built up their business with a view to running them bigger and better in the long term. Between 1765 and 1770, they gained orders for guns worth £22,000, from the Board of Ordnance. Then, with depleting supplies of wood and intense cut price competition from outside by users of the more cost effective coal or coke, much of the iron making industry began to migrate to the Midlands and the North.
By 1783 the good times were all over.