Crowley Mill No 1 – Winlaton Mill and the Industrial Revolution

Crowley Mill No 1, Winlaton Mill, NE21 6RT – Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution


Colin Douglas with Noel Adamson


Sunniside History Society


There are many definitions for the start of the Industrial Revolution but common to many is that it started when “powered machines took over from man mass producing in a factory system materials and components to be used by man in the continuous evolution of civilisation as we know it today”.… that is the period of transition from hand production to machine mass production, enabled by efficiency improvements in harnessing water power and initiation of the factory system of working.

As Mill No. 1 of the Crowley Works at Winlaton Mill meets the criteria in all respects, we are greatly concerned with the question: Where was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution?

In the past many locations have laid claim to being the birthplace, based on processes that meet the above definition. Many processes made significant contributions to mass production techniques in various industries. But the real question is: Which was the earliest process that meets the definition? Our claim is being made for Sir Ambrose Crowley’s Mill No 1 that began production at Winlaton Mill in the late 17th Century.

Prominent in the list of ‘birthplace’ claimants at an early period is Ironbridge Gorge, Coalbrookdale. The Ironbridge claim is based on the fact that Abraham Darby developed the use of coke in place of charcoal in the blast furnaces, the first stage of the processes eventually converting the raw materials eg iron ore and limestone into wrought iron in the various forms to be used by the cottage industry workers ie hand forge numerous items of iron ware.   No doubt an important achievement but Coalbrookdale started production at least 12 years after Crowley’s Mill No 1.   Textile production is also cited as one of the industries prominent in the Industrial Revolution and it certainly was but its start too was in the 18th century.

Our investigations have shown that none of the other claims relate to mass-production processes taking place as early as the 1690s when Mill No 1 was established at Winlaton Mill. But to meet the definition of Industrial Revolution mass production and development of the factory systems need to be seen to have taken place.

But to meet the definition of Industrial Revolution, mass production and development of the factory system needs to be seen to have taken place there.

On the Crowley site, (see figures 1 and 1a) water channelled from the River Derwent via a massive stone sluice system incorporating the high and low dams, flowed into The Great Pool that provided a 30 foot head of water sufficient to run 9 massive water wheels (see figure 2) which drove at least five forges in Mill No 1.   No doubt, an efficient use of water power.

Although Crowley had brought skilled workers to Winlaton when he transferred his Sunderland enterprise there in the 1680s, the massive increase in production capacity as Mill No 1 came on stream brought with it a shortage of skilled labour resulting in an extensive recruitment programme being initiated. The following advertisement from a 1697 publication, the “Post Boy” details not only job opportunities but also the iron ware being manufactured. That is to say; “Mr Crowley, The Doublet in Thames Street, London, ironmonger, doth hereby give notice, that at his works at Winlaton, near Newcastle upon Tyne, any good workman that can make the following goods, shall have constant employment and their wages every week punctually paid, viz:- augers, bed-screws, box and sad-irons, chains, edge tools, files, hammers, hinges, hoes for the plantations, locks, especially ho-locks, nails, patten-rings and almost all other sorts of smith’s work”. Anchors and cable chains, artillery ware, and harpoons were also included in the almost one hundred items of ironware said to be manufactured in the Winlaton, Winlaton Mill and Swalwell workshops, the greatest area of iron ware production in the world for at least the next 100 years.

To facilitate the production of this enormous amount of ironware the nine water powered mills worked 15 hours a day, 6 days a week driving various forging machines mass producing wrought iron in the form of plates, rods and blooms to be used in the cottage industry workshops to hand craft the numerous items of iron ware.

Not only did Crowley establish Mill No 1, he designed and commissioned the building of numerous residences and ancillary workshops for the workers around the “Great Pool” (see figure 4).   This in many ways was an idyllic village community that lasted, at least in part until the 1950s and is fondly remembered by some local resident still living in the area.

It is a matter of interest however to note that ,in the early years some 70% of the iron ware was in the form of nails supplied under long term contracts with the Admiralty.   Some108 different kinds of nails were individually hand forged to meet with the massive expansion of warship construction initiated in the mid-17th century not only to be used in the initial construction of the wooden ships but mainly for “sheathing” them when in service.   This process involved nailing a sacrificial soft wood coating on the underwater areas of the expensive hard wood hulls of the warships, particularly these serving in tropical and semi-tropical, waters to protect them from the ravages of parasites eg toredo worms which could attack and destroy the integrity of the hull within a period of 10 to 15 years.   The relatively inexpensive soft wood sheathing protected the main hull for periods of between 5 to 7 years before it was eaten away and needed to be renewed.   Consequently the sheathing method consumed a vast quantity of nails during the life time of the vessel.

It can be seen therefore, that Crowley’s entrepreneurial genius established a “factory system”, he is even credited as being the first person to use this description when he Mill No 1 established at a remote rural site on the River Derwent, not far from Newcastle upon Tyne in the late 17th century.   This was to become the greatest centre for iron ware production in the world for almost 150 years and although he died in 1715 he passed on to his family this hugely successful enterprise he set up and micro-managed from his base in Greenwich

A couple of years ago we led a Heritage Lottery Funded project to “research, record and promote the history/heritage of Winlaton Mill in the vicinity of the Butterfly Bridge”.   It was a widely acclaimed project completed to the satisfaction of HLF – in fact they promoted it as a model of how such projects should be managed – but even so it left 2 or 3 important questions unanswered.  In the present discussion however, we are only concerned with what was the origin of the forging machines installed in Mill No 1, post 1691.  In other words who designed, built and installed these machines?

As is often the case, new inventions incorporate the ideas of earlier technological innovation. Only a few months ago we came across an account of water mills (see figure 5) described as “coal mills” being used in the Winlaton Mill area from early in the 17th century to power the machinery used to drain the pits.   At the time coal was beginning to be worked from the deeper level seams below those nearer the surface which were being worked out.   These had been generally worked on the “bell pit” system and more often than not they could be kept dry by the watergate system ie tunnels driven below the seams allowing the water to be drained by gravity.   Obviously, the presence of the mills meant there was local engineering knowledge and skills available which could have been utilised by Crowley to build the forging machines.

This is speculation however and takes us no further forward in identifying the origins of the forges at Mill No 1.   As also the writings of the one renowned Crowley expert provided no contemporary evidence.   This is in the definitive work of Crowley’s many achievements recorded by AW Flinn in his book ‘Men of Iron’ but this offers no technical insights into the original machines installed in Mill No 1.   Instead, he used illustrations of water powered machines taken from a French Encyclopaedia (see figures 6 & 7) published in 1761-65 showing drawings of machines in use, probably in Sweden in the mid-17th century.

Another consideration arises from a tribute to Ambrose Crowley recorded in the “Impartial History of the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne and its Vicinity” by John Baillie, published in 1801, (see figure 8) describing Crowley as an “inventor”.   Unfortunately, Baillie supplies no further details.   Was his comment based on a knowledge of the history of Mill No 1 or merely folklore?   Probably the former because at the time the comment was printed members of the Crowley dynasty were still involved in the business but further verification is impossible because the formal records of the company were destroyed later in the century.

This raises the question what did Crowley invent?   As we have shown previously coal mills ie water mills were in use in the Derwent Valley when Crowley transferred his business from Sunderland to Winlaton in1685.   Could it be, therefore, that a Crowley “invention” was to devise a system of shafts and cogs to harness the power from the water wheels to the forges mass producing wrought iron materials and components?

Our investigations have not revealed any evidence to refute this suggestion.   We find no mention of water powered forges prior to this date and therefore of other contenders for the title ‘Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’.   Returning therefore to the suggestion that the machines may have been developed on the Crowley site, one can only state that it may have been possible.   We have speculated above the likelihood that skilled workers including blacksmiths, joiners, millwrights etc., were available to build the water mills and therefore forge designs could have been applied on site.  There are no reports that there was a supplier contracted by Crowley to build the forges.   It is difficult to imagine any external company that produced his forges, and witnessing the stupendous growth of the company, did not locally or nationally promote their achievement to further their own business.

We have also examined records of British patents which although were in existence in the late 17th century, they were not extremely popular but nonetheless a search with the surname Crowley, Ambrose Crowley and Crowley Ironworks was conducted but yielded no positive results.   A remote possibility is that Sir Ambrose, known to be a good employer, allowed one of more of his workers to design and patent the forging machines.   That is a question for the future as Crowley had many staff and the early patent records are not computerised.

Archives of Durham University, Tyne and Wear County Council (now in two locations), Lit and Phil Newcastle, and the Newcastle Mining Institute have also been searched and though some items related to Crowley and Crowley Ironworks were found, none of these concerned the elusive machines of Mill No 1.

Likely, the Crowley Ironworks maintained drawings or descriptions of their machine in a drawing office or manager’s office and perhaps eventually in a company archive.   These would have been necessary when machines were repaired or redesigned.   And in the end, when the company was taken over in the 18th century the records were destroyed.   So, the questions remain.

As to whether the forges were constructed onsite or offsite, this is also a moot point. Certainly, it takes tools to make tools.   If the forges were made early in the development of the factory, probably there were few tools available, apart from hand tools.   In that case, the forges or their major components could have been fabricated off-site.  More likely, components rather than assemblies were assembled at Mill No 1 and due to their assembled weight and the inaccessible location of Mill No. 1.   Without evidence to the contrary therefore, we suggest that locals, either engaged by Crowley or other local firms, were involved in manufacturing the new-fangled forging machines designed by Ambrose Crowley.

Regardless of the origin of the water powered forging machines, it is a fact that wrought iron materials and components were used in the cottage industry workshops at Mill No 1 to mass produce ironware in the late 17th century. A small amount of steel was also produced by means of three cementation furnaces.

Excepting Sunday, the forging machines worked from five in the morning until 8 at night for the other 6 days of the week, turning out wrought iron in various forms eg., plates, rods, blooms and anconies to be distributed to the cottage industry workshops, there to be further worked into the numerous “ironware” products mainly by the families resident in the workshops.

All these activities and processes ie powered machines taking over from man mass producing, in a factory system articles and components (the wrought iron materials and components) used by the cottage industry workforce to manufacture iron ware, quite clearly meet with the defined criteria of Industrial Revolutionary process leaving only the question as to whether or not they were being carried out anywhere else prior to 1691.

In responding to our enquiries the Science Museum Library and Archives, Wroughton sent by e-mail on the 5th March 2015 a reply to our request for a definitive date marking the start of the industrial revolution. Their reply: “The precise start of the industrial revolution is still debated by scholars”.

Clearly therefore our claim that the industrial revolution started at Winlaton Mill is credible and puts the flesh on the bones, as it were to an observation made by (see figure 9) David Cranston MA (Cranston Consultancy) in a report commissioned by Gateshead Council, titled “Winlaton Ironworks Restoration Scheme” dated 1991/92 where, at appendix 3, page 1 he states “the iron and steel works at Winlaton Mill has been known to industrial historians for many years as an important example of early industrialisation, its initial layout dating from a very early stage of the industrial revolution.

Figure 1:       Arial view of Crowley site, Winlaton Mill, and photograph Crowley wall and low dam circa 1995

Figure 2:       Photograph Crowley’s Iron Works, Winlaton Mill, showing water wheel circa 1930

Figure 3:       Location map Scheduled Ancient Monument, Crowley Iron Works site, Winlaton Mill

Figure 4:       Crowley’s Mill No 1 layout plan circa 1718

Figure 5:       Coal Mills in Tyne and Wear Collieries: The Use of the Waterwheels for Mine Drainage 1600-1750 by Eric Clavering, Published by the John Hopkins University Press

Figure 6:      “Encyclopedie of Sciences” published by Denis Diderot 1761 – 1765

Figure 7:      Four illustrations taken from “Men of Iron”, by MW Flinn, Published by Edinburg University Press 1962

Figure 8:       Extract from “An Impartial History of the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne and its Vicinity” by John Baillie published in 1801

Figure 9:       Extract from “Winlaton Ironworks Restoration Scheme”, 1991-1992. A report commissioned by Gateshead Council from Cranston Consultancy.