William Wilkinson (1744–1808)

William Wilkinson was the principal channel through which British innovations in ironmaking in the 18th century were transferred to continental Europe. He was the son of the pot founder Isaac Wilkinson (1695-1784) and the younger brother of John Wilkinson (1728-1808) the most prominent ironmaster of the British Industrial Revolution.

Both William and John Wilkinson grew up in Cumbria, where their father was employed at the coke-using blast furnace at Little Clifton and at the blast furnaces at Backbarrow and Lowood. The family moved in 1749 to the blast furnace at Bersham in North Wales, although from the mid-1750s John Wilkinson was principally concerned with new ironworks in Shropshire and Staffordshire. After disputes with their father, the two brothers became partners in the Bersham works in 1774, while William had a 1/8 share in John’s ironworks at Snedshill, Shropshire.

William left Britain for France in 1777, following a visit to Bersham by the Frenchman, Marchant de la Houlliere in 1775. His designs for a large ironworks at Indret near the mouth of the Loire were executed by Pierre Toufaire, but the works was unsuccessful and produced few cannon. Ignace de Wendel, an artilleryman, and a member of a family with long experience in ironmaking, took direction of the project, and diagnosed that coke-blast iron was needed to produced high quality cannon. De Wendel was responsible for the construction of the Fonderie Royale at Le Creusot, the first stage of which included four blast furnaces, and 24 km of iron railway.

The last stages of the journey from Bersham to Le Creusot of a steam engine cylinder inscribed ‘Wilkinson’ were depicted in a contemporary engraving, and one such cylinder remains in the museum at the latter. William Wilkinson met his brother at Namur in 1782. John Wilkinson had many links with the continental Europe, and supplied steam engine cylinders and cast-iron pipes for the Paris waterworks in the 1780s. The Founderie Royale was initially unsuccessful, and William Wilkinson returned to Britain in 1786.

He settled in 1789 at Plas Grono near Bersham, where he found that his brother had leased land at nearby Brymbo, to which he was transferring plant from Bersham. A substantial quarrel ensued, during which it became evident that John Wilkinson had built many ‘pirate’ steam engines that infringed the patents of James Watt. The case went to Chancery and then to King’s Bench, and eventually John Wilkinson bought out his brother’s share in Bersham, but William received ?8000 in compensation.

William Wilkinson never became a commanding figure in the British iron industry, but his role in transmitting new technologies to France was of great importance.