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1674: How we make iron in Cuckfield

An early metal working foundry making armour

It seems extraordinary that a seventeenth century account of what was involved in making iron in Cuckfield should still exist in the 21st century. In fact it is one of just three contemporary accounts of iron production in this country. It was written by the Cuckfield ironmaster Walter Burrell (1600-1671).

The account appears in a work by naturalist and philosopher, John Ray, FRS and reproduced in a learned publication compiled by John Holland describing metal production techniques and published in 1831.

In brief we learn that the local furnaces delivered eight tons of iron a week, and that the stone-hearth they used had to be rebuilt every 40 weeks. During this time the fire was kept constantly burning. Clearly this consumed large quantities of fuel and across Sussex led to the wholesale destruction of the forests and a more barren appearance to the county.

There is evidence that at the peak of the local iron production there were at least half a dozen furnaces in operation and dotted around the perimeter of the market town. While the local men were kept fully employed, it needed arduous toil and long 'shift hours' to maintain the fires, pour molten metal and hammer the raw material. The iron masters grew rich through their labours - and helped arm the nation for war, against both internal and external enemies.

Introduction by John Holland, 1813

In the sixteenth century the process, according to all accounts, was not many degrees advanced, with the exception of the bellows, and a better constructed furnace, beyond the primitive practice. What it was in 1674, may be seen from the following extract from an account of the manner of making iron at Cuckfield, in Essex [should be Sussex, author’s error]; it was written by that observant naturalist and philosopher, John Ray, FRS:

"The iron mine (ore) lies sometimes deeper, sometimes shallower in the earth, from four feet to forty, and upwards.

"There are several sorts of mine; some hard, some gentle, some rich, some coarser. The iron masters always mix different sorts of mine together, otherwise they will not melt to advantage.

"When the mine is brought in, they take small cole (charcoal), and lay a row of small cole, and upon it a row of mine, and so alternately, stratum super stratum, one above another, and setting the coles on fire, therewith burn the mine. The use of this burning is to mollify it, that so it may be broke in small pieces; otherwise, if it should be put into the furnace as it comes out of the earth, it would not melt, but come away whole.

"Care also must be taken that it be not too much burned, for then it will loop, i.e. melt and run together in a mass. After it is burnt, they beat it into small pieces with an iron sledge, and then put it into the furnace (which is before charged with coles), casting it upon the top of the coles, where it melts and falls into the hearth in the space of about 12 hours, more or less, and then it is run into a sow.

"The hearth or bottom of the furnace is made of a sand stone [Cuckfield's local stone], and the sides round, to the height of a yard, or thereabout; the rest of the furnace is lined up to the top with brick.

"When they begin upon a new furnace, they put fire for a day or two, before they begin to blow: they then blow gently, and increase, by degrees, till they come to the height, in ten weeks or more.


"Every six days they call founday, in which space they make eight tons of iron; if you divide the whole sum of iron made by the founday, for at first they make less in a founday, at last more.

"The hearth, by the force of the fire continually blown, grows wider and wider; so that if at first it contains so much as will make a sow of 600 or 700 pounds weight, at last it will contain so much as will make a sow of 2000 pounds. The lesser pieces of 1000 pounds, or under, they call pigs.

"Of twenty-four loads of coles, they expect eight ton of sows; to every load of coles which consists of eleven quarters, they put a load of mine, which contains eighteen bushels.

"A hearth ordinarily, if made of good stone, will last forty foundays; that is, forty weeks, during which time the fire is never let go out. They never blow twice upon one hearth, though they go upon it not above five or six foundays.

"The cinder, like scum, swims upon the melted metal in the hearth, and is let out once or twice before a sow is cast."

Sussex, previously to the use of pit-coal in smelting, was one of the principal sources from which English iron was drawn ; at present, the smelting in that county has totally declined, as old Evelyn predicted it would, in consequence of the wasting of the forests. The consumption of charcoal for the smelting of iron has been one chief cause of the great destruction of our ancient woods. Evelyn has beautifully observed, that:

"Nature has thought fit to produce this wasting ore more plentifully in woodlands than any other ground, and to enrich our forests to their own destruction ;" to which he elsewhere adds his "Dirae, a deep execration of iron mills, and iron masters also, quos ego…” "How would he have rejoiced," exclaims Mr Hunter, "to have witnessed the day when the coke of pit-coal became substituted for the charcoal in this consuming process! "

Elizabeth I - tree felling curbed

The sylvan beauty of Sussex, indeed, appears to have been chartered to special spoliation; for, by the act of 1st of Queen Elizabeth, chap. 15., it is enacted, that no oak, beech, or ash timber, of the breadth of one foot square at the stub, shall be cut down to be converted to charcoal for making iron, in any parts of the kingdoms of England and Wales, except in the county of Sussex, in the wield of Kent, and certain other parishes in the latter county.

It was the introduction of charred pit-coal, or coke, during the last century, that not only arrested the destruction of our forests, but laid anew the foundation of our present extensive manufactories of native iron. Up to the last-mentioned period, small furnaces were gene- rally made use of, and these were, as already observed, heated with charcoal in the same manner as is still practised in many places on the Continent.

So long as England abounded with wood, the process was carried on to considerable advantage ; and we find that the manufacture of iron was in a flourishing condition in the reign of James I: but, from that time, the increase of inhabitants and of cultivation, and the subsequent decrease of wood, caused this business to decline so greatly as to be nearly lost, until, as before stated, the substitution of mineral coal, and consequent construction of larger furnaces, restored to our country this important trade.

The history of our native iron trade during what may be considered the era of transition from the use of charcoal to pit coke, abounds with disastrous notices of the men who embarked on that sea of adventure, the confessedly hidden riches of which appeared perpetually to tantalise one and another with the hopes of discovering, under the form of charred pit-coal, a product more precious than the philosopher's stone.

Unless, indeed, we could imagine that, under so specious an appellation, the Rosicrucian experimenters really meant nothing more than "metallum martis” [metal from Mars], the iron and steel of modern times, which, though not possessed of the mystical power of transmuting all baser metals into gold alchemically, do, nevertheless, possess the more inestimable qualities of being capable of manufacture into articles so indispensable, that if they could only be procured through the conversion of gold itself into the baser metals, would be considered as inestimable even at such a price.


Taken from 'A treatise on the progressive improvement and present state of the manufactures in metal'

by Holland, John, 1794-1872, published 1831. Chapter III page 29.

NOTES: Rev James Hughes Cooper, vicar of Cuckfield also found an identical account but in another book - J. Ray’s ‘Collection of Proverbs.’ This version is of particular interest because at the end Ray it identifies his source, ‘This account of the whole process of the Iron work I had from one of the chief Iron master, in Sussex, my honoured friend Walter Burrell, of Cuckfield, Esq., now deceased.’ As the vicar notes in his 'History of Cuckfield ' 'It may therefore be reasonably taken as a direct presentation of Cuckfield industrial history'.

Some commentators have observed that this may not relate to production at Cuckfield Furnace to the south of the village but to another Burrell ironworks on the Staplefield Road, called Holmsted Forge - or even Burrell’s Blackfold Furnace at Handcross which supplied Holmsted. But the location is not really relevant in the account - but the practical knowledge of the local iron master.

There are only two other contemporary accounts of iron production - Swedenborg's description of Gloucester furnace and there is one concerning Lamberhurst.

The picture is the frontispiece from the John Holland book.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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