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Village impact of iron 1/3

Working with molten iron with minimal safety equipment in an Egyptian foundry

Cannon balls sent to the Tower from Cuckfield

From Elizabethan times to the turbulent years of the English Civil Wars Cuckfield was a significant contributor of ‘pig iron’ and iron products within the region.

At times the foundries and forges worked at full tilt to contribute to war efforts and help build the nation’s armoury. This included casting cannon balls for the army and Royal Navy which were delivered by sea to naval dockyards and the Tower of London, via the River Ouse. But we can be confident that no guns or cannon were cast in the Cuckfield area - nor is there any evidence of body armour being made.

In more peaceful times, production would have been at a much reduced level. Ironworks would have served the agricultural industry and made a wide range of implements, ploughs and assorted household ironmongery and iron railings.

Sussex became known for elaborate domestic fire backs and fire ‘dogs’ for wealthy home owners and their iron gravestones can still be seen today at our local churches. The Sussex Weald was the country's 'Black Country' before the progress of technology moved iron production north.

Musket ball casting using lead using a cupola furnace

At the height of Sussex iron production it was said that, at night, the fires of 1500 furnaces could be seen from the heights of Crowborough. Today there is evidence that there were at least 170 water-powered ironmaking sites in the Weald area.

But the iron industry surrounding Cuckfield was outshone by the likes of Buxted, Ashburnham or Lamberhurst. As these were among the most important areas for iron production and where the richest sources of ore to be found.

Nevertheless the Cuckfield area was largely dependent on iron for village employment and would lead to its wealth and growing importance. The presence of the industry is still evident today in place and property names such as ‘Old Furnace’, ‘Furnace Wood’, ‘Cinder Bank’, ‘Bellowsnose Wood’ and ‘Hammer Hill’.

But where was all this heavy manufacturing industry happening in Cuckfield?

This article collates academic research dating back to the early 1900s. Cuckfield Connections outlines what historically we have known, brings things up to date with more recent research and speculates about some likely production locations. We hope we will stimulate discussion, and encourage villagers to pitch in with their own knowledge and observations.

Sixteenth century cannon ball

All of this would have been impossible without the generous help of WIRG - the Wealden Iron Research Group - which has made its impressive archive available to us and steered us along the way. Their research started 50 years ago combining meticulous fieldwork and thorough archival desk research.

This research has enabled us to check local records - property deals, wills, biographical accounts, place names, ironmasters’ business accounts, legal disputes and early maps to unearth further clues.

Site evidence

Physical evidence in the topography can help in the search for clues, but nature has a knack of masking and eroding earthworks and altering the alignment of water courses. We know that iron production usually happens along a dammed watercourse, and there needs to be viable access to the road network.

Iron workers would live close by - so that furnace fires and charcoal burning can be monitored 24/7 and the water flow managed in adverse weather. Four centuries later these homes may still be present.

The iron-working archaeology may be pinpointed by river alignments, and water course deepening or widening. Easily identifiable hammer and ‘pen’ ponds with sluices to control discharge of water will most probably have been constructed by the iron workers 450 years ago.

‘Lumpy’ fields can betray dumped slag or past digging for iron ore (or ‘mine’). Telltale remnants of slag, charcoal, cinder, processed iron or iron ore may be present on or near the surface. Nearby you may find coppiced woods - the essential source of fuel for the charcoal burners, and the furnaces.

Iron was smelted in Sussex as early as Neolithic Times (c8,000 to 3,000 BC), the Romans were active here too, continuing through the Mediaeval Ages, but most production happened in the Elizabethan period and the Stuart times. Sites sprung up as others closed because of variations in demand or availability of easily accessed ore, wood (for charcoal) and faltering water flow.

Iron production was also affected by human issues - owners deciding to stop or start a business, shortages of manpower, fierce rivalries between ironmasters and peaks and troughs in demand for product. After 40 weeks of continuous use furnaces had to be rebuilt - some were destroyed or abandoned after this period. Conversely, an impending war could lead to a dramatic surge in demand for cannon balls and this would merit the building of new works.

Project conclusions

Here are some of our initial conclusions after this desk research.

1 Almost certainly there were more locations of iron production present around the village than have hitherto identified. Sadly the pandemic has meant that site research to substantiate research findings has not been possible, so there is more to be done.

2 The High Street of Cuckfield has long been admired for its quaint and beautiful historic architecture, some of the buildings have had later façades added concealing the half-timber framed properties behind. Name most of the fine early properties - Cuckfield Park, Ockenden Manor, Kingsleys, and Maltmans and they owe their existence to the ironmasters and the iron industry they served.

But the village is also surrounded by many more fine sixteenth century properties, whose names you may be unfamiliar with. They were typically close to the ironworkings and occupied by the ironmasters and their families. The properties on the outskirts of the village are tucked away down remote lanes. Perhaps they should be visually catalogued and their histories and ownership added to a central village database.

It's not just a vague historic fact, the whole character of the village has been defined by the early iron industry. The church has many memorials to members of the ironmaster families - Bowyer, Burrell, Sergison. We have written records of what they did and even what they thought about the time and world they lived in.

Even the surrounding scenery, that we prize so much, has largely been stripped of its mediaeval period tree cover so that it could be burned to make charcoal or be used in construction. In its place we have a beautiful vista of downland - where before the dense forestland would have largely obscured the view.

3 The passage of 500 years and more means that much of the knowledge of what was made by the iron industry and why will have been lost forever. But maybe family records hold some vital clues that could fill some gaps in the village knowledge.

The Internet has given us the edge over earlier Cuckfield historians, it is proving an enormous asset to Cuckfield Connections as we garner new information every week about this Sussex village from sources as far as California, Edinburgh, Australia. We are no longer wholly reliant on conventional local archive sources that have often been comprehensively sifted through over the last few decades. Although paper archives still have their place and hold valuable information as yet untapped.

In the next article Cuckfield Connections looks at the Cuckfield Furnace and Forge located between Highbridge Mill and Copyhold Lane.


A big thank you to Tim Smith, Honorary Secretary of the Wealden Iron Research Group that has been carrying out rigorous research on this subject for over 50 years.

Casting musket balls, probably at the site of a battle, William Henry Pyne (1769-1843), Dover Books and Victorian Web

Forge photograph, taken in Egypt., Public domain image.

Cannon ball photograph supplied by the Wealden Iron Research Group.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.



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