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A Short History of Baptist Mills Brass Works
Part One: The Early Years, 1700 - 1720


Brass is made by combining Copper and Zinc at high temperature. Since Elizabethan times there had been various attempts to produce brass in Britain - all these had failed to produce brass in commercial quantities. All brassware, therefore, had to be imported from the Continental region which is now on the Dutch-German border. Merchants based in London had a Royal Monopoly on importing and re-exporting of all this 'Dutch' brassware and were active in attempts to block the establishment of commercial brass manufacture in Britain. During the 17th Century, and especially after the English Revolution, there was a shift in national policy where Merchants were becoming less and less influential over state policy making. A new breed of Capitalist Entrepreneur was gaining more influence and Parliament became increasingly an instrument for the promotion of capitalist profit and of the exploitation of human and natural resources on a world scale.

The Mines Royal Act of 1689 saw an end to the Royal monopoly of brass making. 1698 saw English copper makers (including ones from Bristol and South Wales) Petitioning Parliament protesting against the import of Swedish copper. 1698 saw the end of the London Merchants monopoly of the Royal West Africa slave trade and Bristol's own lucrative trade in slaves and its expansion of trade with the colonies took off.

At this time there was an awareness in Britain that combining zinc (the ore Calamine was used) and copper produced brass. But there was no scientific understanding of the processes involved and, as impure ore and not pure zinc was used, there were great difficulties in getting the correct proportions of zinc to copper to produce different types of brass.

1700 - 1702: Establishment of the Works

On July 25th, 1700, the Company petitioned the Privey Council praying for a Charter of Incorporation and declaring their interest to produce brass - a request which was denied. The works were eventually established at Baptist Mills, some two miles East of Bristol (see map), and were in use as early as 1702. The Baptist Mills Brass Works' were set up by Bristol Quakers on the site of an old grist mill on the River Frome. The original partners who put in the necessary capital were: Edward Lloyd (cidermaker), Benjamin Coole (Merchant), Arthur Thomas (Pewterer) and John Andrews (Merchant & Vintner, his sister was married to Edward Lloyd). John and Thomas Coster, copper manufacturers who were familiar with Dutch brass foundry techniques, also joined the Company. Nehemiah Champion II (a Merchant from Stapleton) also joined to complete the Company. Abraham Darby (1678-1717) can be seen as the innovative manager of the Brass Works. So, at Baptist Mills we see the coming together of a tight knit group of industrially-minded Quakers who had surplus capital which derived from Bristol's foreign, colonial and expanding slave-trade economy. The expanding African and Plantation trade stimulated a demand for brass rods and other Brass goods which were exported from Bristol's docks. Darby was soon to start experimenting with iron and added a small Iron Works to the concern.

Nehemiah Champion II's house in Clifton (now the Chesterfield Hospital) built c.1742. Note use of Slag Blocks for the constuction of whole of one side wall. N Champion II married the fourth child of Thomas Gouldney II whose house, Gouldney House, is directly opposite.

Baptist Mills was chosen for the site of the manufacturing company because;

  1. there was water-power from the River Frome,
  2. both charcoal and coal were available locally,
  3. Baptist Mills was close to the City and Port of Bristol
  4. there was room for establishment and expansion,
  5. a copper works had been established on the River Avon at Conham in 1698,
  6. Calamine (zinc) was available from the Clifton Downs and the Mendip Hills. The Baptist Mills works were to be the company's most important site for Brass and Copper production for the next 25 years until it started to decline in relative importance to other Keynsham, established by this rapidly expanding young and innovative concern.

In 1700 the Quakers; James Hollidge, Nathaniel Wade, Charles Jones, Edward Lloyd and Charles Harford made plans for the establishment of a brass works 'somewhere in England' though, it is thought, probably not in Bristol. No evidence exists that they set up such an enterprise. However by 1712 Caleb Lloyd, Jeffrey Pinnell, Abraham Darby and his brother-in-law, Thomas Harvey, were partners in a brass works in Coalbrookdale in Shropshire.

1703 - 1708: Early Important Developments

1703 Abraham Darby starts a pot foundry in Cheese lane (near Temple Meads), Bristol. He is interested in casting pot-bellied iron pots in sand.

1703 Thomas Gouldney inherits 'a considerable fortune' from his father in law, Thomas Speed.

In 1704 Darby tried to produce cast-iron pots and fails. He goes to Holland (Stolberg in the Reinland?) . Here he spy's on the industrial techniques of coal fired furnaces and the production of large brass pots and he recruits a number of skilled Catholic workers, some with their families, who come over to Bristol to work at Baptist Mills and, later, at the Company's Keynsham. works. The catholic workers were skilled in creating 'battery' ware. 'Battery' is the process of beating cold brass into different shaped vessels using water-powered hammers. These Catholics refused to come to Protestant Bristol unless they were guaranteed freedom of worship. A room was provided for them as a Catholic Chapel at the bottom of Ashley Hill. With help from the new Dutch workers Darby experimented in casting iron by using sand moulds instead of moulds made of loam. They were already able to cast brass in sand but they proved unable to cast iron in the same way. Their experiments were proving expensive and, as the sand moulds exploded, also dangerous. It appears, they got little support from the partners in the Company who wanted to concentrate on brass manufacture. Sand moulding requires a large capital investment in patterns and the Company's partners refused to advance capital to Darby to finance his experiments with casting iron.

1706 saw the Company's expansion with the formation of a Joint-Stock Company with transferable shares (worth a total of £8,000) and the existing partners being joined by R Stafford, John Hitchcock and Abraham Lloyd. The company establishes two new Brass Mills at Keynsham - one on the River Avon and one on the River Chew. Darby visits Shropshire, possibly paving the way for his move to Coalbrookdale .

From January 1707, and with the invaluable assistance of the Welsh-born Quaker, John Thomas, Darby finally managed to cast 'a pot of iron' in a sand mould. Thus paving the way for the mass production of affordable cast iron holloware and the establishment of the British Iron Trade. Not only did the casting of iron in sand moulds enable mass production but it also allowed the production of more complex shapes and was an important factor in the development of parts for future steam engines and engineering products. The new technique also enabled the production of iron pots which were lighter (by about a third in weight) from their predecessors.

So commercially important was this discovery that it was carried out in the utmost secrecy - even the key holes of the building were stopped up to prevent others spying on their work - for at this time there was the most fierce competition for these new discoveries and industrial processes. It is recorded that other industrialists tried to poach John Thomas and offered to double his wages if he left Darby's employment. An article of Agreement lasting three years was drawn up between Darby and Thomas which increased Thomas' wages and guaranteed his board and lodgings providing that he did not divulge 'to any other person on or about casting Iron Potts nor will disclose the method to anyone'. Darby & Thomas had built upon the expertise of 'casting in sand' which already existed not only in 'Holland' but in Bristol and elsewhere in England at that time. What they did was use a synthesis of the limited expertise of iron founders who were making simple shapes (e.g. rollers and thimbles) with the skills of brass founders who could cast complicated shapes (e.g. pot-bellied pots). As well as using the skills of Thomas Lloyd, Darby also learned from the brass founder, Roger Downes. Both of these men were soon to join Darby at Coalbrookdale.

1707 Thomas Gouldney becomes backer of Darby at Cheese Lane, St Philips, Bristol. Darby establishes a foundry there using pig iron from the Forest of Dean. Here he made the first known use of a reverberatory furnace in the iron industry thus making coal a fuel which could be used by iron founders. What he learns here he applies in the blast furnace at his future Coalbrookdale site the following year.

1708 August 1st, Woodes Rogers sails with two private men-of war to intercept Spanish bullion/treasure ships - Thomas Gouldney is the 'main' backer with 36 of the 256 shares available.

Darby Moves to Coalbrookdale

1708 - 1709 Darby leaves the Baptist Mills Brass Company and Bristol. He moves to Coalbrookdale, 1709, where, with two new partners and financed by Thomas Gouldney II, he had bought an unused iron furnace and forges. Here Darby eventually establishes a Joint Works - running copper, brass, iron and steel works side by side hoping to achieve maximum efficiency and cross-over of techniques, understanding and resources. He also attempts to establish vertical integration of all these operations (mining of ores and fuels, processing and distribution). His finance for his ambitious programme came from his established network of interlocking Quaker connections and a complicated arrangement of loans and mortgages. The Bristol Brass & Wire Company, as it came to be called, came increasingly under the control of Nehemiah Champion III - a Quaker Merchant who's family was already involved in different aspects of the metal trades. Nehemiah Champion III's brother, Richard was, for a while, a financial backer of Darby's Coalbrookdale works and his father, Nehemiah Champion II, was trading with Darby's new Coalbrookdale venture. Nehemiah Champian III was not a strict Quaker, he was wealthy and had numerous financial interests including part-ownership of armed merchant ships; the 'Severn', 'Lucea', 'Townsend' and 'Hawke'.

1709 - 1720: Rapid Expansion & Restructuring

The 'Bristol Brass & Wire Company' began to expand and took up leases of copper mines in Cornwall. Cornwall was the main source of copper for the Works although considerable amounts of copper was imported from the Schuyler mine in New Jersey, America. The Company is said to have invested much money in trying for copper ore in the American Colonies The combination of Quaker capitalists was making the Company and Bristol the biggest manufacturer and maker of brass battery in England. The Bristol Brass Company was using around 250 tons of coal a year (44 horse-loads a week) around this period.

1709 saw the Company merge with the Brass Wire Works in Esher, Surrey. The joint Company was valued at £16,000. brass production concentrated in Bristol where the emphasis was on the production of 'battery ware' - i.e. pots, pans and kettles (large pots) made by beating flat sheets of cold brass with powerful water-powered hammers. The men who did this work sat in shallow trenches in the floor. They manipulated the sheet brass under the hammers by hand. They wore leather aprons faced with brass, their ears plugged with rags against the noise of the hammering. To produce different items many weights and sections of hammers were used. The process of making individual pots was a long one with batches of pots being processed through annealing (i.e. controlled re-heating processes in the furnace). This was highly skilled 'factory' work in a country where the 'idea' of factory production, methods of mass production and the necessary co-ordinated movement and stable prices of the raw materials and finished products barely existed.

1710 Darby's foundry at Cheese Lane is valued at £1,738. This compares with the value of his acquired Coalbrookdale works of £1,060.

In 1711 The 'Bristol Brass & Wire Company', with other brass producers, Petitioned Parliament against the importation of foreign brass and brass ware from Holland. They claimed that they were providers of employment of the poor in England and users of British copper and calamine (ore which contains Zinc) to produce Brass. They protested against laws which protected imports from Holland - laws which came from a time when there had been no English Brass Industry. They were also Petitioning to say they were being denied equal access to the growing export opportunities which the slave plantations in the West Indies and elsewhere were providing. This petition was denied by Parliament which had set up a Committee of Enquiry to investigate the claims of the English producers and the Merchants who imported and re-exported foreign brass..

Around this time the Company built its own Copper Works on the Avon at Crew's Hole under the control of John Coster and his son Thomas.

1711 saw the return of the Woodes Rogers Expedition to the Thames. The spoils are not divided until court proceedings are exhausted over three years. Gouldney argues over the final split of the plunder however he has doubled his investment.

By 1712 Arthur Thomas said that the company's two copper works were using 2,000 horse-loads of coal a week. There is evidence to suggest that the brass produced by the Company had increased in quality over the previous two years. Arthur Swab from Sweden estimated that the production levels of brass in Bristol was between 400-533 tons a year. He reported that there were 25 furnaces at Baptist Mills which used 200 tons of copper a year and estimated it produced some 250-260 tons of brass a year. The previous difficulties of using fossil fuel in furnaces (the sulphur made the copper brittle and the resulting brass was unable to be used in further processing) had obviously been overcome by this time. The lessons learned by Abraham Darby in his development of the Baptist Mills Brass works were to be developed further when he moved to Coalbrookdale. As mentioned earlier he was partner in a Coalbrookdale brass works with other Quakers. One of the managers (possibly the first?) of these works was Roger Downes from whom Darby had learned so much of brass moulding in sand. Downes had been in the Shropshire area since about 1695. He later became manager of the iron works and was replaced by Jeffrey Pinnell.

The Brass Industry Part II


Radstock, Quakers in Science & Industry, David & Charles (Holdings) Ltd, 1968

× Bristol's Urban Ecology, Proceedings of the Bristol Naturalists Society, Vol. 48, 1988 pp100-103

× Jenkins, Rhys, The Copper Works at Redbrook and at Bristol, Bristol & Glos Arch Soc, Transactions for the Year 1942 pp145 - 167

× Buchannan & Cossons, Industrial Archaeology of the Region of Bristol

× Trustram, Mary, Pin Money, Placards & Pin Money, Bristol Broadsides

× Street, Doreen, Not Worth a Pin: Pinmaking in the Kingswood Area, Kingswood History Project.

B De Soyers, Bristol Brass Battery Process,

Day, Joan, Bristol Brass: The History of the Industry, David & Charles, 1973

Cox, Nancy, 'Imagination and Innovation of an Industrial Pioneer: the First Abraham Darby', Industrial Archaeology Review, XII, 2, Spring 1990, pp 127-144

Jones, Donald, 'Captain Woodes Rogers' Voyage Round The World 1708 - 1711', Bristol Branch of the Historical Association, Local History Pamphlets, 1992.