A Short History of Madeley

Our photo shows John Randall (1810 – 1910), Madeley historian, china decorator, local councillor, postmaster, printer, geologist – the list is endless. Best known for his “history of Madeley”, first published in 1880 (an invaluable source document for local historians), his name lives on in the John Randall Primary School in Queen Street. The photo shows him in 1909 when he was granted the freedom of the Borough of Wenlock, of which Madeley used to be a part.

Although this is supposed to be a short history it is necessary to start around 200 million years ago — in the Carboniferous Period — when what we now call Britain was located somewhere near the equator! The period lasted for 60 million years and involved a cycle of land emerging as tropical swamps covered in lush vegetation, then being inundated by fairly shallow warm seas. Thus the coal seams were laid down, together with their associated layers of clay, ironstone and strata of limestone.

It was this geological foundation that gave the Madeley district its eventual prosperity, for Madeley is the very hub of a district built on coal, iron, clay and ironstone.

Now we‘ve got the pre-history out of the way, let’s move on to modern times — the seventh century! Saxon charters mention land holdings in the woods above the Severn Gorge — the original settlement may well lie beneath present day Madeley. The parish church (St. Michael’s) is possibly the third on the site, the first having been a Saxon building. It is likely that it was built on what was previously a pagan site — this would have maintained continuity of worship and prevented the not totally convinced from returning to their old practices.

In the year 727 Madeley was mentioned as part of an acquisition of land by one Lady Milburga, the daughter of a sub-king of Mercia who founded a religious house in nearby Much Wenlock — Madeley remained part of the demesne of Much Wenlock until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry the Eighth in the sixteenth century. In local government terms Madeley was part of the Borough of Much Wenlock until 1966.

The manorial rolls of Much Wenlock Priory mention in an intriguingly vague fashion that the monks dug pits, used coal and ran a forge. There are a few confirmed dates — in 1250 the Prior was granted rights to mine by Phillip de Benthal and in 1332 Walter de Caldbrook paid a fine (today we would call it a fee) of 6 shillings to allow a man to dig for “seacole” in the area known as the Brockholes for 1 year.

We haven’t mentioned one important event during this period — the Domesday Book in 1086. Madeley is mentioned as being held by the Abbey of Much Wenlock — now named after its founder, who had been canonised as Saint Milburga. The original Latin of the Domesday Book is all but impenetrable to non experts, indeed the English of some early translations is not much better — it says for instance that Madeley had “1 hide ungeldable and 2 geldable” it gives the male reader the urge to keep his legs firmly crossed! (It simply refers to whether something is taxable, as in “Danegeld’ or the modern German ‘geld’. The Domesday Book enumerates the ploughs & villagers and 4 slaves, and goes on to say “there is woodland to support 400 swine”.

The Domesday Books final entry states “At the time of (King) Edward it was worth £4 — it is now worth 50 shillings” — whatever else the Norman occupation did it played hell with property prices! It’s worth mentioning that a small hamlet some 40 miles to the south east was valued in the Domesday Book at 4 shillings and sixpence, a place known then as Brimidgeham (modern Birmingham).

This might be a good place to talk of name Madeley. In the Domesday Book it is called ‘Madelie’, then in 1187 we find ‘Priors Madeley’ and over the years we meet it with 2 Ls, 2 Ds and with and without a final ‘G’ or ‘Y’. The origin of the name seems to be the clearing in the woods — Lea — near the Mad Brook (a local stream which still flows through the parish), though some authorities prefer Mada’s Lea, Mada being a common Saxon personal name.

In 1269 there was a quite momentous happening — the Prior was granted a license by Henry the Third to hold a weekly market and an annual fair — you could say that with the grant of that charter it became a town. [The fair was to be held on the eve, day and morrow of St. Matthew (September 20, 21, 22), this was changed during the reign of Edward the Third to the eve, day and morrow of the Translation of St. Martin (July 3, 4, 5)]. The fair and market lasted for many years but sometime in the late 17th Century the wooden market hall — somewhere near the present day Upper House in Church Street — burnt down and the market ceased. It restarted in 1763 and moved to nearby Ironbridge in the 1780s. In 1870 the market was revived in the purpose-built market hall — ‘Jubilee House’, ‘The Arcade Works’ or the ‘Nut & Bolt Factory’ as most local residents know it. Among those most active in its renewal was John Randall — you’ll hear more of him later.

Other major events in the history of Madeley must include the dissolution of the monasteries. The Prior of Wenlock had, as well as the Great Hay, a grange, a small farm and lodge for hunting. At the dissolution in 1533 he retired there and in 1540 the house was sold to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Basil Brooke. He paid £946, three shillings and eight pence for it and added greatly to the building — the wing that includes the Great Hall is probably his work. It was rented much later by Abraham Darby the First, who lived there from 1709 until his death in 1717. By this time it was known by its modern name of Madeley Court.

Another event affecting Madeley but fortunately not attracting the attention of the government of the time was a royal visit. During a night in September 1651 Charles the Second, escaping after the Battle of Worcester, was guided by Richard Penderel to a known safe house — in Church Street — the home of Francis Wolfe, a Catholic. The house had a priest hole but it had been discovered earlier so it was decided that the King should be hidden in the barn. The King escaped to France and lived there until his restoration to the throne. The house was Upper House, the neighbouring barn is now in a very poor state.

Although we’ve already covered the evidence of coal and iron working in medieval times the most significant developments took place during the second half of the Sixteenth Century and the first half of the Seventeenth. Historian Barry Trinder writes of a 10 fold increase in population between 1570 and 1670. Two very important developments occurred early in the Seventeenth Century — the first was the introduction of the longwall method of mining, where the whole of a seam could be extracted, the waste area, the ‘gob’ or ‘goaf’ being packed with rocks and ‘slack’ or small coal, the necessary roadways being supported with wooden props. Earlier methods of mining, such as ‘pillar and stall’ involved leaving substantial pillars of coal in place to support the roof. As greater depths were being reached this could mean that more than 50% of the coal was left in the ground. The longwall method — which was described in other coalfields as ‘The Shropshire Way’ — was first recorded in the parish of Madeley.

The second important innovation during this period was the introduction of wheeled vehicles running on rails (originally of wood but later iron), both underground and on the surface. Innovation in all industries was a feature of the whole district. In 1775 Abraham Darby the Third’s wife wrote that her husband had laid iron rails to replace wood — upwards of 20 miles and she also believed that he had invented iron wheels and axle trees for his wagons. The first steam engine used to drain a mine in Madeley was set up in 1719 and followed by steam winding engines. A miner born in 1719 said in his old age that he could remember when there was “not a single steam engine in the district to draw up the coals”; — by 1800 there were more than 100 and many more were erected in the next century.

Another innovation was organisational rather than industrial — earlier most raw materials had been gained by small concerns and sold on to producers, brought in by wagon or packhorse. By the mid Eighteenth Century growing concerns such as the Madeley Wood Company were taking a more active part in mining their raw materials and moving them over their own tramways to their furnaces and forges. This type of ‘vertically integrated’ concern was the forerunner of the huge industrial companies and multinational companies of today.

The new uses of coal — usually in the form of coke — included the making of bricks, tiles, salt, glass, china and malt — this last may have been the reason why Abraham Darby experimented successfully with the use of coke for iron smelting — he had originally been apprenticed to a maltster. Certainly the use of coked coal for smelting iron had been mooted in the 1600s. Dud Dudley claimed to have done so but he could not say how — if he did the secret died with him.

A charcoal fired furnace needed up to 2,000 acres of coppice timber every year, at a time when more profitable uses for land than forestry were being discovered — not only an industrial but also an agricultural revolution was taking place.

Abraham Darby’s successful use of coal was helped by the fact that his major use of iron was for casting pots — his early product was of little use for making wrought iron and his ideas and methods were not immediately seized on by other iron producers in the district. Eventually — probably by trial and error — the system was developed by the judicious use of evolving methods and differing mixtures of the variety of iron ores to be found in the district to produce a range of irons for all purposes.

The variety of types of iron ore to be found in the local clay measures that lay between the coal measures had a range of names bordering on the poetical — we have Pennystone, Chance Pennystone, White Flats, Blue Flats, Blackstone, Yellowstone, Chance Stone, Brickman’s Measure and Ragged Robin.

As well as coal the output of clay products grew enormously: bricks of all sorts — common and facing bricks for building, fire bricks for furnace, forges and kilns; tiles for roofing and flooring, and paviors for paths and railways were all produced in Madeley, and of course everyone in the world knows of Coalport China — the factory was at the time of its establishment in the parish of Madeley — of course it closed in 1926 and is now part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

But how many have heard of Madeley China? About 1825 Thomas Martin Randall, uncle of John Randall mentioned earlier, started a china works in Madeley. He had been apprenticed to John Rose at Coalport and had travelled widely to many areas of china production. He wanted to equal the exquisite Sevres china of France — the secret of which had been lost in the Revolution — and he managed to produce here in Madeley a china of such quality that much of it ‘passed’ as Sevres, though, staunch Quaker that he was, he refused to fake the Sevres mark. It is reported that some of his work was sent to Dover, then moved from the export sheds to the import warehouses and sold on as having come from Paris. Unfortunately he moved his works to Stoke in 1839.

A Madeley oddity was discovered in 1787 when William Reynolds started to cut an underground canal from the banks of the River Severn to the shafts of the Blists Hill mines — after about 30 yards a spring of natural bitumen was discovered — it was diverted into a channel draining the tunnel and processed at the entrance to be sold as British Oil, used as pitch for various jobs and for medicinal purposes. The initial output was recorded as being 1,000 gallons a week but steadily declined — by 1824 it was down to 20 barrels a year and sales ceased in 1843.

The Shropshire coalfield achieved its maximum output of coal and iron around 1870 — 1 million tons of coal, with iron production having increased to 200,000 tons from an 1805 figure of 50,000 tons, though the 1805 output represented 20% of national production the much higher 1870 figure was only 2%. From then on all the figures — absolute and percentage of national production went down, but Madeley soldiered on.

The local collieries came in all shapes and sizes — some small and old fashioned, some, particularly those of the Madeley Wood Company, large and modern. the Kemberton in 1894 (and the last to be closed in 1967) was the Madeley Wood Company’s most profitable pit. Its location was the result of the advice of John Randall, who was mentioned earlier. He really was a most unusual man — a genuine polymath. Born in 1810 across the river in Broseley, he became a china painter at Coalport, renowned for his beautiful birds — he worked for a while for his uncle at the short-lived Madeley China Works. During his last 10 years as a china painter he also worked as a printer, stationer, bookseller and postmaster. He wrote several books on local history (the best-known being “The History of Madeley”) and was made a Fellow of the Royal Geological Society for his work on local rock formations. He was made a Freeman of the Borough of Wenlock after years as a councillor — that was in 1909, the year before his death at the age of 100.