Forging a place in history

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Wentworth Woodhouse, Conisbrough Castle and Monk Bretton Priory are all notable Grade I listed buildings, but have you heard of Wortley Top Forge?

Right on our doorstep in our glorious county of South Yorkshire lies another hidden treasure, one that is over 350 years old. Dating back to around 1640, Wortley Top Forge is now the only surviving water powered wrought iron forge which retains its original features – testimony to the commitment of hard-working volunteers. Today, the site forms an industrial museum that will fuel intrigue into the true art of early iron-making and forging in Wortley and the significance it had on the industry

Built by Sir Francis Wortley, of Wortley Hall, before the English Civil War, Top Forge uses purely water from the River Don to power waterwheels that once worked huge hammers forging wrought iron.

The site was the perfect location for Sir Francis; in close proximity to his estate and woods and on the banks of the river, the forge was guaranteed an endless supply of charcoal and water to operate a successful bloomery furnace.

Following the death of Sir Francis, the forge continued to play a pivotal role in the successes of local iron making. Between 1660 and 1760 the forge was leased to the Spencer family of Cannon Hall, ironmasters who dominated the industry in South Yorkshire during that period.

Around 1740, John Cockshutt leased the forge and, with his sons James and John Jr, placed it at the cutting edge of iron technology in Britain. He introduced a key process at Wortley named ‘puddling’, which allowed wrought iron to be produced from pig iron on a larger scale.

In Victorian times, the Andrews family forged wrought iron axles for the expanding railway industry which the site became renowned for. Eventually, wrought iron was replaced by cheaper mild steel and operations ceased at Wortley Top Forge in 1908, with site management ending in 1929.

Following over two decades of neglect and deterioration, South Yorkshire Industrial History Society purchased the semi-derelict site in 1953 and since then have been restoring the forge buildings and its three waterwheels to their former working glory in order to open as a visitor attraction. It is now the only heavy iron forge in the country to retain its original buildings, waterwheels, hammers and cranes.

John Cooper has been a trustee for over 50 years and as an active volunteer he is passionate about the preservation of the site.

“I started volunteering back in 1967, October to be exact, when I was a young man of only 25. The site was derelict back then, covered with willowherb, quite different from today,” he said.

In keeping with what would have been the forge’s appearance in 1900, the team have used old photographs and archive evidence to capture the essence of 19th century ironwork.

The water wheels are made from original cast iron and only the wooden paddles of the wheels have been replaced as part of the restoration. Both the cranes and the belly helve hammers have also had rotted wood replaced. A blower wheel air pump has been recreated and the team even managed to acquire a cast iron furnace case to replicate modern practices.

Today, the site forms the heart of an industrial museum, a fascinating place wonderfully brought to life by tour guide, Gordon, who captures your imagination with his description of the forge, its former workers and the history that lies within.

In the forge itself, live demonstrations help visitors imagine the hot, dusty and dangerous work of forging metal using the incredibly powerful hammer mechanisms. See the water wheels turning, steam engines chugging and the miniature railway whistling down the track – a trip on which is a must for visitors young and old.

Accompanying outbuildings are a treasure trove of original historical machinery and artefacts, enhanced with the addition of donated pieces which have been re-homed, brought back to life and preserved for the enjoyment of others.

There’s an abundance to explore including rooms that have been restored to replicas of yesteryear including a Victorian kitchen and washroom – complete with a tin bath and mangle. These on-site cottages were still inhabited until as recent as 1970 before being deemed ‘unsuitable for human habitation’ in line with modern living expectations.

In the machine shop is a display of ancient hand tools and a wealth of machinery dating back to the 1800’s, all remarkably in pristine condition, along with a Three Throw Wort Pump from the much-loved Barnsley Brewery.
There’s even a specially designed steam engine created exclusively for Rotherham Technical College students to learn thermodynamics and calculate how much power they could create out of a pound of coal.

Notably, the collection contains two machines of which there are only ten in total across the entire world. One dates back to 1850 and was given to the society from Jedediah Strutt’s mill at Milford, near Derby. It was made by James Fox of Derby who were a family of machine tool and textile machinery makers, leading pioneering designers of the early 19th century.

Catch a glimpse of the first wire and cutting machine dating back to 1911, a contribution of Mr Paul Thompson himself of Thompson and Munroe Ltd which is still successfully operating in Yorkshire today over 100 years later.
Outside, the site’s nature trail is a habitat for a variety of plants and animals. More than 40 types of birds have been spotted at the forge. Mallard and Moorhen nest by the dam and in summer you may be lucky enough to spot them swimming with a group of chicks.

The nature trail enables you to appreciate how the land and vegetation have been shaped by human uses over time. Be sure to pick up a free guide for a true reflection of the different activities, past and present.

Today, the ancient monument is professionally run by over 30 knowledgeable volunteers and the team are always grateful of new members to support with guided tours, assist with gardening, painting machinery or generally assist in restoring the site to its former glory.

“We need people to come here to enable us to keep operating and fund further works to the site, such as the road to the car park which we were able to raise funds for last year. It is such a special place and there is so much history we can share with those who visit,” said Ted, site co-ordinator.

After re-opening this spring, the 2019 season runs from March to November and visitors are welcomed on Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays from 11am to 5pm. Large groups or school trips are guaranteed exclusive access on a Wednesday for a private tour, though advanced booking is required.

Set aside a couple of hours to truly get the most out of your visit. Admission is very reasonably priced at £3.00 for adults, £2.00 for concessions and 50p for children under 16. The site is situated at Forge Lane, Thurgoland, Sheffield, S35 7DN less than five miles from of the M1. There is ample car parking available at no extra charge. Telephone 0114 2887576 For group enquiries, please call 0114 2817991.

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