A Swedish Visitor in 1754
by Frank Sharman
R. R. Angerstein was a Swedish industrial expert who, in the 1750s, travelled around Europe, at the behest and expense of the Swedish government, to report on the state of industry there. He was in England in 1753, 1754 and 1755 where, in the course of his many and lengthy journeys, he visited this area twice. The area would have been of importance to him because, at that time, Sweden was a major exporter of iron and steel. It was Swedish steel that was used in the steel jewellery and buckle making industry of Wolverhampton. Also the area was a major producer of iron and therefore in competition with Sweden.
The main focus of Angerstein's notes is on the coal and iron mines and he gives a good deal of attention to the quality of the coal and the seams in which it is found. He is not too impressed by the methods by which coal is mined: "Wednesbury is perhaps the most famous place in the world for its tremendously thick seams of coal that measure 30, 33, 36 and 39 feet in height. A result of this abundance of coal is that the mines nowhere else are worked so carelessly and with such prodigality as here, where the miners can see quite plainly that the coal cannot come to an end in their lifetime." He notes that the abundance of coal in the area gives its manufacturing industries a price advantage but insists that areas of Sweden "where the people are industrious and where timber is in good supply" should be able to undercut Wolverhampton manufacturers. By this time the UK iron industry was heavily dependant on coal as supplies of timber, and hence charcoal, were practically exhausted. But Sweden's supply of timber still seemed inexhaustible and in fact remained the basis of their iron and steel industry for very many years.
Angerstein also reports on the manufacturing industries in Bilston, Wednesbury and Wolverhampton but also notes that: "In every village, house and farm on the road between Wolverhampton and Wednesbury, one found a smith’s workshop making buckles, rings, locks and nails". He also commented on the mines in this vicinity, noting that many old workings had been abandoned and had collapsed. In short he confirms the picture of the area as being one of small towns and villages engaged in mining and metal work, with the countryside between still agricultural but giving way to the extractive and manufacturing industries.
Angerstein visited Bilston twice. He duly notes the coal mines and the fact that "fire engines" had been installed in the mines to keep water out. But he says that the town "consists mainly of factories for metal boxes and other cast and punched work which comes under the heading 'Toy ware' or 'Quincaillerie'". At another point he says that Bilston "manufactures many kinds of wares in non-ferrous metals such as pinchbeck, as well as engraved and turned mother-of-pearl for boxes and watch-chains, buttons and all sorts of similar small articles. Here are also workshops for enamelled boxes made of copper sheets, which are stamped in dies of various shapes. Lacquered boxes of iron sheets are also made around here." He thus notes a wider range of goods than is usually mentioned as coming from Bilston at this time, the reference to mother-of-pearl work being particularly interesting. The reference to lacquered iron boxes is also of interest as this is, presumably, japanware and, as was usual at Bilston, it was carried out on metal not papier-mâché.
But in Bilston enamelling has Angerstein's main attention, confirming its importance in the town. He notes, for example, that "in one farmhouse between Bilston and Wolverhampton there was a factory for snuff-boxes and other enamelled work, where a large number of women were employed in preparing the enamel, dipping the copper sheets and painting. They were also occupied in firing and tempering the enamel …." The prices this work commanded impressed him, though he notes, of course, that it was dependant on the quality of the work and painting. His notes also reflect specialization in the trade as he comments on a works where "the people were occupied with the making of paste gems and enamelled work to be incorporated into boxes and watch chains and with the filing and carving of mother-of-pearl". He also notes that he saw a factory making the same things in Wednesbury but, even if there was more than one such factory in Wednesbury, it was clearly not the dominant industry it as in Bilston.
Wolverhampton receives a good deal of his attention because it is "one of the three towns in England famous for the fabrication of iron and steel-ware". He notes that it is "particularly renowned for all kinds of polished articles, such as buckles, watch chains, candle-snuffers, etc.". This list is added to when he attends one of the markets that were held in Wolverhampton on Wednesdays and Saturdays. These were not merely agricultural markets but also industrial markets, particularly that on Wednesdays. "I had hardly entered my room at the inn, before scores of smiths came in to offer their wares for sale. Included in these were nails, tools, locks, hinges, key-rings, buckles, corkscrews, watch-chains, flat-irons, crimping-irons, sugar axes, snuffers and other similar goods in iron and steel which fetch a good price." Angerstein seems to think that this was a straightforward market with makers selling to any of the merchants they could strike a deal with. In fact it is likely that many of the buyers were simply buying back the material they had supplied to workers after the workers had turned them into finished products.
The buckle industry has his careful attention and he visited several workshops. He notes the division of labour in the manufacturing process: "I saw that some were occupied in forging the hook and the spike, others in filing them, and others in assembling them in the ring. The buckle ring itself has its own workman, after which another files and polishes. All of these special tasks have their own way of being carried out." This was not only division of labour in one factory but between factories too.
A further interesting observation on this sort of work comes when he remarks: "In a forge I observed melting and forging of iron filings. The filings were first washed in water and then squeezed into the shape of balls which were placed in a red-hot furnace to produce a crust all round them. Subsequently they were heated further in blacksmiths’ hearths and forged by hand as required. This iron is considered to be the best that can be had in this district and is particularly in demand by manufacturers of watch-chains and buckles." It would be interesting to know more about this recycling process. Were the iron filings actually steel, the usual material of watch chains and buckles?
Angerstein is interested in why Wolverhampton is commercially successful. The explanation he comes up with is that it comes from "the great help that they get with the work from women and children, who do most of the polishing, screwing of parts together and other such finicky work requiring more time than skill. As far as filing and forging are concerned, this work is done by the master and journeyman, but just the same, one also sees small boys occupied with filing".
There is also an interesting reference to another industry. "In a meadow outside the town, flax was spread out on the ground, and I was told that it was placed there to be retted and bleached." This may be a unique reference to flax in Wolverhampton. It would be interesting to know if it was grown locally; and whether the flax was made into linen, or whatever, in the town. On Isaac Taylor's map of 1750 "tenters" are marked in two places: one about half way down the present Darlington Street on a field called "Cock Croft" and the other behind the Grammar School in John Street. Liz Rees once suggested that these were for stretching sheepskins or wool products. But they are more usually associated with flax and linen. Cock Croft would correspond with "a meadow outside town". It seems therefore that these tenters do mark the presence of some kind of linen industry in Wolverhampton.
Angerstein gives a general description of Wolverhampton (which, he notes, is "here called Hampton").