The Iron Bridge

The Iron Bridge

David Morse
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The Iron Bridge
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The Severn Gorge
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Joan Joffe Hall
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John Wilkinson: August 1775

After entertaining Brigadier General Marchant de la Houliere for a fortnight and observing his guest's interests, Wilkinson realized that he, Wilkinson, commanded not merely the boring-machine, but something more elusive and magical - the very gleam of Progress.

The French, for all their science, lagged behind the English in practical ways. Isaac Wilkinson used to say that if the silly monsieurs ever left off their fiddling and dancing and turned to industry, Englishmen would shake in their boots. As it was, for a nation about to go to war with England, the French were at a terrible disadvantage - short of charcoal and ignorant of how to fire with coke.

Wilkinson played on all this. After taking the Frenchman to Horsehay and showing him Reynolds' great pumping-engine, whose cylinder weighed five and a half tons - he observed that the castings for the bridge would likely be heavier. The bridge had captured the Frenchman's imagination. Wilkinson wished he had a model to show him. He resolved to badger Darby on the matter.

At Brymbo, the farm he owned near Bersham, Wilkinson showed off the latest principles of modern agriculture - fields limed and drained, pastures planted with Dutch clover; improved breeds of cattle; a horse-powered threshing-machine. The officer scribbled notes in the little notebook he carried in his waistcoat pocket, and seemed planet-struck by everything he saw.

From Bersham they traveled east to the river Trent, to visit Josiah Wedgwood's modern pottery works. It was during this leg of the journey, driving past fields of ripe grain, that the Frenchman finally came forth with his proposal.

The French government wished to obtain Wilkinson's help in building the new arsenal at Indret. Wilkinson would be paid a handsome salary and provided with a home on the river Loire for the two years for which his presence would be required.

It was a handsome offer. While Wilkinson pretended to consider it, Houliere sweetened it with the suggestion that a mistress might be provided in the bargain. They spent a pleasant mile discussing the qualities one wished in a mistress: shapely limbs, sound teeth, sweet breath, firm breasts; clever, but not too clever; coquettish and yet discreet; and she must not interfere with one's life. But when this game was played out, Wilkinson assured his guest that he wad wealth and mistresses aplenty, and that what he needed was contracts. Volume contracts.

He explained his reasoning, while the other man listened intently. As the day was warm and dusty, they agreed to remove their wigs. The Frenchman's head was shaved; he looked smaller, older, almost wizened. Wilkinson's own naked scalp dried in the breeze. He spoke candidly of the information he possessed which he might sell dear, much as a grocer might offer prize truffles, but how the iron business depended on volume. And for a works such as New Willey, whose supply of water was limited, the volume must be in more profitable finished goods - hollow castings, as opposed to flat - priced at eight pounds per ton or better.

Wilkinson glanced at his companion to make sure he was following. The Frenchman looked up from grooming his wig, which lay in his lap - his fingers nimbly combing the road-dust from its locks with a little ivory comb and retying the ribbons - the mass of floppy curls looking disconcertingly like a lap dog. The ironmaster went on to his next point.

"Hollow castings in the retail trade means mostly pots. However, the Quakers have locked onto the hollow-ware trade so tight 'tis hard to prize them loose."

"But surely, Monsieur Wilkinson," interrupted Houliere, "you do not aspire to cast pots!" He snickered.

"My father was a pot-founder."

"An honorable calling, Monsieur. But, but - "

"My point is simply that the Dale Company, after three generations, has got its hooks in every Midland market town from Liverpool to Bristol - all by hard work, thrift, and honesty, to be sure. But they leave no room for others!"

"Such as yourself."

"Such as anyone!"

"Ah, so you do intend - "

Wilkinson snorted. "I intend nothing of the kind. I mean only to suggest that, through no fault of my own, cannon are my hollow-ware!" He scowled at the road ahead, presenting a profile he fancied as noble as an emperor on an old Roman coin. "Make no mistake, my friend. John Wilkinson is an armsmaker, first and foremost. And proud of it. But 'tis the only course open to him, thanks to the Quakers - a path pursued from a sense of duty."

"Well put, Monsieur! Someone must pursue it. If not you, then - " Marchant de la Houliere shrugged.

"Exactly. The Russians or the Spanish. The Quakers themselves, if their beliefs did not restrain them!."

"But of course!" Houliere clapped his hands with delight. "It is so profitable!"

"So," said Wilkinson. "As a military man you understand the problems facing me."

"Yes, yes. Yes, of course."

Wilkinson smiled patronizingly. The truth was quite the opposite. Military men, actually, were fools in the marketplace. Having a bottomless purse at their disposal, they wanted the best the new toy regardless of cost. And they were as stubborn as they were impractical: the Ordnance Board had taken decades to acknowledge the advantages of iron cannon over bronze - decades more to accept coke in place of charcoal.

Wilkinson went on to make his point. The great impediment he faced as an armsmaker was fluctuating demand. At the moment, he could scarcely keep up with cannon-orders. "The admirals are all insisting on the new solid-bored guns!" He chuckled, knowing that Houliere was salivating. "However, let us suppose that I invest in more cannon-boring machines? Give up engine-castings and make cannon exclusively? Why, then I should be more captive than ever to the caprices of war!"

"I see. Of course." The Frenchman jotted in his notebook, bald head nodding. "It is a trap."

Waiting for him to finish scribbling, Wilkinson went on to observe that once demand for the new solid-bored cannon was satisfied, then it too would fall prey to the vicissitudes that plagued the armsmaker.

"What is needed," chuckled Houliere, "is permanent war."

Wilkinson smiled grimly. The general had intended it facetiously; but this was the very concept that had begun to take shape in Wilkinson's own mind after the Seven Years War ended and iron prices began to decline. "I am convinced, my friend," said Wilkinson, "I am convinced that in a future run by businessmen, this is exactly where 'tis all headed. Permanent War."

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