Revealing Research: The Coalbrookdale Company orders archive

In a project made possible through a Headley Fellowship with Art Fund, a little-known part of our archive has been brought to light.

This archive contains some 730 orders undertaken by the Coalbrookdale Company ironworks in the late 19th - early 20th century for decorative and architectural ironwork such as railings, gates, lamp posts, verandas, fountains and vases. The orders include original draughtsmen drawings, blueprints, costings, and correspondence with clients. There are construction notes, detailed timescales of projects, and comments written by foremen in the Company, including the foreman fitter and the art designer. Not much is understood about the output of the Coalbrookdale Company at this time. The archive has provided a chance to redress this, and not only showcases some of the best work of Coalbrookdale, but also illustrates a wide-ranging design archive of built heritage.

Items still in-situ

In researching the archive, a few hitherto unknown in-situ items were discovered. Where Coalbrookdale ironware is known, it is usually a large civic item such as a fountain or bandstand, less so utilitarian items such as staircases or boot scrapers.

Spiral stair, West Bromwich Free Library, 1906

In 1906 a cast-iron spiral staircase was ordered by Taylor & Co. Hardware Merchants, Birmingham, for West Bromwich Free Library. The library, now known as West Bromwich Central Library, was designed by local architect Stephen J. Holliday (b. 1861) and constructed c. 1906 by building contractor Thomas Hardy (b. 1869). The library is a Carnegie library, built with money donated by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919).

Draughtsmen drawings and blueprints show that the staircase was the ‘No. 10’ design with a right-hand rail, a height of 16ft and a diameter of 5ft. Correspondence in the order reveals discussion between Taylor & Co. and Coalbrookdale on the arrangement of the staircase landing and the issue of the Reference Library ceiling not being the same height as the Lending Department, as well as a curt note to Taylor & Co.:

We are still waiting a reply to our letter of July 30th with blue prints [sic] of stair for your approval. Please reply as soon as possible as we want to put this work in hand.

Draughtman’s drawing of ‘No. 10 Spiral Stair’, 1906. [2022.16/C6]

The spiral staircase as seen today in Central Bromwich Library. The building is now Grade II listed.

Jubilee lamp pillars, Coalbrookdale, 1897

Two lamp pillars, erected in Coalbrookdale in celebration of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, are still in-situ. Whilst the presence of these have been known for some time by locals, the discovery of their original designs was quite surprising. Ordered by the Coalbrookdale Jubilee Committee in 1897, the lamps can be found on Dale Road and Wellington Road. The original order for the lamp pillars contains their designs, details of the foundations, and full-size plans of the inscription shields, which read:


Draughtsman drawing of the inscription shield for the Jubilee lamp pillars. [2022.16/B1]

Jubilee lamp pillar as seen today on Wellington Road, Coalbrookdale.

Items no longer in-situ

More often than not, ironwork that features in the archive is no longer still in-situ. Changing tastes in fashion, the decline of the iron industry in the 20th century, and a lack of recognition of the historical importance of cast-iron street and architectural furniture has resulted in its swift demise. The requisitioning of ironware during World War II for use in armament manufacture also resulted in the removal of large tracts of ironwork, particularly railings.


Railing, Hanley Cemetery, 1897

In 1897 a large stretch of railing – some 365ft – was produced for Hanley Cemetery in Stoke. It was ordered by the firm of T. Godwin, builders and contractors, in conjunction with the Hanley borough surveyor, Joseph Lobley (1842-1919).

The railing for the cemetery ran in a curve and was fixed to a brick wall. In 1913 another section of (Coalbrookdale) railing was ordered and added to the boundary wall of the cemetery. Today, only the ghost of the railings can be seen via stumps and holes left in the brick wall. Whilst there are no drawings of gates within the order, the cast-iron entrance gates are still in-situ and appear to have been made by Coalbrookdale.

Draughtsman drawing of Hanley Cemetery railing, 1897. [2022.16/E12]

Hanley Cemetery railing as seen during a snowy winter in 1940. Copyright the Warrillow Collection, Keele University Library. Reference: Cemetery Rd Shelton 1940 WARR 152. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Verandah, Llysnewydd house, 1910

Llysnewydd house in Carmarthenshire was built at the end of the 18th century to designs of John Nash (1752-1835). The cast-iron verandah was a much later addition, ordered in 1910 by the architect Ernest Collier (b. 1859) for William Lewes (b. 1839), who was a Justice of the Peace and a Deputy Lieutenant. The house had been passed down through the Lewes family and was particularly grand, with a whopping 33 rooms. The house was abandoned at some point in the 20th century and then demolished in the 1970s.

Plan of Llysnewydd house showing the position of the verandah. [2022.16/K6]

Llysnewydd house verandah, c. 1930. Courtesy of People’s Collection Wales.

international links

A handful of the orders refer to ‘shipment abroad’. Coalbrookdale exported their goods widely, mainly to former parts of the British Empire. Several of their fountains can still be found in Australia, New Zealand, and India. One of these ‘shipment abroad’ orders was for two flights of cast-iron spiral staircases. They were ordered in 1903 by Takata & Co., Japanese merchants and shipowners, who specialised in ordering ships on behalf of Japanese owners. The Company had close links with the ship building yard at Kawasaki in Kobe, Japan, and so it is possible that the staircases were shipped there.

Blueprint of spiral staircases, 1903. [2022.16/H20]

Within the order, the quantities of castings required for the staircases are thus described: 51 treads, 53 risers, 53 brackets, 102 balusters for the steps, 52 balusters for the landing, 2 landings, 2 newels, 2 wrought iron poles, and a convex handrail. This was not the final itemised list, as later ones refer to how many nuts and screws were required, but does give a good indication of the necessary parts needed.

The order also contains ‘promise sheets’, which detail the production timeline. One of these sheets, dated 30 Oct 1903, sets out the workplan:

Pattern work (2 weeks)

Iron pattern: Moulders (2 days)

 Filers (3 days)

Moulders (3 weeks, 20 steps ready by Dec 2)

Fitters (9 weeks, including 1 week closed at Xmas [sic], and working full time as far as possible)

Painting and packing (1 week)

[Total] about 14 weeks


Fourteen weeks to produce a staircase of this size - from start to finish - would have been a relatively normal turn around.

Several workers are referenced on the promise sheets, including Abraham Chilton (Foreman Fitter), James Rawles (Clerk/Storekeeper), and Benjamin Boycott (Foreman Moulder).

Coalbrookdale Employees

Abraham Chilton, Foreman Fitter

Abraham Chilton was born in 1837 in Little Wenlock, the son of an iron roller. Chilton was a fitter for the Coalbrookdale Company from at least 1881, rising to the position of foreman at some point between 1881 and 1891. According to an oral history interview with a former employee at the Works, Chilton was a notorious character. He was charge of his own workshop and his job would have been to assemble castings together and check they fitted correctly, before being dispatched.

Abraham Chilton, photographed in 1901. [1983.3430]

Abraham Chilton’s workshop, where a staircase is being assembled, c. 1900. [1986.14020]

James Rawles, Clerk/Storekeeper

James Rawle was born in 1857 in Bristol. He worked for the Coalbrookdale Company for a total of 34 years, 12 of them spent at the Bristol office, and 22 of them spent at Coalbrookdale. He was a clerk for many years, and then a storekeeper. As a clerk, Rawle would have been responsible for sending out drawings and blueprints to clients to check and approve.

In 1906, only three years after this order for the staircases, Rawle was charged with embezzlement, and according to Charles Peskin, local diarist, on 22 October Rawle was dismissed at a minute’s notice from the Works.

At this time, Rawle was working as a storekeeper, where he could sell coal or iron on behalf of Coalbrookdale. It transpired that Rawle had been selling goods, but not recording the purchases and then pocketing the money for himself. He did this over a considerable period of time, and the embezzlement ran into £190. During sentencing, the judge proclaimed that it was not the amount Rawle had embezzled so much as the long course of his dishonesty, having been ‘a man of some position and trust in the service of Coalbrookdale’. Rawle was sentenced to prison for 12 months, with hard labour. After completing his sentence, and spending a brief period of time in Warwickshire, Rawle moved to Canada and started a new life as a farmer.

James Vellacott Rawle, photographed in 1901. [1983.3430]

Benjamin Boycott, Foreman Moulder

Boycott was born in 1857 in Dawley, and worked as a moulder at the ironworks from at least 1881. He is noted as the foreman moulder in the 1901 census. As a moulder, Boycott would have been responsible for creating the sand moulds into which molten iron was poured, as well as pouring the iron. It would have been physically tiring, heavy work.

Benjamin Boycott, photographed in 1901. [1983.3430]

Coalbrookdale’s Severn Foundry moulding shop, c. 1910. [1983.3431]


One re-occurring word on almost every order is that of ‘URGENT’, with some orders assigned a higher level of importance, being marked ‘VERY URGENT’. Pressure to deliver on time would have been high; competition in the field, particularly from several large rival companies in Scotland, would have fuelled the need to ensure the timely production of castings.

 An order made by Gardiner & Sons, an ironworks in Bristol, highlights the problem of swift deadlines (or Coalbrookdale’s lack of delivering on time). This order for nine cast-iron spandrils, requested on 19th November 1906, was to be delivered within 14 days. Gardiner & Sons frequently ordered items from Coalbrookdale and were perhaps used to the late delivery of goods. A note in the order reveals that if Coalbrookdale did not meet the deadline of 14 days, Coalbrookdale would lose their custom:

Customers say – “Future orders depend on the delivery of this order - time to be improved if possible - To be completed & d/d [delivered] in 14 days”.

Blueprint showing spandril design for Gardiner & Sons order, 1906. [2022.16/C18]

Ordered on 19 November, the promise sheet reveals the timescales for the production and despatch of the spandrils:

Pattern of 3' 9 5/8" wide sent to moulder Nov 21st

Moulding 6 spandrils completed [Nov] 27th

Dressing [6 spandrils] [Nov] 28th

Pattern altered for 3'8” wide, to moulder [Nov] 28th

Moulding 3 spandrils completed [Nov] 30th

Dressing [3 spandrils] Dec 1st 

Note. The 1st 6 can be despatched when ready and the remaining 3 on Dec 1st.

 Considering that the foundry would have been casting every day, and with a large workforce still at play, a two-week deadline seems more than achievable. And yet, there are no other orders in the archive from Gardiner & Sons after this date. Perhaps Gardiner & Son’s concern was founded: the deadline was indeed not met.

Some data from the archive


The most popular items being ordered were railings (including tomb and balcony railing), fireplaces, staircases and lamp posts. Tomb railing was particularly popular in Wales, with 60% of the orders coming from clients based there. Some of the more unusual or notable orders include 124 boot scrapers for Middlesex County Asylum, two piano frames, a synagogue ark front, railings for underground conveniences, windows and stable fittings for breweries, and a conservatory for a TB hospital.


Clients included sculptors, engineers, builders, architects (often distinguished and well-known) and district councils. The group that did the most ordering, however, was ironmongers, which was not so surprising. Ironmonger shops would often be home to iron foundry (and other) catalogues where customers could browse and chose items according to their taste. Coalbrookdale was no different in printing catalogues to advertise their wares. The catalogues were often printed at great expense and to the very highest standards. Using catalogues to sell products worked particularly well for iron foundries: products were often large and heavy, and expensive and time consuming, to move from foundry to shop or showroom. Selling items through catalogues was a practical solution to the problem.


Whilst Coalbrookdale had experienced much success in the 1840s – 1880s with the production of architectural and decorative ironwork, this was followed by a downturn of trade, particularly in the early years of the 20th century. To research these orders against this backdrop has been an interesting process; clearly, hundreds of items were still being made, and being ordered by some of the most well-known architects, as well as from wealthy – and influential - individuals. If this is the story at the end of the 19th century – early 20th century, to see the Company at its height would have been quite remarkable.

Not to be forgotten are the numerous men who brought the orders to fruition. Scribbled on draughtsmen drawings, blueprints and correspondence, are the names of men involved with creating the designs and the final products. Until now, it had been almost impossible to link any of the workers with specific items being made at the Works. Furthermore, in having names, it has been possible to discover their occupations within the Company, and in some cases, trace their descendants, many of whom still live in the Ironbridge Gorge.

If you would like to find out more about this archive, please contact the Library & Archive: