When the iron industry depended on wood, not coal, Sussex and Kent were the centres of English gunfounders, writes Christopher Lloyd.
The description of Sussex in Camden’s Britannia (1586) comes as a surprise to the modern reader:
Full of iron mines it is in sundry places, where for the making and fining whereof there be furnaces on every side, and a huge deal of wood is yearly spent, to which purpose divers brooks in many places are brought to run in one channel, and sundry meadows turned into pools and water, that there might be of power sufficient to drive hammer mills, which beating upon the iron, resound all over the places adjoining. The ironmasters cast much great ordnance thereof and other things, to their no small gain.
He is describing the area generally known as the Weald, comprising east Sussex and parts of southern Kent, the area geologically speaking of the Hastings beds and Wadhurst clay. In those days the Weald was heavily wooded with oak, which was used for the charcoal furnaces.
The clay was well adapted for making moulds for castings, and there were sufficient streams to provide the water power required to work the bellows of the huge hammers of the forges. The prevalence of iron ore lying near the surface is attested by the numerous ‘bellpits’ or workings in the shape of a bell which are still to be found in woodland areas, and the number of Furnace Farms and Hammer Ponds remind one of what was once England’s chief manufactured export.
Wrought iron worked by smiths in forges was common in the Weald from Roman times. It was the advent of the blast furnace and the introduction of methods of casting iron in order to produce the muzzle-loading cannon that transformed a craft into an industry. From the early sixteenth century until the period of the Dutch wars a hundred years later, the iron gun cast in the Weald was the dominant weapon in Europe.