Builders of Industry Part I: John Wilkinson, Ironmaster

W.H. Chaloner considers the life and times of one of Georgian England's foremost industrial figures.

John Wilkinson, the third member of the self-styled “Steam Engine Parliament” of the 1770’s and 1780’s, has never received biographical attention on the scale accorded to Boulton and Watt, although many accurate, and some inaccurate, details of his life are among the common currency of economic history. Yet his personal fame has served to obscure the fact that concentrations of economic power and technical skill, similar to his industrial empire, were not uncommon in eighteenth-century Britain. Being what the English call a “character”, Wilkinson soon became a folk-hero; and even in his lifetime the workmen at Bersham sang a ballad about his metallurgical exploits. His numerous mistresses, the illegitimate children he begot in his seventies, his iron barges and iron pulpit, his spectacular quarrels with business associates, and the fact that he was brother-in-law to the scientist-philosopher Priestley, assured him abundant publicity. His widely-scattered enterprises brought him into contact with nearly all the prominent businessmen of the day, and his portrait was painted by Gainsborough and Abbott.

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