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The Sussex Weald iron industry
And we are still living with the ironworks' environmental impact on West Sussex and the Weald today because the industry changed the character of the Sussex landscape forever.
The Iron AgeThere are iron ore deposits in amongst the Weald’s clay beds and man had mined and smelted these for centuries. Although this practice was widespread it still added up to no more than a small scale industry. The work involved leaving charcoal and iron ore smouldering for days before recovering malleable iron which was then beaten into shape.
New 15th century technology hits SussexThis all changed towards the end of the 15th century when new smelting technologies, which had been developed in the Ardennes Forest, reached Sussex.
The great advantages of the new techniques were that iron could be heated hot enough to be turned to liquid and be cast into shapes. This was great for producing reliable cannon which could be fired further as well as a host of other refined iron products.
The downside was that this required a huge amount of fuel. Luckily for the Sussex iron industry the huge woodlands of the Wealden Forest meant that this fuel was right on its doorstep.
In the thirteenth century, the view of the western Weald in the photo above, taken from near Harting, would have been covered with densely packed ancient woodland. That soon changed.
The end of the Wealden ForestThe Sussex iron industry consumed all in its path.
If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings where the army of Orcs rips up all the trees of Isengard to build an evil empire for the wizard Saruman you’ll have a pretty good idea of the impact of the Iron Industry on Sussex. The Weald, which had previously been covered in thick woodland, suffered the same sort of damage, although the destruction wasn’t quite as quick and the Sussex people were, of course, far better looking than the Orcs.
Sussex timber - a key resourceBy 1573 a Royal Commission was complaining that the foundries were eating all the woodland in Sussex, as well as making bad roads even worse with heavy traffic all through the year and spoiling agricultural land.
At that time ancient timber was particularly valued by the Royal Navy, who wanted it to build ships.
In 1581 a law was passed to prevent the setting up of any new iron works in some parts of Sussex. Another sought to preserve trees within 12 miles of the coast to protect the interests of the important Sussex ship building industry.
The Sussex glass industryThe Sussex iron industry also competed with the Sussex glass industry which sprang up north of Midhurst in places like Fernhurst, and around Petworth and Wisborough Green.
The glass industry used sand but also needed wood in huge quantities too. In the interests of military security Parliament decided in 1615 that iron was more important than glass and sought to ban the use of wood to fuel the glass furnaces.
The legacy of the iron industryOne of the positive legacies of the Sussex Iron industry is the fine houses which the wealthy were able to build. The so called ironmasters who owned the foundries were responsible for building treasures like Batemans and many other listed buildings in Sussex from the 16th and 17th centuries were financed by iron wealth too.
We also have fine agricultural land in the Weald as a result of the felling of the woodlands, although some of the clay based soils in the Weald can be heavy and poorly drained.
But we have lost the Wealden Forest, posibly forever.
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