The members of the Wealden Iron Research Group (WIRG) are dedicated to recovering the evidence for an industry that began in the Iron Age and blossomed under Roman imperial management, producing materials for the building of towns, villas, and farms, as well as supplying the Classis Britannica, the British naval fleet. For as long as charcoal was the principal fuel, the Sussex, Kent, and Surrey Weald remained the busy centre of the medieval iron industry, but Wealden iron-makers could not compete with the lower prices resulting from large-scale coke- and coal-fired furnaces, and the industry came to an end at the beginning of the 19th century.
WIRG’s Field Group organises a monthly programme of fieldwork between October and April, looking for unrecorded sites such as the open-cast mines from which ironstone was extracted, the furnaces where the ironstone was roasted then smelted to produce pig iron, and the ponds and leets that drove waterwheels and blast-furnace bellows to produce iron bars for forging into any number of different tools, weapons, and building materials, or for casting to produce cannon.
Another group within WIRG undertakes experimental iron-smelting at a bloomery furnace on Ashdown Forest, attempting to replicate the products and waste materials of the Iron Age, Roman, and medieval iron-makers, thus enabling WIRG members to help archaeologists identify the iron-related materials they excavate. Monthly smelting meetings take place from April to October, with a public open day in August.
Lectures and twice-yearly gatherings focus on such topics as cannon-manufacturing (the Weald became the centre of the English armaments industry under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I) or the iron firebacks that were another typical Wealden product in the 17th and 18th centuries, and which can be seen in museums in Hastings and Lewes.
WIRG has published Adventure in Iron, a major study of the early modern iron industry and the people whose skills made it happen. It also circulates biannual newsletters and the annual journal Wealden Iron, and manages databases with details of more than 1,100 locations associated with the production of iron, a bibliography with nearly 700 articles and books, and a ‘People’ database listing 2,300 individuals connected with the iron industry, some of whose graves in local churches are marked by slabs made, inevitably, of cast iron.
Further information: www.wealdeniron.org.uk
Images: Wealden Iron Research Group
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