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The Winlaton Story

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Part 8.  Sir Ambrose Crowley

Anyone who has had any connections with Winlaton, must, at some time or other have heard the name of Crowley mentioned and wondered who this famous character was, as his name appears on many pages of Winlaton's history and indeed upon the history of our overseas empire. He was not a local man, being born at Stourbridge, in Worcester, in February, 1658, and his origins were not quite so humble as many historians have suggested, his father being a successful ironmonger, and a pioneer in the Black Country of the steelmaking industry, being also a prominent member of the Society of Friends.

In 1674 Ambrose Crowley was apprenticed to Clement Plumpstead, an ironmonger in the City of London, where he served his apprenticeship (so he tells us) with great diligence. In 1681, after finishing his apprenticeship, he set up in business on his own account for the manufacturing of frying-pans, nails, brads and other small miscellaneous items of ironware, in Carey Lane, London. His business must have flourished fairly well from the beginning, for twelve months later we find him marrying Mary Owen of Condover, in Shropshire, a daughter of a wealthy landowner, and he would hardly have married if his business prospects had not been bright.

It was in this same year (1682) that Crowley quarrelled with the midland merchants who had been supplying him with raw materials. After carefully weighing up the economic factors concerned he confidently transferred his factory to Sunderland in 1683. This move seemed madness to his associates, as for one hundred years the nail industry had been settled in the Midlands but it was not such a hair brained scheme as it appeared at the time. London then, was the central outlet for the bulk of trading carried on in the country, and all goods coming to the City from the Midlands had either to be carried on horseback or hauled in waggons across country. When we consider the state of the roads in those days, transport was slow and expenses were high compared to the amount of goods carried. What struck Crowley was that the Tyne colliers sailed to London in about four days and came back in ballast, so if they carried raw material for his works it would be at a nominal charge. From the continent it was only 12½p per ton, and if he had his rod iron slit there for nails the price was cheaper still, this being much cheaper than that which his Midland rivals could supply. Likewise there was plenty of shipping at Sunderland to take his finished goods southwards to his distribution warehouses in London. Here was another advantage for one cargo ship would carry roughly the equivalent of what one goods train would carry today. Crowley stated himself that food was one third cheaper than in the Midlands, so was coal, besides being of a better quality, plus there was plenty of accommodation for workmen when needed, for the skilled workers had to be imported as well as raw materials. So Crowley settled his first large scale manufactory at Sunderland.

The premises where he settled were in Low Street, Sunderland, and were only demolished in 1918. It seems to have been a substantial stone building standing on the river side, beneath a very high cliff, on top of which formerly stood St. Paul's Chapel believed to have been built in the time of Bede, and some of the old chapel stones were used by Crowley in his building operations, a stone above the door bore the date 1682.

By 1688, Crowley had about one hundred workers in his employment, some of them were Belgian Catholics from Liege, in Belgium, which was noted at that time for the proficiency of its slitting mills and the quality of its nails. For some reason, possibly because they were Catholics, these workmen were badly treated by the people of Sunderland, and Crowley had to petition the King for their protection. The petition was favourably received by King James II who was himself a catholic, and he instructed the Bishop of Durham to see to the protection of the petitioner's workmen. Whether the Bishop could not, or did not enforce these instructions, or whether the men of Sunderland took little heed of them, we do not know, but the persecutions continued. Crowley then decided to move from the area to more hospitable country in the Derwent Valley.

Although the persecution of his workmen was one of the reasons why he left Sunderland, there were others. One was the fact that there was not much room for expansion which Crowley was contemplating. In any extension of his manufacturing side steel would be needed, indeed Crowley had gained a good working knowledge of steel making from his father, the snag was that in the manufacture of steel, charcoal was needed, but unfortunately there was a ban on the cutting down of trees within three miles of the coast in those days, without wood there was no charcoal and this would hinder any expansion in steel making. The most powerful reason for moving would be the matter of capital for extra machinery and building operations. We do not know who Crowley's financier was, it could not have been his father, as his wealth for what it was, could. not have covered a fraction of the resources needed for the contemplated expansion of the works. Crowley's mysterious backer was probably Sir William Bowes of Gibside Hall, for in a letter to Sir William from Winlaton in 1702, Crowley states "the greatest of my grief is that I am not in London to show how sensible I am of the great favour I have had from you even to the enabling of me to establish the iron manufactory in this country which will be to your immortal glory". This letter shows that Sir William played quite a large part in the removal of Crowley's works from Sunderland and would partially explain why such an out of the way spot was picked, and so in 1690 Crowley arrived at Winlaton.

The first thing that had to be done was to establish the main offices for the firm to take care of the administration and to get the nailors working so that as far as possible trade would not be interrupted. First of all he used the existing buildings, of which there were not many, but later the firm was to build extensively at Winlaton, Winlaton Mill and Swalwell. After a few months settling down the great expansion began. In April 1691, Crowley leased the water corn-mill and fulling mill with four acres of ground at Winlaton Mill for 99 years, with liberty to build engines and houses for the manufacturing of iron, and also to dig in the adjoining grounds and quarries for stone and clay to be used for building purposes.

Winlaton Mill in 1691, was a sparsely inhabited and secluded spot consisting of about half a dozen buildings including the corn-mill with about fifteen to twenty inhabitants, mainly farmers. The main thing the site possessed was water power from the Derwent which is very fast flowing, this being lacking at Sunderland. By 1695, building was well advanced and the plan of the works was taking shape while Crowley was recruiting more workmen in London, for what premises would suit a nailor was quite suitable for a chainmaker, or for making locks, frying pans and almost any small item of smith work, so the works continued to expand, by 1700 the steel furnace was finished and plans for the slitting mill were going ahead. The intriguing part of the slitting mill was that most of it was made in London and then shipped by sea to Winlaton Mill, an early example of prefabrication. From 1702 to 1703, instructions poured from Crowley in London to the staff at Winlaton and Winlaton Mill, and we are fortunate in their survival although the plans which accompanied the letters have been lost, they still give a wealth of information.

In 1701, Crowley built a warehouse at Blaydon, being the nearest point on the south bank of the Tyne to Winlaton and was equally convenient to Winlaton Mill. Here the bar iron which was the raw material for the factory was landed, and the finished goods were packed mainly in barrels and sacks, then were loaded into keels for carriage down the river to Newcastle, where they were then transhipped to London.

The first opposition Crowley had to encounter was in 1702, when a partnership consisting of Edward Harrison, William Bayliss and John Arrowsmith, acquired property at Swalwell with a view to setting up an iron-works there (Harrison had been an old employee of Crowley). On the 25th March, 1702, they took a lease of a corn mill at Swalwell known as the Bishop's Mill, together with the mill dam and race. Three months later they acquired another corn mill in Swalwell called the Holm Mill, with the closes called the Holm Close and High Stammers Close. In 1703, they leased more land for the slitting and manufacture of iron, with way-leave from Swalwell, behind the Garden Close. Evidently these works were assuming a considerable scale for in 1704 Crowley received information that many of his men had left his employment to work for Harrison at Swalwell.

How much of a threat these works posed to Crowley it is not known, but by 1707 Crowley managed to buy them out, and this acquisition marks the high tide of his expansion. Some smaller additions to the firm's assets were made later, but when the necessary alterations were effected at Swalwell by 1709, the main structure of the Crowley works as it remained for over a century was completed. In fact by 1712, Crowley was prepared to complete any sort of ironware, you only had to send your request to Winlaton and any sort, shape or size would be executed. Amazingly, all of this time, Crowley had continued to live in London, although he came north fairly often. It is not known where he resided until in 1711 he leased Old Axwell Hall in the Parish of Whickham (not to be confused with the present Axwell Hall) and various members of the family resided here until 1743, when they came to Winlaton Hall.

Though the foundations of this enterprise had been laid at Sunderland, the first real step was made in 1691 at Winlaton, so in sixteen years one man had created the greatest industrial expansion of his age. Fittingly in his crowning year Crowley received his knighthood in 1707. He became a director of the South Sea Company, and in 1713 he was elected MP for Andover, but before he could take his seat he died suddenly on 7th October, 1713, and was buried at the Parish Church in Mitcham, Surrey, his wife later being buried beside him.

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© Copyright 1971, R. Anderson

First published in The Bellman (the Blaydon Urban District Council newsletter) No 23, May 1973.