British Celts & History / Development of Iron. FineIron UK





Wrought iron has been used in building from the earliest days of civilisation, wrought iron door furniture being commonplace in Roman times. The structural use or iron gates from the middle ages, when bars of wrought iron would be used occasionally to tie masonry arches and domes. This use of wrought iron in tension guaranteed its use throughout the ascendancy of cast iron in the canal and railway ages, as cast iron is strong only in compression. The ill fated first Tay Bridge was of cast iron beams tied with wrought iron. The demand for higher dynamic loads in bridges and warehouse buildings, and the ever greater spans of train sheds towards the end of the nineteenth century, led the designers of buildings to acquire the technology developed to build ships of iron, and create beams of riveted wrought iron rolled sections. By the turn of the century this had led to buildings completely framed in wrought iron, and later steel, girder sections, and cast iron was once again relegated to an ornamental role.
Our main concern with wrought iron, however, will be in its application to gates and railings, frequently given an ornamental treatment by the blacksmith.
There are wrought iron railings in Westminster Abbey from the thirteenth century, which, in essence display all the characteristics which we have come to know as ‘wrought ironwork’, although lacking modern refinements such as symmetry and sweetness of line, but the great age of British ironwork, known as the ‘English’ style began at the end of the seventeenth century. A French fashion for the Baroque style in gates and railings, swept the country houses of Britain, following the import of craftsman by William and Mary, and the greater part of our national stock of good ironwork dates from the early years of the eighteenth century. After the rise of cast iron as an ornamental medium, wrought iron tended often to take a secondary role, owing to its comparative expense, each piece being made by hand, while castings could be repeated ad infinitum, once the patterns were made. Technically, however, the craftsmen of the age of machines, excelled their forebears, as indeed they must while making mechanical components, so that the ornamental blacksmith work of the nineteenth century displays a perfection of manufacture not seen before nor since.
After the introduction of mild steel, cheap because of its ability to be mass produced, wrought iron, and the craft skills associated with it, gradually disappeared in accordance with the general decline of craft standards in the twentieth century, until the last ironworks ceased production in 1974.
From 1982 Chris Topp & Co. and later The Real Wrought Iron Company, have made available a limited supply of puddled wrought iron, derived from scrap metal. The subsequent years have brought a steadily increasing demand, as the blacksmiths of Britain have slowly taken up again the ancient skills.


Wrought iron is unlike cast, in that it is not brittle, and seldom breaks. For this reason, wrought ironwork is frequently far more delicate, although years of paint can obscure this. Cast iron is most frequently identified by its repetitive nature, and forms which could be carved in a wooden pattern, but not made by hammer and anvil.
Telling wrought iron from mild steel is often more difficult, as both will bend, and not break. Frequently, however, work in mild steel is readily identified by the lower standards of workmanship often used. Look for evidence of electric welding. Also mild steel is often given away by more active corrosion, rust tends to run out of the joints in a steel gate, and stain the paintwork, where this is seldom the case with wrought iron.
Wrought iron may also be dated, approximately by its texture. Until the very end of the eighteenth century, sections of wrought iron were derived by forging of billets by hand or water power, this resulted in a more or less uneven surface texture, and very sharp corners. A foreshortened view of a bar displays well the irregularities of the surface. Rolled bars, on the other hand, produced from the beginning of the nineteenth century, are perfectly smooth, and the corners can display a small radius. Nineteenth century wrought iron is known as ‘puddled iron’.


The modern replacement for wrought iron is mild steel. Many metalworkers are perfectly content to use this much cheaper metal both for new work and the refurbishment of old. I would like to suggest the reasons why this is not acceptable, while wrought iron is yet available.

The weathering properties of wrought iron are well known. While it does of course rust in time, with reasonable maintenance this can indeed by a very long time. The fact that so much ornamental work survives from three hundred years ago says a lot for the material. On the other hands, steel is well known for its ability to corrode, and the intricate forms and water traps of “wrought ironwork’, only encourage corrosion. Hence it is normal practice to coat steelwork with zinc, which does indeed delay corrosion, but neither galvanising nor zinc spraying can effectively be applied to complex forms.

Modern conservation practice insists on the replacement of materials with like materials. When wrought iron is available for the repair and replication of wrought ironwork, why use mild steel?

The craft of the ornamental blacksmith, as previously practiced to a high degree of skill, was virtually eradicated by the shift to mild steel, with its ready application to “high tech’ techniques such as electric welding. As mentioned above, some of the blacksmiths are learning again the old skills. Only by use of the traditional methods and materials can work of an appropriate standard by produced.


There is a wide disparity in cost between the cheapest of work, and the best Without a sufficiently tight specification, work acquired on a competitive basis will tend towards the lower order. There is a need for a standard form of words which can be use to specify ironwork of the highest order. Definition of the materials is a good start, for example ‘puddled wrought iron’ rather than just 9 wrought iron”, which is often misinterpreted. Mention of specific techniques is important, ‘all welding to done in the fire’ is often used, or less positively, ‘no use of electric welding’. Assurance of quality, however, can only be guaranteed by examination of the track record of the workman, or from the submission of samples.


Ironwork is commonly supposed to be nearly free of maintenance. Unlike wood work which is religiously subjected to a stern regime of regular painting, ironwork is frequently left to rust undisturbed for long periods, so much so that the only attention that much even important ironwork receives, is periodic major overhaul, at great expense. This could be avoided by frequent small attention. Insistence on frequent inspection would be of benefit, perhaps once a year, with immediate, and usually trivial remedial work to arrest any developing problems.


At present, supplies of puddled iron are derived from old material of large size, which can be rolled directly into bar form. Although, to date, such raw material has been available, we are installing the plant required to process general wrought iron scrap, which by a forge welding process produces an iron of high quality. As there are nearly limitless supplies of such scrap, the future of wrought iron seems secure.
Information courtesy of The Real Wrought Iron Company


Much of what we know about the Celts has been learnt through oral tradition. It is thought that the name given to them by the Greeks – Keltoi – means ” hidden people ” due to the reluctance of the Celts to commit any of their vast wealth of knowledge to writing.
What we know of their early history has been largely learnt through archaeological excavations of the settlements and burial sites found across Europe.
The Celts probably descended from Stone Age peoples of Europe, who began to populate the continent about 10,000 BC.
At the start of the first millennium BC the Celts possessed great skill in metal work, especially wrought iron, and by the 6th century BC they had a formidable armament of spears, swords, axes as well as agricultural implements. By 450 BC new centres of Celtic civilisation emerged and increasing mastery of iron work led to specialisation – wagon makers, shipbuilders, wheelwright etc – Amid this increased productivity an artistic style emerged; ” La Tene ,” design was bold and complex, and quickly became dominant throughout Celtic lands. Celtic affluence grew, and around 400 BC Celtic tribes crossed The Alps, sacking Rome in 391 BC and settling in Northern Italy.

A century later they pushed into Greece and Asia Minor and by 250 BC ” La Tene ” culture was at its height. The Celts resumed full scale trading over their old trade routes and by the second century BC new established fortified towns replaced many of the old hill forts, abandoned in the fifth century BC. Serving as centres of commerce and manufacture they were immensely lucrative; however Celtic trade grew increasingly dependent on Roman markets.

In 192 BC Rome established its supremacy and later conquered the area of Southern France we now know as Province. By the mid first century BC the Romans began their assault on Western Europe. With their loyalties still tribal rather than national the Celts were unable to mount a unified resistance.
Gradually the Celts adopted the ways of their victors but Celtic Culture remained dominant in Britain until AD 43 when Rome conquered the Southern half of the island. Ireland then became the bastion of the Celts until it’s fifth century conversion to Christianity. Even after that, tribal memories held on to Celtic languages and legends, which were at last written down by eight-century Irish Christian clerics.


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