The ealiest records of Pleasley Forge that I have found are late 17th century, relating to John Jennens, a wealthy Ironmaster who originated and operated in the West Midlands area where there was a huge demand for iron. The demand was so high that he developed new sites further north at Kirkby in Ashfield (Furnace) and Pleasley Vale (Forge), Wingerworth Furnace and New Mills Forge in Derbyshire. The Kirkby furnace was situated near to where ironstone occurs in Derbyshire in the lower coal measures. By the 19th century this area had developed large iron smelting companies such as the Alfreton Iron Works and the Butterley Iron works and even a town called Ironville directly because of the immense quantities of ironstone. In the 17th century the ironstone would have been extracted from bell pits, which are identified near Kirkby on Chapmans 1774 map. Smelting wasn't part of the Pleasley operation in Jennens' time because economics dictated that the sites of smelting furnaces should be close to the source of extraction, afterall, iron ore is a very heavy substance to transport by horse & cart! The furnaces were used for smelting ore into pig and cast iron while forges were utilised for removal of impurities from the pig iron by rolling & hammering out into wrought iron bars using water powered mills. Both furnace and forges were fuelled by charcoal from skillfully managed coppices until the late 17th C when mature woodland became scarce & coke became more widely available, subsequently, more economical to use. The wrought iron bars were sold to nail makers, blacksmiths, whitesmiths, locksmiths, gunsmiths and edgetool makers. The Kirkby Furnace supplied direct to Pleasley Forge from where finished iron was retailed to John Jennens’ markets in the Midlands.

This Chapman 1774 map shows Pleasley Forge at the top right and Kirkby Furnace bottom centre in an area rich in ironstone.The ironstone was extracted from bellpits in the 17th century that lay in the bands of clay beneath seams of coal. The smelted pig iron was transported by horse drawn wagons to the forge at Pleasley Vale for mechanical removal of impurities utilising a water powered mill that rolled the wrought iron after further heating. Both the furnace and forge were fuelled by charcoal, which was essentially carbon that reduced the iron oxide to iron but retained most of the impurities or 'slag'. Coppice management was another vital element of the process from which sustainable charcoal could be sourced and Pleasley Vale was an ideal environment to provide the timber.

 

The first detailed OS map of the area was conducted around 1800 and shows the old coppice site from where the forge produced charcoal that was essential to the refining process. To the right is printed 'Pleasley Forge or Meadow Houses' which is curious because the Upper Forge was much further up river to the west while the Northfield houses were not built until 1854. However, there is mention in a document that Cowpe, a partner in the Pleasley Works, built 10 houses for key employees at Northfield in 1790. It is highly likely, however, when combining the evidence in this map with the 1890 os map below that this was the site for the 'Old Forge' or 'Nether Forge' as mentioned in Hollins' lease.
This 1890 os map shows the alterations made to the course of the river Meden. Note the sluice gate and weir that are usually found at water mills. This is the likely site of the original Pleasley Forge. The term 'Meadow Houses' is still in use, which leads me to conclude that this was the 'Forge Meadow' as described in the 1784 lease as 'the land whereon the building called Pleasley Old Forge or Nether Forge lately stood'. Click here to see the site of 'Forge Meadow'

 


The old medieval Manor of Pleasley, in which the Pleasley forge was situated, was owned by the noble Leake family, Earls of Scarsdale, whom owned great swathes of land in Derbyshire since the early 15th century, however, the 4th Earl Nicholas, the last of his line, exhausted all the family wealth on his lavish lifestyle and the construction and furnishing of Sutton Hall in 1724. In 1733, a few years before his death, he mortgaged the entire Manor of Pleasley to raise cash. It transpired that he had left substantial debts that resulted in 7 years of litigation before his estate could be sold. The Pleasley Manor was sold outright to Henry Thornhill of Chesterfield. The noble Leake's of Scarsdale owned the region of Derbyshire from where the great source of ironstone existed and seems very likely, after the intoduction of blast furnaces and the subsequent boom in iron ore smelting c1400, that the Earls would seek to profit from this. It was the late 16th century, however, that the use of water powered mills was used to mechanise the forging process, which would date the Upper Forge to Jennens' operation in the mid to late 17th century. The earlier 'history of smelting' lesson also informs us that the forge was not updated to accomodate the revolutionary 'Puddling' process, which was not discovered until 1784 but it is very likely that this new process of refining made the Pleasley Forge redundant as Hollin's lease was taken the very same year.

There still remains the mystery of 'Pleasley Old Forge' or 'Nether Forge' mentioned in Hollins' lease. From the wording of the lease we know it was demolished around 1780. If we look at the word 'Nether' in absence of any firm documentary evidence, we can establish from library dictionary sources that this word is middle English, commonly used around the mid 15th century. Although this is a rather loose dating it is most likely far too early as we are still confined to the late 16th century when water powered, mechanised forges were introduced. The Old Forge was probably just that, built c 1700 and eventually worked in tandem with the later, larger Upper Mill until it was probably destroyed by a fire that were commonplace in forges.

Well that concludes the story apart from an interesting anecdote that I came across when researching Jennens family of ironmasters. They were a very large family with at least 2 generations of the main line having 10 children. The iron trade had made them very wealthy and able to live on large country estates and mix in high society. Their wealth attracted the nobility, subsequently, many of the daughters married into aristocracy. John Jennens' nephew, Charles, whom had been educated at Oxford, became a very talented writer. He wrote the text for five of Handel's oratorios including the Messiah and became a patron of the arts.

Update 22.11.07

Further research into the Jennens family reveals that the Jennens connection with iron smelting  began when William Jennens settled in Birmingham around 1550. His son John (not our John) was recorded in 1615 as the owner of Aston Forge and Furnace and in partnership with his brother, Ambrose, in a London Iron supply business. The business then passed to his son Humphrey on John's(1) death in 1651. Humphrey developed the Birmingham ironmongery business as well as the Aston and Bromford Works and expanded the London business. He built Erdington Hall during the English civil War with a double moat. On his death in 1690, his Will revealed that the family were amongst the most considerable landowners in Warwickshire with an estate valued at more than 2 million pounds. The business was passed to his son John (our John2) in 1690.
This fits well with a a letter I found in the 'Duke of Portland Collection', written by the Duke's agent, Neale, to the Duke of Newcastle’s agent on 10th Dec 1694 in which he stated that he was planning to block John Jennen’s lease of Carbuton and Pleasley Forges. The denudation of the Black Country woodlands was sending the furnaces futher afield to regions were there was a plentiful source of coppice to produce charcoal, subsequently, the Duke's agent was concerned for the woodland although it may have been more to do with blocking the progress of a competitor in the iron business!
The Duke of Portland was lord of the manor and owner of Carburton, with the exception of about 40 acres of woodland, which belonged to the Duke of Newcastle. The Carburton forge was subsequently leased to Philip Foley, another powerful ironmaster but Jennens did gain the Pleasley Forge from the Earl of Scarsdale. Jennens must have forgiven them because from 1698 to 1704 the Portland accounts show that he was buying bundles of cordwood for charcoal-making from the Duke's Estate, although by this time there was a shortage of cordwood/charcoal leading to large imports of pig iron from Sweden to meet demand. It wasn't until the replacement of charcoal with coke from c1720 that ironmasters were able to escape the hold of the cordwood suppliers.

.....another anecdote! John(2) shared his father's £2 million estate with his brother, William, a money lender who lived to the grand old age of 98. However, he didn't marry, had no children and left no will!! His estate had ballooned to £5 million when he died in 1798. In today's value (adjusted for inflation at the 19th century average of 4.2% & compounded for 209 years) that is £27 billion!!!

His refusal to give up his money, even in death, brought about the greatest lawsuit the world has ever known. This suit involved more than five million pounds (£27 billion today) and its duration was a full century eventually ending in 1933! It was upon this highly publicised real-life drama that Charles Dickens based the long running legal dispute of 'Jarndyce and Jarndyce' in his novel Bleak House. There are also similarities in his novel,' Christmas Carol' with the miser, Ebenezer Scrooge and William Jennens! The estate was eventually divided up between the heirs of William's 9 siblings.

Update 24.11.07

Information supplied in an auction catalogue, 1997, concerning a 17th century saw described it as made by George Sitwell, Pleasley Forge. Further research describes Sitwell as from a family of Sheffield ironmasters who came to prominence around 1650 when they were among the first to apply water power to iron forging and reduce the price of iron bar to the trade. George Sitwell became High Sheriff of Derbyshire and lived at Renishaw Hall near Sheffield, which he had built in 1625 aged 25.

In the 17th century the thin saw-plate was rolled hot from an ingot then ground and smithed to remove the deformities and tensioned to keep it straight. The metal was then pared to shape and the teeth cut before heat treatment to harden. The rolling of the ingot was undoubtably powered by a water mill. The ingots were supplied from Sitwell's furnaces.

The main market for Sitwell's saws was London although he also sent a batch of saws to Barbados, which were returned because they arrived rusty after months at sea. Sitwell instructed his sales agent to clean them up and try again!