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British Industrial History

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George Benjamin Thorneycroft

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George Benjamin Thorneycroft (1791-1851), Ironmaster

1791 August 20th. Born in Tipton, son of Edward and Mary Thorneycroft.

George Thorneycroft moved to Leeds with his parents and spent most of his childhood there, eventually working at a local forge until he returned to Staffordshire when he was about eighteen.

He entered the Moorcroft Ironworks at Bilston and it was here that he established himself as a confident leader.

1823 Partnership with T. Page at Willenhall as iron merchants was dissolved[1]

Experiences at Bilston enabled Thorneycroft to go into partnership with his twin brother Edward, and together they established the Shrubbery Ironworks at Horseley Fields in 1824.

George and Edward were good friends with Joseph Hall of Bloomfield Works, and with Mr Talbot, manager of Bagnalls Works; they discussed improvements in the methods of producing iron, such as "pig iron boiling"[2]

1841 The partnership of G. B. and E. Thorneycroft, of Shrubbery Ironworks and Bradley Ironworks, was dissolved[3]

Thorneycroft was a self-made man who built up his business in the 1840s.He was well respected as a successful Ironmaster and as an employer. Even though he was friendly, generous and familiar with his employees, as an outspoken Conservative his politics were often unpopular with working men. Nevertheless his reputation as a confident speaker and an upright citizen saw him selected as the first Mayor of Wolverhampton after the town's incorporation in 1848. A financial contribution to charity and the donation of a silver gilt mace to the Corporation marked his accession to office.

He married Eleanor Page of Moxley; their home was Chapel Ash House. They had four daughters, Mary, Emma, Harriet and Ellen, and a son Thomas. All the daughters married men who became prominent in the life of the town.

1845 Thorneycroft was seriously injured in a works accident when he was scalded over the whole of his body by a bursting boiler from which he never completely recovered. Nevertheless within a year he was able to present himself for expert inspection, testifying to the value of cotton wool for treating his injuries[4]

1851 April 28th. He died aged 60 years.

A statue of him, originally erected in the cemetery, was later moved to the Town Hall.

1852 Obituary [5]

Mr. George Benjamin Thorneycroft was born at Tipton (Staffordshire), on the 20th August 1791, whence he removed with his parents, at a very early age, to Kirkstall Forge, near Leeds, where he was employed until his eighteenth year.

On his return into Staffordshire, in about 1809, he worked at the Moorcroft Iron Works, near Bilston, and in consequence of his general good character and his skill as a workman, he was appointed to a confidential position, as a superintendent, which post he occupied until about the year 1817.

He then founded a small iron-work at Willenhall, and in the year 1824, in conjunction with his brother, the late Edward Thorneycroft, established the Shrubbery Iron Works, near Wolverhampton. These works were commenced on a very small scale, producing only about 10 tons of iron per week, but the skill and knowledge possessed by the master, and the admirable selection of the workmen, from among the best hands in the country, soon gained a high character for the iron produced, and an extensive demand springing up, the 'make' was gradually increased to nearly 800 tons per week.

The railway system offered to his ready perception a great field, of which he was not slow in availing himself, and his practical ability was exercised in the selection of materials, and in the improvement of the modes of manipulation, by which the produce of the Shrubbery Iron Works eventually acquired so high a reputation.

He became an eminent ironmaster, and amassed considerable wealth, which he employed liberally and with great judgment, for the benefit of the town of Wolverhampton, of which he was elected the first Mayor, on the Charter of Incorporation being obtained; but it was among his workmen that his good qualities were most apparent, and with such an example before them, of the position that might be attained by talent, industry, and probity, it is not to be wondered at that he was their ‘model master.’ Sturdy and inflexible against brute force, but ductile and yielding under the influence of reason and common sense, he was a type of the trade he represented, as of that energetic Saxon race of which we can still boast so many fine specimens.

To the poor he was a bountiful benefactor, readily relieving their temporary wants, and liberally founding and supporting permanent charities €or their benefit.

As a Magistrate he was firm and upright in his judgments, which were dictated by plain common sense, and he very frequently was so successful a mediator between litigants, as to preclude the necessity for recourse to legal proceedings.

It was however in his social circle that the real character of Mr. Thorneycroft could be best appreciated; and one of his family in writing of him says- 'Scenes and circumstances, comparatively trifling to others, would strike the tenderest chords of his large heart, and call forth expressions of feeling not common in their nature. One of his greatest delights was to recount to us, the struggles and incidents of his early days, and I know not which was most happy, he in telling, or ourselves in listening, to those often repeated, but still fresh and welcome traditions of his past history. In the family circle he displayed a degree of instinctive courtesy, which casual observers might not have associated with his character, and his conversation was always peculiarly weighty in its import and refined in its tone.'

A few years ago Mr. Thorneycroft was seriously injured by the explosion of a boiler at his works at Willenhall, and from the effects of this accident he never perfectly recovered.

In the early part of this year disease of the brain occurred, which apparently yielded to judicious treatment, but a relapse took place, and on the 28th of April 1851, he terminated a useful career, in his 60th year, lamented by rich and poor. His remains were attended to their last home, by a numerous body of his brother ironmasters, and by upwards of a thousand of his workmen, many of whom, commencing their career under him, had grown grey in his service, and "among the thousand men who followed their popular master to the grave, there was not one, perhaps, who began the world with less than he did, or who in following strictly his good example, might not have ended their career as honourably.”

Mr. Thorneycroft only joined the Institution as an Associate in the year 1850, and yet, amidst his numerous occupations, he complied with the engagement entered into on his election, by communicating a very interesting paper 'On the manufacture of Malleable Iron and the Strength of Railway Axles,' to which a Telford Medal was awarded, and the clear forcible manner in which he expounded his views, on a subject so familiar to him, will long be recollected with pleasure.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Times, May 21, 1823
  2. The Engineer 1863/12/11
  3. The Times, Jan 02, 1841
  4. The Times, Dec 30, 1846
  5. 1852 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries