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Historic Ironwork

This article is concerned with ironwork in the public domain that can reliably be assigned to a date before 1900; it is also confined to the central area of Abingdon, but deals with items from manhole covers to weathervanes, and from domestic door knockers to the remnants of industries long gone. It is a broadly chronological survey of what survives, and discusses some aspects of what this tells us about the use of iron in Abingdon – for functional and decorative purposes. It ends with some remarks on conservation issues.

The oldest external ironwork in Abingdon is probably its remarkable collection of early weathervanes.

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Figure 1 Long Alley Almshouses (© David Clark, 2020)

A candidate for the earliest surviving example is the weathervane at the Long Alley Almshouses (Fig. 1), which was erected when the cupola was added to the medieval building in 1605. Unusually for this date it has the compass points – a feature not usually found until the eighteenth century – so these may be a later addition.[1] Because they are exposed to the elements weathervanes often need repair or replacement, but it is likely that parts of those on the County Hall (1681), Twitty’s almshouses (1707, but added to in 1735), the Council Chamber (1733) and the Clock House extension (1750s) probably survive from these dates. It is sad that the 1733 weathervane of Tomkins almshouses that bore the date and Benjamin Tomkins initials has been replaced in recent times by one with the initials of Christ’s Hospital, its owner since 1987.[2] The town was rightly proud of these weathervanes and featured four of them in a 1960s town guide.

But coming down to earth as it were, the most obvious ironwork consists of railings, lamps, balconies and other items associated with houses. There are two surviving sets of railings from the eighteenth century – both at houses built for members of the rich Tomkins family of maltsters – one set at the Clock House (c.1728) in Ock Street (Fig. 2) and another, with an overthrow supporting a lamp, at Twickenham House (1756) in East St Helen Street (Fig. 3). The earlier ones have standards – as the verticals are usually called – of wrought iron almost an inch thick, but with cast iron features such as urn-shaped finials and posts with bulbous vase-like sections. This mixture of materials was common in the early eighteenth century.

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Figure 2 Railings at Clock House                                                                                    Figure 3 Twickenham House
      (© David Clark, 2020)                                                                                                   (© David Clark, 2020)                                                                                                

By the 1750s and with London architect Sir Robert Taylor involved at Twickenham House, the standards became thinner, with simple spike heads.[3] The posts are slightly thicker, but have cast iron finials of a Baroque design (Fig. 4). Similar railings and finials (Fig. 5) can be seen at St John’s Hospital in the Vineyard (1801). 

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Figure 4 Twickenham House railings                                                                    Figure 5 St John's Hospital railings detail
         (© David Clark, 2020)                                                                                              (© David Clark, 2020)                                                                                          
Also from the eighteenth century are some surviving examples of rainwater goods – almost identical hoppers at Stratton House (1722, Fig. 6) and at the contemporary 7 Ock Street, while one of the Clock House downpipes (c.1728, Fig. 7) is decorated with cherubic heads. 
 

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  Figure 6 Stratton House (© David Clark, 2020)                                                       Figure 7 Clock House (© David Clark, 2020)     

Iron also features strongly in the history of street lighting, but Abingdon seems to have lost almost all its historic examples, save perhaps the huge wrought iron hanging lamp above the market area of the County Hall (Fig. 8), a bracket lamp on the Council Chamber, and the lamps on the overthrows at the southern entry to St Helen’s churchyard (Fig. 9) and at Twickenham House (Fig. 3).

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Figure 8 County Hall lamp (© David Clark, 2020)                     Figure 9 South entry to St Helen’s churchyard (© David Clark, 2020)

From the early nineteenth century we have the dated survival of the iron bridge over the Ock (Fig. 10), built by Acraman of Bristol in 1824, though the railings at either side are later. Some cast iron fanlight designs resemble those produced by Joseph Bottomley’s Cheapside factory in the early years of the century (Fig. 11). 

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Figure 10 Bridge over the Ock (© David Clark, 2008)                                     Figure 11 Cast iron fanlight (© David Clark, 2020)

L N Cottingham’s influential ‘Smith and Founder’s Director’ of 1824 supplied designs for balconies that seem also to have been adapted and used in Abingdon (Figs. 12 and 13). 

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Figure 12 Balcony of 31 East St Helen Street (© David Clark, 2020)                  Figure 13 Design from Cottingham[4]

As we might expect, Victorian ironwork is more prolific, especially later in the nineteenth century when manufacturers of cast iron objects advertised their products through illustrated catalogues to feed the demand of a mass market. Cast iron was a favourite way of decorating otherwise plain railings so the standards sported various designs including spearheads sprouting from tulips (Conduit Road, Fig. 14), leafy sprays (Old Abbey House, Fig.15), fleur-de-lys (Bedwell Place, 1865, Fig.16) and ornate twisted stems (4 St Helen’s Wharf, Fig.17). We can be fairly sure that the examples quoted are in situ and were not removed in the wanton and misconceived removal of railings for the war effort in the 1940s as they fulfil practical functions such as supporting street signs, guarding deep ‘areas’ and so on. 

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          Figure 14 Survivals in Conduit Road                            Figure 15 Old Abbey House                  Figure 16 Bedwell Place 
                     (© David Clark, 2020)                                        (© David Clark, 2020)                       (© David Clark, 2020)
 

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Figure 17 Finial details, 4 St Helen’s Wharf (© David Clark, 2020)

These later Victorian designs also illustrate a move away from the earlier defensive format of the spike or spearhead towards softer, more organic designs such as flowers and leaves – reflecting domesticity and the growth of gardening as a pastime of the suburban householder.

Finding out who made the various pieces of Victorian ironwork in Abingdon is not a straightforward task. The earliest wrought iron work was made by blacksmiths, and it is only through local knowledge such as that recorded in the article on the Ackling family on this site that we know what they made. As for the cast iron work, none of the railings in Abingdon have makers’ names – unlike many in North Oxford where the local Lucy and Dean foundries advertised themselves on the ironwork, and around Wallingford where Wilder's did the same. Perhaps the only set that can be linked to a manufacturer is that at 19-23 Winsmore Lane, near the Windsmore (sic) Iron Works which lay back from the lane just a short distance to the north (Fig. 18). William Dean is shown there in 1854, while Simeon Crook, an ironfounder from Blewbury moved to Winsmore Lane between 1871 and 1881 from Abbey Close and perhaps lived in one of these houses.[5]

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Figure 18 Winsmore Lane railings (© David Clark, 2020)               Figure 19 Ballard bollard in Market Place (© David Clark, 2014)

Other ironfounders can be picked up in the local directories – a list is in the appendix. Nathaniel Dean had a foundry near St Nicolas’ church at 1 Stert Street and his name appears on the base plate of the railings to the former St Thomas’s girls’ school in Oxford. Benjamin Ballard appears as an ironfounder in the directory for 1884 at the Phoenix Works in Bury Street (he later moved to what is now the Sydenham’s site in Ock Street). Perhaps the bollard in the Market place (Fig. 19) bearing the name of Mayor William Ballard in 1879 was made by a relative. In 1994 it was painted white and stood incongruously on the pavement in St Edmund’s Lane.

In Abingdon a favourite place for an ironfounder to advertise was on his drain covers and other road and pavement furniture. Ballard’s can be seen in a number of central street covers, and although Gabriel Davis was probably better known for building engines for boats, there is a drain cover with his name on it near his father’s house in East St Helen Street (Fig. 20). In 1898 he advertised the fact that he had lately erected a ‘complete foundry’ at his St Helen’s Works and was ‘able to undertake all kinds of iron and brass castings’.[6] What is left of the ironworks is the block of flats that was the Hygienic Laundry until 1970 (Fig. 21) and the street name, ‘The Old Foundry’.

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Figure 20 Davis drain cover (© David Clark, 2020)                Figure 21 Part of former St Helen's iron foundry (© David Clark, 2014)

What does seem clear, however, is that Abingdon residents were aware of the opportunities to acquire the latest fashions in decorative ironwork. We have already seen examples of the use of pattern books in the early years of the century. Later, manufacturers' catalogues became available and examples of door knockers, letterboxes and boot scrapers from some of the major national suppliers – Izon, Kenrick and Bullock – can still be seen in some of the central streets. 

Illustrated below (Fig. 22) is an ornate boot scraper from East St Helen Street (maker unidentified), a ‘Wellington’ door knocker in the same street (probably by Bullock of West Bromwich) and the combined knocker and letterbox with Kenrick’s ‘bat’ design.[7]

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                        Figure 22 Three cast iron domestic artefacts in East St Helen Street (© David Clark, 2020)

Charles Coxeter described his business in 1854 as a ‘Birmingham and Sheffield Warehouse' – suggesting that metal goods from these places were his stock-in-trade. The sign under the eaves of his shop in Ock Street remained there after it was acquired by Brind, Gillingham & Co. Ltd, wholesale and retail ironmongers, who specifically mentioned the supply of iron railings in their advertising.

Also important for central Abingdon where cellars abound, was the invention by Hayward Bros. of London, of a prismatic glass block that provided a waterproof covering for basement lightwells, while directing sunlight down into the cellar. A number of properties in East St Helen Street have these (Fig. 23), some with both plain and prism glass, and all are datable to the period between the company’s move to Union Street in 1857 and 1880, when it became Hayward Bros. and Eckstein.

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Figure 23 5 East St Helen Street (© David Clark, 2014)                         Figure 24 Iron kerb at Barley Mow (© David Clark, 2020)

Another very practical use of iron was in kerbs, and surviving sections can be seen in Lombard Street (Fig. 24), Winsmore Lane and East St Helen Street – all places where at one time there was considerable commercial activity and stone was easily damaged by the iron-rimmed cart wheels.

The search for examples of historic ironwork in Abingdon can be addictive. Seek out the two examples of cast iron benches from GWR railway stations with the company’s monogram in the supports (Fig. 25 – the other is in Albert Park) – and enjoy the elegant examples in the Abbey Gardens (Fig. 26).

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Figure 25 GWR bench in Stratton Way (© David Clark, 2018)                    Figure 26 Bench in Abbey Gardens (© David Clark, 2020)

There are two Victorian cast iron wall-mounted letterboxes in Abingdon, one at the Old Anchor on St Helen’s Wharf, the other in Conduit Road (Fig. 27). The latter bears the name of its maker, W T Allen & Co. of London.

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Figure 27 VR letterbox in Conduit Road (© David Clark, 2020)

Look out also for lost signs – for example the remains of the Seven Stars sign at 15 Bridge Street (Fig. 28) and the support of Richard Stone’s tailoring business sign at 18 East St Helen Street (Fig. 29).

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Figure 28 Seven Stars sign (© David Clark, 2020)                            Figure 29 Sign at 18 East St Helen Street (© David Clark, 2020)

This article we hope gives a flavour of what there is to see in Abingdon – there are lots more examples for which we do not have the space to show – but will end with some general observations about some of the conservation issues relating to historic ironwork.

It has to be said that what we see today is a fraction of what there was once – and which can be seen in historic photographs of the town, so it is important that we recognise what we have and ensure its conservation for the future. The major loss was of course deliberate – Abingdon lost many historic railings during the Second World War.[8] It is good to see that some houses in Park Road have replacement railings to a design exactly replicating those that were lost.

Another excellent example of conservation can be seen in the gates of St Ethelwold’s, 30 East St Helen Street (Fig. 30). They were installed in 2014 using mild steel gates bought at auction and refurbished by A C Grace of Clifton Hampden, who added the spikes along the top and refixed the decorative cast iron handles that came off the previous wooden gates that had rotted away.

  fig.30.jpgfig.31.jpg                                         Figure 30 Gates at St Ethelwold’s                                                       Figure 31 Harris plot ironwork in cemetery                                        (© David Clark, 2020)                                                                             (© David Clark, 2020)

Later conservation is hampered by the fact that ironwork – no matter how historic – is often overlooked: it may be a weathervane high on a cupola, it may be on the road or pavement and difficult to see, or it may not be mentioned in a list description or in a church guidebook. Abingdon’s historic ironwork is at risk. Some is gradually rusting away through lack of maintenance – as can be seen in the Old Cemetery off Spring Road where unpainted railings around some of the graves have been broken off or are badly corroded (Fig. 31).  While this is understandable, it is difficult to justify losses such as the bollards at St Helen’s wharf, which dated from 1885 and which were replaced with non-ferrous replicas after only some hundred years. Regular maintenance could have preserved these indefinitely.

So it is all vulnerable to loss, usually because no-one has appreciated its significance, some aspects of which this survey has attempted to draw out, but there is much yet to be researched – what is the enigmatic iron relieving arch that can be seen in the south gable wall of the small industrial building at the eastern entrance to Old Station Yard (Fig. 32), for example, and what activity at 3 Ock Street required the iron rails (Fig. 33) that can (just) be seen under the carriageway building next to the former Congregational chapel? If you know the answers please write to us at abp@aaahs.org.uk

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Figure 32 Iron arch at Old Station Yard (© David Clark, 2013)           Figure 33 Iron tracks at 1-3 Ock Street (© David Clark, 2015)   

 

[1] Marian Campbell, Decorative Ironwork (V&A London, 1997) p. 66 and J Starkie Gardner, English Ironwork of the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries (London, 1911) pp. 300-320

[4] L N Cottingham, The Smith and Founder’s Director (London, 2nd edition, 1824) Plate 1, no. 4 (The Smith and Founder’s Director– Google Books – accessed 6 December 2020).

[5] Billing’s Directory and Gazetteer (1854); St Helen’s census 1871, 1881.

[6] Hooke’s Abingdon Directory (1898)

[7] D Stephenson, ‘More Decorative Ironwork II', Archaeologia Cantiana vol. 97 (1981) p. 143. The bat is Kenrick’s design no 422 and is in the firm’s 1887 catalogue.

[8] For the background (and another piece of lost Abingdon ironwork) see The Russian Gun | Abingdon-on-Thames (accessed 26 November 2020)

 AAAHS and contributors 2020

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