Wilkes’s steam-powered history remains shrouded in mystery

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: Among those buried in the churchyard of what was the Croydon Parish Church is a giant of the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions that transformed Britain in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. But as DAVID MORGAN discovered, questions remain about how the Midlander came to London

Joseph Wilkes: a substantial figure, in every sense

Above the north door in the old Croydon Parish Church was a brass plaque. It is long gone now, another casualty of the terrible fire of 1867.

But the records show that it read as follows: “Near this place are deposited the remains of Joseph Wilks Esq of Measham in the County of Derby, who died May 24th, 1805 aged 73”.

With the plaque gone, over the years the name of Joseph Wilkes has been forgotten. This tale endeavours to shed some light on his life and times.

And yes, his name did have an “e” in it: Wilkes. I do not know whose job it was to check the spelling on memorials that were put up in Croydon church in the early 19th Century, but they didn’t do a very good job. Didn’t anyone notice? Didn’t any of his family comment?

Keen geographers might also suggest that there is a further error as Measham is in Leicestershire, not Derbyshire. However, those drafting and casting memorials at the start of the century were not to know that Measham’s county status would be altered by boundary changes in 1897.

Today it is a village of about 5,000 people.

Is there anything left in Measham to help enlighten us about Joseph Wilkes?

Well, he does have a street named after him, Wilkes Avenue. Not everyone gets to have that honour, so that is telling in itself.

Two centuries after his death, Joseph Wilkes’ life and work was given this substantial memorial in Measham, now in Leicestershire

Secondly, adjacent to Wilkes Avenue is the Measham village green where a significant piece of evidence can be seen. In 2003, the trustees of this open space commissioned a sculpture. It is a circular mosaic, about seven metres in diameter.

The Wilkes sundial is a significant piece of work

The circle is divided into segments and the whole thing is surmounted by a sundial. The theme of the sculpture is none other than Joseph Wilkes’s life, with each segment revealing a different aspect about him.

Just from this sculpture, we can piece together just what an important figure Wilkes was, a giant of an age which did much to develop the modern Britain we recognise today.

The first segment is about cheese. Wilkes Joseph was born into a family of grocers who, in 1756, specialised in cheese production. Joseph and his brother John developed this trade into the buying and selling of cheese.

Another segment is about farming. Joseph Wilkes was keen to improve crop yields. Much correspondence exists between Wilkes and the Board of Agriculture, particularly concerning free trade as well as suggestions and endorsements about new farming methods.

Wilkes saw these themes as vital to improve the quantity and quality of crops produced by British farms so that they could withstand foreign competition.

In animal husbandry, Wilkes was particularly interested in selective breeding. He was a member of the Leicestershire Tup group (tup being another word for ram), and he bred one of Robert Bakewell’s celebrated rams. Bakewell was one of the leading figures in the British Agricultural Revolution.

In 1798, when it was first formed, Wilkes was the first chair of the Smithfield Society, now known as the Royal Smithfield Club, whose founding principles were to promote best practice in the production of quality livestock for the British meat industry, to improve and promote the breeding of cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and other livestock.

Wilkes used Bakewell rams, as portrayed in this 18th century painting, to improve his sheep stock

The next segment of the sundial is about coal mining, and illustrates Wilkes’s similarly important part in the Industrial Revolution.

From 1767, when he first acquired rights to mine coal in the Measham area, Wilkes went on to improve coal extraction at pits at Oakthorpe, Donisthorpe and Moira, as well as Brinsley in Nottinghamshire. He sought to use the best of new inventions. The need for coal to fuel the furnaces of the Industrial Revolution resulted in much innovation.

Wilkes used Newcomen steam engines to pump water from the mines, enabling deeper seams of coal to be excavated. He installed steam winding gear at Oakthorpe so that men could be transported more quickly down to the coal face in a lift and coal brought out more efficiently.

Birmingham Central Library houses the correspondence on the subject of power for mining between Wilkes and the engineering company, Boulton and Watt, a partnership between the English manufacturer Matthew Boulton and James Watt, the Scot generally acknowledged as the inventor of the steam engine.

Transport features in another segment of Wilkes’s sundial.

Wilkes was at the centre of the Industrial Revolution, using Newcomen steam-powered pumps in his coal mines

Wilkes needed to improve transport links to further his many business enterprises. Back in the early days of his cheese business he took on a task to improve more than 100 miles of roads around Measham with a new design. By the age of 28, he was a commissioner of the Hinckley-Burton Turnpike Road, which passed through Overseal, where he was born. He later held similar offices for other turnpike trusts and was influential in lobbying Parliament to secure the Acts necessary for their establishment.

In order to move the coal around in a more efficient way, Wilkes was one of many industrialists and entrepreneurs who invested in and developed the canal system and the early railways.

Wilkes was only 30 when he negotiated loans from the bank and investments from local businesses to set up the Trent Boat Company. Their boats were put to good use making the River Trent a profitable artery for the transport of goods.

Later, he was an advocate of a canal route from London right through the Midlands to Liverpool. His own part in that vision would be the promotion of the local Ashby Canal. In addition, he sat on the committees of other canals, for example the Grantham and Beeston, as well as investing in the Loughborough-Leicester canalisation of the River Soar.

Another segment of the Wilkes sundial is about textiles.

Wilkes was also a pioneer in the use of waterways and canals to transport trade goods and coal

In the 1780s, Wilkes had a 3,000-spindle cotton mill built at Measham. His interests in textiles were again promoted with some joint venture capitalism. This time his partner was Sir Robert Peel, father of the future Prime Minister of the same name. Boulton and Watt, the pioneers of steam power with whom he had dealings in mining, supplied the engines to power Wilkes’s looms.

If, by now, you are puzzling over whether or not you might have heard of this man in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution or wish that you might have listened a little more carefully during your history lessons at school, the final segment of the sundial sculpture might help.

It refers to the part of his life for which he is best remembered, certainly in Derbyshire and Leicestershire: bricks. “Wilkes’s Gobs” were outsized bricks, weighing around 17lb each that were made at his brickworks at Measham. These were twice the size of normal bricks, to reduce the amount of tax payable on the brick production.

The clay used in the brick-making was available as a byproduct from the local mining. There are some buildings on the High Street in Measham today which were built using the “Wilkes’s Gobs”. Any financial advantage Wilkes might have gained with his use of oversized bricks was lost in 1803, though, when a double tax was imposed on double-sized bricks.

Wilkes’s Gobs were double-sized bricks, devised as an 18th-century tax dodge

The majority of Wilkes’ business ventures prospered and he became a wealthy man. He bought the Manor of Measham in 1777 and built a fine house at Overseal. In his later years, he even launched out and opened a bank, with new partners, to give a stimulus to new innovators and entrepreneurs. The Peel, Wilkes, Dickenson and Goodall Bank had branches in Tamworth, Ashby and Burton-on-Trent.

Wilkes was very well-connected. The Peel family were partners in the textile enterprise. The Curzons, later to become the Earls Howe, were partners in the mining business. The Gresleys, from Drakelow Hall in Derbyshire, taught him about estate management.

There was much sadness in his private life, though. He married Elizabeth Wood, from Burton on Trent, in 1759. She died just eight years later. In that time, Bessy gave birth to seven children.

Four of the Wilkes children would not survive their childhoods. Widowed at 36 and newly installed into his house at Overseal, Wilkes lived with his surviving daughters Joyce, Matilda and Mary. Elizabeth was buried at St Peter’s Netherseal, a nearby village, where she and Joseph were wed. Their four children who died in infancy were also interred there.

Gerald Box, a Midlands historian, spent much of his retirement researching Joseph Wilkes. However, even he was stumped to uncover much about Wilkes’s final two years.

History man: Gerald Box did much research into the life and legacy of Joseph Wilkes that was used in making the sundial

Box states that Wilkes moved to Croydon in 1804, died the following year and was buried in the church there. This final part of Wilkes’s life raises many questions.

Joseph Wilkes died intestate, which is unusual for a man of his wealth and status, and also unfortunate for those searching the public record for details of his estate and homes. Because there was no will, Wilkes’s three daughters, as next of kin, became joint recipients of his estate.

But how on earth would a highly motivated and successful industrialist and entrepreneur not leave a will? He was meticulous about money and money-making schemes all his life, except at the very end.

And why would a 72-year-old who had his own Midlands mansion and a vast business empire there come to Croydon? Why did his daughters not bring his body back to Measham for burial in their parish church, back into a community for whom he had done so much?

Was Wilkes lured south by another business opportunity? We know that the Surrey Iron Railway was being built around this time. The Measham view is that Wilkes went to London to “cut it”, but that this never really worked out.

An obituary appeared in the London Morning Post a month after his death. Croydon gets no mention.

“Joseph Wilkes Esq. of Measham Derby in the County of Derby”, it begins.

“Mr Wilkes may be considered almost as the father of Inland Navigation in this country, his knowledge of commerce, agriculture and manufacture was extensive. His construction of good roads, on a new and excellent plan of his own invention, will long be remembered with gratitude by the neighbourhood in which he lived. He was the best friend of the poor… by exploring and opening up new sources of employment, exciting them to industry. The death of such a man… must be considered a public loss.”

The contemporary chronicler Arthur Young wrote in 1791 that Wilkes had demolished much of the poorest thatched housing in Measham, replacing them with brick-built houses with low rents.

Well-connected: Wilkes’s great-great-grandson was Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher

Thanks to this initiative, between 1788 and 1801, the number of houses in Measham increased from 120 to 215. He also built a posting inn on the High Street with stabling for 34 horses, creating more local jobs.

After his death, Wilkes’ house and businesses were soon sold off by his family. Joyce and Matilda had married clergymen who were brothers. They had no business acumen.

Thanks to Gerald Box’s research more people in the Midlands are now aware of the role that Wilkes played in the Industrial Revolution of this country. Perhaps Croydon Church missed a trick in not promoting his memory.

They would surely have got support for a new plaque, as Wilkes’s great-great-grandson, through his daughter Matilda’s family, was Geoffery Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1945 to 1961, who presided over the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Small world.

Read more: Minster bells have been ringing the changes for four centuries
Read more: Addiscombe, the academies and the artistry of the Fieldings
Read more: How Benjamin Franklin helped the inventor of the wheel

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2 Responses to Wilkes’s steam-powered history remains shrouded in mystery

  1. Lewis White says:

    Thanks again to David Morgan for this knowledge-expanding article. Such a mystery as to his death and last years. So very sad if a failure to win the Surrey Iron Railway job brought about his decline into bankruptcy and obscurity.

    I wonder if Joesph Wilkes (1733-1805) ever met that other Joseph, also of Derbyshire, the painter Joseph Wright ARA (3 September 1734 – 29 August 1797), known as “Joseph Wright of Derby”?

    It is inconceivable that both JW’s at least would have known of the other, if not met them.

    Both today are scandalously under-known, with JW (industrialist formerly of Croydon) coming way behind JW of Derby in the modern consciousness. A huge shame. Thankfully the painter JW is now much more appreciated than he was 50 years ago. Maybe his namesake’s star will rise again.

    Wright (the painter) also was a key figure in the time of the Industrial Revolution– as a painter of some of the key industrialist figures of the time. Two of his most important patrons were Josiah Wedgwood, the manufacturer of pottery, and Richard Arkwright, regarded as the creator of the factory system in the cotton industry. Two of his non-portrait masterworks “, Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery” (1766), in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768)”, take Science as the subject. Both paintings show the consumate use of light and shade in creating a dramatic atmosphere.

    Let’s hope that JW (the industrialist and improver) becomes far better known, along with his close contemporary, t’other JW of painterly fame. If the former JW’s London or Croydon address could be identified, a Blue Plaque would be fitting, if there isn’t one so far.

  2. Geoff Pursglove says:

    I was pleased to read David Morgan’s article, which has just apeared in a search.
    I have written a book about the Ashby Canal, including a section on Joseph Wilkes. The article gave me information I didn’t know, particularly details about the Croydon connection. Gerald Box was a friend of mine, and he, like you was mystified as to why Wilkes went to Croydon.
    If David cares to give me his addess I can send him a copy of the book (Ashby Canal, Past, Present and Future by Geofffrey Pursglove).


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