John Wilkinson (1728-1808) made his fortune in the iron industry in the second half of the 18th century. Such was his ardour for developing and innovating in his field, that he became known as ‘Iron-mad Wilkinson’, and that passion even included a plan to spend eternity encased in iron.
Wilkinson was born in 1728, and started his career in his father’s iron furnaces in Lindale and Backbarrow in Lancashire (now Cumbria), but ambition to learn more about the industry soon took him to the West Midlands. He established foundries there, moved in the same circles as great engineers such as James Watt, Matthew Boulton and Abraham Darby, and accumulated great wealth. He was admired for his industrial prowess, but also considered ruthless in business, and there were accusations that he had claimed the innovations of others as his own. He was proud of his success and the status it gave him: when establishing a works in north Wales, he stayed at an inn in Wrexham where he did a deal with the landlady to ensure the best room was always at his disposal – much to the annoyance of the aristocracy who were sent to lesser rooms, and visiting ladies who expected gentleman to be gallant and allow them the finest accommodation.
Over time Wilkinson bought estates near his works in Staffordshire and North Wales, but Lancashire remained his greatest love and in the 1770s he built a house called Castle Head (sometimes Castlehead) overlooking Morecambe Bay, close to the village of Lindale. At Castle Head he created a pleasure ground, converting ‘barren waste into beautiful gardens and shrubberies’. The estate took its name from a lofty hill which he landscaped with picturesque winding walks and rocky steps leading to a walled garden on the summit, where he grew fruit. Ever the engineer, he built walls and sluices to control the sea, and he was highly praised for reclaiming land from the marshy coastline. By 1789 it was reported that what ‘was once an entire bog is now nearly covered with verdure and grain’.
In 1783, when only in his mid-fifties, Wilkinson finished work on an area of the garden that was very important to him – the ‘Place designed to receive [his] Remains’. A cavity cut into the rock of the hillside, facing the house, housed six cast iron cases which had been made at his foundry. Here Wilkinson would be buried alongside ‘select friends’ who might wish to spend eternity with him. The ends of the iron coffins had doors so that wooden coffins could be slid inside, and then the iron coffin would be sealed and an inscription added. Trees and shrubs were planted around the unconventional mausoleum ‘which in Time will form a Grove’.
The trees had plenty of time to mature, as the ’eminent and opulent’ ironmaster lived on for more than two decades, dying at his Bradley estate at the age of 80 in 1808. Originally he had stated in his will that he wished to be buried without any ‘Parade or Pomp’ at whichever of his three estates he was then resident at: if at Brymbo he was to be buried in the Chapel; if at Bradley in his garden; and if at Castle Head in the ‘place I have there prepared for that purpose’. In a codicil however he changed his mind, and stipulated that his body was to be taken to Castle Head and buried in the ‘Iron Case’.
Tales of Wilkinson’s burial abound, and it is very difficult to sort fact from fiction. According to local legend the coffin in the garden turned out to be too small, so Wilkinson’s body rested in the garden until another could be delivered from the midlands foundry. That coffin then supposedly became stuck in the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay as it made the crossing, and the men had to wait for the tide to turn before they could haul it out. What is certain is that Wilkinson was given a funeral service in Lindale parish church and then by ‘order of his executors deposited in the gardens of Castle Head’ where the ‘iron pyramid’ was then erected. The inscription, in gilded letters, had been composed by Wilkinson himself, and was intended to read:
‘Delivered from persecution, malice and envy here rests John Wilkinson, Ironmaster, in certain hope of a better state and heavenly mansion, as promulgated by Jesus Christ, in Whose Gospel he was a firm believer. His life was spent in actions for the benefit of man and he trusts, in some degree, to the glory of God.’
A most unusual epitaph, but curiously that is not the wording on the monument today. It seems that Wilkinson’s family and executors quietly decided on a less strident version:
Wilkinson rested in peace at Castle Head for two decades whilst his natural children and his nephew squabbled over his will. Eventually, the ‘beautiful mansion house called Castle-Head’ was offered for sale in 1828. Someone must have decided that a corpse, even one encased in iron, was not a great attraction to a buyer, and Wilkinson’s body was quietly removed to a vault in the parish church on 16 August 1828. There Wilkinson was reunited with his wife who had requested a more conventional burial, and specifically ‘desired that her remains might not be put in an iron coffin’.
The obelisk is described in situ in 1848, and is clearly marked on the Ordnance Survey map published in 1850, but Castle Head remained unoccupied for some years and whilst the ‘tenantless hall’ sat empty it seems that the obelisk toppled over. When Edward Mucklow, owner of a Dye Works in Bury, bought the estate he proposed moving the monument to a more public spot on the edge of his estate, near the road into Lindale village. A plaque on the monument records his munificence:
JUNE 1863 & RE-ERECTED BY
EWD MUCKLOW ESQR
A letter to the local paper suggests that Mucklow then sold the remaining iron coffins as scrap metal.
Mucklow died in 1906, and the Castle Head estate was put on the market the following year. With the centenary of Wilkinson’s death approaching there were moves to buy and restore the obelisk. A Wilkinson Memorial Fund was initiated, but progress was slow, and probably not helped by newspaper descriptions of the obelisk as ‘inartistic’ and ‘ugly’. It wasn’t until 1915 that the Westmorland Gazette could announce that the site had been secured. A small park was created around the monument, originally with a picturesque arrangement of large rocks, although they had disappeared by the middle of the century. Within two decades the obelisk was recorded as being in poor condition, but the outbreak of war meant that repair was delayed until the 1950s, when the Manchester branch of the Institute of British Foundrymen raised the necessary funds.
The obelisk was listed at grade II* in 1970, and photos from around this date show that it was again in poor condition and held together with metal bands. At that date the obelisk was a natural oxidised red in colour, with the plaque and the circular portrait in black with the face and lettering in gold. In 1984 funds were raised to enable a full-scale restoration at Dorothea Restoration’s works in Buxton, and in May 1985 a ceremony was held to mark its return to Lindale. At this date the column was painted black with the relief portrait face and lettering gilded.
By 2007 the obelisk was again in need of attention, with paint peeling off. A fundraising campaign in 2008, marking the 200th anniversary of Wilkinson’s death, allowed further restoration, leaving the obelisk a uniform black, with no gilding. Congratulations to all in this little village who have, for more than a century, ensured that this most interesting of monuments receives the constant attention it needs, and saved it from the scrapyard.
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