The largest Wealden iron works
Horsmonden was one of the centres of the old Wealden ironworking region and Furnace Pond is one of the largest and finest of the artificial lakes made to provide water power for the great hammers. Furnace Pond has an area of 30 acres and a spillway. The dam across the valley is some 140 yards in length with the head available being some 30 feet.
The mill wheel is no longer there, although the water still cascades over the spillway steps and the circular basin at the bottom in which the wheel used to turn is still there.
At its height, the Horsmonden Furnace employed two hundred men in making great guns for the Army and Navy.
The reason Horsmonden was a good location for an iron foundry was the availability of water, iron and wood, as well as access to Chatham Dockyards via Yalding and the River Medway.
The Horsmonden Furnace was first mentioned in 1574, when the owner was Thomas Bartell or Brattle.
In 1579 it was leased by Henry and Thomas Darrell to Thomas Dyke, with Brattle having an interest in the property.
Thomas Johnson era
In 1588 the furnace was leased by William Ashburnham and sub-leased to Thomas Johnson, a gunfounder.
One of Thomas Johnson’s cannons was excavated in Sluis, a former harbour on the Flemish-Dutch coast and is the only one we know about.
Some letters referred to January-February of 1595 when there was a threatened attack on the furnace and ironworks at Horsmonden, belonging to the Queen’s gunfounder, Thomas Johnson.
The furnace is referred to as ‘Sharndon Furnace’. The clothiers were opposed to building of ironworks because they used up fuel and water power. Also mentioned was a Parliamentary bill bought forward for the demolishing of all ironworks within seven miles of Cranbrook, the centre of the Wealden cloth trade, which would have just affected Horsmonden.
In 1596 the furnace was owned by Sir Thomas Waller, and leased to John Iden and Robert Pothill.
John Browne era
The furnace was leased by Thomas Browne in 1604 and later transferred to his son, John Browne, who held the office of King’s Gunfounder from 1615 to 1681. Some 200 men were employed at the furnace in 1613.
The principal foreign purchasers of English guns were the Dutch, during the war of liberation from the Spanish yoke in the later part of the sixteenth century. Such purchases continued in the seventeenth century, when the Dutch Navy continually increased in size and, importance, so that Holland became the principal maritime power.
No effort was spared by the Dutch to procure cast-iron guns manufactured in England; for example, in the years 1615 to 1618 they were purchasing half the produce of John Browne’s gunfoundry at Horsmonden in Kent. He employed two hundred men (a very considerable number in this early period), to use his own words, ‘the Dutch havinge bargained with him to take of all that the English doe not buy’; the number of guns ready for transportation from the works to Holland amounted to six hundred during those years.
Frequently Dutch merchants such as Ludolph Engelstedt and Giles de Vischer, in 1594 to 1596 acting as special agents for their Government, stayed in England to buy cast-iron cannon and to procure export licences from the English Government.
John Browne had the monopoly on manufacture of Royal guns and in 1625, after the outbreak of the Spanish War, his foundry made five hundred guns for the British ships.
King Charles I visited the foundry in 1638 to watch a cannon being cast – a bronze four-pounder, forty-two inches long, now preserved in the White Tower at the Tower of London.
The civil war which started in 1642 gave a new impetus to gunfounding in the Weald. Twenty-six furnaces, referred to in 1653, were engaged in the production of guns and shot for Charles I, and so were two furnaces (Cannop and Lydbrook) in the Forest of Dean. In 1664, eleven furnaces operating in the Weald made cannon and bullets for the Dutch war, and thirteen further furnaces were restored and stocked. The most important gun-founders in the Weald during the seventeenth century were the Brownes of Horsmonden.
Not long after the start of the civil war, John Browne found himself in trouble because despite his previous Royal patronage he sided with the Parliamentarians in the Civil War and would not make guns for the Royalists.
The high price of English guns was no deterrent to continental purchasers, since they were well aware of their superior quality. This is reflected in their frequent attempts to induce English founders to work abroad, and to obtain cannon by illegal trade and bribery, if they could not be procured from English founders authorised to sell abroad.
Moreover in 1598, an Englishman wrote from Spain that all seafaring men agree ‘that they never see cast ordnance of iron but such as is made in England’. More convincing than the demand from the continental market is the term ‘after the English fashion’ applied to the casting of iron guns in German Westfalia in 1592, and in Sweden in 1600. This term clearly signifies that English gunfounding was the model for their colleagues on the Continent.
Naturally foreign gunfounders could not rest until they had found out what the ‘English fashion’ of casting was. The first, who in 1620 claimed to have succeeded by discovering the secret on journeys they made in England and from iron-merchants they met on the Continent, were two citizens of Namur, in Belgium, Henri de Harscamp and Guillaume de Moniot. They erected furnaces in the vicinity of Namur to put their discovery into practice. This was the starting point of a competition which intensified when shortly afterwards gunfounding was introduced from Liege into Sweden. The superior Swedish ore made it possible to produce guns which finally ousted the English cast-iron cannon from the Continental market.
Yalding was a main shipment point for the cannons manufactured here, where the cannons were shipped via the River Medway to the naval base at Chatham.
The famous foundry finally closed in 1685 when the manufacture of iron moved to the Midlands with their coal fired plants. In 1744 there was a boring mill run by one Harrison at the site.
You can visit the site of Horsmonden Furnace and see Furnace Pond and the spillway. It is still remembered both by The Gun and Spitroast, formerly The Gun, named after it when it became an inn round about 1750, and also by the cannon carved on one quarter of the village sign.
This timeline attempts to put into context the operation of Horsmonden Furnace as a gun foundry against related conflicts and political happenings of the era.
1574 – First mention of Horsmonden Furnace
1579 – Leased by Henry and Thomas Darrell to Thomas Dyke
1588 – Leased by William Ashburnham and sub-leased to Thomas Johnson, a gunfounder
1594-1603 – Nine Years’ War in Ireland
1595 – Threatened attack on furnace by clothiers
1596 – Owned by Sir Thomas Waller, and leased to John Iden and Robert Pothill
1603 – Elizabeth I dies. James I coronation
1604 – Leased by Thomas Browne
1609 – End of the Dutch Revolt and beginning of 12 Years’ Truce
1613 – 200 men recorded employed at the Horsmonden Furnace
1615 – John Browne takes up office as King’s Gunfounder
1615-18 Dutch purchasing half the furnace output of cannons
1625 – James I dies. Anglo-Spanish war, 1625 part of the Thirty Years’ War
1626 – Charles I coronation
1627 – Anglo-French war, 1627-1629, part of the Thirty Years’ War
1638 – King Charles I visits Horsmonden Foundry
1641 – Outbreak of the English Civil War 1641-1651
1645 – John Browne and his son were ordered by Parliament to be taken into safe custody but later released.
1649 – Charles I executed
1651 – John Browne dies
1652 – First Anglo-Dutch War 1652-1654
1654 – Anglo-Spanish War fought between the English Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and Spain 1654-1660
1658 – Oliver Cromwell dies
1660 – Restoration of the Monarchy
1665 – Second Anglo-Dutch War 1665-1667
1672 – Third Anglo-Dutch War 1672-1674
1680 – Fourth Anglo-Dutch War 1680-1684
1685 – Horsmonden Furnace closes. Charles II dies. John Browne ceases to be King’s Gunfounder.
1688 – William Benge is gunfounder at Horsmonden.
1744 – A boring mill run by a Harrison operates at the site
Useful links and sources
Illustrations by Mike Codd © West Sussex County Council
- Thomas Johnson Demi-Culverin cannon found defending the siege city A gun found on the ramparts, designated ‘C12’, a demi-culverin of 10ft dating to 1590 and bearing the mark of Thomas Johnson, Queen’s founder of iron ordnance. Analysis of this piece revealed that it may have been one of those sent to Sir Henry Docwra at […]Read More
- Gifts for trade relations The East India Company carried cannons in their East Indiaman ships in order to present as gifts to rulers in return for favourable trade terms or as a free sample with the view to selling more. Usually these guns were of the highest quality, so it no surprise that many of […]Read More
- How to make a 17th Century bronze or iron gun Gun casting at Horsmonden Furnace would have involved creating a model of the gun to be built and creating a mould from the model. A central mould of the bore would be dropped in prior to casting which would be done in a pit close […]Read More
- Horsmonden built cannons on the ramparts of the siege city We have recently had it confirmed that there is at least one John Browne cannon and one Thomas Johnson cannon amongst the recently restored 16th and 17th century cannons at Londonderry (aka Derry) in Northern Ireland. Londonderry claims the largest collection of cannons in Europe […]Read More
- Different types of 16th and 17th century cannon There are many different types of cannon, some cast at Horsmonden and some not. We will develop this reference guide as information becomes available. Minions The Minion (from the French word for small) was the name of cannon of a type of small cannon used during the […]Read More
- The Quest to find Horsmonden Cannons Some of our cannons are missing! Well in fact most of them are! Horsmonden Furnace would have manufactured thousands of cannons in its time from about 1588 to about 1685, but very little is known about the whereabouts of the weapons made during this period. Many of them ended […]Read More
- Tower of London guns Horsmonden made brass cannons in the Tower of London The armouries of the Tower of London have a total of seven cannons made in Horsmonden. There are two large brass cannons made for Charles I and five small training cannons made for his son, the Prince of Wales who became Charles […]Read More
- Charles I cannon found in the Dockyard in Bermuda In a number of places about Bermuda, obsolete cannon were recycled as dock bollards, mooring weights and pivots, the last for new guns. One such cannon pivot was unearthed at Bastion ‘I’ at the southern end of the Northwest Rampart connecting the Commissioner’s House to the […]Read More
- Thomas Johnson Minion Gun found in old harbour at Sluis in The Netherlands One of Thomas Johnson’s cannons was excavated in Sluis, a former harbour on the Flemish-Dutch coast. After the cannon was cleaned the marking TI could read, the initials of Thomas Johnson of Horsmonden, Gunfounder to the Queen Elizabeth. It was was a […]Read More
- John Browne’s Drake relic found off Mull A small iron gun recovered from the wreck of the Caroline warship Swan has been identified as a drake, a lightweight tapered-chamber design dating from the 1620s. It is the only known cast-iron example of such a piece made by Hormonden’s John Browne, gunfounder to Charles I, who […]Read More