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Cotton familylocked

(per. c. 1650–1802)
  • Brian G. Awty

Cotton family (per. c. 1650–1802), ironmasters, together with the kindred families of Hall and Kendall, played a leading role in the development of the iron industry in Britain between the mid-seventeenth century and the second half of the eighteenth century. Members of the family were at the centre of extended partnerships which dominated iron production in Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, and the north-west of England. These partnerships were consolidated by marriage between members of the families involved, occasionally accompanied by formal marriage agreements safeguarding the interests of forthcoming children.

Like the SpencerFownes partners in the south Yorkshire ironworks, the Cotton family originated in Shropshire, possibly from near Hodnet. Three children of Thomas [i] Cotton (d. 1671) and his wife, Ann, became involved in the iron industry in various ways. William [i] Cotton (d. 1675) married Eleanor, daughter of William Fownes (d. c.1647) of Kenley, and they had eleven children. Cotton became general manager for the partnership. An elder brother, Edward Cotton (1624–1669), also moved to Yorkshire and was involved at the partnership's Wortley forges. A sister, Elizabeth Hall, née Cotton (d. 1679), married Michael Hall (1623/4–c. 1670) [see under Hall family], and after her husband's death became personally involved in the iron industry in Denbighshire.

When his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Fownes (née Spencer) [see Spencer family] of Wortley forges, died in 1658, William [i] Cotton inherited her mines in Denbighshire, and a property at Haigh, in the parish of Darton in Yorkshire, bought in 1656 out of the profits of the Shropshire ironworks. William [i] and Eleanor Cotton also inherited a fifth share in Elizabeth Fownes's personal estate and her stock in the ironworks in Shropshire and Yorkshire.

However, having entered the iron industry on his own account, Cotton ceased to act for the Spencer family partnership in 1667. He had already leased Colne Bridge forge near Huddersfield and he built a slitting mill there; in this he was partnered by a cousin, Thomas Dickin. In Wales he became partner of the Myddeltons of Chirk Castle from about 1662. They had a forge at Mathrafal in Montgomeryshire and the Denbighshire works (Ruabon furnace and Pont-y-blew forge), where Cotton's brother-in-law Michael Hall acted as clerk at Ruabon. Following her husband's death, Cotton's sister Elizabeth Hall had the oversight of Ruabon furnace during the 1670s, for which she was paid £30 a year, together with a 'riding allowance' for her involvement in sales of iron and in charcoal procurement.

William [i] Cotton was a staunch nonconformist and was a friend of the Revd Oliver Heywood. Cotton died on 13 March 1675, probably at Nether Denby, and was buried at Penistone, eight dissenting ministers in attendance, amid 'great lamentation'. His will made provision for an annuity to the ministers of the West Riding and for a bequest to his brother-in-law, the dissenting minister George Fownes. He wished his three younger sons, including Daniel, to be educated for the ministry. An older son, Thomas [ii] Cotton (1653–1730), who was already a pupil at Richard Frankland's academy, married the daughter of Leonard Hoare and was ordained by Oliver Heywood in 1696. Cotton's widow, Eleanor, survived until 1699. She died in Cheshire, where two of her children were established—Daniel Cotton [see below], now an ironmaster, and Joanna, who married her ironmaster cousin Thomas Hall (1657–1715) [see under Hall family] in 1697. However, Eleanor Cotton was buried alongside her husband at Penistone.

Cotton's eldest son, William [ii] Cotton (1648/9–1703), was paid for drawing up the accounts of the Myddelton works in January 1674 and he continued the Denbighshire partnership until 1690. He disregarded the instructions in his father's will to sell the stock in Colne Bridge forge and the Haigh estate. On the contrary, he and Dickin took over Kirkstall forge and Barnby furnace in 1675, when the first Spencer partnership at length collapsed, and built a slitting mill there. Though the forges supplied bar iron for general purposes, the building of slitting mills shows that the production of rod iron, for which cold-short iron made from coal measure ironstone was suitable, was one of Cotton's main products. In the 1660s, while his father was manager of the SpencerFownes partnership, a slitting mill was set up near Wigan to supply the south Lancashire nail trade. Judging from its function during the period of the Spencer accounts it is clear that Colne Bridge mill was set up to supply this Lancashire market, while most of the Kirkstall output went to the nail trade of south Yorkshire. After 1684, with a new partner, Denis Hayford of Wortley, Cotton was also able to supply bar and rod iron in the Birmingham area from Lord Paget's works (Abbots Bromley and Cannock forges and Rugeley slitting mill), the lease of which they took over in that year. Rugeley was one of the largest slitting mills in the country.

After the death of Richard Foley of Longton, Cotton and Heyford acquired the Cheshire works (Lawton furnace, Warmingham and Cranage forges, and Cranage slitting mill). In addition to smelting local north Staffordshire ores, Lawton furnace used haematite ores from Furness, which had to be carried right across the Cheshire plain for smelting. The production of the valuable tough iron which these ores yielded was greatly eased by the building of a more accessible furnace at Vale Royal in 1696. Cotton's personal links with the north-west went back considerably beyond this, because on 2 October 1677 he married Barbara, daughter of Thomas Curwen of Sellapark, Cumberland. Their only child died in infancy. With tough and ‘mixed’ as well as cold-short pig iron available, much of the Cheshire product was sold as bar iron. However, a plating mill at Street (just north of Lawton furnace) enabled some of the Warmingham product to be sold locally as salt pan plates. Much of the Cranage product, especially the rod iron, went to Lancashire, but in addition to local markets the Cheshire works also supplied customers in Wrexham and in north Staffordshire.

Together with Hayford and William Simpson, Cotton also ran Knottingley forge and Bank furnace, so by the end of the century he had control of most of the Yorkshire works, and it seems to have been he who finally settled the elder branch of the family in Yorkshire at Haigh Hall. William [ii] Cotton was also involved with Hayford and other partners in the ‘Company in the North’, a shear-steel producing project in Durham, based on Blackhall mill on the Derwent. In 1748, together with Joshua Copley, Cotton's younger son, Joshua (1694–1753), a Newcastle ironmaster, was involved in selling the lease of the steel furnace at Derwentcote, so Cotton involvement in this steelmaking enterprise perhaps continued up to then.

Cotton's first marriage was celebrated at the Anglican church of St Crux in York, but his second wife, Anna Cotton [née Westby] (d. 1721), of Ravenfield, whom he married on 27 March 1683, was a woman as strongly nonconformist as had been his father. Both offered hospitality to Oliver Heywood and his sons and were ready recipients of the nonconformist tracts which he procured. Not until Oliver Heywood lay on his deathbed in 1702 was any child of the Cotton family baptized at the parish church of Darton.

Cotton and his second wife had four surviving children, and on his death, which occurred on 6 May 1703 when he was fifty-four, Anna and her brother-in-law Daniel Cotton (c. 1660–1723) of Church Hulme in Cheshire, acted as guardians for these children, all of them minors. Daniel Cotton had an £8848 share in the Cheshire ironworks in 1701 and was manager of the new Vale Royal furnace. In 1707 the Cheshire ironworks were amalgamated with the Staffordshire works, a Foley family concern, and Daniel Cotton obtained a sixth share in the former and a seventh share in the latter. About this time he took over the management of Cranage forge and Lawton furnace, near the Staffordshire border. In 1709 he and his cousin Edward Hall of Cranage [see under Hall family] commenced mining at Crossgates in Furness, a prelude to the establishment in 1711 of Cunsey furnace near Lake Windermere, in which Daniel was one of the shareholders. The partnership of William Rea of Monmouth at Cunsey suggests that the later pattern of trade, in which only a small part of the tough pig iron produced there was used locally, the bulk of it being shipped to the Severn estuary to supply the south Wales and Stour forges, was envisaged from the start. Meanwhile, near the Shropshire border, Doddington furnace had been brought into the partnership about 1710 and in 1716, together with William Vernon, manager of Warmingham forge, Daniel Cotton repaired Madeley furnace, which was in blast again the following year.

Daniel Cotton married five times, but little is known about his wives. His first wife's name is not known, and on 31 December 1696 he married Sarah Nicols of Boleshall. A third wife was called Lydia, and on 28 August 1707 he married Sarah Booth of Twemlow. His fifth wife, Anne, survived him. He had at least one son and one daughter. Far from entering the nonconformist ministry, as did his elder brother Thomas, Daniel had his children baptized in the established church, gave a new peal of bells to the church at Holmes Chapel in 1709, and presented William Dugard to the rectory of Warmingham in 1714. Daniel Cotton died on 1 January 1723.

While the widowed Anna Cotton tried to safeguard her family's interests in Yorkshire against the encroachments of John Spencer (c.1655–1729) of Cannon Hall, the position of her family in the industry was consolidated by several judicious marriages. First, in 1708, her eldest daughter, Frances, married William Vernon, manager of Warmingham forge. In 1712 her second daughter, Anna, married Edward Kendall (1684–1746) [see under Kendall family] of Stourbridge, joint manager with William Rea of Monmouth of the Staffordshire works. Meanwhile Elizabeth Hall of the Hermitage had married Ralph Kent of Kinderton, later to be a partner in the Cunsey works in Furness, and her cousin Elizabeth Hall of Cranage married Thomas Bridge, a Chester feltmaker; both of their sons, William and Edward Bridge, were eventually involved, along with the Vernons, in the expansion of the Cheshire partnership into Wales. Finally, in 1715, Anna Cotton's son William Westby Cotton (bap. 1689, d. 1749) married, on 1 September 1715, Mary Cotton of Church Hulme, Daniel Cotton's daughter. Anna Cotton died at Stourbridge on 8 July 1721, presumably at the home of her daughter and Edward Kendall. She was buried on 13 July at Darton. The death of his 'dear and worthy friend' was formally recorded by Oliver Heywood's successor, the Revd Thomas Dickinson, in their Northowram register.

William Westby Cotton's first entry into the iron trade was not in Yorkshire. In 1714, together with Edward Kendall, he took a lease of Kemberton furnace in Shropshire. Probably with her retirement in view, his mother had informed John Spencer in 1716 of her assignment of her share in Colne Bridge forge to her son, in partnership with her sons-in-law Edward Kendall and William Vernon. Spencer remained unco-operative, but in 1720 William Westby Cotton re-established himself in Yorkshire with a new furnace at Bretton, adjacent to Haigh Hall, run in conjunction with Kilnhurst forge on the Don, in a twenty-one-year partnership with his brother-in-law Thomas [ii] Cotton (bap. 1701, d. 1749) of Doddlespool (who was Daniel Cotton's son), Edward Hall of Cranage, and Samuel Shore of Sheffield. Rockley furnace was added to this partnership through a sixteen-year lease obtained in 1726.

William Westby Cotton obtained a corresponding share in the Staffordshire works, where, in addition to Doddington and Madeley furnaces, Cannock furnace was put in blast again during the 1720s. However, the depression of the 1730s hit the Staffordshire works severely and the 1732 lease of Cannock forge mentioned the furnace site as 'late used', which suggests it was again derelict. About this time Thomas [ii] Cotton moved from Doddlespool to Eardley End, nearer to Lawton furnace. In 1737 four of the forges were out of action; though Lea forge in Cheshire was in production in 1737, Thomas Coape, its clerk, left for the Spencer forges at Wortley in 1738, Thomas [ii] Cotton having no work for him. Small quantities of tin plate shipped down the Weaver Navigation by Thomas Cotton in the 1740s suggest that the tin-plate works had by now replaced the forge at Oakamoor. By 1750 Bromley forge was also out of action, but Cannock forge had by then resumed and Consall and Warmingham forges had even increased their production, each to 300 tons a year.

Thomas [ii] Cotton married Elizabeth Langley in 1724, and they had at least one son. Cotton's will of 1746 (Lichfield Joint RO, B/C/11) shows that he had disregarded the provision of his marriage agreement to lay out £2000 in the purchase of land for the settlement of sums on his sons, but that it still remained in his partnership with Edward Hall and others. If possible his executors were to increase his stock and maintain his leases for ten years, at least in the Staffordshire works, if not in those more remote, in the hope that his family would continue in the trade. In a desperate codicil he revoked most of the executorships (even that of his own son, Robert), confirming only that of his fellow ironmaster, Samuel Hopkins of Cradley. His worst fears were realized, however, and after 1750 the names Kendall and Hopkins replaced that of Cotton in transactions relating to the ironworks of Cheshire and north Staffordshire. Thomas [ii] Cotton was buried at Audley, Staffordshire, on 9 March 1749.

When a committee of the House of Commons reported to parliament in March 1738 on the damage likely to the English iron industry from the proposed lifting of the embargo on the import of bar iron from the North American colonies, William Westby Cotton was among the ironmasters whose evidence succeeded in prolonging the embargo. He died in August 1749.

Thomas [iii] Cotton (1723–1802) of Haigh, who was born on 4 April 1723, the son of Mary and William Westby Cotton, continued in the trade for some years after his father's death. However, the business was in decline, and of the furnaces in the Barnsley area, Bretton alone was still in blast in 1774. By 1794 Bretton was being run by Messrs Cook and Cockshutt, and it too was closed down in 1806. The Yorkshire Thomas [iii] Cotton married Rebecca Ackton in 1765 and died, childless, on 3 October 1802.

The Cotton family, in consolidating its partnerships by judicious marriages, was perhaps the most impressive example of the way in which ironmasters sought with considerable success to reduce the proneness to ruin through litigation, which had bedevilled the industry's progress during much of the sixteenth century and the seventeenth. Though parties to several chancery and Chester exchequer court cases, members of the family seem to have avoided initiating such suits themselves, even after 1703, when rivalry with the Spencer family was at its most intense. Not only was their influence felt in the iron trade throughout most of the north of England, their participation in the initiation of the steel industry on Tyneside and of tin-plate manufacture in the north midlands were interventions at crucial growing points in the British economy. The family also exhibited classic features of first, second, and even third generation enthusiasm for the trade, to the extent of female participation in management. This was followed by a rather surprising disinclination to meet the challenges faced by the iron industry in the later eighteenth century. The religious enthusiasm of the family followed a somewhat similar trajectory.


  • B. G. Awty, ‘Charcoal ironmasters of Cheshire and Lancashire, 1600–1785’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 109 (1957), 71–124
  • J. Hunter, South Yorkshire: the history and topography of the deanery of Doncaster, 2 vols. (1828–31)
  • G. G. Hopkinson, ‘The charcoal iron industry in the Sheffield region, 1500–1775’, Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society, 8 (1960–63), 122–51
  • B. L. C. Johnson, ‘The Foley partnerships: the iron industry at the end of the charcoal era’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 4 (1951–2), 322–40
  • The Rev. Oliver Heywood … his autobiography, diaries, anecdote and event books, ed. J. H. Turner, 4 vols. (1881–5)
  • W. M. Myddelton, ed., Chirk Castle accounts, 2 vols. (1908–31)
  • I. Edwards, ‘The charcoal iron industry of Denbighshire, c.1690–1770’, Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society, 10 (1961), 1–49
  • parish register, Holmes Chapel, 27 July 1701 [baptism, Thomas (ii) Cotton]
  • parish register, Audley, 9 March 1749 [burial, Thomas (ii) Cotton]
  • Sheff. Arch., Spencer–Stanhope papers
  • J. H. Turner, T. Dickenson, and O. Heywood, eds., The nonconformist register of baptisms, marriages, and deaths (1881)


  • Sheff. Arch., Spencer–Stanhope papers

Wealth at Death

see Awty, ‘Charcoal ironmasters’

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