STORY | Men of Steel in the Forest of Dean - David Mushet and His Son Robert Forester Mushet
SYNOPSIS | The Battle for Steel: Mushet’s Scientific Laboratory - the Forest of Dean
In a shy corner of the Forest of Dean are the wonderful and atmospheric bones of an industrial site so set in history that you could wonder why people aren’t shouting about it from the treetops. The Darkhill Ironworks was the scientific laboratory where Scottish David Mushet set to work to create the strongest, most malleable and perfect ingot of steel. The perfect ammunition for the Industrial Revolution. For manufacturing; for shipbuilding; for railways.
Most people will never have heard of David Mushet. But travel the surrounds of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and his name is scattered like confetti. A name to be proud of in these parts. A significant figure from the Industrial Revolution.
But David Mushet took over the running of the Whitecliff Furnace for iron production outside Coleford in the Forest of Dean in 1810 but swiftly moved on to open up a new site, the Darkhill Ironworks not far away.
It was here the magic occurred. Mushet focused on making a new kind of steel.
Mushet built his reputation in the Forest and retired in 1845 leaving Darkhill to his sons. He died in relative poverty two years later and is buried in Staunton churchyard. He had never realised the potential of his experiments.
Step forward his son, Robert Forester Mushet. He was the youngest son but was the most heavily involved with the ironworks. He inherited management of Darkhill after his father’s retirement. But family squabbles meant that the family company was dissolved, and Robert set up a new company the Forest Steel Works on the upper slopes of the site. He also set up a new company the Titanic Steel Works at Gorsty Knoll.
Robert had registered patents for himself and his father’s work. But mainly owing to lack of funds, most of these patents were allowed to lapse. Robert Mushet set out to improve the Bessemer Process – designed by Henry Bessemer to mass produce steel. Mushet experimented to make a refined steel for the high volume of mass production needed as the Industrial Revolution continued apace. The work he completed produced a specific method to remove impurities and add in the requisite amounts of metals for a highly unique steel. But once again Mushet ran out of money to patent his unique solution and Bessemer snapped it up; claiming it was his idea. Bessemer would go on to make millions from the patent.
Mushet’s metal work would be used in steel rails for the railways. The first of which was a bar laid at Derby Station which was still in use fifteen years later. He also developed the R. Mushet Special Steel – a hardened steel used for tools. He revolutionised machine cutting tools.
By 1866 though, Robert like his father had failed to gain any degree of financial success. Penniless and near destitution, his 16-year-old daughter Mary made a sole venture to London to confront Bessemer for what he had done to her father. She argued that his success had been as a result of the work of her father. Whether out of guilt or potential legal challenge, Bessemer agreed to pay her father a lump sum of over £400 to cover his various debts and an annual pension of £300. A vast number by today’s standards.
Robert Mushet would go on to live until 1891. He is buried in Cheltenham Cemetery with his wife and his very plucky daughter Mary.
So if you should see the name Mushet in your travels across the Forest of Dean or this part of west Gloucestershire, realise but for these Mushets, the Industrial Revolution, the railways in this country, the railroads across the American West and the industrial tools that made them and more manufacturing would never have happened. And but for a young girl, a daughter – they might never have seen any of the benefits.