The History of Tinplate

The practice of tinning ironware to protect it against rust is an ancient one. This may have been the work of the whitesmith. This was done after the article was fabricated, whereas tinplate was tinned before fabrication. Tinplate was apparently produced in the 1620s at a mill of (or under the patronage of) the Earl of Southampton, but it is not clear how long this continued.


The first production of tinplate was probably in Bohemia, form where the trade spread to Saxony, and was well-established there by the 1660s. Andrew Yarranton and Ambrose Crowley (a Stourbridge blacksmith and father of the more famous Sir Ambrose) visited Dresden in 1667 and found out how it was made. In doing so, they were sponsored by various local ironmasters and people connected with the project to make the river Stour navigable. In Saxony, the plates were forged, but when they conducted experiments on their return to England, they tired rolling the iron. This led to the ironmasters Philip Foley and Joshua Newborough (two of the sponsors) in1670 erecting a new mill, Wolverley Lower Mill (or forge). This contained three shops, one being a slitting mill (which would serve as a rolling mill), and the others were forges. In 1678 one of these was making frying pans and the other drawing out blooms made in finery forges elsewhere. It is likely that the intention was to roll the plates and then finish them under a hammer, but the plan was frustrated by one William Chamberlaine renewing a patent granted to him and Dud Dudley in 1662.


The slitter at Wolverley was Thomas Cooke. Another Thomas Cooke, perhaps his son, moved to Pontypool and worked there for John Hanbury. He had a slitting mill there and was also producing iron plates called“Pontpoole plates”. Edward Lhuyd reported the existence of this mill in 1697. This has been claimed as a tinplate works, but it was almost certainly only producing (untinned) blackplate.


Tinplate first begins to appear in the Gloucester Port Books which record trade passing through Gloucester, mostly from ports in the Bristol Channel in 1725. The tinplate was shipped from Newport, Monmouthshire. This immediately follows the first appearance in French of Reamur’s Principes del’art de fer-blanc, and prior to a report of it being published in England.


Further mills followed a few years later, initially in many ironmaking regions in England and Wales, but later mainly in south Wales. In 1805, 80,000 boxes were made and 50,000 exported. The industry continued to grow until 1891. One of the greatest markets was the United States of America, but that market was cut off in 1891, when the McKinley tariff was enacted there. This caused a great retrenchment in the British industry and the emigration to America of many of those who could no longer be employed in the surviving tinplate works.


Despite this blow, the industry continued, but on a smaller scale. Nevertheless there were still 518 mills in operation in 1937, including 224 belonging to Richard Thomas & Co. However the traditional pack mill had been overtaken by the improved strip mill, of which the first in Great Britain was built by Richard Thomas & Co. in the late 1930s. Strip mills rendered the old pack mills obsolete and the last of them closed in about the 1960s.