Ever wondered why there aren’t many trees in Ashdown Forest? Blame it on the ironmasters of the Sussex Weald.
For several centuries the whole region was a flourishing centre for iron-smelting, a process that required copious quantities of charcoal; the source of charcoal being, of course, the nearest woodland.
Clues to this Sussex “iron age” are easily detected in place names. Within a few miles of Uckfield are to be found Furnace Bank, Forge Lane, Minepit Wood and Iron Brook, all indicating the site of a foundry. Another giveaway is the word “gill” often spelt as “ghyll”. It means a hollow with a waterway running through it. When dammed up these formed a chain of hammer-ponds with the resulting water-power being harnessed to drive the hammers that were used to forge the metal.
The Romans knew about Sussex iron. Some of the oldest evidence was discovered at Oldlands in the village of Fairwarp where there was a Roman ferraria or furnace of a type also called a bloomery. Coins from the time of the Emperor Vespasian plus pottery, glass and sheet lead have been unearthed in the vicinity.
When the Romans arrived in Sussex they found the inhabitants using iron bars as currency. It means the metal was already being produced by the locals although no traces of how they accomplished this have been identified. Some scholars think that iron-working may have been introduced by an invading tribe of Celts called the Brythons, after whom Britain was named.
In the Dark Ages following the Roman withdrawal it seems that the iron-working skills were largely lost. But a century or so after the Norman Invasion they were gradually revived.
For the next 500 years the industry grew until it reached a peak in the 16th century, with the invention of the blast-furnace.
The iron-makers of the Sussex Weald greatly prospered. The fortuitous combination of iron ore and wood to make charcoal propelled Sussex into becoming for quite some time the most industrialised county in England.
A 1492 note in the Court Roll of Lambeth refers to the payment of £67 to the “Iernefounders of Buxstede”. We know the place today as Buxted and it was in this village in 1543 that the first-ever English-made cannon was cast by Ralph Hogge. Hitherto such weapons - made of brass - had been imported from Spain, France or the Netherlands.
The history concerning Hogge is a bit hazy. He is believed to be the same man who is identified as Huggett in a rhyming couplet that goes:
“Master Huggett and his man John
They did cast the first cannon.”
A place called Huggett’s Furnace still exists and can be found a little over two miles north-east of Buxted. In Buxted there is Hogge House, believed to have been built on the orders of the wealthy gun founder himself. Over the door there is a cast iron depiction of a “hogge” with the date 1581 underneath. The work is known in Latin as a “rebus” and it was a fashionable way in that time for distinguished people to denote their surnames “not by words but by things”. Thus it may be that “Huggett” was actually “Hoggett”.
Further spelling mayhem followed with the death of the wealthy gun founder in 1584. When the house was sold four years later, the deed of conveyance bore this endorsement: “In this house lived Raph Hog (sic) who at the then furnace at Buxted cast the first canon that was cast in England.”
Now I don’t want to “boar” you and make too much of this porcine thread. But I feel I must close by pointing out that a long piece of cast iron was known as a sow. A sow, of course, is a female pig and hence we arrive at the expression “pig-iron”, it being formed from smaller pieces of metal branching from the “mother” sow.