Metal Working


The Kingswood area was quite important in the early industrial revolution. William Champion's works at Warmley were among the first to produce zinc, or spelter as it is sometimes known, in 18th century Europe.


Here is a First World War-time article on the subject from the Western Daily Press of 11 August 1917 (courtesy of The British Newspaper Archive).








In the course of the last meeting of the City Council an interesting historical reference was made to Bristol's association with the early production of zinc, or, as it is known in its cruder form, spelter. It will be remembered that the Council gave preliminary sanction to large extensions at the Royal Edward Dock, added quayage and other facilities having become necessary in consequence of the fact that before very long works on a huge scale will be in operation for dealing with ores from which zinc and possibly other substances will be extracted. The fact that Bristol will thus become the leading place inthe country (and probably also in Europe) for work of this kind led the Docks Chairman, Alderman Twiggs, to mention a tradition, recorded by Bergman, that an Englishman visited China in the 18th century expressly to learn the art of making zinc, that he attained his object, and returned home in safety with the secret, and that some time afterwards works were erected at Bristol for the extraction of zinc by distillation 'per descensum.' In support of the above tradition it has been pointed out "that zinc works were established in Bristol about 1740 by John Champion, who was therefore, so far as we know, the founder of the British spelter industry and also the first metallurgist in Europe to extract zinc from its ores commercially." It is somewhat perplexing to a student to find that in some passages in histories the name is given as John Champion, wheras in others William Champion is mentioned.


Brass was known to the ancients, and several references are made to it in the Bible. Inasmuch as this article is an alloy of copper and zinc, it may be supposed that zinc had been isolated at a very early date. It has been pointed out, however, that the brass was largely made by the use with copper of calamine (natural carbonate of zinc), and was known to those using it in this way, and it does not follow that zinc, as a distinct metal, was known to those using it in this way. On the other hand, it is stated that bracelets made of zinc were found in the ruins of Cameros, which was destroyed 600 years before the commencement of the Christian Era. The Chinese seem to have solved the secret of extracting zinc from its ores before the Westerners had done so, and in the sixteenth century zinc was brought from China and the East Indies under the name of "tuanego". Numerous brass works were in the eighteenth century carried on in Bristol and its vicinity, and it was in connection with that industry that spelter was chiefly used before a simple method was discovered for overcoming its natural brittleness.


In his "History of Kingswood Forest," Mr A. Braine gives a picturesque narrative of the introduction of the production of spelter. He heads his chapter "The Story of John Champion," and says:


"The traditional history of John Champion is remarkable, and worthy of record. In early life he went to Holland, there representing himself as a beggar, and got employed there many years as a labourer, during which time he was learning the secret to make brass and zinc. When he left he induced several workmen to return with him to England, and with them he set up the works at Warmley.. The variety of languages which they spoke gave rise to the place being called Babel's Tower, in connection with a tower still standing, a necessary appendage, in which was a windmill used for crushing the ore."


This passage however, is immediately followed by another, in which the name of the pioneer spelter manufacturer is given as "William" in the journals of the House of Commons.


William Champion possessed "a commodious brass foundry" on St. Augustines Back, but he established his spelter works at Warmley Towers, on the outskirts of the city, where he also had copper mills. It was there that the men from Holland were employed. The process to which the description "distillation per descendum" was applied is thus described by Braine:


"In a circular kind of oven, like a glass house furnace, there were placed pots of about four feet each in height, much resembling oil jars, into the bottom of each was inserted an iron tube, which passed through the floor of the furnace into a vessel of water. The pots were filled with a mixture of calamine, or black jack, and charcoal, and the mouth of each was then closely stopped with clay. The fire being then properly applied, the metallic vapour of the calamine issued through the iron pipe and was condensed in the water below. These small particles were again collected, remelted, cast into ingots, and were thus ready for the market, and sold under the name of zinc or spelter.


The leader in this industry showed an energy and rsource which deserved success. The historian tells us that:


"Altogether the works at Warmley Tower must have appeared very like a considerable town. The large furnaces were arranged in lines and facing each other, not unlike houses in a street, there being several lines thus formed together, also with a row of cottages for workmen.. A house was built in the centre for the purposes of a shop, over which was a square tower with a large clock, having a face towards each of the cardinal points.. Neither did this enterprising manufacturer neglect to make the place attractive. At the rear of his works he built a neat house for himself, in front of which he laid out a beautiful walk through several acres of meadow land. A row of elms still stands which he planted, having grown to gigantic proportions. On the westernside of the house he constructed a large lake covering thirteen acres, building a very heavy dam and gates to regulate the supply of water to his mills. An ornamental arch and a house built above formed a neat entrance where the water filled the lake, the house also serving the purposes of a dwelling for the keeper of the lake and grounds. Lastly, in the centre of this beatiful lake, on a small island, stood Neptune, nearly sixty feet high - a neat piece of masonry constructed according to the traditional proportions of that monster. This image had a weird effect froma distance. Its face, chest and arms being made of white plaster or cement contrasted effectually with its head and lower parts of the body, which were built of rough black cinders from the works: while in one hand, extended, is held the usual barbed fork. At first sight it is said to have given a curious impression of that fabulous 'monster of the mighty deep.' Altogether, therefore, the lake, grounds, and walks formed, in those days I think, one of the best arranged works in England."


In 1751 William Champion appealed to Parliament to extend the protection accorded under his patent of 1737. In his petition to the House he said:-


"That he had spent a great portion of his life in the study of mineral productions, and had travelled into most parts of Europe in pursuit of such knowledge. On his return to England he found the supply of Tontonage, commonly called Spelter, depended on the East Indies. Ingrossers had raised the price, in 1731, to £250 per ton. He had resolved to try to discover the art of making it. He had pursued his experiments for six years at great expense. He had applied in1737 for a patent for making Tontonage or Spelter, and which was just expired. He had erected large premises and made 200 tons, when the importers brought in a large supply, and lowered the price from £260 to £48 per ton, at a supposed profit of £22 to £25 per ton to the importers. Not being able to procure such prices for his Spelter as would admit a profit, is a great sufferer. The Spelter being made wholly from the produce of this kingdom, and many hundreds of poor being employed, he prayed for an extension of the patent.


The extension of his patent rights met with opposition from Lancashire and was not granted. The Eighteenth Century "Annals of Bristol," in which this story is repeated in slightly different words, shows that 15 years later Champion was still carrying on the business, the process being kept rigidly secret. Difficulties must have become serious, for in 1769 this local pioneer in the spelter industry sold his works at Warmley (described as the most complete in the kingdom) to Harford's Copper Company. According to Canon Ellacombe's History of Bitton, the new owners acquired great riches from working Champion's processs, and having subsequently sought him out (he was found in Liverpool working as a mason), they offered him an annuity, which he declined.


The production of spelter from the ores afterwards ceased to be a local industry. Champion's process became obsolete with advancing knowledge, but Bristol has been an enormous user of zinc, and "galvanised iron" goods from this city have found their way to all parts of the world.