Lead Working in Bristol

This page was started because of an email I received from John Adelmann of the Central Alternative High School, Dubuque, Iowa who was doing research into a local lead shot tower built in 1856. John wanted to know a little about the history of lead shot making, which went back to William Watts of Bristol in around 1780. Whilst researching William Watts, I came across quite a bit of the history of lead working in Bristol and so this page was created.

It appears that Bristol has long been a centre for lead making and manufacturing. Lead has probably been mined from the Mendips, a range of hills just south of Bristol, since pre-Roman days. The last Mendip lead mine, St. Cuthbert's, closed in 1908, unable to compete with cheaper, better quality, imported lead. In 1869, St. Cuthbert's employed forty men, but soon after it ran into financial difficulties. The buildings fell into disrepair and much of the existing plant was pulled down. Lead was again produced in 1881, however, when St Cuthbert's was under new ownership, and over 650 tons of metal were produced in 1889, in addition to dressed ore - galena (lead sulphide) - sold in Bristol, probably to Sheldon Bush's Blackswarth lead works. New equipment was installed in the 1890s and more in the early 1900s, but the works were finally closed in 1908 and the plant dismantled and sold in 1910. The three chimneys disappeared around 1928 and today only a complex of foundations, flues and condenser passages, with a few massive sections of masonry remain on the site. (from "Industrial Archaeology of the Bristol Region" by Angus Buchanan and Neil Cossons - Augustus M Kelley, New York, 1969)

Two lead ingots, weighing respectively, 76 lbs. and 89 lbs., bearing the inscription "IMP. CAES. A--NINI, Aug. PIL, PP" which means they were made somewhere between A.D. 139-161, were recovered from the River Frome sometime in the 19th century. These Roman ingots provide proof that Bristol was in the lead trade for over 1,800 years, until 1995 when Sheldon Bush finally closed.  (from "Bristol - Past and Present" by J. F. Nicholls and John Taylor - Arrowsmith, 1881 – Volume 1 – Civil History, page 26)

John Latimer in his "Annals of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century" (1893) says that...

In June, 1756, John Pitman and Son, "proprietors of the Bristol (new erected) Lead Smelting Works," announced that they had begun operations, and solicited support. Their factory was situated on the Somerset side of the Avon, near to the Hot Well, and the clouds of poisonous smoke issuing from the furnaces proved highly offensive to fashionable visitors. The nuisance was long submitted to in silence, but in 1761 a complaint was raised in the Gentleman's Magazine by Dr. D. W. Linden, a metropolitan physician, who followed his patients to Clifton every summer (and who is scurrilously caricatured by Smollett in "Humphrey Clinker"). Dr. Linden asserted that the Well was "not only the second medicinal spring in Britain, but in all Europe," and expressed astonishment that the "necessary improvements to the place should have been so much neglected." As no further reference to the subject has been found, the works were probably discontinued.

The biggest development in lead shot production occurred around 1780. Legend has it that William Watts, a local plumber, had a dream about molten lead falling from the sky and producing perfectly round spheres (shot) as it did so. Others say that he dreamed that his wife was standing on the tower at St. Mary Redcliffe Church, pouring molten lead on him through the holes in a rusty frying pan. Another version says that he'd been drinking heavily one night and fell asleep at the foot of the tower of St. Mary Redcliffe church. He then had a dream that the church caught fire and that as the lead on the roof melted it dropped to the ground, where it landed in pools of water and solidified as perfectly spherical shot.

Small shot had been made by the "long drop into water" method for around a hundred years. Larger shot was made by pouring the lead into moulds Both processes led to a considerable proportion of the shot being unevenly shaped and the shot had to be placed in a churn and rotated until friction wore away the worst of the imperfections. Watts tested the idea his dream had given him by dripping lead off of the church roof into a bucker of water. It worked, and Watts went on to refine the process so that larger shot could be made without the beading, tearing or stringing. One way he did this was to use lead from Priddy in Somerset which was harder than other other supplies because it contained a higher percentage of arsenic. The extra hardness caused the droplets to form spherical globules.

The long drop into water

The Long Drop into Water
Redcliffe Street Shot Tower
from "Dream Lead to Invention" by David Harrison in the "Bristol Times" of Tuesday, 26th November 2002

Watts wasn't a newcomer to lead production. He'd been apprenticed on 27th February, 1765 to Philip and Elizabeth Rose and admitted as a freeman of the City of Bristol on 4th July, 1772. He set up shop in his house at 126 Redcliffe Street, where he was to stay until 1784. In 1775 he started turning his home into a lead shot fall tower. He did this building a tower on his house and by cutting holes through the floors and digging into the sandstone below. He broke through into the mine workings of Redcliffe Caves and kept on digging. In the end, he had a drop of around 90ft. There was obviously little in the way of town planning in those days! He took out his patent, #1347, for the new shot production process on 10th December, 1782, describing the process as "a method of making smallshot solid throughout, perfectly globular in form, and without the dimples, scratches and imperfections which other shot, heretofore manufactured, usually have on their surface." This caused John Dix, who was enjoying some notoriety as a surgeon, writer of bad poetry and an alcoholic, penned these words...

Mr. Watts very soon a patent got,
So that only himself could make Patent Shot,
And King George and his son declared they'd not
Shoot with anything else—and they ordered a lot.
The Regent swore that the smallest spot
In a small bird's eye he'd surely dot:
And every sportsman, both sober and sot,
From the peer in his hail to the hind in his cot,
Vowed that they cared not a single jot,
When the game was strong and the chase was hot,
For anything else than the Patent Shot.

Although very successful, Watts wasn't without problems. The basement tank got flooded when the River Avon was at full tide, and his neighbours complained about the smell. Watts had quite a bit to say about that...

"William Watts presents his compliments to the gentlemen who united for the purpose of taking legal measures to procure the removal of his smelting and shot-works, and begs leave to ask them, whether it is not as unreasonable, to expect that he should knock down his shot-works, because some people are offended with the smell occasion'd by that particular process, which maybe conducted (with very little additional expence) as well on the heights of Mendip, as on Redcliff-hill. However, to obviate every cause of complaint, as well as to disappoint that malignity which would be gratified by involving him in an expensive suit, William Watts will as soon as possible cause that process, to be discontinued at Redcliff Backs, which alone can furnish the least complaint." (from "Dream Lead to Invention" by David Harrison in the "Bristol Times" of Tuesday, 26th November 2002)

He also complained about his neighbours keeping pigs.

His neighbours' complaints didn't stop him and in December, 1786, he announced that he was about to extend his works by building a new Gothic tower, which, with the old one, was expected to remind a spectator of "the prospect of Westminster Abbey." Looking at images of his tower, that seems to be a bit of an exaggeration.

Redcliffe Street Shot Tower

Redcliffe Street Shot Tower - 23rd March 1938
from "Bristol as it was 1937 - 1939" by Reece Winstone (1987, plate 71)

Redcliffe Street Shot Tower

Redcliffe Street Shot Tower - 7th October 1956
from "Bristol as it was 1953 – 1956" by Reece Winstone (1969, plate 219)

In 1787, Philip George of the George's brewing family paid Watts £10,000 to become a partner, along with Colonel Samuel Worrell. These men were well-known around Bristol which may have kept some of the neighbours quiet. In 1789, they erected a shot tower in London, just to the east of what is now Waterloo Bridge, which cost £6,000 to erect. It wasn't a beautiful building, critics said it "cannot be considered an object ornamental to the river Thames". Charles Dickens described it in "Household Words".

"Household Words" was published between 1850 and 1859. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find which copy contains the description of Watts' London shot tower.

George and Worrell, in 1817, would be fooled by Mary Baker, better known as Princess Caraboo.

Watt's made a fortune from his process. Around 1790, he went into land speculation and he obtained a lease to build a grand terrace, Windsor Terrace, in Clifton. This terrace was named in honour of King George III, who had admired Watts work. The position he chose, on the edge of Rownham Woods offered superb views across Bristol. The architect for this grand scheme was John Evleigh. Unfortunately, there were two factors against Watts. There was a depression in England due to the Napoleonic Wars, not only that but it was very close to a very steep bank which needed a huge retaining wall and vaulting to secure the building. This extra work caused Watts to become bankrupt and in October, 1792, the building was advertised for sale in an unfinished state. The terrace had to be completed by another speculator, John Drew, who finished it in 1796. Drew went on to to build another fine terrace, the Paragon on the hillside above Windsor Terrace. Meanwhile, Watts was declared bankrupt in February, 1794.

The London enterprise was sold for £8,000 but the Bristol operation was expanded. It appears that George and Worrell took over the Bristol premises in September 1794. Philip George took over the shot tower in Redcliffe Street in 1818, then came Christopher George and Patent Shot Company but it was sold in 1848 to James Williams Patent Shot Company, who later sold it in 1868 to Sheldon, Bush and Patent Shot Company. Not much is known about Mssrs. Sheldon and Bush, except that they soon built up a considerable lead dynasty in Bristol. By the 1880s they had a large smelting works at Blackswarth Road, and a sheet and pipe lead works in Cheese Lane.

Sheldon Bush always conducted their business aggressively, if politely, as this letter of 1837 to a debtor proves: "Your conduct to us is most extraordinary, and permit us to say, unbecoming the tradesman or gentleman, and such as could not fail to raise in our minds a very strong feeling of anger against you." (from "Bristol & Co" by Helen Reid - Redcliffe Press, 1987, Page 105)

Nothing of the seven-acre Blackswarth site, on the banks of the Avon, now remains. In 1883, a reporter saw ores from Australia, from New Van Consols in Montgomeryshire, Minera Mines near Wrexham, and Foxdale on the Isle of Man among others, and mentions the pigs, each stamped ‘Blackswarth', stacked in piles of ninety-six, a pile representing about 5 1/2 tons. An important by-product of the lead smelting process was the extraction of silver, some of the ores containing over 1,000 ounces per ton.

About ten times a year the firm cast a ‘silver plate' in which all the silver-rich metal collected over the previous weeks was melted together to produce a single ingot of silver of about 10,000 oz or more. The average value of these was between £2,000 and £3,000. In addition large quantities of lead were recovered in a process by which...

...the underground flue is obliged to disgorge from its subterraneous depths some 50 tons of lead and silver per annum, which has been deposited there by the smoke and draught passing from the furnaces on its way to the chimney-stack. The sulphur and smoke rising from the furnaces travel along an overhead flue about 12 ft in height and thence descend into an underground flue, to the bottom of which the sulphate falls. The underground flue is a huge kind of cavern 7 ft by 6 ft, extending about 1,200 ft before it enters the stack, which rises to a height of 200 ft. Twice a year the flue is entered by means of large man-holes, and on each occasion about 50 tons of flue dust, containing fully 50 per cent of lead is removed. (from "Industrial Archaeology of the Bristol Region" by Angus Buchanan and Neil Cossons - Augustus M Kelley, New York, 1969)

Also in 1883, a journalist was shown around the Redcliffe Street shot works and wrote...

To the manager of the works, Mr. Henry Banwell, we have to tender our sincere thanks for the kind assistance he rendered and the courtesy with which he furnished us with all the information required. In the lower room of the tower on Redcliff-hill are large stores of pig lead, which have been sent from the Blackswarth Smelting Works, at St. George's, each "pig" having been specially prepared for making shot. ‘We should be sorry to wound the susceptibilities of any of our fair readers who may have sympathized with the Princess of Wales in the laudable movement she originated for preventing undue cruelty In the slaughter of tame pigeons, but in chronicling fads we are obliged to state that in the manufacture of shot it is necessary to impregnate the lead with arsenic. This is not done in order to poison as well as shoot the bird, but it is to render the metal more ductile and more ready when melted to take the globular form. The arsenic is added in the proportion of about 451b. to the ton of lead, so that the amount of poison in a single shot is exceedingly minute. Some of the lead was formerly obtained in pigs from the Mendip hills, this in its natural state containing sufficient arsenic to answer the purpose without being mixed. A small quantity still comes from those mines, and also from St. Cuthbert's mines, near Wells. The alloy when mixed is called "temper." The lead is raised by means of a steam crane to the top of the shot tower, and we will follow if there to see the next operation.

On the way up the winding, dingy staircase Mr. Banwell points out certain indications which seem conclusively to prove that the tower was originally carried up on the top of an old house. There are-the remains of an old fireplace, probably at one time in a bedroom, and a sufficient depth was obtained by digging below the level of the cellar. We are told that oven with this the depth is barely sufficient. Most of the shot towers erected in the present day are built 200 feet in height, whereas this is but 112 feet.

On reaching the summit of the tower we enter a moderately sized square apartment, the walls of which are crusted over with a foul greenish deposit a mixture of sulphur and arsenic, the sulphur emanating from the lead in fusion. In the centre of the room is a large melting pan, full of boiling metal, around being pigs of lead and a variety of tools required in the work. Beside the boiler is an open trap door, over which one of the workmen presently places an iron stand. On the top of this is securely fixed what is aptly termed a "colander," some 20 inches in length and about a foot wide, perforated at the bottom with innumerable small holes according to the size of the shot to be manufactured. On the surface of the molten lead and arsenic arises a thick scum, with which the operator has to contend rather deftly, for it is indispensable in making the shot, and it is also undesirable to mix it too freely with the metal. When the lead has attained the required temperature, and the "colander" has been placed in proper position on the frame which covers the trap, the skilled artisan skims off with an iron ladle a quantity of the scum and deposits it in the colander, continuing the~ operation until he has nearly filled it. This acts as a kind of filter, allowing the fluid metal to pass slowly through the small holes at the bottom. But for this arrangement the fluid would run continuous streams instead of falling in drops, and as a matter of course no shot would be made. In their fall of about 112 feet these drops become sufficiently hardened to resist the action of the water in the well beneath, and the great bulk of them are brought out perfectly spherical. While this operation is proceeding, we descend the stairs, and halting at a spot which affords a pretty good light, a startlingly beautiful sight presents itself. The molten lead is falling like a magnificent cataract of sparkling silver, while the sound from beneath, as the myriads of drops fall into the well, somewhat resembles that of a distant fusilade. It is well, however, not to get too close, for fear of accidents, because should the shot happen to be defective it is apt to dropout of the perpendicular, good shot, however, always falls straight.

Before going farther down stairs we learn that both hard and soft shot of every size are made at these works. The hard shot is much more penetrating than the soft, and is coming into more general use. In the tower are landings for three separate falls. The larger the shot the higher must be the elevation from which it has to fall into the well, and vice versa.

Descending to the well, which contains about 6ft. of water, Mr. Banwell points out a curious looking recess, in which formerly a boy was stationed at the commencement of every charge. After a given quantity of shot had fallen his duty was to take a sample from the well in order to ascertain if the "temper" was all right, and the work proceeding correctly. At the present time this is done with a ladle, which has a handle about 30ft. in length. When the liquid metal is all discharged through the colander the water is pumped out of the well, and the shot is put into small wagons, in which it is conveyed along a tramway to the store. The shot is now perfectly green, and the larger sizes look exactly like so many green peas. After drying it is taken to what is called a "hopper ‘~ a machine that separates the perfect from the imperfect shot with surprising rapidity and exactness, and yet in the simplest manner imaginable. The surface of the "hopper" consists of a slanting shelf, in front of which are two receptacles, one a little farther away than the other, for catching the shot. A shovelful is thrown on the board, and of course those that are perfectly round come rolling down quickly, leaping over the first receptacle into that farthest away; while those whose sides are in the least degree flattened come hopping down irregularly, and fail into the nearest receptacle. The best ones are tested a second, and frequently a third time. The imperfect shot is melted down again and recast.

The next process is that of polishing the shot. For this purpose it is put into a cylinder or drum containing a quantity of plumbago. The cylinder is driven by steam, and in a very short time the green shot emerges with a beautiful polish.

Those who are in the habit of carrying a gun know how essential it is to good sport that the shot shall be even as regards size. The "colanders" of different sizes perform their functions with tolerable accuracy, but the firm do not trust to them entirely. They use a sizing machine, which is somewhat similar to the machines used in flour mills. It is a perforated zinc cylinder, at one end of which the apertures are small enough to allow the finest shot to pass through, but increasing in size all time way along until time largest size is passed. As the shot passes through the sieve it falls into a sort of box. It is again carefully examined, and is now ready for passing into the store room on its way to the market. Most of the shot used for home consumption is packed in bags of 141b. or 281b., but foreign orders are mostly sent in casks or kegs. The firm make their own bags.

In addition to the patent shot, the firm manufacture a large quantity of bullets, and a lot of what has recently received the name in Ireland of "Forster's buckshot." Most of these are made by a machine which, with only one attendant, will turnout 1,615 per minute, or 96,900 per hour.

Some few bullets are still made in the old-fashioned mould, but not a great many. The moulds are of various sizes, and most of them are double, that is, the lead can be poured into both sides. When the bullets come out they are all connected by the cakes of lead, and have to be chopped asunder and rounded off by hand. Those made by machinery are by far the best.

The above was reproduced from "Work in Bristol" (Bristol Times & Mirror, 1883) - This is book prepared from a series of articles that appeared in the Bristol Times & Mirror. A chapter of which is devoted to Messrs Sheldon, Bush & Patent Shot Co. By the time the reporter wrote the article the lead mines of Mendip were already in decline. Plumbago is a type of shrub, it is also called Blue Jasmine or Leadwort. A search on Google says it's called this because of its lead coloured roots, it can grow in lead rich soil or because it was once used as a natural remedy to cure some diseases of the eye - a substitute for solution of lead (alcoholic solution of lead acetate).

Pouring lead at Redcliffe

Redcliffe Shot Tower - 24th January 1940
Mr. Edward Dowling pouring some of the two tons of shot that was produced weekly
from "Bristol in the 1940's" by Reece Winstone (1970, plate 36)

In April 2005, I got an email from Denise Bakewell who writes, "My Father was born in 1919 at the Bristol Shot Tower and lived there with his parents and siblings until my Grandfather died in around 1945 My Grand Fathers name was Edward Dowling there is a photograph of him in the Bristol history books working at the tower in January 1940. We think that his wife was the Grand Daughter of William Watts the inventor of the lead shot." If anyone has any information about the family we'd like to hear from you. My email address is near the bottom of the page.

There was a proposal by the former City Architect, Mr. Nelson Meredith, for the unique shot tower to be left on an island site and reached by a subway, unfortunately this wasn't approved and Watts original tower was demolished in December 1968, to make way for a road improvement scheme. A loss to the city's history that many regret. It was not only the first shot tower in the world but one of the earliest surviving structures built of brick in Bristol. By the time Watts' tower was demolished, Sheldon Bush had built a new 140 feet tall reinforced concrete shot tower in Tower Lane.

The process had hardly changed from 1883, or even the 1780's, when this was written in 1969 of the new shot tower in Cheese Lane...

Pigs of lead are winched to the top of the tower and melted in a gas-fired cauldron to a temperature of about 400° C. Originally melting was by coal. Trucks on a small tramway transfer the shot to factory premises behind the tower where it is finished. This involves elimination of the shot containing ‘flats' or other imperfections by rolling them down gently graded plate-glass steps; only spherical ones reach the bottom, the rejects fall between the steps and are returned to the melting pot. Accurate grading for size is done in perforated screening drums and the shot is finally polished by tumbling, and packed in sacks or cartons. (from "Industrial Archaeology of the Bristol Region" by Angus Buchanan and Neil Cossons - Augustus M Kelley, New York, 1969)

Pouring lead at Redcliffe

Redcliffe Shot Tower - 1967
from "Bristol & Co" by Helen Reid (Redcliffe Press, 1987, page 106)

Sheldon, Bush & Patent Shot Co sold shot all over the world, for cartridges, fishermen, screening nuclear fuel rods in atomic power stations, use in the manufacture of high-grade alloy steel, and many other purposes. The smallest, known as ‘dust shot', is of 1/32 in diameter and required a fall of 50 ft, while the largest, grade BB, has a diameter of 5/32 in and required a 150 ft. drop.

Sheldon Bush Cheese Lane Shot Tower

Sheldon Bush Cheese Lane Shot Tower
May 2000

Sheldon Bush closed, the last lead manufacturer in Bristol, in 1995, but the tower, a Grade II listed building and one of only three shot towers left in the country, is still there. Developers want to pull the tower town for redevelopment but in 1993, a poll of Bristol Evening Post readers found that 86% of them want the tower to stay. Being a Grade II it is protected and not even the mobile telephone companies are not allowed to put their masts on top of it. In the summer of 2000 the tower is still for sale. Suggested uses for it include a very exclusive office or apartment. The room at the top is 12 sided, around 18 feet across and has a panoramic 360 degree view but as the old lead lift is now ruined the only way to reach it is by climbing the 155 steps in 14 flights. The 1st April 1998, edition of the Bristol Evening Post suggested that it was to be made into a white knuckle ride with a vertical drop of 120 feet!!

Watts and later Sheldon Bush weren't the only lead workers in Bristol. In the 1880's Rowe Brothers built a lead rolling mill in Canon's Marsh. Falling into disuse in the 1990's the building was used as an arts exhibition centre. The building was given Grade II listed status and during the harbourside regeneration scheme of the late 1990's it was incorporated into the @ Bristol project where it became offices and the Firehouse Rotisserie.

Rowe's City Leadworks
1902 Ordnance Survey Map

Rowe's Leadworks

Rowe's Leadworks in the @ Bristol complex
Image by Sara Ralha

Sources :-

About Bristol
Acanthus Ferguson Mann
"Annals of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century" by John Latimer (1893)
"Bristol & Co" by Helen Reid (Redcliffe Press, 1987)
"Bristol – A People's History" by Peter Aughton (Carnegie Publishing, 2000)
"Bristol as it was 1937 - 1939" by Reece Winstone (1987)
"Bristol as it was 1953 – 1956" by Reece Winstone (1969)
"Bristol as it was 1956 – 1959" by Reece Winstone (1986)
"Bristol in the 1940's" by Reece Winstone (1970)
"Bristol Past and Present - Volume 1 - Civil History" by J. F. Nicholls and John Taylor (Arrowsmith, 1881)
"Bristol Times" published with the Bristol Evening Post of Tuesday, 26th November 2002. "Dream lead to invention" by David Harrison
Bristol Tours
"Changes in the Face of Bristol" by Reece Winstone (1987)
Digitised: Communities Online
"Industrial Archaeology of the Bristol Region" by Angus Buchanan and Neil Cossons (Augustus M Kelley, New York, 1969)
"Work in Bristol" (Bristol Times & Mirror, 1883) - This book was prepared from a series of articles that appeared in the Bristol Times & Mirror. A chapter of which is devoted to Messrs Sheldon, Bush & Patent Shot Co. Many thanks to Andy King, Curator of Industrial & Maritime History, Bristol Industrial Museum, Bristol for emailing me images of portions of the book.

Information Wanted :-

I'd like information on the following...

Anything about lead working in Bristol.
The article that appears in Dickens' "Household Words" about Watt's London shot tower.
I'd like to purchase a copy of "Work in Bristol" (Bristol Times & Mirror, 1883)

If you can help me with any of the above, then please email me at .

This page created 21st February 2005, last modified 6th November 2009

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