South Yorkshire’s industrial history is on display at this gem of a museum in the heart of the beautiful Upper Don Valley.
Wortley Top Forge, which is one of the oldest standing ironworks in the United Kingdom, is a historic site dating back at least to the 17th century; it is said that cannonballs were made here during the English Civil War.
In the early years, it was a “finery” forge used to produce wrought iron from pig iron, using processes powered by water from the River Don. In the late 1800s, the forge came under the ownership of the famous British metallurgist Thomas Andrews, who used it to carry out some of the earliest metallurgical experiments in Europe—work that contributed greatly to the early understanding of metal fatigue. Also in the 19th century, the forge became famous as one of the preeminent railway axle producers in the world.
Wortley Top Forge ceased production in 1929, and in 1955 was converted to an industrial museum. Three waterwheels were restored and can be seen in working condition at the site. The other buildings are used as a museum chronicling the history of the forge itself, and displaying a variety of industrial machinery.
The old workshops contain early 20th-century belt-driven machine tools and a large collection of stationary steam engines, ranging from a very small milking parlor steam engine (to provide vacuum to the milking machines) to a massive 1897 vertical engine (“Elizabeth”) that itself has required a brand new engine house to be built. Almost all the steam engines are in working order, though are now driven by compressed air rather than steam.
The site also displays a collection of very early industrial diesel engines, and a collection of 20th-century steam hammers housed outdoors, which look very sculptural in the setting. There are also two preserved workers’ cottages (constructed by the subdivision of the original ironmaster’s house), which include a genuine earth closet toilet block. For rail enthusiasts, the site also hosts the local model railway engineering society, which operates a range of model steam and diesel locomotives on various scales, with rides available.
Know Before You Go
The forge is located near the villages of Wortley and Thurgoland in South Yorkshire. It is usually only open on Sundays and bank holiday Mondays. While you can wander at will around the outdoor spaces, entry to the forge, workshops, and cottages are via a guided tour only (included in the entry price). The tour guide is very good for both information and entertainment. Standard entry is £3 (via honesty box or by paying the guide).