John “Mad Jack” Fuller was a very wealthy man. The fortune he inherited was derived from three activities that his ancestors were involved in: Sussex farming, Jamaican sugar plantations and iron founding on the Weald.
When it comes to affluence, the motto on the Fuller coat of arms can be taken literally: Carbone et Forcipibus - By Charcoal and Tongs. Between 1693 and 1763 the Fullers owned and operated a forge at Burwash and a furnace at Heathfield.
The high Weald had all the natural resources necessary to support an iron industry; iron ore, forests for charcoal, and ample streams for water power. Although iron founding had existed in Sussex as early as Roman times, it wasn't until after 1496 when French ironworkers brought new technology to the area that the first blast furnace was constructed. The French had “perfected means of converting high-carbon, brittle, cast, (pig) iron into malleable bar for the finery forge.” Historic Atlas of Sussex: Iron and Glass Industries, David Crossley, p. 63.
The first Sussex cannon was cast at Buxted by Ralf Hogge (Huggett) in 1543.
At Heathfield, the Fullers manufactured a range of cannons from 6 foot long 6-pounders to 10 foot long
32-pounders. They had substantial contracts from the Board of Ordnance.
Wealden iron production was seasonal. Casting and smelting were done in the winter months when water supply was constant. Delivery was best done in early summer when the roads were in better condition.
Trade with the government was carried out by agents who negotiated contracts or warrants on the ironmasters’ behalf. Samuel Remnant was the Fullers’ London agent until 1750 when an agreement was made with Jefferson Miles.
As with all cannon produced in the area, the Fuller’s guns were proved at Woolwich Arsenal in London. Two identical tests were done by double charging the cannon with powder. There was a certain amount of business risk involved. Every year a number of their guns would fail proof and no payment would be received. Transporting guns to Woolwich was also problematic. The clay roads of Sussex were in poor condition so conveying two ton cannons by wagon was treacherous and rarely attempted in the winter months.
“There were two possible routes for Heathfield guns: by sea from Lewes or Newhaven, or north to the Medway. Both involved some carriage on roads, of whose condition in winter there were frequent complaints. However the sea route also had difficulties: there were numerous references to the need to secure protection for shipping , against wars or privateering threats. Further, crews of coasting vessels were liable to be pressed into naval service, and attempts were made by the ironmasters, through their agents, to secure immunity or release.” The Fuller Letters: Guns, Slaves and Finance 1728-1755, David Crossley and Richard Saville, p. xxiv.
The manufacture of guns was tied to British military involvement. From 1689 and “King William’s War” through the “Seven Years’ War” which ended in 1763 there was enough demand to keep the Wealden iron masters in Ordnance contracts. In times of peace, producing pig iron and casting forge equipment, fire-backs, water pipes, and rollers, for garden & agricultural use as well as sugar rollers, kept the furnaces going.
“The Fullers found that their work in 1745 - 6 of which much was for the Ordnance, gave a profit of £1,181 17s 6d on an outlay of £4,775. There are references in the Fuller letters which suggest that margins could even reach 30 -40 per cent. However, the risks were such that results were most uneven: in 1756 Heathfield furnace was said to have gained £2,058 and in the following year to have lost £957.” Iron Industry of the Weald, Henry Cleere and David Crossley, p 200.
The Board of Ordnance and the Navy Board were the chief purchasers of Fuller guns. They did, however sell to the merchant service and overseas. “In 1746 24-pounders were supplied to Ireland and in 1752-4 orders were dispatched to the Queen of Hungary, to Sardinia and to Naples.” The Fuller Letters, pp xxii.
There are several factors which contributed to the demise of the Fullers’ Heathfield furnace. Wood for charcoal was in short supply as local forests had been depleted over the years. During the Seven Years’ War, the Ordnance Board lowered the rates it would pay and the Wealden ironmasters could not compete with the Carron Company in Scotland which used coke fueled furnaces.
The Fullers’ also failed to keep up with improved methods of manufacture.“Their method of boring a gun by reaming out a rough inner hole in the cast instead of from a solid cast meant that by the end of the Seven Years’ War they were behind the practice elsewhere.” SAC Volume 121, Gentry Wealth on the Weald in the Eighteenth Century: The Fullers of Brightling Park, p 129.
The high income derived from the Jamaican sugar plantations and their landed estate was more than enough to sustain the Fullers, so perhaps they felt no economic pressure to develop their cannon founding methods.
The Heathfield furnace closed in 1787 and the Burwash forge continued work until 1803. When the Ashburnham Furnace shut down in 1813, 270 years of Wealden iron founding came to an end.
British 6-pounder, mid 1700s
Pillar with iron cannon, anchor and flames at Brightling Park, formerly Rose Hill