The Iron Duke

From Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire to Bristol and back again


The Iron Duke restored


The Iron Duke is a large rubber calender machine that has been restored and set up in Kingston Road as a memorial to Bradford on Avon’s 150 year association with the rubber industry. It is the largest, certainly the heaviest, object in Bradford on Avon Museum’s collection.

A calender is a machine that is used for rolling materials to give an accurate thickness, or to produce a hard finish, or to bind materials together. Calenders are used in many industries, such as paper-milling and making plastic sheeting. The origin of the name is obscure, perhaps coming from “cylinder” -referring to the rollers.

The Iron Duke is important nationally and internationally as the earliest of its kind outside America and as the foundation stone of the pioneering industry that Stephen Moulton set up here in 1848-9.

Its purpose was to roll rubber into sheets and to bind rubber and reinforcing textile together. It was designed in the USA by William Frost of the Vulcan Ironworks, New York, based on a machine that had been designed in the 1830s  by Edwin Chaffee for the Roxbury Rubber Company, near Boston in Massachusetts. All the parts were, however, made in England: the rollers of 3 tons each were cast and machined, with some initial difficulty, by the Thomas Perry & Sons Highfield Foundry in Bilston, Staffordshire; the large frames and perhaps other castings were by T. & E. Bush in Bristol; wrought iron rods were forged by the Coalbrookdale Company in Shropshire. Many of the parts, especially replacements, were probably made by Bradford millwrights and ironfounders.

The machine was given by the Avon Rubber Company to Bristol Industrial Museum in 1970 and was cared for there, but it was not cleaned, reassembled or put on display. Bristol Industrial Museum was originally seen as a repository for industrial archaeology across the region, but Bristol Museums, Art Gallery & Archives has had to restrict its collecting policy to the City and County.  The Iron Duke has therefore been returned to Bradford as the most relevant place for it.

The project to get the machine back to Bradford involved finding a position to display it, removal from Bristol Museum’s L Shed, conservation, reassembly on site, building a shelter, community involvement events and, of course, raising a good deal of money.

The restoration and return project was managed by Bradford on Avon Museum, Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust and Bradford on Avon Community Area Network. Grants towards the work came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England PRISM Fund, Bradford on Avon Town Council, Wiltshire Council, the late Dr Alex Moulton, Elizabeth Cartwright-Hignett and many other private donors. Special thanks are due to Bristol Museums for keeping the machine safe for thirty years.