John Machell (1678-1750)

John Machell

Written by Tim Cockerill

Occupation: Ironmaster

Background and Early Life

He was born in 1678,the son of James Maychell of Haverthwaite,a ship's carpenter and not the son of Hugh Machell of Crackenthorpe as shown in Burke's Landed Gentry 1847, in subsequent editions and elsewhere. This bogus descent of John Machell, the future ironmaster of Backbarrow, was exposed in (CW2 lxxxix) and confirmed in (AWL).The best evidence comes from the father's will dated 1st November 1702 when he left his son John his iron forge at Backbarrow together with his ‘stock of forges’[ probably stock in trade], the latter valued in the inventory of his goods at £100. Haverthwaite is near Greenodd , where there were quays and shipbuilding from the early 18th Century.

Young John's early life is unrecorded and the earliest reference to his career so far discovered was in 1710, eight years after his father's death, when he purchased 943 timber trees from Walter Strickland of Sizergh for use at Backbarrow, with William Machell, who was probably his brother. They were following a traditional, local trade stretching back to the monks of Furness Abbey who had been engaged in smelting in small scale bloomeries since before the Dissolution at Cunsey, near Hawkshead, but no blast- furnace techniques were used in the area before the beginning of the eighteenth century.

His Partnership

The Backbarrow Company, which was formed in 1711, was reputedly the first smelting furnace in the North of England and Scotland of any size. The partners consisting of William Rawlinson of Graythwaite, John Machell of Backbarrow, Stephen Crossfield of Plumpton, later of Pennington, yeoman and John Olivant of Penrith. Marshall comments that the origins of the partnership extended back into the history of Quakerism and that of the four partners Machell was probably the only Anglican. The Company, more accurately a partnership, was first known as William Rawlinson and Company. Its original capital was £6,000 of which Rawlinson and Machell each held a one-third interest and the remaining two partners held a one-sixth interest. The Company soon possessed furnaces and forges at Backbarrow, Cunsey, Coniston, Hacket, Force, Cartmel and Burblethwaite. In 1713 they built a further furnace at Leighton Beck and in 1720 they acquired jointly with the Cunsey Company the newly erected forge at Stony Hazel in Rusland. In later years the forge at Spark Bridge as well as the new furnace at Penny Bridge was absorbed into the business. Marshall felt that religious ties gave the Furness Quakers a direct contact with such leading iron merchants as the Champions of Bristol who, after 1712, handled much of their iron for resale, adding that William Stout, the prominent Quaker merchant of Lancaster was purchasing produce of the bloomeries of Rawlinson and Machell several years before then. Soon afterwards the Backbarrow Company became one of the most highly organised iron firms in the north of England. In 1731 the Rawlinsons and Machell families became the sole proprietors, holding equal shares, but in 1749, a year before his death, John Machell, by now of Aynsome, Cartmel, bought out his partner's interest. He immediately divided this amongst the owners of the works at Penny Bridge, and at this point ten other partners then joined the enterprise. This included his eldest son James Machell (1708-75) of Hollow Oak, Colton. At this time the capital of the Backbarrow Company was £16,000. [ Fell].

The Backbarrow Company and John Machell, who was the senior manager, did not always have an easy time of it. For example in 1746 John and his son James brought an action in Chancery concerning iron mines at Plumpton against Bacon Morritt of York, whose wife Anne was the daughter and heiress of Anthony Sawrey (d. 1727) of Plumpton Hall, and were faced with a cross-action. In 1747 there were abortive negotiations with John and James Wilson of Pennington concerning iron mines in the vicinity, the bailiff of Pennington eventually advising the Wilsons not to enter into a lease with the Machells.

In 1717 William Rawlinson was made a Freeman of Lancaster in recognition of his enterprise in connection with the development of the iron trade in North Lancashire and two years later John Machell was similarly honoured.

By 1744 the Backbarrow Company was making box-irons, fire-grates, heaters, loom stoves and pans, hatter’s basins and Guinea kettles, total sales in that year amounting to £5,500. Pots and pans were exported to the West Indies via the port of Lancaster, while in 1750 Furness bar iron was being sold in Liverpool and was used in the manufacture of anchors, chains and other shipbuilding requirements. The Backbarrow exports of cast goods remained large, in 1752-3 totalling some 42,500 pieces.

Mining in Scotland

It was not only in England that John Machell was an Ironmaster. In 1727 he joined seven other partners, including John Spedding of Whitehaven, several Rawlinsons and other Cumbrians, in taking a lease of iron mines at Invergarry, near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, which included Invergarry Castle, for thirty-one years with John Macdonald of Glengarry for the sum of £320. Machell held a one-seventh share. After nine years this venture failed because of the poor quality of the iron and transportation problems.

His Family

Apart from his somewhat hectic but generally successful business career John Machell was the founder of a Machell dynasty, whose descendants appeared in Burke's Landed Gentry between 1847 and 1900, as Machell of Penny Bridge (Hall), an estate of 2,264 acres in 1873. This included the spurious descent from the Machells of Crackenthorpe. The Penny Bridge Hall family has now died out in the male line.

John Machell, whose fortune as one of the first leading Cumbrian ironmasters set the seal on the family's upward mobility, married in 1705 Elizabeth, the daughter and heiress of William Walker of Hollow Oak, Colton. They lived at Hollow Oak until, in 1745, Machell bought Aynsome, Cartmel, a property described by Stockdale as ‘always one of the ancient residences of the gentry of this parish... a much admired place’, which he and his Machell and Remington descendants greatly improved and lived in until the early 20th Century.

His Descendants

John Machell had three sons and four daughters. James (1708-1775), the eldest son, was of Hollow Oak and in 1733 married Margaret, daughter of Richard Harrison of Waterhead,Coniston from whom the Machells of Penny Bridge Hall descended. The second son, John (1710-1789) married in 1737 Ann Robinson and the third son was Thomas (1726-1802), who inherited Aynsome on his father's death in 1750 and married in 1752 Ellen, daughter of Thomas Michaelson of Greenbank, Cartmel, and in in 1796 was one of the four prominent local men, with Lord Edward Cavendish, James Stockdale and George Bigland, behind the Cartmel Enclosure bill, culminating in the enclosure award of 1809, accounting for 12,760 acres, the largest enclosure undertaking in the history of Lancashire. Both James and Thomas joined the family business at Backbarrow, and John may also have been involved. Marshall refers to the Machells of Haverthwaite as ‘ironmaking squires’and refers to their woodland estate in High Furness,comparing it to those of the important Rawlinson and Sandys families and the Taylors of Finsthwaite. The Backbarrow Company was finally dissolved in 1818, but the reasons are unclear. Perhaps the Machells and the other owners had made their fortunes, saw themselves as landed gentry rather than engaged in trade and were unequal or unwilling to bring the business up to date and see off their rivals. Whatever the reasons the Machells and the Backbarrow Company had survived for more than a century and remains a significant part of the Furness industrial revolution.

Original oil paintings c.1740 by an unknown artist of John Machell (sen.) [priv.coll.], the Backbarrow ironmaster and his son Thomas [priv.coll.] formerly hung in the dining-room at Aynsome, now the Aynsome Manor Hotel.


  • Boumphrey, R.S., Hudleston, C.R. and Hughes J., An Armorial for Westmorland and Lonsdale,1975, I96,I97
  • John and John Bernard Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland, 1847, vol.II, 802-803
  • Alfred Fell, The early iron industry of Furness and district, 1908, 47, 7I, I30, 208, 221, 260, 26I, 264 and 349
  • J.D. Marshall, Furness and the Industrial Revolution,1958, 11, 20, 21,30,31, 65 and 161
  • John Stewart Remington, A Peep into the Past, 1935, 40-44 and handwritten notes by the author at the end of his own copy.
  • James Stockdale, Annals of Cartmel, 1872, 5II-5I6
  • T.W.Thompson, Wordsworth's Hawkshead, 1970, 21-22 and 24
  • CW2. lxxxix. 263-267