The individual Swedish ironworks were a community in themselves; isolated, self-sufficient, and with a range of activities going on in addition to iron production. There were many such works or communities in Bergslagen, which managed and controlled the production of the vital bar iron.
The areas in which the industrial works grew up were sparsely populated. The idea behind the works communities was to operate on a large scale at a time when roads, and travel in general, were few and far between. So the works had to be totally self-sufficient. It had to have its own farms, so that the workers could be supplied with food. Timber for building had to be felled and processed, and forged iron for buildings, tools and machinery had to be made on site. The workers were usually paid in kind rather than in cash—most often in the form of foodstuffs. The conditions were written into a contract. The smiths who worked in the forges had a higher status than other workers, and also had various privileges bestowed on them.
A steady supply of charcoal to the furnaces in the forges was vital and enormous quantities were consumed. The estate owner (or foundry proprietor) therefore made heavy demands on the independent landowners outside the domain of the ironworks, and strived, using any means he could, to gain control over the forests and the charcoal. The independent farmers often found themselves forced to give up their freedom and become tenants of the works. These tenants or crofters were allowed to continue to farm and live on the land in return for providing the works community with a specified annual quantity of charcoal. The charcoal was usually entered into the books at a low price, whereas the market price of charcoal was higher and could fluctuate widely from season to season.
The first ironworks communities of the 17th century constructed and sited buildings as, when and where they were needed; no architectural plans were drawn up. However, in the 18th century, the works estate tended to follow the French system: the model estate would build a line of terraced cottages, first and foremost for the most important group of workers—the smiths or forge workers. These provided roomy and decent accommodation (by the standards of the time), comprising one room and a kitchen. At a respectable distance from the terraced cottages along the works’ road would be built a stylish manor house, with wings or annexes, in the parkland. The various outbuildings would be grouped nearby and to the side of the main house. Often, the manor house would be orientated such that the front described a straight line to the local church. The estate would be well kept and tidy—just the same as was expected of the workers, who were required to show respect and propriety.
The forge works would be sited at a good distance from the manor house to avoid the noise, dirt and smoke. When visiting a well-preserved ironworks today, one is struck by how small the forge buildings are in comparison with the works’ road and the majestic manor house. A modern steelworks, on the other hand, consists of a number of large workshops or halls hundreds of metres in length. But it was those tiny forges in the past that provided the base on which the prosperity of the entire works’ community was built.