Built between 1698 and 1704, the furnace formed part of a trade syndicate in Yorkshire centered on the Spencers of Cannon Hall. It operated until 1741 with Charcoal as fuel.
It is thought that the furnace operated again around 1790, using coke fuel, to produce gun casting.
Rockley Furnace made Cast Iron in the eighteenth century, using ores mined in the same valley and charcoal from the surrounding woodlands
This furnace was probably built about 1700, for by 1704 there would appear to have been two furnaces in the valley, the other having been started in 1652, 500 metres to the west.
Documents from the first twenty years of the eighteenth century suggest that both furnaces worked intermittently, but in 1726 only this one appears on an estate map. In that year it was leased to William Cotton and Samuel Shore from the Earl of Stafford. Their rent payments can be found in the Stafford accounts until 1741.
The Furnace site was purchased from the Wentworth Estate back in 1957, but the site has never been developed.
Archaeological excavations took place between 1978 & 1982. These have shown that molten iron was cast from the hearth (now missing) in the base of the furnace, into moulds in a bed of sand to the west. The pigs of iron which were formed would be sent to finery forges such as Wortley Top Forge, to be converted into bar iron. Probably after the time of Cotton and Shore a pit was dug through these pig-beds, and this was lined with stone. In this pit, moulds of clay or loam would be placed, for casting objects such as cylinders, pipes or guns. This change could have taken place about 1790, when the furnace is said to have been re-opened. The archaeological results support this, for the more recent deposits contain coke, which was increasingly used in Yorkshire blast furnaces at this time. The furnace cannot have been used in this way for long, for it is not mentioned in lists of furnaces of the period.
The site has been backfilled after the excavation work to both protect the building foundations and to make a site that is safe for unaccompanied visitors.
A cut-away drawing has been prepared that suggests how the furnace may have appeared in its last years. Moulds and castings lie near the pit on the west (right) of the furnace, and the water-wheel is powering the wood-and-leather bellows in the foreground. Traces of the wheel and the bellows frame were found during the excavations. The wheel received water from the south, from a reservoir long since dry. The furnace was loaded with ore and fuel across a bridge from the existing bank to the south. The dressed stone on the outer faces of the furnace has been removed, although a photograph of about 1905 shows the north face intact.
What the visitor to the furnace actually sees is the core of the furnace structure. The original ashlar stonework that formed the outer structure has been progressively robbed. There is a photograph from about 1900 that shows the stone facing still partically in place on one side.