Cradley Forge is a venerable location in the annals of Black Country folklore, for it is here in the early years of the 17th century that a revolution took place in the manufacture of iron, and a young man called Dud Dudley forged his name in the history books.
Dud Dudley was a metallurgist by trade who had increasingly become aware of the diminishing tracts of woodland in and around Dudley and further afield, and experimented with ‘pit-cole’ to replace traditional charcoal in iron production. He was born in 1599 in the reign of Elizabeth I, the illegitimate son of Edward Sutton, 5th Baron Dudley of Dudley Castle, and Elizabeth Tomlinson, and one of eleven children to be born from this liaison.
He was raised at Himley Hall and as a youth began to study the various processes of iron manufacture at his father's iron works near Dudley, and his speculations in the improvement of iron production were greatly encouraged by his father, who gave him an education intended to enhance his practical abilities. He attended Balliol College, Oxford, and in 1619 when he was aged 20 his father brought him back to Dudley to take charge of the Earl's furnace and forges on Pensnett Chase.
It was at this time he experimented with coal and began to succeed where others had failed. He turned coal into coke, a hard, foam-like mass of almost pure carbon, and carried on the manufacture of iron at both Pensnett and Cradley Forge. He managed to obtain a patent of James I and by the King's command sent a quantity of new iron to the Tower of London for testing, whereupon it was pronounced ‘good merchantable iron’.
Unfortunately the works at Cradley Forge were swept away by the Great May Day flood of 1623, but contrary to some historical accounts, Dud Dudley managed to repair his furnaces and forges, and according to his own account in the book ‘Metallum Martis’, which was first printed in 1665, "went on with his invention cheerfully, and made annually great store of iron, good and merchantable, and sold it unto divers men, at £12 per ton."
Dudley went on to say, "I also made all sorts of cast-iron wares, as brewing cisterns, pots, mortars, etc., better and cheaper than any yet made in these nations with charcoal."
But his success was met with strong opposition from rival manufacturers still using charcoal, and at length he was ousted from his works at Cradley Forge.
Dud Dudley continued to smelt iron using coal at his father's furnace at Himley, but the lack of a nearby forge thwarted his venture and he decided to rebuild another furnace belonging to the Earl at Askew Bridge on the edge of Gornal Wood, a bespoke works he was very proud of and which he described in great detail in Metellum Martis: "27 foot square, all of stone ... the bellows of which furnace were larger than ordinary bellows are ....7 tuns of iron per week are made, the greatest quantity of Pit-cole-iron that ever yet was made in Great Britain."
But his rivals would have the last say at Askew Bridge, just as they had at Cradley Forge. "The author was by force thrown out of the works, and the bellows of his new furnace and invention, by riotous persons cut in pieces, to his no small prejudice, and loss of his invention of making of iron with pitcole..."
The trials and tribulations of the rest of Dud Dudley's life are a story in themselves, and one for another day.
But could he still be overseeing the site of his old works on the banks of the River Stour? On a recent visit to Cradley Forge, where the Mousesweet Brook and the Stour meet, a strange image in the trunk of one of the trees caught the eye of the Bugle cameraman.
To all intents and purposes it looked like a man wearing a hat not dissimilar to those that were fashionable in the first half of the 17th century.
Other Bugle colleagues agreed that the markings in the tree bore a striking resemblance to a man of that vintage, so could this have been the ghostly image of one of the Black Country's most famous sons, Dud Dudley?