In last week’s article about the “most picturesque of any iron works in the United Kingdom,” we tried to discover if there was any evidence left of Richard Foley’s 17th century slitting mill at Hyde near Kinver, and any other remains that once put this place at the very centre of industrial innovation in the Black Country.
For centuries the Stour Valley had been a ribbon of activity, the water from one of the River Severn’s main tributaries providing the power to set the wheels in motion for initially grinding corn, then fulling cloth, and in the case of Hyde Mill, putting in place the ratchet handle that began to turn the crank shaft of industry.
It was the Hyde Fulling Mill that Richard Foley converted to a slitting mill in 1627, and thereafter produced a steady supply of iron rods to an army of nailmakers right across the region.
A staggering amount of nails were being made here in the Black Country, and nail shops were common in every village and town. Between April and September 1538 Reynolde Warde of Dudley supplied over 130,000 nails of nine different types and sizes for the building of Henry VIII’s grand Nonsuch Palace in Surrey.
Although the Forest of Dean, with adjoining areas in Hereford and Somerset, had retained the position in medieval times of principal iron working region, the British Isles was increasingly reliant on importing iron rods. According to Samuel Griffith’s Guide to the Iron Trade in Great Britain, published in 1873, “All the slit nailrods consumed in the country were imported from Russia, and the price paid for them was £36 to £40 per ton”, which inevitably kept the cost of manufacturing nails high. So it was vital for English manufacturers to solve the problem of how to operate a slitting mill in their own backyard.
The first licence for such a mill was granted to an Elizabethan mechanic and mining engineer, Bevis Bulmer, in 1588, who was granted exclusive rights for 12 years to erect and operate in England and Wales a new engine or instrument worked by waterpower.
But there was plenty of controversy during the early years of introducing this new technology because a certain William Burrell had already erected a slitting mill of his own in Deptford, Kent.
There was no doubt that by the end of the 16th century nailmaking had been recognised as a stand-alone trade, especially in the counties of Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire, and the first evidence of a slitting mill in the West Midlands was at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire in 1622/23. The fact that Richard Foley was supposed to have introduced the first slitting mill into the Midlands is therefore open to contradiction, but this doesn’t detract from how important the slitting mill at Hyde was to the Black Country during the 17th century.
Richard was born in 1580, the son of a nail maker, and was well versed in the art of nailmaking.
But as he grew into a young man he had two passions; to improve the technology of nailmaking and to become a competent fiddle player.
When Samuel Griffiths arrived at the Hyde Iron Works in 1872 he was stunned by its idyllic location in the heart of the countryside. But he was equally absorbed by the story of “Fiddler Foley”, and, as the following extract reveals, he took great pains in telling the full account of Richard Foley’s adventures on the continent to steal the technology and knowhow he needed to build his own slitting mill.
Griffiths wrote: “One of the sons (Richard), who had been raised surrounded by the manufacture of nails, evinced a great passion for improving the manipulations, particular of smaller sizes of iron, and, although the family were wealthy, was continually in the works almost day and night; and as he had acquired a thorough knowledge of music, practised much in his leisure hours on the violin, an instrument in which he excelled, it is said, more than any man in England.
“Young Foley intimated his desire to visit London, and, after bidding adieu to the family, left with his favourite fiddle – a splendid Sagitarius which belonged to his grandfather. The young gentleman was lost sight of nearly two years. His friends, although they knew how thoughtful and steady he was, began to feel alarmed for his safety – for it must not be forgotten that even London was a very different place then to what it is now. Few visitors from the country were allowed to sleep within the precincts of the city, and none were allowed to remain beyond a certain time, always fixed by the authorities.
“One evening, about six o’clock, Young Foley, careworn, copper-coloured, tired and travel stained, arrived at the Hyde Works with his beloved fiddle in a green bag, and a roll of papers carefully wrapped up in cloth and tied at the ends, resembling a lot of plans of mines and minerals. Of course the advent created a sensation; and it now turned out that this persevering young Iron Master had travelled from Stourbridge to St Petersburg, and from St Petersburg to the Ural mountains, and by the enchanting melody brought out of his instrument, so fascinated the Muscovite Iron workers as to get to see their works – the only foreigner that ever was permitted to enter a Russian Ironworks which contained a slitting-mill up to that time.
“But readers will be surprised to hear that Foley laid siege to the mill no less than two months before he was permitted to tread the precincts of the cutters, and he might never have succeeded, but for a singular circumstance, which opened the portals of Vulcan to him. Foley’s money was exhausted at St Petersburg; any effort to communicate with England for supplies would reveal his family connections and perhaps his object; therefore he resolved to look to his violin, which he loved so well, and with this heralded his advent from village to village, to the manifest delight of the long-skirted Russians with whom he continually came in contact.
“At one place the priest ordered him into prison, but having heard so much of his music, came to hear him, and was so pleased with the melody as to order his release.
“When he arrived at the ironworks, he found numbers of huts outside the works, where the men lived. The first day he fared badly, but the next day, Pietri Orloff, the principal man – as it turned out afterwards – at the mill, took him in and gave him a good dinner composed of boiled corn and tallow, which Foley declared these men were fond of. He likewise stated that they eat train oil. He knew French very well, and began to teach two of Orloff’s boys French. He always made his way by French, for the Foley’s were buying more of this nailiron from Russia than perhaps any other English House: it therefore would have been imprudent to have revealed his nationality.
Part Two of this story follows tomorrow.