In 1873 Samuel Griffiths, editor of the London Iron Trade Exchange, published Griffiths’ Guide to the Iron Trade in Great Britain, an elaborate review of the iron and coal trades of 1872, and in his extensive narrative he described the Hyde Iron works near Kinver as, “The Works are situated in a lovely valley about four miles from Stourbridge, and are certainly, with their surroundings, the most picturesque of any Ironworks in the United Kingdom.”
During the course of compiling his guide Griffiths paid a visit to every industrial region in the land, and in particular spent a great deal of time observing the industrial upheaval that dominated the Black Country. But it seems the Hyde Ironworks captured his imagination, not least because of the romanticised story that surrounds Richard Foley (1580-1657), ironmaster at Hyde from 1627, whom the author referred to as Young Foley and who travelled to Russia to steal the details on how to make rods for the nail industry using the slitting process, a compelling yet fanciful historical episode of early industrial espionage that we will publish in full in next week’s Bugle.
Sadly, in 1888, just 16 years after Samuel Griffiths’ visit to Hyde, “the most picturesque of any ironworks in the United Kingdom” closed because of increased competition from cheaper steel manufactured elsewhere, and it was finally removed from the landscape in 1897 when the site was levelled.
However, thanks to an engraving of the Iron Works that appeared in Griffiths’ guide, which the author described as “charmingly beautiful”, we are at least able to understand his vision of a picturesque works and the image of a cottage industry surrounded by a sylvan landscape that was at the very centre of the Black Country’s Industrial Revolution.
But what evidence is there left today of one of the most historically important industrial sites in the whole country? Mick Bradney, a well known personality from Cradley Heath and a legendary chainmaker in his time, has always been interested in the industrial heritage of the Black Country and he was happy to join us on a step back into history to try and discover what we could about the old Hyde Iron Works, Hyde Mill and the charismatic ironmaster Richard Foley.
Thankfully, the day of our visit to Hyde was dry and bright, and after a difficult drive down an uneven track that leads away from the Bridgnorth Road, isolated buildings began to appear from behind an abundance of trees. Having crossed the River Stour over a small bridge, we came upon the Staffordshire- Worcestershire canal, built in 1772, and the idyllic scene of the old lock keeper’s cottage. In the opposite direction from the lock keeper’s cottage the canal follows a sublime route towards Stourton, and the glassy nature of the water on the canal’s surface was only temporarily disturbed by a passing narrowboat slowing down before it reached the lock.
At the corner of the track leading from the bridge over the Stour there now stands a well established dwelling called Hyde House which occupies the former site of the iron works.
The location was quiet, breathtakingly still and yet for nigh on 250 years the hustle and bustle of industry had reverberated through this lovely valley.
Whenever the opportunity arises to wander along the banks of the River Stour, whether it’s from near its source in Halesowen or down as far as Kidderminster and beyond, it is hard to imagine that from the Middle Ages up until the late19th century it was a hive of activity and mainly responsible for the Black Country’s early industrial development.
Richard Foley came to Hyde in 1629 and converted Hyde Mill, which at the time was used for fulling cloth, into a slitting mill. But a few years before in 1624, just after Dud Dudley’s experiments to smelt iron ore using coke rather than charcoal had been wrecked by floods and local disagreement, Foley was looking for suitable mills elsewhere on the Stour and further afield. He first took on Greensforge and in 1625 Himley furnace, followed by a forge at Whittington in 1627. In 1626 he joined Thomas Nye in a partnership to oversee a mill in the Sandwell Park area of West Bromwich, on the River Tame, and within the space of just a few years Foley had not only become an ironmaster of some stature but also an entrepreneur of importance.
The major technical advance which he pioneered was the successful introduction of the slitting mill, which turned iron bars into rods suitable for immediate use in the manufacture of nails and chain, and all this happened at Hyde.
Partnership On March 25th, 1627, when he was in partnership with his brother-in-law George Brindley, he took over a 21 year lease from John Astley and Walter Fowke for land at the Hyde and property that consisted of houses and a fulling mill with “watercourses, stanks, banks and fludgates.” At a cost of £500 he built his slitting mill, a process now recognised as the greatest advance in the iron industry in the 17th century that dramatically improved productivity and eventually created a healthy profit for Brindley and Foley. (Continued on the Bugle website tomorrow, Sunday 8th September).