Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Shotley Bridge Swordmakers (NZ090527)


The story of the Shotley Bridge swordmakers is well-known to those with an interest in the Derwent Valley, yet their history is surprisingly brief and not an altogether successful one at that. It started with a mystery and ended with a whimper.

In 1687, around twenty men and their families slipped out of the German town of Solingen and made their way secretly to the shores of England. Somewhat strangely, they ended up on the banks of the River Derwent and settled in the area now known as Shotley Bridge. No one quite knows why they came (possibly religious persecution and/or the restrictions of their guild secrets) or why the Derwent Valley (some say they were invited by a couple of enterprising Newcastle businessmen, or that there was already a small German community there). Whatever the backstory, they brought with them a very great skill: the ability to forge swords and blades like no other – springy, hollow, three-sided affairs made from tempered steel – the likes of which had not been seen before in England. The very finest of these implements bore the distinctive stamp of the Running Wolf or Flying Fox.

Such was the need for high quality weaponry of this nature that the little community soon became a roaring success – and, in 1691, they were granted a royal charter for the conduct of their particular line of work. The immigrants assimilated well, and provided for themselves – including in their work, where they mined, processed and prepared the raw materials for their trade. The site was perfect, it seems, for their needs: the fast flowing river drove their mills and the surrounding hills held the essential ores – though a good deal of iron ore was imported from Sweden, too. Many family names are associated with the swordmaking phenomenon of the time, the Oleys and the Moles being among the most famous.

They produced all sorts of implements: swords, cutlasses, bayonets, knives, etc., before moving onto more common-or-garden tools later on, such as scythes, sickles and cutlery. Up until the 1720s business remained good – excellent, in fact – but for a variety of reasons (lack of demand for weaponry, primarily) their success began to wane thereafter. Internal wrangling accentuated their plight and individuals began to leave for pastures new (e.g. Sheffield and its burgeoning steel industry). By the early-1800s, only the Oley family remained in business – and the last Shotley Bridge steel company was eventually taken over by Wilkinsons (of Wilkinson Sword fame).

The very last of the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, Joseph Oley, died in 1896, aged 90 – and he hadn’t made a sword since 1840.


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