The story of the
swordmakers is well-known
to those with an interest in the Shotley
Bridge , yet their history
is surprisingly brief and not an altogether successful one at that. It started
with a mystery and ended with a whimper. Derwent
In 1687, around twenty men and their families slipped out of the German town of
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
. No one quite knows why they came
(possibly religious persecution and/or the restrictions of their guild secrets)
or why the Shotley Bridge (some say they
were invited by a couple of enterprising Derwent
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 steel company was eventually
taken over by Wilkinsons (of Wilkinson Sword fame). Shotley Bridge
The very last of the
swordmakers, Joseph Oley, died in 1896, aged 90 – and he hadn’t made a sword
since 1840. Shotley Bridge