Arguably, modern world technology first touched Wilden Marsh and Meadows in 1511 with the building of a water powered fulling mill by William Baylly on the River Stour, at Wilden Village. This was the first of 27 watermills to be built along the first two and a half miles of the River Stour upstream from Stourport-on-Severn to Falling Sands, and along Hoo Brook, before the rise of the steam-age.
In its heyday, there were more watermills (in excess of 100) on the banks of the 25 miles long River Stour and its tributary than any other river in the UK. There were 22 watermills along the banks of Hoo Brook alone, including the full width water wheels of the Falling Sands Rolling Mills at the confluence of Hoo Brook and the River Stour – where the water pumping station is now.
The 1500s were a time of relative prosperity. The country was recovering from a couple of centuries of plagues, and the many plagues of the 1600s had yet to dilute the labour force still further. Wages were good compared with the rest of Europe, and many peasants could afford to build themselves wood framed houses. Food and firewood were plentiful. Bill Baylly was looking to increase his fulling capacity and fill his coffers. There was money to be made and people were scheming to get their hands on it.
The options Bill had available to power his new fulling mill were muscle, wind or water. There were not many people about in the 1500s (2,250,000 people in all England and Wales; another third of this figure in Ireland and Scotland). Wages were increasing rapidly. Bill decided he would use water to drive his machinery. The River Stour at Wilden was very suitable for his purposes, being a reliable, if somewhat variable at times, source of fast flowing water.
The function of Bill’s mill changed with the years. It became a slitting mill, a finery forge and finally a sprawling iron works. In 1958 the iron works closes. In 1964 the site becomes Wilden Industrial Estate.
Pollution threats to Wilden Marsh and Site of Special Scientific Interest from heavy industry may have reduced with time, but they have not ceased. Residential pressures have increased. The old sugar factory has been replaced with a large industrial, leisure and residential complex immediately above the west bank of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, at Falling Sands. Planning permission is now being sought to build a luxury housing estate on the edge of the swamp and Hoo Brook Pasture, the latter being a Site of Special Scientific Interest. If planning permission is granted, I wonder how the residents would feel about sharing their gardens with clouds of biting flying insects and fetid water smells? Would the next step be to sanitise the swamp?
One hopes that sanity will prevail, but it can’t be relied upon, and that our District Council is as pro-nature as I believe it to be. We have local brown field sites that have been or are being used for residential building. I don’t see the need to jeopardise the marsh floodplain to satisfy the short-term aims of national or multi-national conglomerates.
The wall in the photograph probably dates from the early 1800s. It stands on the east bank of the River Stour immediately north of Hoo Brook. The water works that now occupies the site replaced the Falling Sands Rolling Mill and Iron Works which was built on an earlier forge dating from 1791. The ironworks was recorded as being operational in the early 1800s and closed in 1902. The rolling mill site was powered by two waterwheels: one 24 horsepower overshot and one 12 horsepower undershot working two pairs of rollers together with sheet and bar shears. The larger of the two waterwheels was 14 feet in diameter and 15 feet wide; it was manufactured and installed during 1847 at a cost £250.00. Immediately downstream of the waterwheel was a dam and sluice used to control the speed and power of the wheel.
400 metres north and upstream, on the east side of the river, was the inlet sluice of a leat, along which the river flow was diverted when the waterwheel dam sluice was closed. The leat allowed the river flow to be diverted around the ironworks site and into Hoo Brook and down to the River Stour immediately south and downstream of the dam.
The historic wall has came to light because of a new wildlife area being set up along the River Stour, north of Hoo Brook; clearing the area has given us a good view of it.