The history of Wilden Marsh and its immediate surrounding areas has interested me for some considerable time. I know everywhere has a history, but often much is forgotten, lost or ignored. Industrial activity started at Wilden Village during 1511 with the establishment of a water powered fulling mill by William Baylly. In 1633, the fulling mill was converted to a slitting mill, and then to a finery forge. Between 1692 and 1707, Wilden Forge received 5543 tons of Forest Pig Iron.
Transporting pig iron to Wilden Forge was a problem in the early days. The local unmetalled roads were not up to handling heavy horse-drawn wagons, so raw materials and finished product were shipped in and out, initially, on the River Stour to the River Severn, and latterly along the River Stour to the Worcester and Staffordshire canal system and the new railway networks.
Before the end of the 18th Century, the River Stour boasted a greater number of industrial works along its 24 miles than any other river in England. The key to the successful operation of the ironworks was this short, but powerful, river. It powered the water wheels, and enabled transportation of raw materials and finished product to and from the canal that ran along the west side of the Stour Valley. Attempts to make the lower Stour River navigable to the River Severn, a couple of miles down the valley, were largely unsuccessful due to inconsistent water levels. In 1835 Pratt’s Wharf was built by Isaac Pratt, later incorporating a lock – built in 1874 for £500 by the canal company – to link the canal to the ironworks via the River Stour. The river, which could be intentionally flooded with water from the nearby purpose-built 6 million gallon Wilden Pool, ran under the ironworks.
A great helve hammer was driven by a 50hp steam engine and another by a 20-foot diameter water wheel doing the “shingling”. There was also a tin refinery, a puddling forge containing 4 puddling furnaces capable of producing 11 tons per day. The charcoal forge had two large fires producing 1,000 tons of wrought bloom. These were hammered with the steam helve, cut into blooms, and heated again on a hollow fire, where the fuel did not touch the blooms. They then went to the rolling shops which had five mills, three rolling up to 16 inches wide and two rolling from 20 to 26 inches wide.
In 1833 a property at Pratt’s wharf was owned by Lord Foley, and occupied by Henry Turner; the value was £1.19s. Next door was a house occupied by T.Mann and owned by the owner of the canal, the value being £1.17s. Pratt’s Wharf was later operated by the Merchant family: Granny Merchant, her three boys, and Mr. Merchant who, it was said, had the look of the night about him and should be avoided.The Merchants lived in the two, now company owned, houses at the wharf. There were workshops for boat repairs and other outbuildings. A bridge was built over the Stour to give barge horses access to grazing on the marsh.
Wilden Ironworks was owned by the Baldwin Family. Stanley Baldwin, three times UK Prime Minister in the early 1900s (1923,1924-29,1935-37), worked there; he lived in Wilden House, directly opposite the works entrance. Wilden House was later demolished to allow Wilden Lane to be widened. The Baldwins built the church, village hall, and school at Wilden village that are still in use today. Wilden church was built by Alfred Baldwin in 1879, at a cost of £3000, and the school and village hall were built in 1882.
The original Severn Valley Railway opened in 1862. A former mayor of Stourport-on-Severn lived along side the canal basin and recalls his experiences there in the 1930s: Raw materials for Wilden Ironwork arrived at Stourport railway station. The wagons were sent down an incline from the station to the the canal basin under gravity, controlled by an on-board brakeman. Stan recalls that the commonest freight was 10 foot long iron bars from South Wales; these were loaded onto Merchant’s barges and sent off along the canal to Pratt’s Wharf. The iron bars were offloaded onto smaller boats for the half mile journey down the Stour to the Baldwin’s ironworks.
A former life-long employee of the S & W Canal Company, George Wood, whose father and grandfather also worked for the company, recalls the many barges at the basin destined for the ironworks in the 1940s.
In David Godson’s reminiscences of his childhood years living in Falling Sands lock cottage, during the 1940s, he describes an isolated and self-sufficient life along the canal bank with no running water or electricity. He mentions the ‘Big Freeze’ of 1947, when ice on the canal was a foot thick and pigeons froze to tree branches. David also remembers Granny Merchant at Pratt’s Wharf. He mentions the Lamb family living in a house at the foot of the Falling Sand’s viaduct, and that they were cultured people who did not socialise with the working-class people living along the canal. The Falling Sands lock cottage, the Merchant’s family houses at Pratt’s Wharf, and the Lamb’s house at the foot of the viaduct were demolished many years ago.
Showing Granny Merchant’s house at Pratt’s Wharf
History colours a geographical area that might have changed enormously over the years. Knowledge of past Wilden characters, who lived and worked on and close to the marsh, add a dimension to the story of the marsh that I find increasingly difficult to ignore.