Falling Sands Rolling Mill (Updated 08/12/2018)

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Remains of Falling Sands Rolling Mill Water Wheel Chamber

It is said that the first mechanical clock was invented between 723 and 725 A.D. by Chinese mathematician and monk Yi Xing, also spelled I Hsing. Rudimentary clocks existed prior to that in Europe, but they did not have the escapement mechanism characteristic of mechanical clocks. The first pendulum clock was invented in 1656, by Christiaan Huygens, and remained the most accurate means of keeping time until the 1930s. Most mechanical clocks relied on wheels of one kind and another and it was wheels that transmitted the power that drove the Industrial Age.

The horizontal-wheeled water mill may have been invented in the Greek colony of Byzantium during the first half of the 3rd century BC, and the vertical-wheeled water mill in Ptolemaic Alexandria around 240 BC.

Arguably, the Industrial Age, in terms of the powered wheel, first touched Wilden Marsh and Meadows in 1511 with William Baylly and his water-powered fulling mill 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, from the 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 tributaries than on any other river in the UK. There were 22 watermills along the banks of Hoo Brook alone. Falling Sands Rolling Mills and Ironworks, at the confluence of Hoo Brook and the River Stour – where the water pumping station is now – had its waterwheels hung across the full width of the River Stour.

It was a time of relative prosperity during the 1500s. The country was recovering from a couple of centuries of various 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, and Bill Baylly was looking to increase his fulling capacity and fill his coffers in the process. There was money to be made and many 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, so Bill decided to use water power to drive his machinery and considered the River Stour at Wilden to be most 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 and, using the power of the River Stour,  it was converted to a slitting mill, a finery forge and finally a sprawling iron works. In 1958 the iron works closed and in 1964 the site become Wilden Industrial Estate.

Pollution threats to Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest from heavy industry has receded gradually over recent years, but the threat of the reserve being degraded or otherwise damaged has not ceased. Residential pressures have increased tremendously. The old sugar factory has been replaced by a large, modern, combined industrial, leisure and residential estate that now sits on the west bank of the Lower Stour Valley overlooking the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, at Falling Sands. Planning permission is continually sought, by individuals and developers, for leisure, residential and/or industrial estate building projects around the edges of Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve. If our District Council is as pro-nature as I believe it to be, Wilden Marsh should be protected for at least the foreseeable future. We have local brown field sites that have been or are being used for residential building. I don’t think that jeopardising the Wilden Marsh floodplain to enable national or multi-national conglomerates to obtain a quick profit can ever be justified.

Falling Sands Mill Pool from the canal side

The wall in the photographs probably dates from the early 1800s. It stands on the east bank of the River Stour immediately north of Hoo Brook. The sewage pumping station now occupying the site is built over the remains of the Falling Sands Rolling Mill and Iron Works that dates from 1791 to 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.

Falling Sands Mill Pool

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, into Hoo Brook, and back to the River Stour immediately south and downstream of the dam. The historic wall became more clearly visible when the area was cleared during the creation of the Falling Sands Nature area along the eastern bank of the River Stour, north of Hoo Brook.

Falling Sands Rolling Mill Leat

Showing the leat flowing from the viaduct, around Falling Sands and the Rolling Mill,  and emptying into Hoo Brook  1951

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Showing the leat flowing from the viaduct, around Falling Sands and the Rolling Mill,  and emptying into Hoo Brook 1841

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Falling Sands Rolling Mill 1841

In Stourport-on-Severn, water wheels powered 7 mills: Jenny Hole Forge, Mitton Forge, Mitton Corn Mill, Mitton Worsted Mill, Mitton Wire Mill, Wilden Forge and Slitting Mill and Falling Sands Rolling Mills.

Caldwall Mill 1841

Further upstream were Caldwall Mill, Town Mill, Waterside Mill, Puxton Mill, Townsend Mill, Clensmore Mill and New Mill.

Ghostly Whisperings

Falling Sands Viaduct

I have had a deep fascination with Wilden Marsh for many years. A new story seems to present itself with every night visit.

Moonlit evenings provide the best atmosphere. I’m never lonely or afraid when walking through the blackness of a nighttime marsh, with its strange noises, fleeting shadows, and darting will-o-the-wisps. I am sometimes accompanied by lingering ghosts that whisper in my ears of long forgotten secrets and conjure visions from a bygone era with the snap of a spectral finger. Now and again, when the River Stour is in flood, at the confluence of the river and Hoo Brook, close to the site of the sewage pumping station, between the marsh and Falling Sands Nature Area, a thickening miasma lifts from the river like shrouded phantoms escaping the halls of Hades at Halloween; they twist, turn and struggle to break the water’s grip. The mighty roar and sheer force of the turbulent, boiling and tumbling waters hide the wailing screams of tortured souls being smashing against the river’s floating rubbish rafts – legion upon legion rise from the thickening mist to replace those gone before. At this point, a sensible person would make their way off the mash as quickly as possible, but these are only figments of my overactive imagination and nothing to be overly concerned about.

The instant I set foot in the meadows and pastures, the ghosts begin their whispering. In fact, I don’t know of another place so eager to give up its colourful secrets in such vivid detail. No, I am not deluded or suffering from a schizoaffective disorder. I am receptive to the lay of the land and what it can tell me. I also have a vivid imagination, and a strong interest in local history.

Standing close to the Riverside Pasture stock fence, at the point where Hoo Brook rushes into the River Stour, I look across to the stark, sharp-edged, relatively modern buildings of the Hoo Brook Sewage Pumping Station. Sometimes, in the right light, the area melts to a vision, set some 150 years ago, of the dark, satanic, buildings that are the Falling Sands Rolling Mills and Cottages. The industrial buildings are placed at the precise angles necessary for the efficient operation of milling waterwheels. There are four industrial buildings. The site was owned by Lydia Barnett, and the tenant was Samuel Barnett.

I hear grinding and creaking of waterwheels, rushing  water, clanking of loose gear wheels, hissing of water quenching red-hot metal passing through steel rolls, and  rhythmic ringing of 20 lbs sledge hammers striking iron. My nose tingles at the smell of high sulphur coal used to fuel the mill furnaces. All these noises, sounds and smells are memories of visits to my grandparents house, on the edge of the Abergavenny steam railway junction, way back in the 1950s. We have a steam train railway crossing the marsh on the Falling Sands Viaduct.

A leat allows the river water to bypass the waterwheels that span the full width of the river and provided power for the rolling mills. To stop the waterwheels, a gate lowered into the river cuts the water flow. The river water is diverted into the leat at a point close to Falling Sands Viaduct, and exits 700 metres downstream into Hoo Brook.

The time I imagine is 1840. The Staffordshire and Worcester Canal opened in 1770 and the Severn Valley Railway in 1862.

Urgent shouts of grubby mill workers going about their daily business fill the air, as do the excited screams of dirty little urchins playing around stacks of metal, coal and redundant machinery spread haphazardly around the rolling mill stockyard. The visions of mill workers and their urchin children are but shadows of those who once worked and lived on-site in company cottages.

I don’t know why I am affected so by Wilden Marsh, its history, its fauna and flora, and its geology, but I’m glad I am.

The Historic Pratt’s Wharf on Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve

The historic Pratt’s Wharf at Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve.
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.
Canal entrance to the lock.
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.
Turning 180 degrees from the lock entrance, and this is the condition of the lock that once allowed boat access to the River Stour.
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.
Granny Merchant's Cottage

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.

Help! How do I get out of this valley?

An Act passed in 1662 authorised the Earl of Bristol, Lord Windsor and Thomas Smyth of London, to make the Stour navigable from the River Severn to the collieries around Stourbridge; opening up and developing sales outlets further south, in particular around Worcester and Gloucester. The original plan was to make the river navigable for craft of 6 tons, with 11 locks and two branch tram roads. 

Engineer Andrew Yarranton (1619 – 1684), who managed the Stour navigation work, was born a few miles down the road in Astley, Worcestershire. He was not able to fully realise his dream of making the 10 miles stretch of River Stour between Stourbridge to the River Severn at Stourport-on-Severn reliably navigable. He did have some success bringing 16 tons coal boats down the river in the 1660s and 1670s, after the completion in 1667 of 16 locks and 4 turnpikes (thought to be half-locks). The venture was dogged by lack of money, which was one of the main reasons for its eventual failure around 1680. The River Stour was then and is now difficult to navigate; its many tight bends, narrowness, high flood risk, and variable water levels threatened its viability as a transport link. In fact, the great flood of around 1674 destroyed so much of the new river improvement work, that the investors couldn’t or wouldn’t provide the money to repair it. I have experienced these great floods on the marsh, and they are dramatic and sometimes devastating: breaking banks and flooding large areas, as well as washing away canal banking. In 1879 the Wilden Ironworks was damaged by one of these notorious overflow events. However, extreme volumes of water rushing down the river force stubborn rubbish rafts though longstanding log jams, causing them to hurtle downstream. It was high water flow events that destroyed our new southern rock weir within a year of installation. It is probably more accurate to say that the flash floods wash the rubbish rafts further down the river to become someone else’s problem, but not without first dumping a load of plastic bottles and footballs on the marsh.

In 1766, an Act of Parliament sanctioned the building of a canal system between Staffordshire and Worcester, resulting in the formation of the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal Company. James Brindley (1716 to 1772), from Derbyshire, built the canal at a cost in excess of £12,000,000 in today’s money; it opened for business in 1772. The canal runs alongside the River Stour on its journey through Wilden Marsh.

Wilden Forge and the nearby saw mill experienced great difficulty bringing in raw materials, and shipping out finished goods prior to the building of the S&W canal system. The road to the River Severn was narrow and became deeply rutted and impassable for heavy horse drawn wagons in wet weather. Attempts to create a link to the River Severn by running boats down the southern section of the River Stour, proved too difficult and unreliable.

The Severn Valley Railway arrived at Sourport in 1882, 100 years later than the opening of the canal system, and 371 years after Bill Baylly built his fulling mill at Wilden Village. Pig iron and logs arrived from the Forest of Dean and South Wales, via the River Severn and later by rail to Stourport-on-Severn.

The first record of Wilden Forge appears around 1647, when Thomas Foley built a finery forge on the site, close to the slitting mill. In 1840 the Baldwins bought the forge, when gambling debts forced the Foley’s to sell. In 1888 Stanley Baldwin joins the company at 21 years of age. Stanley later became 3 times British Prime Minister: 1935 to 1937, 1924 to 1929 and 1923 to 1924.

Even after the arrival of the canal and the railway, getting raw materials and finished goods in and out of the Lower Stour Valley was not straightforward, for reasons I will explain in my next history post.

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Green Shield-bug.