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.

Sink or Swim?

Sunrise: 04.46   Sunset: 09.33

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 17 mills to be built here 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 19 water mills 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. I don’t know whether the adjoining ironworks that fed the rolling mills used water power.

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 industrial may have reduced with time, but they have not ceased. Residential pressures, however, 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 was 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.

Also read:

https://atomic-temporary-19456464.wpcomstaging.com/2015/06/15/help-how-do-i-get-out-of-this-valley/

https://atomic-temporary-19456464.wpcomstaging.com/2013/12/07/wilden-marsh-history/

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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.