The Sword Makers of Shotley Bridge

John Asher explores a corner of the Derwent Valley...

Around twice a week I drive up the Derwent Valley past Swalwell, Winlaton and High Spen to go to a clinic or endoscopy list at Shotley Bridge Hospital, but while Shotley Bridge was not a pit village and is not known to have had a rapper team, it does have its own possible connection to rapper as the home of some sword makers.

The sword makers were a group of German families, led by the Oleys and Moles, who fled from Solingen in 1688 and had settled in the village of Shotley Bridge in 1691. The reasons for this are uncertain, with some saying that they were refugees from religious persecution at home, and others alleging that they were simply escaping from an irate local sword makers' guild, whose secrets they had betrayed. Their choice of Shotley Bridge as a home may have been for its remoteness and obscurity, or because the very soft water of the Derwent was particularly good for tempering steel.

The houses they built had religious inscriptions in German carved into the stonework, supporting the theory that they were religious refugees. Unfortunately, the old sword makers' houses in Wood Street were demolished in the 1950s.

The Shotley Bridge sword makers soon gained a reputation for the quality of their swords and cutlery, with their hollow sword blades particularly popular, and were especially noted for the quality of their engraving and gilding. They were particularly successful when demand rose during the Napoleonic wars. At the same time, the Derwent Valley was the main centre for steel making by the cementation process, which required very pure and expensive iron ore imported from Sweden via the port of Newcastle.

William Oley, one of the sword makers in the late 18th century, is reputed to have been challenged by two sword makers from elsewhere to see who could make the most resilient sword. On the day of the challenge, Oley appeared not have brought a sword with him, and allowed the other two to demonstrate their swords and boast of their strength; Oley then took off his top hat, and showed the others a sword coiled up inside it – he challenged them to remove it from the hat, a feat which could only be accomplished with a vice, and so won the challenge. Might this have been the first time a sword was made from flexible sprung steel?

The development of new methods of steel production in the 19th century, lead to Sheffield becoming the main centre of the British steel industry at the expense of the Derwent. This, together with a fall in demand for swords at the end of the Napoleonic wars led to the decline of the Shotley Bridge sword makers. Although they diversified into cutlery and tool production, Sheffield and Birmingham were already the established centres. By 1841 the Oley family fortune was largely gone.

The last sword maker in Shotley Bridge, Joseph Oley, had stopped making swords and was recorded as working as an auctioneer in the 1881 census. The remaining members of the Mole family had earlier moved to Birmingham and were partners in the steel tool making group which became Wilkinson Sword the crossed swords logo of that company is believed to have come from the emblem of the “Guild of the Running Fox” – the Shotley Bridge sword makers' guild. The few remaining clues left are the Crown and Crossed Swords pub (originally owned by the Oleys), Cutlers Hall (the guild meeting place, now a private house) and the crossed swords on the old logo of the Shotley Bridge Hospital.

(There is an article on the Shotley Bridge sword makers, originally published in 1888, in the Online Archive section of the Rapper Online site at www.rapper.org.uk/archive