In the small hamlet of Sticklepath (what a wonderful name), on the northern edge of Dartmoor, the National Trust in combination with the Finch Foundry Trust have restored a nineteenth century working edge tool manufactory – not strictly speaking a foundry despite its name.
It was started by William Finch in 1814. It was originally used to produce agricultural and mining hand tools and at its peak produced around 400 edge tools a day. It remained an active foundry until 1960 when the roof collapsed (since restored). It contains examples of a tilt hammer, drop hammer, and shear hammer all powered by the water wheels. Since everything is kept in working order, it is possible to see the equipment being used by a blacksmith. Demonstrations of the tools are given every hour.
*** – History – ***
Smiths have shaped wrought iron with hand held hammers for millenia. Water powered hammers are recorded from China in 20 AD but they only became common in Europe in the 12th century. Water powered stamp mills were used to break up mineral ores. Massive hammers raised by water power and then allowed to drop under gravity were used to turn blooms into more workable bar iron and particularly for fabricating articles from wrought iron, steel and other metals.
In such metal works, multiple hammers were powered via a set of line shafts, pulleys and belts from a centrally located water supply. However during the Industrial Revolution the trip hammer generally fell out of favour and was gradually replaced with power hammers worked by steam, and more recently by compressed air.
Sticklepath was a hamlet of water mills. In 1814 William Finch leased Manor Mills, which had previously been a corn mill and gradually built up his business. Since he was born at nearby Spreyton, it is thought he may have gained his practical experience at the Tavistock Iron Works.
Initially he installed a pair of tilt hammers, possibly purchased from them. Later he added power shears and an air blast sufficient to work half a dozen blacksmith’s hearths plus two furnaces, all powered by water. Tools with a sharp edge needed to be ground on the water powered grindstone but the workmen found that half a day spent sharpening them was enough for any man, so apprentices were often sentenced to ‘put their nose to the grindstone’ for misbehaviour.
Their travelling salesmen followed a regular circuit around the mining and china clay industries throughout the west of England and also visited agricultural merchants and ironmongers en route. To the rear of the main building is a store for the straw and reeds used for packing the tools prior to transportation.
The Finch family business interests extended into corn milling, carpentry, wheel wrighting and, since they purchased coal and coke in bulk, the sale of domestic fuel. The business only closed its doors in 1960 and many of their account books, catalogues and samples of their hooks, scythes, hay knives, forks and hoes are on display.
The company employed as many as 25 men across the site which included blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelwrights, farriers and general workers. The main players in the Finch empire were William, George, his wife Rebecca and their son Albany. To tell you more ...
Rebecca inherited the business and took control of the firm under the title of R Finch Edge Tool Manufacturer in 1895.
Rebecca utilised the resources available to her, putting her now adult children to work - Thomas with his woodworking ability, James and Albany, all using their talents to help with the business. She also used her own administrative skill to draw and publish the first catalogue of the tools which Finch made and to manage a growing workforce at the foundry.
The financial side of things was very diverse:
*** – Visiting – ***
Please note that owing to the Coronavirus pandemic the Finch Foundry is currently closed.
Plan: Foundry House probably dates to the early C19 when the adjoining premises were taken over as a foundry and has a two-room central entry plan. In the early 1800's the premises consisted of two separate buildings - the larger one to the east a three-storey woollen factory, with a smaller building a short distance to its west functioning as a grist mill.
In 1814 the eastern building was taken over by William Finch to become an edge tool works - used mainly as a forge rather than a foundry. The first and second storey floors were removed and the water wheel inserted at the right-hand side. In a deed of 1835 the building is referred to as a hammer mill and the second water wheel at the rear was probably added at this time to give an air blast to the forges.
In circa mid C19 the adjoining westerly grist mill building was leased by Finch and converted to a grinding house also powered by a water wheel at its side. At subsequent stages in the C19 a stable was built in front of the right side of the forge building with an office on the first floor at its inner end and an open storage area below; to the right of this the area between the two original buildings was roofed to form a saw mill. Between the forge and the house a first floor room used as a workshop was built, allowing access below to the Quaker burial ground behind the premises.
At the rear of Foundry House a long outbuilding was built to store reed and straw which was used to wrap up the tools before despatch. The Saw Mill was subsequently demolished for road widening.
Exterior: Foundry House to left has symmetrical two-window front of original 16-pane hornless sashes with central C19 panelled double doors. Between the house and forge to the right is a tall archway with thoroughfare below (to burial ground) and granite steps to its right leading to balcony in front of first floor doorway. To their right is fallstone arch now infilled with door and window. Beyond is the forge which is lower and has doorway at its left-hand end. All three overshot water wheels survive at rear and side of forge and right side of grinding house.
Interior: retains the complete machinery from when the building was working, apart from the saw mill, consisting of tilt hammers, shear and drop hammers, four hearths and two furnaces, a polishing wheel, band saw and grindstone in the grinding house. The machinery is still in working order.
*** – The Garden – ***
The area where the National Trust have their picnic tables is land that was used by the mill for hundreds of years. The garden alongside used to belong to Foundry House, their next door neighbour.
Foundry House was owned by the Finch family for a long time and many different people lived there. According to photographs held in the archive, up until the turn of the 20th century, it was full of cabbages (the land, not Foundry House). Joyce Barron (sister-in-law of Bob and wife of Richard who started the museum there) really worked hard on the garden and was the last person to live at Foundry House before the National Trust purchased it.
When Joyce was in residence, the garden really reflected the perfect cottage garden, with small trees and beautiful flowering shrubs. Somehow Joyce, with her green fingers, knew exactly what would grow well on this neglected piece of land. Since the National Trust have been there they have had mixed fortunes with the garden. Surveys showed that the soil was of very poor quality in places and there was also a lot of buried rubbish.
The garden today. The NT garden volunteers, along with the garden team at Castle Drogo, have worked to tidy up the garden and improve the soil quality, adding compost and mulch. This has now been replanted with the aim of bringing Joyce's quintessential cottage garden back to life. Look out for little surprises which will evoke the spirit of the burning forges, sparks and hot metal from within the foundry. The plants are growing well and are beginning to fill the bed with colour again and there's something new to see each week.
Traditionally iron workers have always celebrated on St Clement’s Day. There are still remnants of this tradition in the early iron working districts in the weald of Sussex and Kent. More recently it smiths from all over Britain have come to Sticklepath every 23rd November in order to demonstrate their skills and hold a competition to make decorative ironware – and this is open to the public. The Foundry is wheelchair accessible. Mobility car park and drop-off point. There is a Braille guide and an Induction loop. Partly accessible grounds, with some steps, grass and uneven/loose gravel paths. There is a Sensory experience for the visually impaired (or anyone else that wishes to enjoy it).
*** – Facilities – ***
Location : Sticklepath, Okehampton, Devon, EX20 2NW
Transport: Okehampton (Sunday, June to September only) (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 6, 6A, 178, First X9 and Carmel Coaches 179 stop nearby. Western Greyhound 510 Exeter to Okehampton (passing Exeter Central train station), First X9, Carmel Coaches 179 Okehampton to Moretonhampstead.
Opening Times : Currently Closed.
Tickets : Currently Closed.
Tel: 01837 840046