Literature Review #4: Thread of Iron by Douglas Vernon (A Definitive History of Shotley)

By Helen Steadman, Nov 12 2016 09:02PM

Or, to give the book its full name, Thread of Iron: A Definitive History of Shotley Bridge and Consett and District, County Durham with Particular Reference to Iron and Steelmaking. The book is split into two main parts: Part 1 – from antiquity to the year 1839; and Part 2 – from 1839 to 12th September 1980, the date of the closure of Consett Iron and Steel Works. Because I’m researching the Shotley Bridge swordmakers for my PhD in English, my focus will be on Part 1. If you’re only interested in the swordmakers, please feel free to skip to Chapter 9 (the end section of this article).

Douglas Vernon lived locally and worked at Consett Steel Works for some thirty years, and he also spent 30 years researching this book. I noted sadly that the book was published in 2003, which was also the year of his death. I sincerely hope that he lived long enough to see his book go into print.


A wealth of useful information and material, including maps and pictures (useful, but slightly too recent for my purposes), along with a preface and introduction establishing the author’s credentials.

Chapter 1: Shotley Bridge – place name, geology, geography, industry, the Derwent Valley

This includes interesting information on the etymology of Shotley, including Scot’s Lea, but also pigeon wood. The River Derwent is described as the laughing or smiling water, which I’d not heard before (being more familiar with sparkling water), but I liked this idea, and it must have been quite a lively river before it was dammed a couple of miles upriver in the 1970s. Vernon also refers to the rushing water (the rush at Shotley Bridge is well known locally). Later, Vernon also refers to the Brythonic term, Derventio, meaning oak valley. This would make sense as there are still quite a few oaks around, and oak was the tree of choice for the swordmakers’ charcoal. In terms of topography, Shotley Bridge is 339 feet above sea level, whereas Consett is 870 feet (rising in under two miles). The Derwent’s sources are Boldon Burn and Nookton Burn, which are fed by a number of brooks near Nookton West Fell and Hustanworth Moor, with an elevation of 500 metres (1,640 feet). So, from a relatively high source to Shotley Bridge, the river must have been very lively, and this would have been important for providing power for the forges along the riverbank.


Shotley Bridge has outcrops of the Great Whin Sill (quartz-dolomite/quartz-basalt), unique to the British Isles, and running from the Farne Islands to Middelton in Teesdale. Vernon mentions the millstone grit to be had from the deltaic facias from the Upper Carboniferous Age, comprising alternating grits and marine shale to a depth of 5,000 feet. The outcrops at Shotley Bridge have been scoured by the river over time. Vernon mentions that it was possible up to the 1950s to see slaping stones (which I mentioned in the previous post as coming from the Scottish word, sleper, which came from the German word Scheifer, for grinder) near to the bridge, and these would have been used by the swordmakers for grinding. I’m curious as to why they aren’t visible now. Are they under water? Have they become overgrown? I’ll venture down again to explore this area again and try to find some early photos.

Iron Ore

The area was rich in blackband ironstone, but this wasn’t necessarily good news as it was carbonate ore, associated with coal (chalybite/siderite). The iron content was low, with a high melting point, meaning it was costly in terms of charcoal. The gangue (material surrounding the ore, in this case, clay and gravel) resulted in a lot of slag. The area rests on limestone (Bernician Beds) from 400 million years ago. In north west Durham, the limestone runs to 1,200 feet deep, but runs as deep as 8,000 feet in Northumberland. (Apart from being interesting topographically, limestone was also used for metallurgical fluxes).


Ore of lead (Galena) is found in veins running vertically into limestone strata (72 feet thick) and there was a lot of lead mining in the area. Vernon refers to an interesting method of finding lead veins: hushing. This involved damming streams in deep ravines, then breaching the dam to release a ‘scouring torrent’ (Vernon, 2003, p.30), which gives out a ‘hushing’ noise. This scouring effect reveals the bared rock and Galena. There are some interesting terms: bouse, deads, stoup, which I like the sound of. (Deads being connected to the overburden found in the excavated space.) Lead and silver are often found together, and Vernon mentions 8 oz silver to a ton of lead. Though it seems that the Healeyfield lead mine near Castleside was richer in silver and gave 18.5 oz of silver to a ton of lead. Vernon mentions that Healeyfield is the snowiest place (or was) in all England, and he refers to Cold Rowley, which is nearby. I do enjoy weather, so I’ll try to find out more about the prevailing weather conditions at the time.

Chapter 2: Shotley Bridge from earliest times, the Romans

Vernon begins in the Palaeolithic and Neolithic Periods, nipping through the Bronze Age and on to the early Iron Age. A fascinating mention of early immigrants from Hallstatt bringing ironmaking skills to Britain. (I saw an excellent documentary a while back on swords from Hallstatt, but cannot for the life of me remember what it was called. If I remember, I’ll add it in.) There’s a nice discussion on p.35 about iron being used for both hostile and peaceful purposes (ploughshares are mentioned), which gave me some useful food for thought. From there, to the Romans, who were busy nearby (Corbridge, Ebchester and Lanchester). On p.36, there is a photo of a Roman plaque found at Corbridge, which shows a German smith, complete with tools. Vernon supposes this might be the Celtic smith god (I’ve looked this up, and it’s Gofannon (Gaibhne in Ireland), god of metalworking. I’ll add him to my list, along with Vulcan, Hephaestus and Weland.) On p.37, there is a picture of a Roman metalworker’s tongs (over two thousand years old), and I was really struck by the fact that they look exactly like the tongs used these days. When I get into my archive phase, I may go and visit these tongs (said to be in the Newcastle Museum of Antiquities).

Chapter 3: The ‘Dark Ages’, the spread of Christianity, the Norman and Medieval periods

Vernon begins in the post-Roman period, goes on to the Anglo-Saxon ‘renaissance’, mentions monasteries, Saint Bede, the black monks (Benedictines), and the anchorites at Ebchester; Vernon cites Saint Godric who wrote about the women at Ebchester (oh, how I want to write about those anchorites). The Danish period arrives (bang go the monasteries), I learn about the protection money they charged – Danegelt – but also about the decorative metalwork skills they brought with them. On to the Normans, and William of Poitiers, who Vernon cites as saying ‘English ironmakers were “second to none”’, but there is no source given. A quick overview of the Palatinate of Durham (I always get a bit too excited about the Prince Bishops, and hopefully I will live long enough to write a book about them in due course). A quick mention of the harrying of the north and the white monks (Cistercians). On to the middle ages, and most exciting was that the Prince Bishops ‘severely curtailed’ deer hunting (p.45). There is then a lot of coverage of wind mills and water mills (in some detail). On p.42, Vernon mentions that the Palatinate of Durham was ‘one of the principal arms and armour producing areas in the kingdom’ (I didn’t know this, but I suppose it makes sense as Durham minted its own coins). Perhaps the most exciting part of this chapter was the discussion on the etymology of Consett, known formerly as Conksheved (coney’s head) after the rabbit-shaped local topography. I had to have a little scribble at the idea of this two-mile high monster rabbit (or possibly hare, since I think the Romans fetched rabbits over), comprised of coal, iron, lead and silver. I was so over the moon with this idea, that I almost missed another exciting snippet about German technology using blister steel (using Swedish bar iron, which was far superior to the local iron; often called shear steel or Cullen [Cologne] steel, or Newcastle steel).

So, to summarise this chapter. Shotley Bridge had stone for mill wheels, a very fast river, ironstone (albeit of an inferior quality), coal, plentiful oak trees (trees were vital as it took 16 HWT of charcoal to make one ton of pig iron), lots of deer (until the bishops intervened), along with seclusion. (Later reviews will reveal that the chemical make-up of the local river may also have had something to do with the choice of Shotley Bridge, but that is for another day).

Chapter 4: Middle to late Medieval periods – the start of the early industrial age

Not much here for me, but a few notes. Mentions Cold Rowley (it really is). Talks about primitive furnaces (wind-blown and facing into wind direction on hillside); interesting, but before my time. I liked the word ‘burden’ for the column of ore and fuel. Also the word bloom for metal. Interesting section on silviculture – huge tracts of forest cut down. Young oak preferred for charcoal making (20-year-old saplings). Forest depletion was a major concern (there had been some earlier pressure from Elizabeth I, but largely seems to have passed the area by) and Chopwell woods are the main supply for charcoal (I wonder if the name literally comes from ‘chop well’, but apparently it was Ceoppa’s weille). Nowadays, it’s better known as Little Moscow because of strong local support for Communism. Finally, a little bit on the depletion of the wool markets and weavers becoming destitute, so metalwork increased to meet the demand for arms.

Chapter 5: Middle to late Medieval Periods – aspects of work, religion, law, taxation in NW Durham

Interesting to learn that the Domesday Book left out Durham, Northumberland Cumbria and Westmoreland. The Boldon Book records the See of Durham, but it seems the local area was isolated and sparsely populated. According to Vernon, it includes some commentary on ironmaking, so that’s something to potentially add to my (ever-growing) list of things to see and read. The Halmote (Hail Meet) Court Roll contains information about the area (the Hail Meet is a local court that dishes out fines and punishments – interesting job titles such as Greeve, Collector and Pounder). The rolls mention five millstones being removed from Shotley Brigg. Licences had to be obtained for this, and fines were given where licences were not obtained. There is also a mention of German metalworkers in Cumbria.

Chapter 6: 16th and 17th centuries – Tudor and Stuart periods up to the Accession of William III – industrial developments in the NE of England and Derwent Valley

Mentions glass making in 1619 on the Tyne (using coal rather than charcoal). Charles II banning foreign imports and Elizabeth I trying to ban tree felling. Little industry in Durham: mainly a seat of learning. A mention of a man called Snaw, after whom Snow’s Green Road was probably named (a shame as it was a prettier name thinking of snow). Vernon doubts there were apprenticeships outside the large towns and cities in the 17th century. There’s a discussion of the rising of the north, and the Benfieldside Two who attempted to restore Mary Queen of Scots and were hanged in Durham for their efforts. Catholicism was bubbling under in the area. Also non-conformism, with reputedly the first Baptist church at Rowley and one of the first Quaker meeting houses in the north. (Lots of religion for such a sparsely populated area.) A brief mention of Hole House near the river, owned by the Maddison family and the notorious Mad (Ralph) Maddison who was executed for a number of murders. His time coincides with the period I’m writing about, so I will need to find out more about him. I wonder what the swordmakers made of him (and vice versa). Mentions royalists holding Newcastle in mid-17th century, and also that the English Civil War left Shotley Bridge largely untouched (likewise with moss troopers and the Border Reivers).

Chapter 7: 1688 – end of 17th century – “the significant decade” marking the start of serious industrialisation in the Derwent Valley

Discussion about the water power of the River Derwent. Consett’s having the finest coking coal, but poor ore (low iron content), and the need to import Swedish bar iron. Vernon says it’s likely the swordmakers tried to use the local ore, but then relied on imports from Sweden (also iron from Pontefract). Useful discussion about Sir Ambrose Crowley moving from Birmingham to Sunderland to obtain cheaper labour costs. He imported a hundred workers from Liege, which created industrial rest, leading Crowley to petition the king; the king passed the complaint on to the bishop. Crowley upped sticks and set up iron works in Winlaton, Swalwell and Blaydon, where he instituted his own law book and a form of the hail meet, dishing out fines and alms, which seems to have led to smoother industrial relations (at least while he was alive). He advertised that his works could produce anything from a needle to an anchor…

There are signs of early protectionism (especially in Sheffield, albeit after the period I’m interested in), who petitioned the king to prevent immigrant metalworkers entering the country and also preventing English metalworkers from leaving the country. Vernon uses the phrase ‘antagonistic competitiveness’, which is certainly borne out in Richard H. Bezdek’s books about English and German swordmakers, where there seems to be a lot of petitioning. Interestingly, not just metalworkers were in demand; a committee was formed to prevent English clockmakers going to the continent, and Ambrose Crowley gave evidence at this committee. To compound the issue, the King of Sweden was offering sweeteners to attract metalworkers. It seems some diluted action was taken by the government, but the traffic of metalworkers continued regardless.

Chapter 8: Late 17th century – review of metallurgical and industrial activity before the arrival of the German swordmakers in the 1680s

A super-short chapter. Vernon points out the dearth of primary source material about early industry in the area, bar coal mining. Does mention the furnace and forge at Allensford (there are photos on an earlier blog post). He mentions that engravers worked in the area, and since it would be unlikely they would engrave scythes, then it’s fair to infer swordmaking was going on in the area. There is Robert Wilson (aka ‘witch’ Wilson’) who was a cutler the Oleys later employed as an engraver. There is also mention of Thomas Johnson willing his mill to a nephew in the mid-18th century (I need to check this though as this mill might have been bought after the German swordmakers arrived). There is some discussion about two treaties being signed that would have spelt impending disaster for the German swordmakers: one for the end of hostilities with France in 1697 (a decade after the swordmakers arrived) and the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713.

Chapter 9: The German swordmakers of Shotley Bridge – fact and fiction disentangled

Vernon begins with the harsh economic realities that would have been faced by the swordmakers trying to make a new life in a strange land – and no wonder with news that sword demand was set to decrease.

He goes on to dispel a number of myths – that the swordmakers coming to Shotley Bridge was a unique event – by listing various immigrants, including the Belgian metalworkers at Sunderland and the swordmakers who went to London and Greenwich. Next, he dismisses the idea that the Germans were fleeing religious persecution. He mentions there being considerable primary evidence to support this, but his only cited source is Ryan, who is a secondary source. In addition, the pages cited in Ryan’s book do not actually refer to the swordmakers, although Ryan does mention the swordmakers elsewhere in his book.

There is discussion of the Solingen court order and Vernon questions the fact that it was issued a year after the swordmakers left. It is strange that swordmakers had been leaving Solingen for centuries – and in large numbers – but I do not know whether other similar orders exist. Vernon does go on to suggest that not all swordmakers were guild members and freelances were free to leave, which would go some way to explaining why not all swordmakers leaving Solingen were subjected to these orders. This is something I hope to investigate further in Solingen. I will also check the evidence surrounding dates of departure and arrival to make sure that they are right; Vernon does point out that there was some initial confusion about dates due to an earlier historian misreading a baptism date in a parish register. He lists the swordmakers from the order (but in English) and this is something that I need to check against the original if possible. He does mention Schimmelbusch dying early… and he was my favourite swordmaker so far because of his highly ornate blade mark.

Interestingly, Vernon mentions the various sword contracts and the diminishing prices. However, Vernon’s reference to prices differs considerably to that of Richard H. Bezdek. I will need to check this carefully as they can’t both be correct. It would make more sense that Vernon’s version is correct as the drop between contracts quoted by Bezdek is enormous; in addition, Vernon also lists a variety of sword types and their individual rates. I’ve just checked Bezdek’s book, and I suspect the insertion of a bracket has caused the problem. Both references are listed below for easy comparison:

‘The agreement called for sword blades to be purchased at 6 pence per dozen (lower than the earlier agreement)…’ (Bezdek, 2003, p.23)

‘“…to make swords for him at six pence per dozen cheaper than the present rate.”’ (Vernon, 2003, p.95)

Vernon has set his text in quotes, suggesting it is taken from an original document, but no source is cited. However, the preceding quotes contain no source, but the succeeding one is sourced as ‘Hughes, E. North Country Life in the 18th Century…the North East 1700–1750, Tyneside Merchants 1680 – 1726, OUP, ch. 11, 59 – 70’, so I will track this down and see if I can find out which reference is correct…

Overall, Vernon draws the conclusion that the swordmakers were encouraged to come here by royal sponsors and their agents, which points to it being a planned expedition, rather than their fleeing religious persecution. He suggests that the main properties of Shotley Bridge that made it an attractive swordmaking centre were: the fast river, the availability of millstone grit outcrops, iron ore (albeit turning out be poor quality and in short supply), a plentiful supply of timber, the availability of high quality iron from Sweden at Newcastle, perhaps also Bertram’s furnace at Allensford, the cementation furnace at Derwentcote and the arrival of Ambrose Crowley’s ironworks. Although there had been hostilities towards the Belgian metalworkers at Sunderland, there is no evidence to suggest this was the case at Shotley Bridge, and they were assisted by a sword cutler from Newcastle: Thomas Carnforth. Vernon suspects the Newcastle armourers’ guild saw Shotley Bridge as being outside their jurisdiction, and there were 13 armourers’ guilds in Durham that were not incorporated, which may have allowed Shotley Bridge to operate unmolested. There is no evidence though, as Vernon says the Newcastle records were destroyed.

There is a photo of 44 Wood Street, which was the home of William Oligh. Over the lintel is a stone carved in German, which translates as ‘The blessing of the Lord gives wealth without all care, when you are both faithful and hardworking and do what is commanded of you’. This is marked 1691, which is four years after the arrival of the swordmakers. It suggests that the swordmakers were able to read and write. I’m interested in why they were put there. Since the locals would not understand these words, they must have been aimed at the swordmakers – were they to remind themselves of their religious values and identity? Was it to remind the neighbours of theirs? It’s interesting that the signs were outward facing, rather than inward. Since the Ohlig and Mohll families became the group leaders, perhaps it was a form of instruction. Vernon does allude to later break ups and quarrels among the swordmaking families (evidenced by a visiting Swedish engineer in the 18th century). This is after my time, but it is telling… The remainder of the chapter discusses the decline of swordmaking. Most perturbingly, the syndicate offered the swordmakers the chance to buy out their works – this at a time when the demand for swords was decreasing. Ultimately, swordmaking declined; some families left the area, some diversified into other areas (farming). It seems that fortunes may have been mixed and Vernon describes some as being in debt to iron suppliers in Pontefract and others going on to bequeath large portions of Shotley Bridge to their descendants. There is a useful Ohlig family tree, which suggests intermarriage with local people, but this is something I need to find out more about.

You can get a copy of Thread of Iron from the usual outlets for under a tenner, which is very reasonable.


Bezdek, Richard H. (2003) Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland, Boulder, CO: Paladin Press.

Douglas, Vernon (2003) Thread of Iron, Knebworth, Herts: Able Publishing.

Ryan, J. (1841) [nd] History of Shotley Spa, and Vicinity of Shotley Bridge. Bibliobazaar, Charleston, SC.

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