The Hollow Blade by John G Bygate

By Helen Steadman, Nov 19 2016 07:10PM

constellation of Cancer. The cover is crowned with a sunburst of 9 swords. The spine is gold, with white writing and shows a running wolf emblem as well as the Impress Books logo. It's set out in the shape of a sword.
The Running Wolf (published by Impress Books on 10 November 2020)

I read this novel (The Hollow Blade) as part of the literature review I carried out in preparation for researching my novel about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers. (This novel, The Running Wolf, will be published by Impress Books on 10 November 2020.)

John Bygate's cover shows a swordmaker holding a sword while a dog sits at his feet, gazing up at him. The title is in red print.
The Hollow Blade by John G. Bygate

Chapter 1: About Swords

Some useful background about swords: a dishonoured officer would have his sword broken before him, warriors were buried with their swords, losers in battle would yield their swords. And Bygate raises the interesting point that the main reason for having a sword was self-preservation. He also mentions the swordmakers’ logo as the flying fox (a term used interchangeably with the running wolf), and he mentions that fox was a word used for sword in Shakespeare’s day. Even more interestingly, Bygate states that Solingen pirated the logo from Passau in Bavaria (Bygate, 1993, p.8). This is slightly at odds with Richard H. Bezdek, who describes it in rather more neutral terms. Bygate cites his source as The Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Vol.11, p.548, so this is worth investigating. Bygate also refers to Charles I being gifted a sword from his father, which was made by Clement Horn in Solingen, and may have ultimately led to the setting up of the Hounslow group.

Chapter 2: From Solingen

In an interesting turn, Bygate mentions that there was some dispute in Solingen involving the hand forgers who objected to the emergence of machines (the small grinding machines). He feels there were too many craftsmen and not enough work, a problem compounded by these ‘little wheels’ (p.12). However, he does not quote any source for this dispute. In terms of the journey to England, Bygate speculates that the swordmakers would have travelled by water rather than by land, given the proximity of water ways and the relative ease of leaving without detection. (Which might explain why the Solingen authorities did not issue the court order until 26 September 1688 – a year after the swordmakers had left.)

There is a fascinating discussion about the swordmakers bringing their own Lutheran clergyman with them. My writerly ears pricked up at this… While they did have their own chapel, and presumably someone must have presided over services, Bygate does not mention the source of this information. He does talk about difficulties with the list of people who left Solingen (spelling variations and similarities), and he wonders about the possibility of double counting. Since the Solingen authorities took a year to issue a court order, it’s not impossible they may have made errors – but we will never know. In any case, not all of those listed are traceable in England, and certainly not in Shotley Bridge.

Most interestingly of all, according to Bygate, Hermann Mohll is not listed in the indictment (although other sources do include him). He definitely came to Shotley Bridge and there is considerable documentary evidence concerning him (and more on this fascinating man later). Bygate suggests that he was not listed in the court order because he was a freelance, who would be free to come and go at will, unlike guild members. This might explain why many other swordmakers had previously left Solingen without being threatened with ‘being punished on their bodies’ (p.16). In any case, Bygate feels that the indictment had no teeth and quotes the historian Robert Surtees as saying that at least one swordmaker had bequeathed his estate in Germany, which suggests that property was not seized (p.16). Bygate suggests that the court order may have been some kind of face-saving measure. There are many questions surrounding this court order…

Chapter 3: To Shotley

Bygate mentions that corn milling and coal mining were established in the local area and that there were accredited English swordmakers in Newcastle. He also refers to a half-sculpted grind stone next to the River Derwent, so I need to venture down there and examine the rocks again. He goes on to mention the carving on the stone lintels over the swordmakers’ houses. He points out the degree of careless workmanship because of the poor lettering (back-to-front Ns, upside-down and back-to-front Fs), and he wonders who did the work. The translation of the text appears to be from Proverbs 10, v.22. He also mentions the Lutheran chapel next to the houses. There is a photo of this chapel on page 71, which was taken in 1953 by a German reporter. Sadly, the chapel and the houses were demolished.

Chapter 4: The Settlers

Bygate mentions that Adam Ohlig was a churchwarden in Solingen, and I wonder whether, in the absence of a clergyman, he might have presided over services. I need to find out more about the Lutheran church, and whether a minister might have accompanied them, or arrived later. Again, Bygate refers to confusion over names, so this is something to be wary about – it may not be possible to get a definitive list, so I may have to stick with those swordmakers for whom there is documentary evidence. Sadly, Angell Schimmelbusch was buried on 7 February 1694, after being in Shotley Bridge for only seven years. Hermann Mohll died in 1716. Bygate says very little is known about the swordmakers’ personalities, so this may be something I can infer from correspondence when I go into the archives, and descendants may be able to share anecdotal evidence when I begin interviewing.

Chapter 5: The Hollow Blade

Bygate dismisses the myth of the hollow blade. It seems that there had been earlier thoughts of an actual hollow blade, filled with quicksilver. However, no such sword has ever been found, and he puts forward the idea of the sword that is triangular in section and ground on all three sides. Hopefully, this is something I will learn more about when I go to the Deutsches Klingenmuseum (the Blade Museum in Solingen). Bygate mentions that the new cutlers’ hall was built (after the period I’m interested in), but he mentions the stencil of a fox/wolf motif on the wooden ceiling. I wonder whether this is meant to indicate the flying fox. It would be good to go and see if it’s still there – the building is now a private home a short walk from where I live.

There is a brief mention of the industrial unrest at Sunderland between the workers from Liege and the locals. Bygate suggests this was because of the locals being Catholic and the Liege workers being protestant. He refers to the Hallmote Court Roll, which shows that Mohll and Schimmelbusch each took a cottage in 1691. And he refers to the candle sale that was held in 1699 (the last bid before the flame goes out is accepted), which suggests the decline of the swordmakers, in line with other authors.

Chapter 6: Regeneration

Bygate discusses the Cotesworth Papers and Ellison Manuscripts (upwards of 13,000 papers, so when I get into the archives, I may be gone for some time). Some of the papers are referred to; for example, the private sale of swords was banned, and tools were leased as part of an agreement and had to be returned in their original state. Interestingly, there is also reference to a letter sent to Cotesworth, which refers to the swordmakers, ‘…for they are very stiff and proud when they know that they are wanted…’ (p.41). However, I will take this with a pinch of salt as clearly some form of industrial negotiations were under way.

Most excitingly of all, Herman Mohll is mentioned a number of times. He returned to Germany and came back to England at least once in 1703. This is certain because he was arrested on his return to England and thrown in Morpeth gaol for one month. The charges were for smuggling blades (some 1,400 of them) from Solingen. The other view is that he was working with Jacobite rebels (perhaps in league with Lord Derwentwater – it was said the Jacobite rising of 1715 was planned on his estate, which is a couple of miles away from Shotley Bridge). There is no evidence for this, but Mohll was on board a ship with a number of Scottish and Irish soldiers, and a cache of swords marked Shotley was found hidden in a chimney in Danby Hall in North Yorkshire in 1815. In any case, whether he was guilty of treason or smuggling, he was released after Thomas Carnforth (a Newcastle swordmaker) and Wupper (one of the German swordmakers) spoke up for him. Bygate speculates that he may have had friends in high places…

There is a discussion about why Mohll was smuggling swords and Bygate posits that Carnforth was struggling to fulfill the agreement the syndicate had made, and so Mohll was trying to make up the numbers. However, it seems that some mills were standing idle in Shotley Bridge, so this is all open to some question. Bygate also mentions a Solingen document that banned the export of incomplete blades. Perhaps most controversially of all, Bygate refers to Carnforth receiving letters of complaint about swords being soft, ill-tempered and standing like lead, and he wonders whether the swordmakers were perhaps less skilled than those they left behind in Solingen – and that Mohll was simply trying to ensure blades of sufficient quality. There again, Bygate does concede that (based on extrapolation), some 19,000 blades were produced in Shotley Bridge from 1710–12, so if there were only two letters of complaint, then that is not bad going. There is also evidence of customers buying swords from John Saunthorpe and Partners for a shilling per dozen cheaper, so I wouldn’t rule out industrial envy. Despite the overall demand for swords falling off, it seems that good swords could still fetch a high price, and Bygate quotes a customer complaining that he had to pay as much as £8 10s ‘for a handsome sword’ (p.47).

There is some information about the decline of the swordmakers’ fortunes, with letters from iron suppliers to Cotesworth in May 1712 urging him to make the Germans pay £49 10s and 5d. There is a document showing they had already paid an iron bill for £375 4s 10d in the previous October. So it would seem that although they were struggling, the swordmakers were paying their bills. In 1713, Adam Ohlig settled a debt with Cotesworth by paying him two cows (as a yeoman, it seemed he was able to raise a loan).

Chapter 7: Degeneration

This chapter discusses the difficulties experienced by the swordmakers. In particular, Bygate mentions correspondence from Hermann Mohll to Cotesworth in which he mentions Dan Hayford, the Pontefract iron supplier, saying that, ‘…the sliye youth…who tried to take over the works…his men in measuring up…’ (Bygate, 2003, p.50). Bygate wonders whether Cotesworth was a philanthropist, but also muses on the fact that he had lots of business interests and would not necessarily have had time to deal with the minutiae of all his workers. It seems that Mohll eventually advertised his swordmill and house for sale, and these were bought by Oligh. Bygate feels the advertisement was only a formality and that in all likelihood, a deal had already been agreed between the two men. By 1719, there were only 19 workers (down from 30) – some had died and some had left. (Mohll died in 1716.)

There is some discussion about how the group that owned the Hollow Blade Sword Company overstretched itself elsewhere, so it sold the charter. The company was then renamed the Sword Blade Bank, and bank notes were issued. Unfortunately, the Sword Blade Bank’s main client was the South Sea Company, so when the bubble burst in 1720, the swordmakers were badly affected. Bygate mentions that English names began appearing on mills in Shotley Bridge (Leaton Blenkinsop), which seems to be a further indication of the demise of the German swordmakers. In an interesting aside, a Swedish engineer (Angerstern) later visited the area and refers to ‘German laziness and arrogance’, but there is no information on what the basis was for this statement. In any case, it seems unlikely, since the swordmakers were certainly not lazy, given the sheer output from the mills.

The Ohlighs and Mohlls went on to make scythes and knives, and Thomas Bewick, the renowned engraver, etched swords for the Olighs. In 1767, a new cutlers’ hall was built, but Bygate says there is no evidence of a Shotley guild – he posits that they would have joined one in Durham. However, there is no evidence for this, and the fact that not one, but two, cutlers’ halls were built suggests the swordmakers may have operated as a guild, even if only an informal one. Eventually, the remaining Mohlls moved south and were later absorbed into what is now Wilkinson Sword. Joseph Oley was the last German swordmaker in Shotley Bridge – he was an auctioneer for fifty years.

Chapter 8: Hollow Blade or Hollow Promises

This chapter questions the existence of the hollow blade, and Bygate wonders whether the Shotley Bridge swordmakers were insufficiently skilled to make them. Bygate also questions the speed of production and says that Hermann Mohll smuggling in blades from Solingen suggests that the swordmakers were not able to produce the quality and quantity necessary in the time given – he estimates they were producing 34 blades per day, which is roughly one per swordmaker per day (assuming there were 30 workers as Bygate suggests earlier). There is some further discussion about whether the smuggled blades were destined for the Jacobite rebels via Lord Derwentwater. Bygate ends by suggesting again that the Shotley Bridge swordmakers were substandard workers and disgruntled by the introduction of the little grinding machines, and he suggests this is why they left for England. However, this appears to be theory, and he does not cite any evidence.

Chapter 9: Fact or Fantasy

Bygate casts doubt on John Ryan’s book, suggesting a possible element of bias as Ryan was married to an Oley. He goes on to refer to the popular story of the swordmakers entering a wager or competition, and he offers three separate versions, which are variations on a theme. Essentially, the swordmaker arrived at the contest without a sword, but then took off his hat to reveal the fine sword coiled within. This was one of my favourite stories as a child, and I was deeply disappointed when a master blacksmith told me that it would not be possible to forge a sword with a cutting edge that could be coiled inside a hat. More likely, it would be some kind of spring, which is alluded to by Bygate. (More recently, however, I made my own sword with a smith who is an expert in making historical swords, and he said that it would be possible!) Finally, there are some interesting pictures in this chapter, including a drawing of sword grinders at work, a picture of an odd stencil mark found in the cutlers’ hall, and a sword showing both a running wolf and the legend ‘Bridg’. There is also a picture of Wood Street (complete with chapel), which was taken by a German reporter in the 1950s.

I got my copy of this book from the Miners Hall in Durham (it cost me £5 plus £2 postage in 2015). Contact details available on the website.


Bezdek, Richard H. (2000) German Swords and Swordmakers. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press.

Bygate, John G. (1999) [2003] The Hollow Blade (2nd edn.). Durham: Miners Hall.

Ryan, John, (1841) [2008] History of Shotley Spa, and Vicinity of Shotley Bridge. Charleston, SC: Bibliobazaar.

Surtees, R. (1820) The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham: Volume 2, Chester Ward, Nichols and Son, London.

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