The Shotley Bridge Swordmakers: Review of the Existing Literature

1.    Introduction

Before carrying out my own research of primary sources to inform my historical novel, The Running Wolf, I carried out some desk research. This included a review of the existing literature about the swordmakers. Although this literature review was intended purely to inform my own research and my novel, I thought it might be useful to share, especially as a lot of the books I mention are out of print, making them hard to find and expensive to buy. This literature view was completed in 2016 and will, in some parts, be updated by my own research findings, which are due to be published in Northern History (a Taylor & Francis journal). Please note that this was due to be on 3 September 2020, but production delays mean that it has been held up.

This is a very long document, so just in case you prefer to read a pdf, rather than a blog post, please feel free to download the pdf version at the link below. Otherwise, please keep reading…

3d photo of The Running Wolf book. The front cover is black, with The Running Wolf in gold. The 'O' of wolf is a pool of molten gold with an etched running wolf on it. The author's name is in white and there is a molten orange sword beneath. Above is a Dutch warship, beneath a crescent moon and the constellation of Cancer. Above all is a sunray made of 9 swords. The spine is gold, with the title in white and a small running wolf runs across. The Impress Books logo is beneath that. The printing on the spine has been set out as a sword.
Cover of The Running Wolf by Helen Steadman

Several authors have written about a group of approximately twenty master swordmakers and their families who left Solingen in Prussia for Shotley Bridge in the north east of England in 1687. There is some speculation about what led the swordmakers to leave their homeland to venture to a new country. Broadly, two main theories underpin this speculation. The first is that the Lutheran swordmakers fled Solingen because of religious persecution. The second suggests they were incentivised by the English government. Various authors have adopted one theory or another, and in the case of at least one author, a hybrid of the two. In any case, there is a gap in the literature, or at the very least, some doubt. There is also considerable speculation about one of the swordmakers, Hermann Mohll, who was imprisoned in 1703 on suspicion of sword smuggling and/or high treason.

Before going on, it’s worth a quick aside on the spelling of Adam Oligh’s name. Here and in my novel, I refer to ‘Oligh’ but as you read other books and documents, you may see different spellings and wonder. During my research, I’ve seen it spelled in all the following ways: Alich, Aolich, Ohlich, Ohlig, Ohligh, Oley, Olig, Oligh, Ollich, Olliger and Olligh. At that time, spelling was much more fluid, perhaps because of few people knowing how to read and write. There is a letter from Adam O. in the Tyne & Wear Archives and his signature reads ‘Adam Olligh’, so I’ve gone with his version. However, I’ve dropped an ‘l’ to avoid confusion about pronunciation – this version is more reflective of pronunciation of the modern usage of Oley in and around Shotley Bridge.

2.    Overview

This article is set out as follows. Section three provides historical background, first in broad terms about Prussia, then with more detailed information about Solingen and Shotley Bridge. This is followed by broad information about English history, and then more detailed information about Shotley Bridge. Section four discusses swords in Germany, including specific German sword markings. This is followed by a discussion of swords in England, in particular, the so-called hollow blade. Section five outlines the swordmakers in Germany and in England, and analyses which swordmakers left Solingen for Shotley Bridge. Section six discusses the Solingen court order of 1688, which required the swordmakers to return to Solingen within six weeks and three days, and considers whether it contained any real threat. Section seven discusses the reasons for the swordmakers deciding to leave Solingen, by considering whether they were religious refugees, whether they were economic migrants, or whether they were a combination of both. Section eight describes local relations, including industrial relations and community relations. Section nine discusses the economic rise and fall of the swordmakers’ fortunes in Shotley Bridge and how their ultimate decline led them to debt and begging letters. Section ten focuses on one particular swordmaker, Hermann Mohll. This man is of special interest because he was jailed for one month (and then freed) for either smuggling c.1,400 swords from Solingen to England, or for conspiring with Jacobite rebels. The article concludes by summarising the existing literature and suggesting three areas that warrant further investigation. (Subsequently, I followed up one of these three areas, and these findings will be published by Northern History, but there are two left outstanding, should anyone else wish to pursue them…)

3.    History

For the sake of context, this section provides a broad, but brief, overview of history in Prussia in general, followed by more detailed background on Solingen. It then goes on to discuss England in general, followed by more detailed historical background for Shotley Bridge. It will focus on a relatively short period of interest in the decades before and after 1687, which is the year most of the swordmakers seem to have come to Shotley Bridge.

3.1 History of Prussia

It is perhaps worth noting the various rulers of the pertinent period, including the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire: Ferdinand III, Leopold I and Joseph I (1637–1711), as well as the rulers of the Duchy and then Kingdom of Prussia: Frederick William, the Great Elector, (1650–88) and Frederick I (1688–1701), who then ruled as king from 1701–1713). One of the most significant events for Prussia, and also for Europe more widely, was the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). Although a deadly war, it must have created considerable demand for edged weapons, thereby contributing to wealth and job security in Solingen. However, the Peace of Westphalia, which resulted from a number of treaties in 1648, must have signalled a period of decline for weapon makers and armourers.

3.1.1 History of Solingen, Prussia

In terms of more local history, it seems there was industrial unrest in late 17th-century Solingen. In particular, David Richardson mentions disputes involving hand forgers who objected to the emergence of small grinding machines; he suggests there were too many craftsmen and not enough work, a problem compounded by these ‘little wheels’ (Richardson, The Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge, 1973, p.15). Since the Thirty Years War ended in 1648, demand for swords might have declined, leading to unemployment, or underemployment at the very least.

3.2 History of England

The rulers of England mainly feature the House of Stuart. However, a short period of sixty years from the mid-17th century onwards comprised numerous rulers (including parliament during the interregnum): Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Richard Cromwell, Charles II, James II, Mary II & William III, Anne, and George I. This fast-moving array of rulers immediately gives a flavour of the turbulent times in England. Charles I and Oliver Cromwell are of particular interest, and they are discussed in Section 4.2 Swords in England.

During the 17th century, England was at war with itself in three civil wars (1642–1651) and then in three wars with the Dutch Republic (1652–1674). It was buying most of its sword blades from Solingen, Prussia after finding those made in England to be inferior, and thousands of blades were imported. Because of protectionism and the high duties attached to imported blades, it was perhaps a short step to import more Solingen swordmakers.

Some Solingen swordmakers went to Greenwich, London in 1603 and later moved to Hounslow Heath around 1629. According to Richard H. Bezdek, there was a schism in the Hounslow Heath group when ‘the parliamentary forces took over the blade and sword center at Hounslow’ (Bezdek, Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland, 2003, p. 13). However, some of the swordmakers remained, including Johannes Dell (later Bell), who was one of the men who later went to Shotley Bridge. Bezdek states that swordmakers loyal to King Charles I went to Oxford, including Johannes Hoppe and Heinrich Hoppe, who later went to Shotley Bridge, while others from Hounslow were jailed for supporting the king. It is notable that although Bezdek claims some swordmakers worked with parliamentary forces and others followed the king, some of these men later came together to live and work in a small community in Shotley Bridge. This raises the question of whether their alleged support for one side or another was deeply ingrained, or simply a matter of convenience. Alternatively, it may be that whatever the swordmakers’ allegiances to English rulers, their native and religious bonds might have been foremost, with loyalty to their countrymen and fellow Lutherans taking priority. (Please note that I provide an update on this in my research findings, due to be published in Northern History.)

3.2.1 History of Shotley Bridge, County Durham, England

Little is known about the early years of Shotley Bridge, not least because The Domesday Book left out Durham, Northumberland, Cumbria and Westmoreland. The 12th-century Boldon Buke records the See of Durham but does not mention Shotley Bridge specifically. However, it does mention nearby Medomsley (Greenwell [trans.], The Boldon Buke, p. 66), which suggests that the area was too sparsely populated to mention, or was possibly included within the Chapelry of Medomsley.

According to the poet, Joshua Lax, Shotley was first mentioned in 1356 in the Halmote Roll of the Manor of Lanchester, under Benfieldside. The roll mention five millstones being removed from ‘Shotley Brigg’. Licences had to be obtained for this, and fines were given where licences were not obtained (Lax, 1884, Descriptive Poems). In addition, Durham County Council’s archaeology team reports on its website, Keys to the Past, the ‘scant remains of a 14th century flour mill owned by the Annandale family’ (Durham County Council (a), ND).

In his book, Thread of Iron, Douglas Vernon points out the dearth of primary source material about early industry in the area. However, moving forward in time, he mentions the 17th-century furnace and forge at nearby Allensford. Vernon states that engravers worked in the area, and since it is unlikely anyone would engrave scythes, he infers that swordmaking was going on locally. In this regard, he names Robert Wilson (aka ‘Witch Wilson’), a cutler later employed as an engraver by the Olighs (Vernon, 2003, p. 88).

Shotley Bridge was rich in natural resources, which may be why it was selected to become a swordmaking centre. Richardson says that the main reason for the swordmakers settling in Shotley Bridge was the tempering power of the River Derwent, with the water ‘being particularly soft and radio active’ (Richardson, 1973, p. 13). While the water is certainly soft, perhaps the river’s flow was also a consideration since the River Derwent was probably much livelier before it was dammed upriver in the 1960s. Vernon points out that the river’s source is some 1,300 feet higher than Shotley Bridge, and the resulting force would have provided power for the forges along the riverbank.

Vernon 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.’ (Vernon, 2003, pp. 44–49)

It is worth briefly mentioning the swordmakers’ nearest neighbour. Ralph ‘Mad’ Maddison lived in Hole House until he was executed in 1694 for the murder of Lord Atkinson of Cannyside Wood (Sykes, Local Records, 1833, p. 125). As well as being notorious for murder, Maddison was also renowned for general mischief and vandalism, and I’ll say more about him in a later article. Jane Frizzle, an alleged witch, lived in a nearby cottage at Crooked Oak. Little is known about her, but she was the subject of a poem by John Carr (Rev. John Ryan, History of Shotley Spa and Vicinity of Shotley Bridge, 1841, p. 153).

Finally, for such a sparsely populated area, it is worth noting that Shotley Bridge and its surrounds were notable for religious activity. For example, according to Surtees, the ‘Benfieldside Two’ attempted to restore Mary Queen of Scots and were hanged in Durham for their efforts. Catholicism was simmering under in the area, as was non-conformism, with reputedly the first Baptist church at Rowley and also one of the first Quaker meeting houses in the north at Benfieldside (Surtees, The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham: Volume 2, Chester Ward, 1820, 284–297, para. 59).

4.    Swords

This section discusses swords made in Solingen, along with some of the history about how the local bladesmiths developed their skills. It also includes a discussion about sword branding, with particular emphasis on the Solingen logo of the running wolf (sometimes referred to as the flying fox). It then goes on to outline swords in England, with a brief reference to the swords owned by King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell.

4.1 Swords in Germany

According to Bezdek, Passau in Bavaria was the biggest swordmaking centre in the 14th century but Solingen in Prussia eventually overtook it. The Crusades (1095–1271) greatly increased the need for swords and also helped Solingen swordmakers to develop new techniques. The Knights of St John of Jerusalem took some swordmakers to the Holy Land. Damascus steel (pattern-welded) was in particular demand, and Adolph IV of Berg was only one noble who imported Damascus bladesmiths to Solingen. The ensuing newly gained knowledge helped make Solingen the swordmaking centre of the world. (Bezdek, German Swords and Sword Makers: Edged Weapon Makers from the 14th to the 20th Centuries, 2000, p. 15).

4.1.1 Blade Marks

Bezdek points out that, ‘In 1349, the famous wolf mark was given to the bladesmiths of Passau by Archduke Albert. Later, it was copied by Solingen, Prussia, bladesmiths who marked it on their blades’ (Bezdek, 2000, p.21). John Bygate refers to the swordmakers’ logo as the flying fox (a term used interchangeably with the running wolf), and mentions that fox was a word used for sword in Shakespeare’s day (Bygate, The Hollow Blade: The German Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge, 1999, p. 7). Bygate also states that Solingen ‘pirated’ the blade mark from Passau in Bavaria (Bygate, 1999, p. 8, citing Robert E. Bjork’s The Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Vol. 11, p. 548), which is slightly at odds with Bezdek’s more neutral description above. I looked at this dictionary to see what it says and it states:

‘Toledo blades were highly prized, but Passau blades enjoyed a special reputation. Their distinctive mark was the image of a wolf engraved and inlaid in brass on the blade; skilfully launched rumours convinced prospective customers that these ‘wolf blades’ possessed magical qualities and brought good luck. By the fifteenth century, the wolf mark was imitated by Solingen and even Toledo smiths to enhance their wares.’

Bjork, p. 456

The dictionary also contains lots of interesting information about swords and swordmaking, and I was struck by the mention of ancient smiths overcoming problems caused by iron being too soft and steel being too hard by braiding and hammer-welding strips of both together, which would result in dark and light patches ‘that looked like spotted snakeskin (German: wurmbunt) and were described as writhing or fighting dragons and serpents’ (Bjork, p. 456).

Bygate also refers to Charles I being given a sword from his father (Bygate, 2003, p. 8). This sword was made by Clement Horn in Solingen and may potentially have led to the setting up of the Hounslow group since Clement Horn was later in Hounslow.

Beyond city blade marks, armourers marked their names on the sword in the fuller (the blood gutter), and swordmakers also marked blades with their own design, which ranged from simple line and circle drawings through to complex markings. There are panels on the wall in the Deutsches Klingenmuseum in Solingen showing blademarks, and Bezdek’s book has many pages showing blademarks:

  • Bleckman: stack of kegs (horizontal line, topped by three circles).
  • Bontgen and Sabin: a booted foot kicking a ball.
  • Hoppe: a wildman.
  • Kuller zu Wald: a walking bear
  • Schimmelbush: self-portrait in oval frame, with name, ‘Made in Solingen’ and decorative scrolls.

(Bezdek, 2000, pp. 131, 138, 145, 152)

Bezdek provides a photo of a 17th-century broadsword (Bezdek, 2000, p. 227), which clearly shows the running wolf motif. This wolf is running towards the tip of the blade, which may symbolise the act of running into battle. Bezdek also presents various drawings of running wolf motifs, with most of them running from right to left (Bezdek, 2000, p. 11). I wonder what (if any) significance this has – particularly in terms of the left being associated with the sinister (devil and so on). Having since seen lots of swords in Solingen museums, though, some wolves run to the tip and others away from it, so this may be meaningless. The former cutlers’ hall in Shotley Bridge has two stencil marks on its ceiling, one of which is the running wolf (or flying fox) and the other is a pattern resembling four sword points. This hall is still standing and is currently a Grade II listed building, although it is now split into three private residences.

4.2 Swords in England

Oliver Cromwell favoured a mortuary sword featuring the death mask of King Charles I and Bezdek provides a photo of a mortuary sword showing the face of the executed king (Bezdek, 2003, p. 279). In addition, Bezdek provides a photo of a sword bearing the faces of Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax, which was made by Johannes Oligh in Solingen (Bezdek, 2003, p.278). King Charles I’s father gave him a sword made by Clemens Horn in Solingen. Since various swordmakers made swords for Stuart kings and others for Cromwell and his men, it is interesting to speculate about whether the swordmakers felt allegiance to the royalists or parliamentarians, or whether their interests were purely commercial. (I explore this question further in my forthcoming research.)

4.2.1 The Hollow Blade

Although the swordmakers were reputedly brought to Shotley Bridge to manufacture hollow blades for the Hollow Blade Company, Bygate questions the existence of the hollow blade and alleges that the Shotley Bridge swordmakers were insufficiently skilled to make them. (The hollow sword being triangular in section and ground on all three sides.) He also questions the speed of production and estimates the swordmakers were producing 34 blades per day at Shotley Bridge. Bygate concludes that the Shotley Bridge group comprised substandard workers who were disgruntled by the introduction of grinding machines, and he suggests this is why they left for England (Bygate, 1999, p. 61). However, he does not cite any evidence to support his theory.

5. Swordmakers

This section considers swordmaking families in Solingen, Prussia and discusses their departure. It then considers swordmakers in England, before going on to analyse which swordmakers left Solingen for Shotley Bridge. This is something of a vexed question as there is documentary evidence of swordmakers leaving Solingen, but there is not always documentary evidence of their presence in Shotley Bridge.

At the outset, it is worth highlighting that Shotley Bridge is by no means unique in having a community of Solingen swordmakers. Bezdek points out that Henry VIII imported swordmakers from Solingen and elsewhere in Germany early in the sixteenth century, and these were known as the ‘Allmayne or Almain Armourers’ (Bezdek, 2003, p. 221). Bezdek also states that swordmakers had left Solingen and moved to many other countries around the world, with the first record showing departure for Madrid in 1350 (Bezdek, 2003, p. 221).

5.1 Swordmakers in Germany

Bezdek lists the swordmaking families of Solingen, their trades, where they moved to if they left Solingen, and dates of birth and death where available (2000, pp. 27–96). The earliest recorded departure was 1350 to Madrid, but swordmakers left for various countries between 1350 and 1840: Alsace, Austria, Denmark, England, France, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden and the US (Bezdek, 2000, pp. 16–21).

Following the Allmayne swordmakers, the next swordmakers arrived in Greenwich in 1603 and 1629, and then in Hounslow (1629, 1649 and 1660). Some time later, more came to Durham (1660) and finally, the swordmakers came to Shotley Bridge (1687 and 1725). Bezdek lists the Solingen swordmakers in alphabetical order, giving the dates they were in Solingen, the town, country and dates of emigration (Bezdek, 2003, pp. 19–­26).

There is a list of Burgermeisters (mayors) who were also swordmakers. It may be salient that many of the mayors appear to be from the families of swordmakers who later came to Shotley Bridge (Bezdek, 2000, p. 19). Heinrich Hartkopt is listed as mayor in 1665, and there are three mayors with the surname Clauberg (Peter: 1632, Herman: 1651 and Lutter: 1677). The Claubergs were the second-oldest swordmaking family in Solingen and were present from 1303, with three Burgermeisters in the space of 40 years. They are preceded only by the Schaffs, who were recorded from 1185, and third in line are the Voes (1374). Despite the Claubergs’ high political standing in Solingen, Johannes Clauberg left for Shotley Bridge in 1687, which may have been a result of a family schism or may well have created one. In any case, his departure may have affected the standing of the family, as no further Claubergs were elected to office in that period.

5.2 Swordmakers in England

Bezdek describes the various trades involved in swordmaking in England: blade makers, hilt makers, grip binders, sheath makers, scabbard makers and decorators, including engravers, jewellers, goldsmiths and so on (Bezdek, 2000, p. 33). He also outlines the time-serving process for swordmakers: seven years as an apprentice, followed by one year as a journeyman under company supervision, before becoming a freeman who could sell blades in London. There was certainly no shortage of swordmakers in England, and Bezdek lists thousands of them (2003, pp. 35–216). However, most English cutlers assembled swords using blades created (mainly) in Solingen (Bezdek, 2000, p.35); likewise, in Scotland where, ‘Very few sword blades were made in Scotland; most were imported from Solingen, Prussia’ (Bezdek, 2003, p. 233).

London cutlers could use the sign of the dagger on swords they had hilted (assembled); this sign would accompany the bladesmith’s mark. The cutlers of Birmingham appropriated this dagger sign and the London cutlers petitioned to prevent them using it (Bezdek, 2000, p. 33), echoing the Solingen running wolf logo, which had originally been in use in Passau, Bavaria (mentioned in 4.1.1 Blade Marks).

5.3. Swordmakers who left Solingen for Shotley Bridge

There is some doubt surrounding how many swordmakers left Solingen for England. Most of the doubt arises from the way that names are recorded in the court order issued in Solingen in September 1688. This lists names in varying ways, which makes it unclear whether names refer to one person or two; some names are duplicated, which may be erroneous duplication, or it may be that two people with the same name are listed. In any case, not all of those listed in the Solingen indictment arrived in Shotley Bridge. In particular, there is no evidence that Clemens Hoheman – the man who allegedly led the swordmakers out of the country – ever arrived in Shotley Bridge.

It is worth a brief aside on spelling. For example, Johann may also be listed with a Latin ending as Johannes and Hermann as Hermannus; as in England, lack of education meant that many names were spelt differently (Bezdek, 2000, pp. 27–28). To compound the problem, many of the swordmakers anglicised their names after arriving in England. For instance, Oligh changed to Oley, Mohll to Moll, Wupper to Woper, Dell to Bell, etc.

Table 1 shows the swordmaker names listed by various authors. Since many authors list the same names, I have focused on four: Bezdek, Bygate, Richardson and Vernon. Depending on how the swordmakers’ names are counted, anywhere between nineteen and thirty-six swordmakers left Solingen. Alternatively, if the poet, Joshua Lax, is to be believed, then only four came to Shotley Bridge: Oley, Vooz, Mole and Bertram (Lax, 1884, p. 17).

Table 1: Names of Solingen swordmakers in Shotley Bridge in late 17th century, according to Bezdek, Bygate, Richardson & Vernon
NameIn Shotley BridgeIn England
Johannes Dell (Bell)1685London 1640, Hounslow Heath 1649
Johann (John) Bertram1725 (b. 1719) 
Johannes Clauberg
(son of Clement Clauberg zu Widdart)
Clemens son from Widdart  
Oliffe Groats1691 
Johann Hartkopt (Hartcop)1687 
Henkels (Henkals)  
Peter Henckels auf Wustenhof1685 (b. 1615)Hounslow 1660
Heinrich Hoppe the Younger ((Henry Hopper) (son of Heinrich Hoppe the Elder)1685b. Oxford 1642 London 1649
Clemens Hohemann  
Peter Keisser zu Heissen the Younger (Peter Kayser) (son of Peter Keisser zu Heissen the Elder)1687 
Peter’s son  
Clemens Knecht (Knetchen/Knechtgen) zu Widdart the Younger1687 
Heinrich Keuller (Koller/Keller/Henry Clewer)1687 
Adolph Kratz1687 
Hermann Mohll (Moll/Mole)1687 (1662–1716) 
Abraham Mohll (Related to Hermann?) (Moll/Mole)1687 
Adam Oligh  
Adam Oligh the Younger (son of Adam Oligh the Elder)1687 (d. 1726) 
William Palds  
Clemens Schaffe (Schafe)1687 
William Schafe/Scharfe
(son of Clemens)
(b. 1690) 
Engel/Angel Schimmelbusch (Schindleback/brush)1687 (d. 1694) 
Peter Tiergarden the Younger1687 (d. 1714) 
John Vinting (Vintnig; Vintner)1685 (b. 1685) 
Johannes Voes (John Faws/Voes)1687 
Johannes Vurkett (Vurckelt)1687 
Johannes Wupper zu Feld (Joann; John Woper)1687 
Henry Woper  
Heinrich Wupper the Younger (Henry Woper) (son of Theis Wupper)1687 
Theis’s son  
Arnt/Arndt Wupper zu Hessen1687 
Johannes Wupper zu Hesson the Younger (son of Johannes Wupper zu Hesson the Elder)1687 
Johannes’ son from Hesson  

Sources: Richardson (1973), Bygate (1999), Bezdek (2000; 2003), Vernon (2003)

6. Secrecy and the Solingen Court Order

One of the more controversial aspects of the Shotley Bridge swordmakers is a court order that was issued against them – albeit one year after they left Solingen. The controversy relates to the swordmakers being threatened with punishments that vary, according to the source, from property seizure through to (at best) corporal punishment and (at worst) capital punishment.

6.1 The Wording of the Solingen Court Order

Many authors discuss the court order and provide a translation of it. However, Richardson is the only author to cite his source. Richardson notes that the document was found in the Mulheim Stadthaus (town hall), which is less than 30 miles from Solingen. It was then stored in the Köln archives (Richardson, 1973, p. 22). I tried to see this document for myself. However, the Köln archive building collapsed on 3 March 2009 and 10% of documents were not retrieved and repaired. Fortunately, the archives kept microfiche records for safekeeping in the Barbarastollen underground archive, which is housed in a former silver mine. (I will say more about the indictment in a later article.)

Richardson describes the court order issued against the swordmakers as being made ‘under the impressions of the court’s and lay assessor’s seals’ and dated ‘26th September 1688 by the clerk of the court – Johann von Marcken’ (Richardson, 1973, p. 23), and he provides a translation, as follows:

‘We, William Vassman, judge of the Solingen court, Matheus Wundes, Wilhelm Dinger, Wilhelm Voss, Johann Gansland, Peter Voess, all lay assessors of the town and parish of Solingen give recognition that Clemens Hohemann over a year ago led away to the Kingdom of England various craftsmen resident and bound by the district court, and still more had incited them to abscond and since the affair had become notorious and had been recognised as in the highest degree culpable, let him, Clemens Hohemann be charged here as a culpable seducer together with all the persons involved – Hermann Moll, Abraham Moll, Johannes Clauberg, Clement’s son from Widdart, Clemens Knetchen, Peter Tiergarden, Johannes Voes, Vurckelt, Johannes Voes, Adolph Kratz, Joann Wupper zu Feld, Heinrich Wupper, Theiss’ son, Johannes Wupper, Johannes son zu Hesson, Arnd Wupper, Heinrich Keuler, Adam Ohlig’s son, Johannes Hartcop, Engel Schimmelbusch and Peter Kayser, Peter’s son.’

(Richardson, 1973, p. 22)

Richardson says that the court order then goes on to say:

‘Through written summons ‘ad vallas’ (meaning ‘on the doors’), the cited persons each and all of them were for the first, second, third and last time decisively called upon to employ themselves in the next six weeks and three days in this same place or produce firm reasons for your refusal and defection through yourselves in person or order sufficient powers of attorney. Warning – do these things or if you do not, that thereupon after the expiry of such appointed time, upon further appeals being calculatedly made to proceed against you, thereupon proceedings will be taken according to law.’

(Richardson, 1973, pp. 22–23)

There is evidence of other court orders in this vein and Richardson refers to subsequent defections to Strasbourg (1730 and 1743), which was a treasonable offence; these defectors were denounced from the church pulpit, with threats of forfeiting their belongings, and worse:

‘…defectors’ names were read out from the pulpits. Their children – if left behind – were deprived of their rights and privileges. If the “defectors’ were discovered in or around their homes they were to be punished on their bodies…”‘

(Richardson, 1973, p. 23).

David Atkinson goes a step further and suggests that defecting could result in capital punishment:

…court proceedings were likely to take place against the miscreant if he could be caught up with, as did happen in 1613 with a namesake of one of the Shotley Bridge immigrants, Johann Knechtgen. The death penalty was clearly feared for this offence; whether or not this was an exaggerated fear is not clear. The likely penalty, particularly if the fugitive could not be caught, was the seizure of all his property and assets in Solingen. Unfortunately, there is no record of what steps were taken against these particular rebels, but it is known that Dinger and Wundes, two members of the court, were both well-known bladesmiths and might be jealous of the rebels’ opportunities, and therefore disinclined to be merciful.

Atkinson (1987, p. 4)

According to Franz Hendrichs, there is an earlier decree, in 1616, from Ernst von Brandenburg and Count Palatine Wolfgang Wilhelm, which permits the Solingen guild to punish anyone leaving for England as a deterrent to prevent further swordmakers from leaving (Hendrichs, 1933, ‘The History of the Solingen Industry’, p. 123).

The Solingen indictment was not issued until a year after the swordmakers left, which begs the question as to whether the authorities had: a) failed to notice the swordmakers’ absence; b) chosen to ignore it until it was brought to their attention, forcing them to react out of embarrassment, or so they were seen to be doing something; or c) aimed to deter further defectors. In addition, it is also questionable whether the court order was treated seriously since there is documentary evidence of Hermann Mohll returning to Solingen and leaving again on at least one occasion because he was imprisoned in Morpeth Gaol in Northumberland on his return from Solingen.

As discussed in section 5.1 Swordmakers in Germany, swordmakers had been leaving Solingen for centuries, departing for many different destinations. The lack of earlier court orders indicates something anomalous about this departure. Vernon cites Rhys Jenkins, who suggests that not all swordmakers were guild members and that freelances were free to leave, which may explain why not all swordmakers leaving Solingen were subjected to these orders. It might also explain why Hermann Mohll was able to return to Solingen and leave again (Jenkins, 1922, cited in Vernon, 2003, p. 95).

In terms of why it took at least a year to object to the swordmakers’ departure, Richardson suggests resistance to the persecution of Lutherans would be admired and that ‘Disappearances would be common at that time because at that time purges were common. Officialdom would merely close one eye. If not in sympathy then in understanding’ (Richardson, 1973, p. 18).

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. He argues that this explains why the Solingen authorities did not issue the court order until 26 September 1688 – a year after the swordmakers had left. Bygate says that the swordmakers’ properties in Solingen were left intact 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 (Bygate, p. 16). Conversely, Richardson states that Solingen admits to property confiscation, but denies making death threats, although no source is provided for either of these claims (Richardson, p. 16).

The question of death threats does seem to have gained a foothold in England, however, as they are alluded to in the royal charter of 15 September 1691 by King William III (which also indicates that the defection to Shotley Bridge was pre-planned):

‘Our said subjects, at their great charge and management, have imported from foreign parts, divers persons, who have exercised in their own country the said art of making hollow sword blades by the use of certain newly invented instruments, engines and mills and by the contrivance of our said subjects, have prevailed upon them to expose themselves to the hazard of their lives to impart to our said subjects their art and mystery.’

(Bezdek, 2003, p. 21)

In any case, whether threats were made or not, they were not carried out. As will be discussed further in 10. The Mysterious Herr Mohll, Hermann Mohll and his family returned to Solingen and then left again for England at least once. Since he left Solingen carrying possibly well over a thousand blades, it seems unlikely his presence there would have gone unnoticed by fellow bladesmiths, or the authorities.

7. Exodus: Why Did the Swordmakers Defect to Shotley Bridge?

There is considerable debate in the literature about why the swordmakers left Solingen for Shotley Bridge. Some authors posit that the swordmakers were fleeing religious persecution, others state that they were economic migrants, and still others feel that both reasons combined are what led them to leave their home country. The first subsection considers the argument for refugee status, the second considers the economic migrant argument and the third discusses whether it was a combination of the two.

7.1 Were the Swordmakers Religious Refugees?

There is considerable support for the notion of the swordmakers leaving Solingen to avoid religious persecution.

According to S. R. Zug, (History of the Church of the Brethren of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 1915, p. 13), in Krefeld, which is less than thirty miles away from Solingen, six men were baptised into the Crefeldt congregation after being ‘immersed in running water in the river Wupper’. When this action came to the attention of the authorities, the six brethren were brought before a Catholic judge in Düsseldorf in 1717, and they were imprisoned for four years. Zug also writes that 33 people from the Crefeldt community left for America in 1683:

‘…there had been many trials and scenes of persecution, and many were now ready to do anything or go anywhere, so there was but the assurance of religious freedom and liberty of conscience… The enjoyment of religious liberty, in the ‘province of peace’, would pay for all they leave behind, and all they should endure, and the darkness of the hour of the sacrifice of all things, proved to be just preceding the dawn of the day of their salvation.’

Zug, 1915, p. 13

Iris Bruijn also presents a broader view of migration patterns in Europe, and she suggests:

‘This having been said, the various migration patterns do somewhat add, refine, and overlap earlier migration pattern categories. It was customary to single out family migration, which was usually permanent. In pre-modern Europe, it was almost invariably due to religious persecution. In the sixteenth century, people in this category were largely immigrants from the Southern Netherlands, and in the seventeenth century it was the French Huguenots who emigrated to the Republic in 1685. The religious persecution-induced migration of Jews from Poland, Germany, and Central Europe acquired impetus after 1726, and was also usually permanent.’

(Bruijn, 2009, p. 133)

In particular, Ryan refers to religious persecution of the Protestants in Europe:

‘…a terrible persecution against the reformed churches on the continent generally, and especially in the Low Countries and Germany. The French nation, then under the guidance of Louis Le Grant, aspiring to universal domination both in civil and religious affairs, laid claim, from pretended ancient right, to several places in Germany, and inflicted there the tyrannous severity upon religious dissentients which was so terribly exercised against the Hugenots. In consequence of these persecutions in religious affairs, and fearful convulsions in many Germanic states, great numbers fled to England…’

(Ryan, 1841, p. 106)

Ryan goes on to look at immigration into England more generally, and he quotes David Hume, who says that:

In 1567, there were found on inquiry to be four thousand, eight hundred and fifty one strangers, of all nations, in London: of whom three thousand, eight hundred, and thirty-eight were Flemings, and only fifty-eight Scots. The persecutions in France and the Low Countries drove afterwards a greater number of foreigners into England: and the commerce, as well as manufactures of that kingdom was very much improved by them.

(Hume, History of England, 1828, p. 234, cited in Ryan, 1841, p. 107)

Surtees states that the swordmakers were religious refugees fleeing religious persecution in Solingen:

‘At Shotley-Bridge a colony of German Sword-cutlers, who fled from their own country for the sake of religious liberty, established themselves about the reign of King William…Above the door-way of two decent houses there are German inscriptions (copied also into divers huge family Bibles) attesting the cause which drove these emigrants from their ‘faderland’ to seek, on the green brink of the Darwent [sic], protection under the equal law of that country which has ever proved an ark of refuge to the victims of religious or political persecution.’

(Surtees, 1820, pp. 284–297)

Surtees does not enlarge on what led him to believe they were driven by religious or political persecution, and he does not refer to any sources beyond the inscriptions on the door lintels and in the family Bibles. However, it is not impossible that he spoke to the descendants of the swordmakers, since swordmaking was still underway, and because he did visit the village in person, albeit over one hundred years after the original swordmakers arrived, ‘Few of the original names are now left, but the trade is still carried on, and sword-blades and scymitars of excellent temper are manufactured for the London market’ (Surtees, 1820, pp. 284–297).

7.1.1 Tablets of Stone

In the absence of any other evidence, it is worth considering the stone lintels in support of Surtees’ supposition. A photo of the original lintel over the house at 44 Wood Street is available on the Durham County Council website, Keys to the Past (Durham County Council (b) ND). In his book, The History of Shotley Spa, and Vicinity of Shotley Bridge (1841), the Rev. John Ryan, who married an Oligh descendant, presents its text, followed by a ‘doggerel verse translation’:







(Ryan, 1841, p. 107)

‘The blessing of heaven gives wealth without care,

Provided that you contribute your share;

Likewise be faithful, just, and true,

And do what is commanded you.’

(Ryan, 1841, p. 108)

This reflects one of Solomon’s sayings in Proverbs, ch. 10, v. 22: ‘The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it’ (King James Bible (a), 1611). (Perhaps it was also an invocation to accrue wealth, based on Solomon’s familial wealth from international trade and importing precious metals.)

Ryan also mentions a second lintel inscription, which he describes as being effaced either by time, or because the stone was of a softer quality. He provides the available lettering as follows:






(Ryan, 1841, p. 108)

Ryan suggests that the last three lines were ‘an invocation of a blessing upon those who might enter that door’ and that the first three lines ‘refer to the emigrants having left Germany, their fatherland, and founded the village’ (Ryan, 1841, p. 108). Richardson suggests that this is from Psalm 121, v. 8, ‘The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth for evermore’ (Richardson, 1973, p. 37). Equally, however, it could be from Deuteronomy ch. 28, v. 6, ‘Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out’ (King James Bible (b), 1611).

On its website, Durham County Council’s archaeology team describes a third door lintel as follows:

‘A much-weathered door lintel was inscribed, apparently in German, as follows: “SEG…HN…ALLE S…EICH…IN…Deinem EVW…UND ELE…WAS DIR BE…”‘

(Durham County Council (c) ND)

Bygate suggests that the swordmakers brought their own Lutheran clergyman with them and also mentions that Adam Oligh was a churchwarden in Solingen, so maybe he presided over services in the absence of a minister. No source is cited with regard to the clergyman, but there is a photo of the chapel, which adjoined the swordmakers’ cottages (Bygate, 1999, p. 71).

7.2 Were the Swordmakers Economic Migrants?

More recent historians have taken an entirely different view to that of Robert Surtees. In particular, Vernon claims the swordmakers were economic migrants enticed by an English government keen to exploit their secrets:

‘On the contrary, abundant primary source evidence confirms that they came under English Royal sponsorship, arranged by at least one agent in Germany and by agents in Britain… it is possible that the ‘religious persecution’ story was a deliberate ploy by the Germans themselves and possibly their agents, to lessen any likely antagonism to their arrival in Shotley Bridge.’

(Vernon, 2003, pp. 90–91)

However, there is some doubt about the ‘abundant primary source evidence’ cited by Vernon. The source he cites in support of this statement is a secondary one: Rev. J. Ryan (Ryan, 1841, p. 45), which does not refer to either a primary source, or to the swordmakers. Elsewhere, Ryan does refer to the swordmakers (Ryan, 1841, pp.102–118), but he gives credence both to the swordmakers being religious refugees and to their being economic migrants, which will be enlarged upon in 7.3 Religious Refugees and Economic Migrants. (Of course, as mentioned earlier, Bezdek cites the royal charter from William III, suggesting the swordmakers arrived under royal sponsorship, and it is perhaps this document to which Vernon is referring.)

Vernon then discusses ‘the harsh economic realities with which the German immigrant families had to contend in starting a new way of life in a strange land’ (Vernon, 2003, p. 90), which raises a question about why the swordmakers would come to England if financial incentive was their only motive. Given that the demand for swords was set to decrease until the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession at the beginning of the 18th century (a fact, which, admittedly may not have been foreseen either by the English authorities, or by the swordmakers), it seems questionable that so many people would risk their lives, properties and livelihoods to move to another country to face ‘harsh economic realities’ if there were no other benefits to be gained. This potentially creates a crack in the argument that the swordmakers were solely motivated by economic gain.

Bezdek provides details about a syndicate of businessmen from Newcastle, London and Hounslow (including one German, Johannes Dell [later Bell]) who persuaded swordmakers to move from Hounslow and Oxford to Shotley Bridge. He describes the houses that were built for the incoming swordmakers as being built on the Durham side of the River Derwent, with the forges on the Northumberland side. Then, the bulk of the swordmakers came over in 1687, led by Clemens Hoheman – although leadership was subsequently taken by Adam Oligh and Hermann Mohll. They were helped to set up their forges and so on by a Newcastle cutler, Thomas Carnforth (Bezdek, 2003, p. 20).

The fact that a syndicate was organised to bring over swordmakers at the behest of various agents (including the king), detracts somewhat from the notion of the swordmakers fleeing persecution. From this perspective, it appears that metalworkers were in demand, and the swordmakers may just have been part of the endless traffic of skilled workers travelling the world. This makes it hard to disagree with Vernon’s conclusion that the swordmakers were encouraged to come here by royal sponsors and their agents, which points to it being a planned expedition. However, this evidence of shrewd planning and use of existing connections in England still does not prove motive one way or the other.

7.3 Were the Swordmakers Religious Refugees and Economic Migrants?

Richardson gives some credence to both theories. In terms of the swordmakers fleeing religious persecution, he points out that south Germany was largely Catholic, while the north was protestant. Following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Calvinist Protestants of France (Huguenots) were forced into hiding or exile; likewise, he suggests the Lutherans lost what protection they might have had (Richardson, 1973, p. 14). (For a fully detailed analysis of the religious situation in Prussia at the time, I recommend reading Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom, which takes rather a different view of the position of Lutherans in Prussia at the time.) However, Richardson also alludes to the ‘little wheels’ that threatened full employment in Solingen and mentions that the Brotherhood of Bladesmiths and the Guild of Blade Finishers protested against their use. So, according to Richardson, there was some risk of religious persecution, but also squabbling among the guilds and not enough employment, which may have combined to encourage large numbers of swordmakers to break both their residence oath and their brotherhood vows (Richardson, 1973, pp. 14–15). Richardson also refers to a poem by Joshua Lax, which runs to seventeen pages, saying that the poet:

‘…surpassed himself in compassionate emotion and inspired poetry when he told the story of the refugee swordmakers. Even as his story again perpetuated the legend of the ‘religious persecution’, his eloquence satisfied my inmost feelings about the immigrants more than anything I had read.’

(Richardson, 1973, p.64)

Similarly, Ryan gives credence both to the swordmakers being religious refugees and to being economic migrants:

‘In consequence of these persecutions in religious affairs, and fearful convulsions in many German states, great numbers fled to England… some having fled from religious persecution and others having come to England in consequence of an arrangement of our government with some of the German princes.’

(Ryan, 1841, p. 105)

Based on the above works, some doubt is cast on the reason for leaving being strictly economic, or strictly religious. However, since Prussia was largely Lutheran at that time, if the swordmakers were Lutheran, they should have been safe in Solingen from a religious perspective. So, it seems much more likely that they left in search of steady work, rather than to escape religious persecution, unless they were not actually Lutheran. For instance, following Zug’s theory, if they belonged to the Crefeldt congregation, that might have put them in a rather more precarious position and would certainly have added impetus to any drive to defect on economic grounds.

8. Local Relations

This section first looks at local industrial relations, against the backdrop of industrial relations in the vicinity (Sunderland), and also slightly further afield (Sheffield). It then looks at community relations in Shotley Bridge.

8.1 Industrial Relations

Sir Ambrose Crowley moved from Birmingham to Sunderland to obtain cheaper labour costs. He then imported a hundred workers from Liege, which created industrial unrest. Bygate suggests the locals were Catholic and victimised the Liege workers because they were Protestant, but he also suggests the locals envied the migrants’ skills (Bygate, 1999, p. 36). Whatever the cause, the problems led Crowley to petition the king; the king passed the complaint on to the bishop. It is not clear what the outcome was, but it may have been unsatisfactory as Crowley then moved his iron works to Winlaton, Swalwell and Blaydon. Here, he instituted his own law book and a form of ‘hail meet’, where he administered fines and alms, which led to smoother relations (Vernon, 2003, 80–85).

There are signs of early protectionism, particularly in Sheffield, albeit after the period in scope for this subject. However, it is perhaps still salient. The Sheffield workers petitioned the king to prevent immigrant metalworkers entering the country, and also to prevent English metalworkers from leaving the country. Vernon uses the phrase ‘antagonistic competitiveness’ (Vernon, 2003, p. 80). It seems that it was not just metalworkers who 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 incentives to attract metalworkers. It seems some diluted action was taken by the government, but the traffic of metalworkers continued regardless (Vernon, 2003, p. 80).

Although there was hostility towards the Belgian metalworkers at Sunderland, there is no evidence to suggest this was the case at Shotley Bridge; indeed, the Germans were assisted by a Newcastle sword cutler: 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 (Vernon, 2003, p. 101). However, a different view is taken by Richardson, who points out that in 1719, ‘the guilds tried to exclude Quakers as apprentices…It is possible, the Germans were kept out’ (Richardson, 1973, p. 35).

8.2 Community Relations

Surtees suggests the swordmakers did not suffer any difficulties with the locals:

‘These quiet settlers, who brought with them habits of industry, and moral and religious principle, easily mingled with the children of the dale, and forgot the language of their forefathers.’

(Surtees, pp. 284–297, para. 63, 1820).

It is interesting to note that Surtees runs together the idea of the swordmakers mingling easily and forgetting their own language. Likewise, many of the swordmakers anglicised their names, which may have been an attempt at placating any potential difficulties with ‘the children of the dale’. That said, the swordmakers’ homes displayed fairly large stone lintels carved with a bible verse in German (perhaps part of the Lutheran requirement to proclaim their faith publicly). It is also worth reflecting on Richardson’s reference to the local ‘cheap wattle and plaster huts’ (Richardson, 1973, p. 36); these would have been entirely at odds with the swordmakers’ cottages, which were large, well designed and stone-built (they were eventually demolished in the 1960s, so they stood for almost 300 years). How must the inhabitants of the cheap huts have felt about the swordmakers and their brand-new forges and stone-built houses?

9. Economic Developments

This section outlines the swordmakers’ initial success but shows how declining sword prices drove down their income and ultimately closed down swordmaking in Shotley Bridge, to the extent that the swordmakers had to write begging letters.

Initially, the Hollow Blade Company managed the swordmakers and subsequently made an application for a patent and charter. However, despite the swordmakers’ initial success, it appears that the price of blades was driven down over time. Vernon suggests the reason behind this might have been two treaties that spelt disaster for the 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 (Vernon, 2003, p. 110).

Certainly, sword prices fell dramatically between the years of those two treaties. For example, in 1703, ‘the top price was to be 1 pound, 10 shillings per dozen blades’. In 1704, the price ranged from ‘7 to 14 shillings per dozen blades’, but by 1710, a new agreement was put in place where blades were sold for only ‘6 pence per dozen’ (Bezdek, 2003, pp. 21–23).

Vernon also mentions the various sword contracts and diminishing prices. However, Vernon’s reference to prices differs considerably to that of Bezdek. It would make more sense that Vernon’s version is correct as the drop between contracts quoted by Bezdek is enormous. Potentially, the mis-insertion of a bracket has caused the problem. Both excerpts 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)

Perhaps most controversially of all, Bygate suggests that the swordmakers were inferior workers, which led to their demise. He refers to Carnforth receiving letters of complaint about swords being ‘soft and ill-tempered’ and ‘standing like lead’ (Bygate, 1999, pp. 56–47). He wonders whether the swordmakers were less skilled than those left behind in Solingen and whether Mohll’s trip to Solingen was simply an attempt to ensure blades of sufficient quality. He does suggest these particular swords ‘may have bought in from other sources’ and 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 points to high-quality workmanship. (I have checked Bygate’s claim by looking at the primary source documents. The Tyne & Wear Archives contain a number of letters to William Cotesworth from and about the swordmakers. The phrases quoted by Bygate can be found in a letter from a London cutler, Henry Benson, and again later on from his widow. They are not complaining about the Solingen men’s work, but about other workers who are unable to achieve the same quality as the Prussians. So, it seems that the Hollow Blade Company was also selling blades made by other blademakers, who were not from Solingen.) To compound the problem of declining sword prices, the group that owned the Hollow Blade Company overstretched itself overseas and sold the charter. The company was then renamed the Sword Blade Bank and began issuing bank notes. Unfortunately, the Sword Blade Bank’s main client was the South Sea Company, so when the bubble burst in 1720, the swordmakers were very badly affected.

9.1 The Dunning Letters

Bygate refers to the candle sale that was held in 1699 (the last bid before the flame goes out is accepted), which again suggests the decline of the swordmakers. Clearly, the swordmakers were experiencing financial difficulties. In particular, Bygate mentions correspondence from Hermann Mohll to William Cotesworth in which he mentions Dan Hayford, the Pontefract iron supplier; Mohll complains about ‘…the sliye youth…who tried to take over the works…his men in measuring up…’ (Bygate, 2003, p. 50).

Richardson discusses correspondence in the Cotesworth archive containing 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 autumn (October, 1711). So it would seem that although they were struggling, the swordmakers were paying their bills. This bill was shared between thirteen swordmakers, with the first four being liable for just over forty pounds each:

  • ‘Adam Oley (Oligh)   
  • Henry Wopper           
  • John Wopper
  • John Wopper
  • William Schaffe
  • Clemens Schaffe
  • Peter Tiergarden
  • Voose
  • John Hardcop
  • William Voes/Voss
  • Abraham Mohll
  • Hermann Mohll
  • John Mohll’

(Richardson, 1973, 50)

Not only were the swordmakers struggling to pay their suppliers, it seems they were struggling to make ends meet more generally. Richardson refers to a number of letters from John Wupper (junior) to the Hollow Blade Company’s intermediary (and wealthy landowner) William Cotesworth in 1712 asking for 40s to help out during sickness, and from Hartcop to help with rent. Adam Oligh also seems to have struggled, but as a yeoman, he was able to ask for a loan, and in 1713, Adam Oligh settled a debt with Cotesworth by paying him two cows. According to Richardson’s analysis of the archive material, it seems that only Hermann Mohll never any borrowed money (Richardson, 1973, p.51). Mohll eventually advertised his swordmill and house for sale, and these were bought by Oligh. Bygate suggests the advertisement was mere formality and, in all likelihood, a deal had already been agreed between the two men.

By 1719, there were only 19 workers – some had died (including Hermann Mohll, who was buried in Ebchester in December 1716) and some had left (Bygate, 1999, p. 52). 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, and he was an auctioneer for most of his life.

10. The Mysterious Herr Mohll

Hermann Mohll was born in 1662 in Prussia, arrived in Shotley Bridge in 1687, died in 1716 aged 54, and seems to have lived through interesting times. His name is mentioned a number of times in various archive documents, and there are letters from him to Cotesworth in the Tyne & Wear Archives.

Mohll is documented as returning to Germany and coming back to England at least once. This is certain because he was arrested on his return to England and imprisoned in Morpeth Gaol in Northumberland in 1703. The charges were for smuggling blades (around 1,400 of them) from Solingen. According to Bygate, Hermann Mohll’s smuggling of blades from Solingen suggests that the swordmakers were not able to produce the quality and quantity necessary for Thomas Carnforth to fulfil 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 at the time, so this is open to question. Bygate also mentions a Solingen document that banned the export of incomplete blades (Bygate 1999, pp. 47 and 59).

Another theory put forward is that, rather than smuggling, Mohll was working with Jacobite rebels (perhaps in league with Lord Derwentwater, the local Jacobite executed in 1716 for his part in the 1715 rising). At the time of writing this literature review, there is no evidence for this, and the main reason behind the Jacobite theory is the fact that Mohll was on board a ship with several Scottish and Irish soldiers. Another theory is put forward by Bygate, who states that in 1816, a large cache of swords marked ‘Shotley’ was found in a chimney in Danby Hall in North Yorkshire ­– a house also associated with the Jacobites (Bygate, pp 59–60).

In any case, whether he was guilty of treason or smuggling, Mohll was released. According to the existing literature, this was because Thomas Carnforth (the Newcastle swordmaker involved in helping to set up the swordmaking base in Shotley Bridge) and Wupper (one of the German swordmakers) spoke up for Mohll (Bezdek, 2003, p. 22 and Richardson, p. 46).

Richardson refers to court papers from the quarter sessions in Northumberland, and he explores the notion of Mohll’s involvement with the Jacobites, but dismisses this, saying ‘that no plots were uncovered’ (Richardson, 1973, p.45). However, he does wonder at Mohll’s release, suggesting ‘Herman Mohll himself must have been surprised and certainly must have sensed an unseen kindly hand’ (Richardson, 1973. p. 46). (I say more about this subject in my own research, due to be published by Northern History journal.)

11. Conclusion

In summary, there is considerable evidence to suggest that around 20 swordmakers left Solingen in 1687, but there is some doubt about their eventual destination. While there is a rich supply of primary source material in various archives, which provides evidence that many of them did arrive in Shotley Bridge, there remains some doubt about what drove them to leave Solingen. Certainly, there is a powerful argument that it was a pre-planned expedition, with the involvement of the king and his agents. However, on its own, that is not enough to confirm why so many people would uproot their families to move to a strange land with an uncertain future ahead of them. As is borne out in the severe economic decline faced by the swordmakers within a few short years of their arrival, perhaps there had to be a more powerful motivating factor. Since it is clear the swordmakers’ journey was pre-planned and very well organised, improved economic circumstances must be considered the primary factor. Because Prussia was largely Lutheran, the swordmakers should have been safe to practise their religion, (assuming they were in fact Lutheran). Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom is worth reading in this context, especially the chapter about Protestants in which he cites Frederick I’s proclamation of 1704, offering French Protestants ‘a refuge under Our protection’. (Clark, Iron Kingdom, ch. 5.) That said, Zug does provide some evidence of religious persecution in a nearby town, so it may be that religious persecution cannot be entirely discounted, and it may have been a secondary factor in the swordmakers’ decision to leave. This would certainly make sense if they were not Lutherans per se, but members of another creed, such as the Crefeldt congregation. Certainly, an avenue worth exploring and one that would require detailed perusal of Solingen church records. A second area that requires further research is the Solingen court order and what motivated it: was it a serious document with real consequences, or just a face-saving ploy? The third area that warrants further investigation is the adventures of Hermann Mohll – not so much as to whether he had friends in high places, but rather how high those places were.

(Updated note, August 2020: This third area is the one I chose to pursue, which means there are still potential research gaps to be filled regarding the Solingen court order and the issue of religious persecution. I will leave these two areas for someone else to explore… Hermann Mohll is the central figure in my novel and he is the subject of my own research. My research findings, due to be published by Northern History, address some of the outstanding questions about Hermann Mohll’s imprisonment. (If you don’t have an academic library membership, the article will be expensive to borrow or buy, but I have permission to share a version on my website, subject to not infringing the journal’s copyright.) I’ve also told Hermann Mohll’s story in my historical novel, The Running Wolf (published by Impress Books on 10 November 2020).

Below is a list of references. There are also further references in my Northern History article. Elsewhere on my website, I will provide full lists of references and details on where to access various archive documents about the swordmakers.

12. Bibliography

Atkinson, David, ‘The German swordmakers of Shotley Bridge’, North East Centre for Education About Europe (Occasional Paper no. 2), 1987

Bezdek, R. H. (2000) German Swords and Sword Makers: Edged Weapon Makers from the 14th to the 20th Centuries. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press.

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

Bjork, R. E. (2010) The Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bygate, John G. (1999) [2003] The Hollow Blade: The German Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge. Durham: Durham Miners’ Association.

Clark, Christopher (2006) Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Durham County Council (b) (ND) Photo of inscribed stone lintel over swordmaker’s cottage, Ref. No. DR01888. <; [Accessed 26 November 2016].

Durham County Council (c) (ND) Partial inscription of stone lintel over swordmaker’s cottage. Ordnance Survey Archaeology Card NZ05SE6. <> [Accessed 27 November 2016].

Durham County Council Archaeology (a) (ND) Local History, Shotley Bridge, Ref. No. D6883 <; [Accessed 27 November 2016].

Greenwell, William [ed. and trans.] (1852) The Boldon Buke: A Survey of the See of Durham, Made by Order of Bishop Hugh Pudsey, in the Year M.C.L.XXXIII [1183]. Durham: Surtees Society.

Hendrichs, Franz (1933) ‘The history of Solingen industry’. Association for Technology and Industry. Bergische Verlags-Aktien-Gesellschaft, Solingen-Wald.

King James Bible Online (a) (1611) King James Bible, Proverbs, ch. 10, v. 22 <; [Accessed 3 November 2016].

King James Bible Online (b) (1611) Kings James Bible, Deuteronomy, ch. 28, v. 6 <; [Accessed 3 November 2016].

Lax, J. (1884) Shotley Bridge, Descriptive Poems¸ Durham: Neasham, p. 17.

Lull, T. F. & Russell, W. (Eds.) (2012) Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (3rd edition). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.

Oldroyd, D. (2007) Estates, Enterprise and Investment at the Dawn of the Industrial Revolution: Estate Management and Accounting in the North-East of England 1700–1780. Burlington, VA and Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Richardson, D. (1973) The Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Frank Graham.

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

Steadman, Helen (2020) ‘The Shotley Bridge Swordmaker, Hermann Mohll: A simple case of smuggling, or getting away with High Treason in 1704?’, Northern History, Vol. 57, 2020,

Surtees, R. (1820) Chapelry of Medomsley, The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham: Volume 2, Chester Ward. London, Nichols and Son, pp. 284–297. British History Online <; [Accessed 2 November 2016].

Sykes, J. (1833) [2011] Local Records or Historical Register of Remarkable Events Which Have Occurred in Northumberland and Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-Tweed, from the Earliest Period of Authentic Record to the Present Time; With Biographical Notices of Deceased Persons of Talent, Eccentricity and Longevity. Newcastle: Hodgson.

Vernon, D. (2003) Thread of Iron: A Definitive History of Shotley Bridge and Consett and District, County Durham with Particular Reference to Iron and Steelmaking. Knebworth: Able Publishing. [Please note that this book is being reprinted by the Land of Oak & Iron on 12 September 2020, which will make it easier to find. However, the page references may well differ to the original version I used for my literature review.]

Zug, S. R. (1915) History of the Church of the Brethren of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Lancaster, PA: New Era Printing Company <; [Accessed 24 November 2016].

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