Hermann Mohll, the Shotley Bridge Swordmaker

When I first decided to write a book about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, The Running Wolf, I had to choose which elements of their story I would tell and also which of the swordmakers I would write about.

Cover for The Running Wolf, with a black background and gold lettering. The O of wolf is a pool of molten gold with an etched wolf running through it. Above is a Dutch warship, sailing under the constellation of Cancer and a crescent moon. Above is a sunray made of 9 swords.
The Running Wolf by Helen Steadman

Books about the Shotley Bridge Swordmakers

I started by reading several books about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, and I began with seven books by the following authors: David Atkinson, Richard H. Bezdek (x2), John G. Bygate, David Richardson, John Ryan and Douglas Vernon. These books are now out of print, which makes them hard to find and expensive to buy and you may need to find them in a library. The easiest way to do this is to use World.cat, which will locate documents in the nearest library to you. (In the ‘Further Reading’ section, I’ve added World.cat links for each book/document.) Of course, these aren’t the only documents about the swordmakers, and I’ll add a full list of sources to my website soon.

Swordmaker documents in the archives

As well as continuing to read widely, I also went to visit the archives to look at the original documents. It’s absolutely fascinating to see these documents, which are over 300 years of age. In the end, I decided to write about Hermann Mohll, because some of his adventures are well documented, and I thought his story would make an interesting novel.

Cotesworth Papers in the Tyne & Wear Archives

Due to Covid-19, most archives are closed to the public, but they’re gradually opening their doors again, and it’s well worth seeing these documents first-hand. Some of them are in excellent condition, but some have been torn and otherwise damaged. Due to copyright, I can’t share the documents here, but anyone can go and see them.

For example, the William Cotesworth papers in the Tyne & Wear Archives, at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, contain later documents from and about the swordmakers. To see these documents, you just need to ask for the red index book for the Cotesworth papers, then run down the list to identify which documents you’d like to see. The swordmakers’ correspondence is in the miscellaneous papers section and in the index book starts from number 444, Bundle 5, which contains, among other things the articles of agreement between some of the swordmakers. I’m not sure what the rules will be under Covid-19, but you can ask for three documents at a time, and when you hand those back, you can ask for three more. The index book is hand-written, but it’s very clear handwriting.

There are several letters from Hermann Mohll to William Cotesworth, numerous bills and accounts, lists of sword prices and tools, and letters about the swordmakers from other cutlers. There are also the letters from various swordmakers to Cotesworth asking to borrow money.

Hermann Mohll documents in the Northumberland Archives

The Northumberland Archives at the Woodhorn Museum, Ashington contain earlier documents, which are all about Hermann Mohll and his smuggling episode. These papers are in the Quarter Sessions, Christmas Session, January 1704 and contain a good deal of fascinating correspondence, including Mohll’s sworn statement, in which he admits the smuggled swords are his. There are also many other statements from the people involved, such as the captain of the ship, Cornelius Soldart, the waterman, Thomas Davison and the wherryman, Anders of Surinam.

Hermann Mohll or Harmon Mohll?

In the archive documents, Hermann Mohll is variously referred to as Hermann, Herman and Harmon and also as Moll. His signature remains the same in the period of over ten years covered in the archives. In his correspondence with William Cotesworth, he signs himself off as Har. Mohll. It looks more like Haz. Mohll on the page because of the way he writes the letter ‘r’. For instance, in the Cotesworth papers, in a letter about Mr Hayford (presumably Dennis Hayford the steel supplier), dated 24 May 1715, closer inspection of Mohll’s writing shows that when he writes the letter ‘r’ it looks like a ‘z’. When he writes the letter ‘a’, it is very different from his ‘e’, so he’s definitely signing himself off as Har.

Likewise, in a document held In the Northumberland Archives from January 1704, he signs himself Har. Mohll. This is a particularly interesting document as it’s Mohll’s statement, under oath, about the sword blades that he smuggled from Solingen. Sadly, some of this document is missing, and it looks as though a chunk has been torn out of the upper left-hand side. He is also referred to by other people in various archive correspondence as Harmon/Harmonn, rather than Hermann.

If his name was Harmonn, why does everyone call him Hermann?

When the swordmakers defected from Solingen, the authorities issued a court order a year later and translations of this document have named Hermann Mohll, rather than Harmon/Harmonn, so he tends to be referred to as Hermann. I have continued to call him Hermann in my novel as he was always that in my head (apologies to Harmon and his ancestors). If you want to know more about the Solingen court order, please see my earlier blog post, which tells you how to go about seeing this document for yourself.

Visiting the archives

The archives have been closed due to Covid-19, but they’re planning to open up to a limited number of researchers at a time, so you should be able to go and see the documents quite soon. Keep an eye on my website as I’ll share a list of all the various documents and their reference numbers to make it easier to find them when the archives do open again. If you can’t get there in person, most archives offer a copying service.

Further Reading

Atkinson, David, ‘The German swordmakers of Shotley Bridge’, North East Centre for Education About Europe (Occasional Paper no. 2), 1987. [This is quite hard to get hold of, but there is a copy in the Durham Record Office.]

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.

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

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.

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.]

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