Home ] Up ] Christopher Marsh ] Archer Family ] Recollections ] Remembrance Day 2014 ] Remembering Ridgeway ] Looking Back ] dennis-chown ] stan-slater ] audio-clips ] The Barker Family (3) ] Sybray Barker ] Ridgeway Church ] 1937 Coronation Programme ] Postal Service c1900 ] The Barker Family (2) ] 1935 Silver Jubilee (1) ] 1935 Silver Jubilee (2) ] Songs & Music by Jim Ghedi ] Sports Day ] From the Court Rolls 1586 ] 1953 Coronation Celebrations ] Tennis in 1930 ] Ridgeway Ladies c1943 ] Brian & Celia Atkin ] The Barker Family (1) ] A Little Boy in Ridgeway ] Visitor from the USA ] e-mails ] Mark Ellis ] Links ] A History of the Phoenix Works ] Memories of the Phoenix Works ] The Rippon family and its association with the Phoenix Works ] Samuel Renshaw ] [ A history of Birley Hay ]


A history of Birley Hay


This is an attempt to record some personal memories and information about a piece of industrial England which existed prior to the middle of the twentieth century but of which there is now almost no trace.


If one travels the beautiful valley of the river Moss westwards from the town of Eckington in north-east Derbyshire, after about three miles one arrives at the hamlet of Ford, which obviously derives its name from what used to be the point at which the road between the villages of Ridgeway to the north and Marsh Lane to the south crossed the stream. 

Click thumbnail to view full-size image

Proceeding westward along the course of the Moss for a further couple of hundred yards, the hamlet of Birley Hay is to be found.  Now a collection of some half dozen modernised stone cottages and an Elizabethan farm house adjacent to a private dammed lake of perhaps about two acres in area, this sleepy collection of desirable residences once contained a busy industrial unit producing goods which were exported to various countries of the world.  Now the only existing evidence is to be found in the remains of a small building against the dam itself and a two-storey slate roofed building, a few yards distant, which now contains two garages, a first floor games room and a very small apartment or flat.

Click thumbnail to view full-size image

To the northern end of the dam wall is a stepped weir of probably twenty feet drop over which the Moss leaves the mill pond, for that is what the small lake was constructed as, centuries ago.  Just below the dam with the stream flowing on about three sides, albeit some yards away, stands a modernised version of an old cottage which was my birthplace and home for thirty-five years from 1930.  During my childhood and youth it was a very different dwelling in a totally different environment and here, in this manuscript, with personal recollection and information from a variety of sources, some possibly apocryphal, I intend to give Birley Hay some place in industrial archaeology which hither to it has been denied.

Were I able to recall my first sounds at the moment of my birth, they would have included the noise of the stream in full flow (it was February) over the weir, the ringing notes of hand held hammers on anvils in the smithies, perhaps the calls of workmen in the yard below my mother’s bedroom but, above all, the steady thump, thump, thump of a tilt hammer in the forge some twenty yards away.  Now only the steady swish of the water and the occasional sound of a motor car or tractor and perhaps the playful cries of young children, break the idyllic sounds of the countryside. 

The origins of this industrial hamlet are uncertain but the first records appear in 16th century documents of a “cutlere whele” at Birley Hay, which suggests possibly around four hundred years of production on this site.  Its origin and development may perhaps be attributed to the entrepreneurial efforts of the monks of Beauchief Abbey who were believed  initially to be responsible for the development of the edge tool and forge unit in the environs of the Abbey during the middle ages.  Research into this has been carried out in depth by others but, to my knowledge, no direct link has been positively established.  However, two small items of evidence, albeit unprovable and probably not advanced hitherto, I have to offer regarding the origin of the Birley Hay unit.  First, I can clearly recollect from the time when all the ironwork from the forge had been extracted in 1944 for use in the “war effort”, a cast iron plate approximately 60cm. square with the somewhat distorted figures “1657” in the casting.  Unfortunately, this disappeared with the tons of other gear wheels, tilt hammer heads, axles, shears etc. to be fed into the furnaces of the Sheffield steel industry. The other connection with Beauchief Abbey is hardly a positive one and relates to the profundity of plum trees in the garden of the forgeman’s cottage.  These grew almost wild in the garden and on the slope of the storage dam and were known as a “Hutcliffe” variety, a term passed down through the generations but one not to be found, as far as I could ever locate, in any gardening reference book.  The only reference which I have ever been able to discover which has any similarity is to be found in “Utcliffe Wood”, adjacent to the site of Beauchief Abbey in Sheffield, possibly the origin of that particular species.  Maybe a rather tenuous connection but nevertheless, an interesting one.

In more recent times, Thomas Hutton, who with his brother Joseph started business at the Phoenix Works in 1822(?), also in 1836 purchased the Birley Hay “wheel and smithies” from the Mullins family who had vacated the Skelper Wheel a year previously.  Presumably the ownership of the works remained in generations of the same family until it comes within the period of my recall as that of T & G Hutton & Co Ltd. Finally, in 1940, the land and property was  sold to the Sitwell Estates at Renishaw, purely as a fishing pond amenity.  Under the former ownership the unit was productive and fulfilled some of the needs of a world-wide market, exporting sickles and patent scythes to both the West and East Indies and many other developing areas. Being the only water powered forge in the Moss valley where scythes were forged under tilt hammers, Birley Hay became the most important of the ten or so waterwheel driven grinding mills.   However, to a high degree restricted by its dependence upon waterpower, supplied by only a relatively small stream and fed by a fairly restricted catchment area, the unit had limitations in terms of production.

Incidentally, this seasonal lack of water was less restrictive for sickle grinding as it was the custom for the best grinders, in dry summers, to “work down” with the water. By means of directing the limited supply to each dam in turn, probably half a dozen units were able to use the same water. The sicklesmiths scattered around the countryside could, if necessary direct their production to the unit operative at that time, whereas forgemen, dependant on water power for tilt hammers, would have to wait for sufficient storage at Birley Hay which originally, by design, had the largest dammed area of some six acres, each inch in depth representing six hundred tons of water.

While it was known that the cost of the motive power was small, the rising maintenance costs were the critical factor which determined that T & G Hutton should close down the plant and to centralise production on the more efficient steam-powered unit at the Phoenix Works. The proposed move in 1939 to the plant on the hill above Ridgeway village was pre-empted by a fracture of the water wheel axle shaft and closure then occurred a year earlier in the summer of 1938.  So, finally, ended the production of what had probably been a major industrial unit in the Hallamshire area for some three hundred years.

The buildings and the plant, bereft of any materials, records and useful machinery lay idle and without any form of maintenance began to deteriorate.  Any archaeological interest which might have resulted in preservation was not to be due to the outbreak of World War II and, as the years progressed, rust and rot took their toll.  This was in some way a tragedy in view of the later work of reclamation done at the Abbeydale unit as no great reconstruction would have been necessary at Birley Hay had the war not intervened.

The final straw came when in 1944, at a time when victory was assured, a government order for the recovery of scrap iron led to the works being dismantled.  The task was allotted to three of the Sitwell estate workers, Len Thompson, Tommy Jepson and Harry(?) Chapman as foreman, together with a “monkey winch” supported by a wooden tripod some ten or twelve feet high and a collection of sledge hammers.  The task was somewhat akin to the building of the pyramids though actually destructive and carried out by two septuagenarians and Chapman, in his sixties.  They succeeded, without any cutting materials, in demolishing and removing a twelve foot “fly” wheel, two full size tilt hammers, two six foot diameter hammer “cog” wheels, a main octagonal axle more than fifteen feet in length and approaching twenty inches in section as well as sundry gearing, shears and anvils.  The task completed, the rusting debris lay unmoved in the works yard before its removal to meet the “urgent” demands of the steel industry some two years later!

The empty forge and smithies eventually lost slates and roofs and the ruins were finally demolished when the land and what is now a private fishing lake was taken over by new ownership.  The only remains, besides what was originally the pattern shop, are the walls of the (water) wheel house which still retains the twelve inch pipe from the sluice (generally referred to as the “shuttle”).  Presumably still in good order is the tail-race culvert, an arched stone lined tunnel, approximately two feet wide and similar height which replaced the water back into the Moss over a hundred yards away, at a point some twenty or so yards from where Geer Lane joins the main road at Ford.

Click thumbnail to view full-size image

Originally and before my recollection, there were two water wheels housed in the wheelhouse, adjacent to one another and overlapping by about forty percent as was necessary for them to work on independent axles.  The south wall of the building had apparently in the nineteenth century, also served as one wall of a flour and scythe grinding mill although recorded evidence of this is not to hand.  My personal recollections are of a ruined playground where much of the interesting below-ground areas had been filled with rubble from the demolished upper floors and roof.  What also remained from that era was the skeletal structure of a vertical cylindrical boiler to the east across the lane, presumably to provide steam power to the grindstones after the second waterwheel had failed. I have always assumed that the flour mill wheel had been dismantled long since and that some sort of steam engine had been installed to provide power for the grinders as relatively little power would be required once the wheels had gained momentum.  Whether this was a failed enterprise I cannot say as I have not discovered any evidence of this piece of industrial archaeology of Birley Hay.

Click thumbnail to view full-size image

I do recollect seeing the marks on the wheelhouse walls where the rims of each water wheel have “scored “ presumably when an axle has fractured or a bearing became worn, thus allowing eccentric movement of the wheel.  From what I can gather the mill wheel would have been a “breast shot” wheel whereas the forge wheel was “overshot”, arguably the more efficient.  A small sluice in the dam controlled the supply of water to the building but a hand-operated sluice gate, known locally as a “shuttle” controlled the operation of the wheel from inside the forge by means of a hand operated set of levers. This supplied the required water to the waterwheel via the pentrough, a flat channel the width of the “buckets”, thus providing waterpower for the forge most efficiently.  Whether or not the volume of water to the wheel could be accurately controlled by this means is uncertain, as the main drive was fed indirectly to a twelve to fifteen foot diameter fly wheel with a substantially heavy outer rim, this apparently acted as a form of governor. 

By various systems of gearing, power was transmitted, mainly through to the heavy axle and from the “cog” wheels to the tilt hammers as well as to metal sheers and grindstones.  Throughout the Moss valley, various water wheel systems operated but as far as I can discover, that at Birley Hay was the only one to be used to power tilt hammers.  Conceivably, along the small but deeply incised valley to the south of Birley Hay, the two Skelper dams must have originally been constructed to provide water power and, indeed the ruins of a water wheel house were evident only a few years ago.  Whether the name with apparent connections with the local verb “to skelp” or to hammer referred to hand tools or anything heavier we have no evidence but, with the local manufactory at Birley Hay, I should imagine that would be very unlikely.

The forge itself was an open building, the main feature of which was the central axle, octagonal in section and bearing two massive iron wheels of perhaps about fifteen inches in width, one slightly slimmer than the other, but both containing a number of equally spaced, chamfered, iron (or maybe steel),  protruding teeth or cams, centrally around their periphery.  The smaller of the two wheels had slightly more of these, thus producing a somewhat quicker beat to the cadence of the lighter tilt hammer (compared with that of its heavier brother) when the axle rotated at its optimum speed, producing contact with the tilt hammer’s iron-bound base.  A very simple method was used to put the tilt hammers “out of gear”.  As the rhythmic use of a hammer involved an abrupt upwards movement of the head, there was apparently sufficient energy rapidly imparted to the hammer base to raise the head  fractionally above the point at which the base would be in contact with the cam of the wheel.  At this moment a strong piece of timber place between the hammer head and the anvil would leave the hammer clear of the motive force allowing the power drive to rotate freely.

Click thumbnail to view full-size image

The quicker of the two hammers was obviously for lighter forging and although I have no recollection of it, I believe that both hammers were able to be used simultaneously.  The hammer beams were of solid oak and the replacement of such, when necessary, was a considerable task at times requiring the whole of the work force as no powered lifting gear was available.  When this was done, and possibly on other occasions, it would be necessary to reseat the anvil which was, I believe, again based on a pieces of oak bound together by iron bands.  What I do know was that the anvils were seated on a bed of locally gathered heather, without which the system would not have sufficient springing and be ineffective.

The replacement for maintenance purposes of the anvils (and any other part of the tilt hammer system) was effected with the sole use of a two handled  ratchet winch situated to the side of the forge in line with the hammer heads.  This, with the use of pulleys attached to what must have been a substantial roofing structure or perhaps the use of a tripod derrick, and powered by two workmen, was sufficient for “reseating” the anvils or replacing the hammer beams by the employees when required.       

At work, each forgeman sat on a basic flat wooden seat suspended from a point high in the rafters giving them easy swinging access to the fan-blown furnace behind the point at which they worked at the anvils. They would then swing back to the forging position, gripping the red hot piece of metal in pincers in order to present the piece of work for forging.  By the 1930’s, the use of the tilt hammers for the manufacture of scythe blades had ceased due to the introduction of the patent scythe which was assembled in the pattern shop. However, the “backs” of these, a single metal frame to provide the rigidity for the sheet steel blade were still produced by the forge, together with hay knives and other heavy edge tools as well as “one off” items that required heavy forging.  Nevertheless, the life of the water driven forge was drawing to a close as more dependable power sources were available and mechanisation in agriculture became more efficient.

Click thumbnail to view full-size image

What were considered as satisfactory working conditions in the nineteenth century were not as readily accepted in the twentieth.  Health and safety were the last consideration with wholly uncased gearing, red hot metal passing across from furnace to hammer and no protective clothing for operatives beyond a leather apron and a sort of leather glove.  As children we were allowed to look into the forge, normally from the entrance steps and at all times we were careful to avoid any interference with work in hand.  However, my clear recollection is as a child of perhaps five years of age, sitting on Fred Whitaker’s knee as he forged a red hot piece of iron into a hay knife.  Again, I have no knowledge of any accident to either of the forgemen, Fred or Leonard Nicholson who usually worked the lighter hammer.  Incidentally, most industrial accidents in the scythe and sickle industry were suffered by grinders when grindstones, not always of flawless material, fractured under relatively high speed and caused either severe wounds or grindstone “swarf” in the lungs.  My own father suffered something similar as a young workman and left the industry as a result but with a patch on his lungs for the rest of his life.

At the rear of the forge was an offshot water wheel in what was  generally referred to as the fan shed. This third water wheel, much smaller than the other(s) at about ten feet in diameter, which could be controlled independently of the others, powered the fans for the furnaces in the forge and smithies one and three, the ones adjacent to the forge and to the forgeman’s cottage, respectively.  This wheel was still operative in the mid 1940’s but owing to some of the local lads using it as a treadmill, a large coping stone wedged between the buckets and the container wall prevented the risk of any serious accident.

Smithy one was, in my time, used largely as a workshop for any small jobs required in the forge.  It housed a hand bellowed furnace which was also fan drafted, a hand powered grindstone, also one which could be geared up to the transmission system and an anvil.  The middle of the three smithies, which I shall refer to as smithy two, was the one most used for general purposes and the one in which the hand powered bellows and anvil were most used for hand forging purposes.  The last person to use it, to my knowledge, on the day that the works were being vacated, was Charles Edwin Fisher. I recollect that as I, as a boy of eight, over exuberantly using the hand bellows to heat a piece of iron bar almost to melting point thus rendering it useless for the purpose he had intended, with a consequent severe admonition.

The smithy adjacent to the house was the best appointed with fan powered draught, anvil, good light and even a fireplace.  Although hand manufactured sickles had never, in recorded history, been an important product of Birley Hay, this smithy was the last to be used for this purpose, where the sicklesmith, Jim Wall, with the assistance of his son Reg as “striker” (wielding a sledge hammer) would hand forge sickles and hooks to whatever their given pattern and finish by “tedding” the blade.  Tedding was the sicklesmith’s very precise method of producing small serrations to a sickle blade to enhance its cutting ability, each small cut effected by hammer and fine chisel at one sixteenth of an inch intervals and at the rate of fifty to sixty cuts per minute.  Another craftsman capable of this art was the previously mentioned Charles Fisher, a sicklesmith who also worked at Birley Hay.

Click thumbnail to view full-size image

The “pattern shop” mentioned in a previous paragraph is a stone-built two storey rectangular building on the bank of the Moss facing, what was the position of the forge and smithies, across the factory yard in which an untidy mixture of old grindstones, coke, scrap and rubbish prevailed.  The purpose of the building was probably originally for finishing processes but contained an office and a packing and despatch bay.  After the introduction of the patent scythe, it became important in the production of this new product.

The small ground floor furnace, together with whale oil and sawdust troughs, was used for annealing and tempering purposes although tempering of the forged hand tools was normally carried out by the sicklesmiths in their own smithies. During the early part of the twentieth century, the Hutton patent scythes, which used a blade cut from sheet steel hand riveted on to  a forged iron strengthening “back”, were assembled in the pattern shop and there received their finishing processes.  In addition to being hand ground, the scythe blades were varnished to prevent rusting during transportation, labelled, wrapped in oiled paper and bound securely in dozens with wood rope, which had then replaced the original locally manufactured straw rope,  to form a sort of mummified package for despatch.  In my youth the goods were transported by lorry to Killamarsh station, to be despatched. often to countries half way round the world.  The trade mark BY was well known in many areas around the world and particularly in the British Empire.  Renowned for quality, the Hutton “BY” was understood as standing for “Best Yet” and quality, although the initials might easily have been derived from Birley haY

Click thumbnail to view full-size image

Sadly, little factual evidence of the works or production has survived the years.  Photographic records from the 1930’s appear to be limited to major incidents such as maintenance of the main sluice which required complete drainage of the dam of probably 3,000 tons of water per acre.  Also recorded is the aftermath of the 27th May 1932 flood when my family evacuated the cottage which was inundated with muddy water to a depth of 21 inches, leaving a thick layer of mud over the whole of the ground floor.   Incidentally, since that latter occurrence, the whole area of the works and the forgeman’s cottage as well as some of the houses in the hamlet have been flooded three times, again to a similar depth, in 1939 and twice in twenty-four hours in 1958 but, after the closure of the works in  no way affecting the redundant plant.

Since then, the Moss has generally meandered its quiet way towards its confluence with the Rother, its work at Birley Hay long time done! 


Keith S Renshaw 


A note on “The Scythe Works” as it appeared in the literature:


This is an artist's impression, probably for publicity purposes, of what the unit may have intended to look like at some point in the 19th century.  It shows considerable artistic licence in that it indicates a substantial building behind the forge which never existed, the smithies D have been greatly elongated and so has the pattern shop F.  The actual dam wall should curve much closer to the forgeman’s cottage and the two lines of buildings were in no way nearly parallel.  Almost all fuel used was coke which gave off little smoke but the drawing does indicate the presence of the boiler and pipe line to the mill which does not support my theory of a steam engine to replace water power for the grindstones!

Return to Contents Page