The West Midland River Stour
Although the River Stour has played an important role in the early industrial development of the area and in its heyday was reputed to have more industry per mile than any other river in the country, there is very little published information or firm local knowledge concerning the river or its history.
To many local residents it is just a dirty brook or stream, not large enough to be of any significance and certainly not worth calling a river, its only use seen as transporting away rubbish when in spate. This lack of information and a general interest in local history, both natural and industrial, led to an investigation which has thrown up some very interesting facts.
The river rises in the Clent Hills, where it is fed by 3 or 4 header streams from springs etc., consequently there is no single officially recognized source according to the former National River Authority, now the Environment Agency. It flows through Halesowen, Stourbridge, Kinver, Wolverley, Cookley and Kidderminster before joining the River Severn at Stourport. From the source area to where it joins the River Severn is approximately 50 kilometers (under 30 miles), but the total length of the River Stour and its tributaries (according to River Authority) is 214 kilometres (130 miles). During its course the river is joined by a number of streams which bring water from a wide area, even from as far north as Tettenhall in Wolverhampton. Consequently by the time it joins the River Severn it carries a considerable volume of water even at normal levels.
Geological evidence apparently indicates that before the last Ice-age the Stour flowed north from Halesowen to the River Tame and then into the Trent, and that the River Severn flowed from above Ironbridge up to the Dee Estuary. Both of these courses were blocked by huge ice-fields causing the rivers to form large lakes, which finally overflowed with sufficient force to cut the present routes. This would mean that both rivers are relatively young in terms of the earth's history.
Because water is drawn from a wide area, some of it well outside the Black County boundaries, it might help if the route of the river and its tributaries are defined.
The Route of the Stour and its Tributaries
The river and its tributaries have undergone many man-made changes over the centuries. Originally it was dammed in places to form mill pools, and at Halesowen Abbey fish pools. It was also diverted to operate mills and more recently to facilitate the construction of buildings and roads. In addition, it has been channelled through open culverts to prevent flooding, also enclosed to enable buildings and roads to be constructed above it. Consequently, the present route only approximates to its natural route in certain places.
In describing the route, the names of the various brooks and streams are those used by the Environment Agency on their map, but doubtless the smaller header streams will be known locally by different names, a few of which have been found on Ordnance Survey maps.
Whilst it is accepted that the river rises in the Clent Hills at roughly 250 metres, there is no officially recognized single source, as it is fed by a number of small header streams flowing from springs either on the surface or underground, water oozing to the surface and causing a small boggy area. At least two of these streams start in Uffmoor Wood, another originates near St. Kenelms Road flowing along the edge of Uffmoor Wood and through Breach Dingle.
Most local belief is that the spring at St. Kenelms' Well, behind St. Kenelms' Church, is the real source of the Stour. This spring is said to have appeared at the spot where the boy King Kenelm was buried after he was slain on the instructions of his jealous sister, or aunt Quenrida (the legend varies), in 821 AD. Its waters were believed to possess great healing powers, becoming a shrine of pilgrimage, with people travelling great distances to visit in the hope of having their ailments cured. The village of Kenelmstowe developed around the shrine but gradually lost favour, now only the Church of Saint Kenelm remains. Occasionally people still visit the spring in the hope of being healed and following tradition tie a strip of clothing to a nearby bush.
Yet another stream flows from Spring Farm - the spring could be from where the farm name originates - through Bogs Wood where it is joined by the stream from St.Kenelms' Well, continuing on down to the edge of the Halesowen bypass. Flowing along the edge of the bypass towards Grange traffic-island, it is joined by the streams from Uffmoor Wood. Having compared the volume of water flowing in each, it appears that although the Spring Farm stream does not have such a romantic story, it is however the REAL source of the River Stour.
The modern Stour crosses beneath the Halesowen bypass by means of a culvert near to Grange traffic-island. Skirting the edge of Halesowen Cricket Ground, which was built on the site of Grange Mill and its pool, it then passes under Dogkennel Lane. It curves before being culverted beneath Queensway and under a bridge in Great Cornbow, a pleasant walkway follows the river from beyond the bypass to the bottom of Great Cornbow. From there the river meanders roughly north, surrounded by factories and office buildings before passing under the dip in Rumbow and a bridge at the bottom of Church Lane. A plaque on a shop in Halesowen marks the sight of the Laconstoone Bridge, originally spanning the stream draining the Hasbury area. This has long been culverted under the town and into the river, which itself passes beneath the New Road / Earls Way dual carriageway, before emerging in a steep cutting below the Earls High School. It then runs parallel with Dudley Road almost to Furnace Hill, having been joined almost opposite the bottom of Forge Lane by the East Stour, also referred to as Illey Brook.
Again the East Stour does not have a single well-defined source, but consists of a number of header streams rising around Romsley and on the high ground along the edge of what is now the M5 motorway. These form two brooks, one of which flows through Twiland Wood and crosses under Illey Lane in a dip near the old Illey Mill. The other flows from a point nearly opposite to the 'Black Horse' public house in Illey Lane, along the edge of Coopers Wood, and down to where it joins the other brook just to the south of the ruins of the 11th Century St. Mary's Abbey, where it was also used to feed the abbey fish ponds. From there the East Stour crosses beneath the dip in Manor Way near the entrance to the athletic club and continues along the back of the housing and factory estate in Bromsgrove Road. Before passing under the bottom of Mucklows Hill, it is joined by a stream bringing surplus water from Breaches Pool, which in turn is fed from streams in Leasowes Park. After passing under Mucklows Hill the East Stour flows roughly parallel to Dudley Road before passing beneath it near Forge Lane.
This modern concept of the Stour and the East Stour is at odds with William Scott, who, in 1832, wrote; 'The head of the Stour may be described by adverting to its primary and secondary sources. The Salopian source (Halesowen was still an outpost of Shropshire in those days) is formed by the springs which arise on Halesowen-hill amidst the beautiful groves of the Leasows. At the western extremity of the Leasows, a beautiful cascade precipitates its waters into a rocky channel below, and here commences the Vale of the Stour. The Worcestershire, or secondary branch, rises at the Twylands, near the village of Frankley, the ancient seat of the noble family Lyttelton, and pursuing a meandering course to Halesowen, unites with the primary one.'
Just before passing under the bottom of Furnace Hill, the river is joined by the culverted Coombes Brook draining the high ground around Coombes Wood and Long Lane. The river runs at the rear of houses in Haden Hill Road before turning left towards Hayseech, crossing beneath the bridge near the Gun Barrel Trading Estate. It flows on between the bottom edge of Corngreaves Golf Course and the remains of New Hawne Colliery before passing under the bridge in Bellevale. Lutley Gutter, having collected waters from Hagley Golf Club, Lutley and the surrounding area on one stream, and Foxcote on the other, flows under Drews Holloway and Bellevale, before passing through a culvert to join the Stour at a point where it turns north along the side of Corngreaves Road and under Overend Road.
The river then flows along the edge of the Corngreaves and Portersfield Industrial Estates, where for a distance of perhaps 200 metres it has a surprisingly rural aspect, prior to passing under Cradley Road and through the Cradley Heath Factory Centre to Cradley Forge, where it is joined by Mousesweet Brook. This brings waters from Darby End and canal surplus from the Netherton Tunnel area on the main stream, which is joined by water from the Lodge Farm Reservoir and Saltwells Estate. After passing beneath Cradley Forge bridge, the river flows through the Maypole Fields Industrial Estate, under Mogul Lane and alongside Saltbrook Road where another feeder the Saltbrook is culverted in, this drains the higher ground around the Hayes. 'The Saltbrook Arms', a public house with a small riverside beer garden is at this point. From Mogul Lane bridge to Meers Coppice, a small hamlet to the east of Thorns Road, it is difficult to believe that the surrounding area is built up because the river and its immediate surroundings are so unspoilt. From there the river flows through the industrial areas of Lye before passing under the dip in Dudley Road and the Caledonia sewage works, to be crossed by Bagley's Road. It is joined at this point by the culverted Shepherd's Brook, fed by Ludgbridge Brook bringing water from the Dingle.
Bouchall and Clatterbatch give the river a short rural setting, it is here that it passes under the ten arch Stambermill railway viaduct, a well-known Stourbridge landmark. The predecessor of this was built of wood, and on the Lye side of the present one the brick pillars that supported it are still in existence. After passing under Stamford Road. the river flows at the rear of factories in Birmingham Street to the bridge in High Street Amblecote, near the site of the original Stour Bridge from which the town got its name. The area was originally called Bedcote and had only a ford to cross the river on the road between Old Swine Ford and King's Swine Ford. The earliest records indicate that the first bridge was built soon after the beginning of the thirteenth century.
Until fairly recently the Stoubridge Arm Canal passed through a low tunnel beneath Amblecote High Street, terminating at a large basin on the Lye side of the road where there was an interchange with the railway, which itself continued down a steep incline across Birmingham Street from the present Town Station
Having been built on a higher level than the Stour, surplus water
from the canal could be allowed to run-off into the river, enabling
the building of a dry dock at the ironworks. The canal closely
follows the general line of the river through Amblecote to Wordsley.
Coalbourne (formerly Coleburn) Brook, which drains the Black Delph area, is used to feed the Stourbridge Arm on this stretch and overflow into the river, whilst the Withy Brook, which rises in Norton, is culverted directly into the river from the south. The pool in Mary Stevens Park is on this brook, as was the one at Swan Pool Park until it was infilled in the early 1980s. Further on the Audnam Brook flows under the canal into the river, bringing water from Brierley Hill.
At Wordsley, the Stourbridge Arm Canal joins the Stourbridge Canal just before it flows through an aqueduct built over the River Stour. Immediately after the aqueduct, the Wordsley Brook with water from Buckpool and the Leys, flows into the river and from here it takes on a rural setting. Having flowed over a small weir near Bells Mill it meanders to Prestwood, passing under Prestwood Road before swinging southwest through the grounds of the old sanatorium towards Kinver. Roughly half a mile along this stretch and after going over a weir, the river is crossed by a small aqueduct which carries the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, this is just above Stourton Junction where the Stourbridge Canal joins.
Immediately after this aqueduct the river is joined from the northwest by the Smestow Brook bringing waters from Wombourne, also from as far as Tettenhall, north of Wolverhampton. There are a number of possible sources of the Smestow and it is quite sizeable by the time it is fed from the north by the Graisely Brook, which is culverted under the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal before joining the Smestow. Then comes Black Brook, Wom Brook which is in turn fed by Penn Brook and Merryhill Brook, Himley Brook brings water from Holbeche and Bobs Brooks, finally Dawley Brook is the last feeding in from the east. Philley Brook feeds Spittle Brook, which in turn joins the Smestow from the west.
The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal closely follows the route of the Smestow Brook, then the Stour Valley right down to the River Severn at Stourport, and excess water from the canal is run-off at a number of places. The River Stour drops quite rapidly from its source in the Clent Hills and this is well illustrated between Amblecote and Stourton, where the Stourbridge Canal drops down a flight of four deep locks, but at the bottom it still only maintains roughly the same relative level to the river as it had at Amblecote.
Before being joined by the Smestow Brook the Stour has a predominantly westerly flow, but near this point it turns southerly towards its confluence with the Severn at Stourport. For the first few miles below the Smestow the Stour meanders considerably. Flowing over a weir near Stourton Castle , it rounds a large westerly loop through Kinver before returning to its southerly flow above Whittington. At Kinver the river is joined by Mill Brook, which drains the area around Enville and is also fed by Little Brook bringing water from Compton.
After roughly two miles the Stour reaches Caunsall, where it is fed from the east by a small stream from Island Pool via Sleepy Mill. It is at about this point that the river again meanders westerly, going around Cookley and on to Wolverley where it is joined from the west by Drakelow Brook, which is in turn fed by a number of streams including Compton Brook, and Bodenham Brook. This skirts the beautiful Bodenham Arboretum draining water from Arley Wood and Birch Wood. Below Wolverley, Honey Brook flows in from the west bringing water from Shatterford direction.
Approximately one mile below Wolverley the Stour is joined from the east by Blakedown Brook, it having flowed through the Broadwaters area which derived its name from being a flood plane in the past; locally the brook is referred to as the Wannerton. There are a series of pools on the Blakedown Brook which stretch up to feeder streams, one from Clent and West Hagley via Stakenbridge, Gallows Brook from Broome and one from Yeildingtree.
The industrialized sprawl of Kidderminster now engulfs the river, which flows through and sometimes under the town centre, where it is joined from the west by Blake Brook, giving its name to a whole area of the town. The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal flows through another aqueduct over the river near the parish church, from there the river is culverted in parts beneath the town centre. Brintons Carpet Factory actually straddled the river, which then divides into the main stream following a roughly southerly course and Back Brook. This flows more easterly and then south-west through Meadow Mills which could have derived its name from being a flood meadow in the past. After passing under the bottom of Constitution Hill and Worcester Road, Back Brook rejoins the river just below Stourport Road.
At the southern outskirts of the town the Hoo Brook joins the Stour from the west. This is a very long tributary, with rather surprisingly its sources only a short distance as the crow flies from the original header streams of the Stour, but on the other side of Walton Hill, near Romsley. Two or three streams flow from springs on the high ground near the M5 motorway to form what is called the Fenn Brook on the OS map, from where it flows down to Bell End, Belbroughton, Drayton, Hillpool and Stone before joining the Stour. On the way it collects water from a number of pools and streams including Harvington and Stanklyn. From Hoo Brook the river flows south for little over a mile to Wilden, after which it starts a large double S bend, firstly westward to Mitton, then back almost to its original southerly line before swinging west again nearly into the centre of Stourport. Finally, it turns back south again for about half a mile before joining the River Severn just above the site of the old power station.
Industrial Development of the Stour
Various sources of historical information indicate that from very early times the river has been used for driving mills through water-wheels, with evidence of cereal milling taking place well before the Doomsday Survey of 1086. However industrialized development appears to have really started in earnest in the late sixteenth century. Some cereal mills were converted for iron working, others completely replaced by more suitable ones and new mills were built. It reached such a pitch that it is claimed that together with those still grinding cereals etc., that for its length, there were more water-power sites on the Stour than on any other river in England.
The first divergence from cereal milling was the conversion of mills for fulling - the process of beating woollen cloth in water to produce a felt-like finish. This had traditionally been done by hand, but by replacing the millstones with a shaft with protruding pegs it was possible to trip or drive hammers to do the work as the shaft rotated. The forerunner of the modern camshaft, this idea soon evolved for operating furnaces bellows and tilt hammers for forges, among many other things.
Water-mill wheels do not require large amounts of water or high pressures, but they do need a constant flow when working. To achieve this, the river or stream would be dammed to form a pool slightly upstream from the chosen mill site to maintain an adequate supply. From below the water-level of the pool, a narrow leat or head stream would bring water to drive the wheel. The flow to the wheel would be controlled by a sluice, which could be closed to conserve water when it was not required to work. Having driven the wheel, the water was then ducted through the tail stream back into the course of the river, which would have overflowed the pool dam. This technique enabled mills to be built near the source of quite small streams, but in times of drought it caused serious problems for people lower down, unless the dam itself was fitted with a sluice enabling water to be let out to maintain the level of the stream. Doubtless this led to many disputes with people downstream because of fluctuating or completely interrupted flow rates. There was no need to create pools lower down where a sufficient flow could be relied upon, here a portion of the stream was simply ducted off through a channel or leat and fed to the wheel as required, then returned to the stream.
There are three basic types of water-wheel, the undershot, the overshot and the breastshot. The undershot is the oldest design and the least efficient, it just uses the water flowing under it to push its paddles and so turn the wheel, it relies purely on pressure and flow rate. Water must be of a constant depth and far enough up the paddles to drive them otherwise wheel speed varies, but too much would cause turbulence and loss of efficiency. The main advantage of this type is that it does not require a drop between the level of the head and tail streams and so can be used in fairly flat country, but water can be lost either side of the wheel causing turbulence and drag, thus reducing efficiency.
The overshot wheel has the water delivered to its top, originally to drive paddles, but these were replaced by troughs or buckets which held the water, with gravity acting on it forcing the wheel to turn. This is a much more efficient system, for there is no need for water pressure and only sufficient flow is required to keep filling the buckets. The disadvantage is that the head stream has to be a full wheel diameter above the tail stream, which would either restrict the choice of sites or necessitate expensive earthworks to create the necessary fall.
The breastshot is a compromise between the two, having the water applied near the centre-line of the wheel. It uses mainly gravity on the water in the buckets, but if the water is fairly fast and with some pressure, it will help to turn the wheel more effectively. The advantage is that it only requires a drop of half the wheel diameter or less between head and tail streams.
In all types the control of the feed water was very important, not only to conserve water, but also to keep turbulence to a minimum. The problems of too little water are obvious, but increasing the flow much above the optimum for a particular wheel would not necessarily increase its speed, because the increased turbulence drag would be trying to slow it down. The result being wasted water and loss of efficiency.
Early wheels were of all wooden construction, this governed not only the physical size it was practical to make and keep in operation, but also the amount of power and torque that could be transmitted through its shaft. When iron started to become available for construction much larger wheels with greatly increased torque were built. A good example of one such wheel of over 35 feet diameter is still in service at Daniel's Mill, near Bridgnorth.
To understand the type of iron industry that was carried on along the Stour it is necessary to have some explanation of the procedures that were involved.
- The Blast Furnace produced Blast or Pig-iron
- The Forge converted Pig-iron to Wrought Iron
- The Slitting Mill slit the Wrought Iron into bars
- The Rolling Mill rolled bars into flat plate
1 The BLAST FURNACE. Two or more sets of bellows operated in sequence by a mill wheel trip shaft were able to supply an uninterrupted blast of air into a large furnace, thus achieving temperatures high enough to melt the charge of iron-ore, scrap iron, limestone and charcoal. The iron-ore having been pre-heated (calcinated).
The molten iron sank to the bottom of the furnace and after the slag had been skimmed off, the iron was tapped (allowed to run out) into sand moulds. These were in the form of a single central trough (the Sow) with a number of identical troughs running off each side (the Pigs). As soon as the iron had cooled enough to solidify it was lifted out of the moulds, which were then prepared for the next pour.
This was a continuous process with the charge going in the top of the furnace and molten iron to form the pigs coming from the bottom. A blast could run non-stop for about a year, after which the furnace would need relining, which meant it shutting down for months. Sandstone from Himley was originally used for lining the regions furnaces, but this was later replaced by special fire bricks. Pig-iron was the most basic form of iron and was of little commercial use in its cast state. It was very brittle due to having a carbon content of up to 5% in a crystalline form, this gave very poor tensile and shear strength. However the pigs being of reasonably consistent size and quality were ready for converting into Wrought Iron. The sows would either go back into the blast furnace in the next charge, or be remelted and refined in a separate furnace and used for making cast iron components.
2 THE FORGE. First the pig-iron would be heated to near white heat, approx 1000 degrees C, for a prolonged period in a puddling furnace. This would burn off the carbon content, reducing it down to the 0.04 % of Wrought Iron. While still hot it would be worked under heavy tilt or trip hammers to remove scale and shape it into blooms. By now, the brittle crystalline structure had been refined to a more longitudinal grain structure which made the iron much more ductile and versatile. This area was known as the Finery. In a second area, the Chafery, the iron was reheated to red heat then worked under other hammers to draw it out into bars or flats. All of this work was carried out by hand, before mechanization with power from water-wheels enabled much heavier hammers to be used and through-put increased very considerably.
3 SLITTING MILLS. Flat bars from the forges were heated to red heat and rolled into broad strips, then split into narrow rods by feeding under cutter plates. Both rolls and cutter discs would be of wear resistant chilled cast iron.
4 ROLLING MILLS. Initially for rolling pre-heated bars into flat plate, but as technical knowledge and demand developed they became capable of rolling other sections, railway line for example.
Although there have been blacksmiths forging tools and weapons at water-powered sites on the river and its feeder streams for very many years, there are no records of any early large scale activities.
Cradley Forge was probably the earliest significant metal working site on the River Stour. A prominent local man, Dud Dudley, stated in his book Mettallum Martis dated 1665, that he had for many years experimented with coal and coked coal to replace the dwindling supplies of wood required to make charcoal used in the smelting of iron. He claimed considerable success with the process and actually took out patents in 1621 and 1638, but there is no record of what they actually applied to. Nor is it clear whether his experiments were actually conducted in a blast furnace at Cradley, or in Shropshire where he had other interests. However, this process did not become commercially viable until Abraham Darby developed and patented it at Coalbrookdale in the early eighteenth century.
Another early reference to metalworking on the Stour is that 'Richard Foley of Stourbridge held Himley Furnace (no type mentioned), and Hyde Slitting Mill in the early decades of the seventeenth century'. A further reference also names Hyde Slitting Mill as the first in the area and continues to be mentioned, but no further reference to Himley Furnace has been found.
What is certain, is that coal was being mined in commercial quantities around Stourbridge, Lye, Amblecote, Halesowen, etc., but was very difficult to transport out of the area due to the appalling road conditions. To try to improve transport an 'Act was passed in 1662 to authorize the Earl of Bristol, Lord Windsor and Thomas Smyth of London, to make the Stour navigable from the River Severn to the collieries round Stourbridge, so that coal could be carried downwards to such towns as Worcester and Gloucester. The original plan had been to make the river navigable for craft of 6 tons, with 11 locks and two branch tram roads'.
Whether this work was actually started is unclear, but it was certainly never completed, because in 1664 Andrew Yarrington, a retired army captain, embarked on a new scheme to make the Stour navigable to Stourbridge. In his book 'Englands Improvement' published a few years later, he claimed 'to have made the river completely navigable from Stourbridge to Kidderminster and carried many hundreds of tons of coal, but was obstructed for want of money'.
Apparently lack of money wasn't the only obstruction, there are records of disputes with landowners that chained locks and dumped soil and rubbish to stop the boats. They were possibly demanding tolls, but also the raised banks were being washed away and breached causing flooding to the surrounding low lying lands.
Undeterred, Yarrington drew up plans to further increase the banking on some sections to raise the water level, enabling him to reduce the number of locks and thus reduce passage time. The remaining locks were to be made wider and fitted with double gates (turnpikes) to enable 16 ton boats to be used. There is no information as to how much, if any, of this work was actually carried out before a great flood in about 1674, carried away so much of the waterway that it was impossible to restore it. It has since been claimed that at least part of the original was incorporated in the new canal when it was built a century later.
At Michaelmas 1692, a partnership was instituted which was to control the greater part of the iron trade in the Stour Valley. Its members were John Wheeler of Wollaston, Richard Wheeler, Richard Avenant of Shelsley, Paul Foley of Stoke Edith, Hereford, and his brother Philip of Prestwood. John Wheeler held the position of Managing Director and cash holder. He and Philip Foley held interests in iron companies in other parts of the Midlands, and Richard Avenant held Shelsley Forge, but none of these other companies were included in the partnership.
The partnership was an early attempt to form an integrated system where they had control of the whole of the processes from raw materials to saleable end products. Their works on the Stour are listed as: a blast furnace at Grange on the upper Smestow Brook, and a second one at Halesowen. No mention is made of the possible earlier one at Cradley. Forges at Cradley, Whittington, Wolverley and Wilden on the Stour, and at Heath on the Wom Brook, Hubbals on the Holbeche Brook and Greens on the Smestow. Slitting Mills also at Cradley and Wilden plus the one at Hyde. At least some of these works had previously been owned by Philip and Thomas Foley.
Due to the relatively poor grade of local ironstone, the pig-iron produced at both Grange and Halesowen blast furnaces was described as 'coldshort', a basic commercial quality produced by most manufacturers. A better quality 'tough' iron was being produced by the blast furnaces in the Forest of Dean area of Gloucestershire, where the partnership also had interests. Consequently the output from Grange and Halesowen was heavily augmented by iron bought up the River Severn to near Bewdley. Wilden in particular, with its close proximity to the river, used a high percentage of Forest of Dean pig-iron and was probably known for producing better quality products.
For whatever reasons the ownership of the various works changed considerably, to such an extent that by 1703 only Whittingham Forge and Widen Forge and Mill were still owned by the partnership. Reference to a blast furnace at Cradley also appears about this time, as do additional forges and slitting mills, either as a result of conversions from grain milling or new ones being built.
Much of the slit or rod iron being produced was going to feed the voracious nail and chain industries that abounded around Halesowen, Cradley, Netherton, Lye, etc. Early machine parts such as tilt hammers and bases, anvils, die blocks etc. were made of cast iron from secondary furnaces at Grange, Halesowen and Cradley. Chilled iron rolls and slitting discs were also produced. These items would be sold far and wide to industry, whilst the local domestic market would be supplied with cast iron products such as cooking ranges, firebacks, cooking pots and utensils, smoothing irons, and door furniture to name but a few. Harness fittings, farm machinery and implements were also made.
The major problem for industry in the area and for the country as a whole was transport, both for bringing raw materials in and taking finished products out. Especially as the whole area was pock-marked with mines for coal, iron-ore and limestone, also pits for clay, plus all the heaps of spoil from the various activates. There were no proper roads and cart-tracks were soon rendered virtually unusable. Some enterprising people laid tracks with wooden rails for horses to pull laden trucks along, but these were very limited in capacity and reliability because the rails did not last long.
To solve this problem canals started to be built, a horse could pull many times more weight in a barge than it could on land, also the water could support far greater weights than roads or rails.
The first canal in the area was the Staffordshire and Worcestershire, which opened in 1772 and joined the River Trent near Stoke, to what is now Stourport on the River Severn. The town did not exist then and was only created through the arrival of the canal, which was originally intended to join the Severn at Bewdley, but residents complained that 'they didn't want Brindley's stinking ditch coming to their town'. So Bewdley missed the prosperity that Stourport enjoyed.
The canal closely followed the course of the Smestow Brook, from north of Wolverhampton down to where it joins the River Stour at Prestwood. The canal then followed the Stour down to it's confluence with the River Severn. The canal is always at least a few feet above the brook and the river, so that any surplus water can drain off naturally, or if a section of the canal has to be drained off for maintenance work the water will flow down into the natural water course.
The Stourbridge Canal, which links the Dudley Canal to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire at Stourton, was opened in December 1779, as was the branch which goes directly into Stourbridge. It is very close to, and only a few feet above the River Stour at Stourbridge, maintaining that proximity, if somewhat straighter, down to the junction at Stourton.
The invention of the steam pump about 1700 was a major step in the development of mechanical power. First used as a vertical beam-operated atmospheric reciprocating device, connected by rods to pumps down shafts for pumping water out of mines. It was later developed to produce rotary motion by driving an eccentric shaft called a crankshaft with a connecting rod.
This new form of power revolutionised industry. It eliminated reliance on a good water supply for primary power, which at best could only produce enough power for very limited operations. One large, powerful steam engine could be used to drive a whole number of machines. This enabled single sites to be used for multiple purposes, thus various water-operated processes could be brought together to form large iron works for example. The river was still necessary and played its part, but it had changed from providing primary power to ancillary uses, such as cooling machinery, filling tanks for steam boilers, etc.
Probably the largest single industrial site developed in the Stour Valley was the New British Ironworks, which was originally started by members of the Attwood family at Corngreaves in 1810 and sold in 1825 when it covered over 200 acres, and included collieries, clay pits and brickworks.
One of the most notable achievements of metal working on the river was that in 1828, the ironworks of Foster, Rastrick & Co., at Stourbridge, which was originally John Bradley's Iron Works, built the steam locomotive 'Lion'. The 'Stourbridge Lion' as it came to be known, was the first locomotive to run on rails in the USA and its original remains are in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington. Unfortunately the rails, being only made of wood, could not support the weight. But the event was regarded as being so significant in America that a complete replica was built in 1933 and is housed in the Wayne County Historical Society & Museum, Honesdale, Pennsylvania.
A sister locomotive 'Agenoria' was built by Foster, Rastrick in 1829, this had a somewhat less illustrious life working on the local Shutt End Railway for many years. It is now on show at the Railway Museum at York.
The large ironworks that was developed at Wilden actually used the River Stour for transport after a lock was built to join the canal to the river at its closest point, which was called Platts Wharf. This meant that laden boats had to negotiate approximately one mile of swift flowing river in both directions.
Inevitably, as factories grew and developed so did the amount of pollution going into the river. There were no safeguards, it was just seen as a convenient drain with no consideration being given to people's health or wildlife.
It was not only metalworking industries that flourished along the Stour, at Kidderminster a huge carpet industry was developed with river water being used to wash the wool and in dying at many large mills. Used water was initially returned direct to the river which would have had disastrous results.
The rapid increase in population in the Stour Valley led to the building of a number of sewage works which used the river water. Some of these works were not very efficient, which resulted in polluted water getting back into the river and adding to the problems. Most of the small, less efficient ones have now been closed, leaving large works at Barnhurst, Wombourne, Roundhill and Kidderminster, each of which gives top priority to returning clean uncontaminated water to the river.
Even farming, especially modern intensive farming, has been responsible for a considerable amount of pollution in the river. Chemical sprays leeching through the soil, slurry and oil spilt in yards then washed down drains could create problems, as could road salt washed down drains in winter.
Pollution from all of these sources has virtually killed off all wildlife in the Stour except in its highest reaches, neither has modern society helped by dumping all sorts of rubbish in it, especially plastics which do not break down.
Luckily, we now have the Environmental Authority, one of whose responsibilities is to clean up the rivers and they are already having a profound impact. In recent years, the Stour has gone from being a virtual open sewer to a river that can support fish, perhaps not in its entirety yet but that is only a matter of time. That in turn could attract otters, of which the last records found was at Cookley in the early 1900s. This indicates that the severest pollution has taken place in the last hundred years and not when industry along the river was at its most intense.
Water quality is now monitored regularly and carefully, with any pollution being traced and cured, the people responsible being liable to fines and clean up orders.
Some very famous people have lived at different times in the Stour Valley, a few of the more notable ones being:
- William Shenstone, famous poet, owned and developed the Leasowes Estate at Halesowen.
- Francis Brett Young, author and poet, lived in Halesowen.
- Thomas Attwood, industrialist and political reformer, born in Halesowen.
- Dud Dudley, iron master, owned Cradley Forge.
- Sir Cedric Hardwicke, film actor, born in Lye.
- The Fosters, iron masters, one of which, William, gave the land and paid for the building of St.James's Church at Wollaston, plus the nearby school and headmaster's house.
- Rowland Hill, who started the present postal system, came from and has a statue in Kidderminster.
- Stanley Baldwin, who became Prime Minister, owned Wilden Ironworks. The present factory estate on the sight is called the Baldwin Estate.
The following list of mills compiled from various sources is fairly comprehensive but may not be complete. For example, there are the remains of substantial brick walls and channel which could have been a mill site on the infant river before it passes under the Halesowen bypass, but no record of a mill has been found. Also, the names used could possibly vary from the ones used locally. This is certainly the case with the names of some of the streams, where the main name used in the list is from the Environmental Agency map and local names have been shown in brackets.
Many mill sites have been completely obliterated and only one, Churchill Forge, is known to be still in working order and is open to visitors on a few days each year. It has two seventeen foot diameter waterwheels, one over five foot wide was used to drive the forge machinery, the other at two foot wide was used to drive the bellows for the hearths.
In some instances the original buildings have gone, but there are still traces or remains of water channels, sluices, mill-wheels and even millponds. At Drayton, there is a good example that includes the mill-wheel and stream and the old buildings, but no machinery. Other sites still have old buildings, but not necessarily the original mill buildings. The water channels, etc., have gone, even the streams have been diverted or culverted in some places.
There are a few instances where enthusiastic private owners are attempting to restore mills, but this is a very time consuming and costly business.
At Belbroughton, a whole industry of crown scythe making was developed at the chain of mills and forges in the area. High grade Swedish "blister steel" which formed the cutting edge, was laminated onto a body of wrought iron which had strength but was too soft to retain an edge. The scythes were then sharpened and polished on mill grind stones, many of which can still be seen around the village being used as garden decorations. In its heyday, Belbroughton supplied scythes far and wide including selling many overseas, a far cry from its present rural tranquillity!
Isaac Nash gradually bought up the various works and formed them into flow-line production to make them more efficient. Once they were no longer solely reliant on water-power, the various units were amalgamated on one site near the centre of the village, which although it no longer makes scythes, is still called Nash Works.
Other mill sites were also used to manufacture horticultural equipment, mainly forks and spades of various shapes and sizes. For example, the mill at Wollaston was developed into Nash Works which once employed 300 people.
These days it is hard to imagine the amount of industry that developed along the river. For instance, who living in Kinver would believe that there had been an ironworks at the Hyde. Or that Gothersley on the Smestow Brook was once the site of an ironworks, the only remains of which now is the base of the round-house at what was the loading wharf on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal.
The whole area from Halesowen to beyond Stourbridge was at its worst one great industrial sprawl of smoking chimneys, mines, pits, brickworks, nail-shops, etc., much of which relied on the river for one reason or another. Today most of the industry has disappeared, and what is left seems to be struggling to survive.
Stourbridge, Amblecote, Wordsley and Brierley Hill, which are all on the River Stour or its feeder streams, had very thriving glass industries with products being exported world wide. However, none of the glassworks appear to have been reliant on the River Stour, either for power or ancillary requirements. Unfortunately this is another industry which has all but disappeared.
River Stour and its Tributaries
1 Bells Mill Smestow Brook
2 Grange Furnace (Purton) Smestow Brook
3 Furnace Mill Smestow Brook
4 Trysull Mill Smestow Brook
5 Wodehouse Mill Penn Brook
6 Bratch? Penn Brook
7 Heath Forge Wom Brook
8 Wombourne Mill Wom Brook
9 Smestow Forge Smestow Brook
10 Himley Furnace (Early 17th C only) Himley Brook
11 Sangfield ? Bobs Brook
12 Hunts Mill Holbeche Brook
13 Coppice Mill Holbeche Brook
14 Hubbals Mill Holbeche Brook
15 Wall Heath Forge Holbeche Brook
16 Hinksford Forge Smestow Brook
17 Hollow Forge Smestow Brook
18 Greensforge Smestow Brook
19 Lutley Mill Philley Brook
20 Morfe ? Philley Brook
21 Spittlebrook Spittle Brook
22 Checkhill Spittle Brook
23 Gothersley Iron Works Smestow Brook
24 Illey Mill Illey Brook
25 Halesowen Mill East Stour
26 Halesowen Forge East Stour
27 Grange Mill River Stour
28 Cornbow Mill River Stour
29 Hay Moat Mill River Stour
30 Upper Coombes Mill Coombes Brook
31 Lower Coombes Mill (Pepper) Coombes Brook
32 Golden Orchard Mill Coombes Brook
33 Halesowen Furnace River Stour
34 Hayseech Mill River Stour
35 Corngreaves Bridge Forge River Stour (Corngreaves Iron Works)
36 Lutley Mill Lutley Brook
37 Drews Forge Lutley Brook
38 Shelton Forge Lutley Brook
39 Belle Vale Forge Lutley Brook
40 Hedges Rolling Mill (1832 list) River Stour
41 Lodge Forge River Stour
42 Mill St Cradley ? River Stour
43 Witheymere Mill Mousesweet Brook
44 Stevens Brothers Forge Mousesweet Brook
45 Cradley Forge River Stour
46 Cradley Mill River Stour
47 Lye Forge River Stour
48 Stambermill River Stour
49 Bagleys Mill River Stour
50 Clatterbach Forge (1832 List) River Stour
51 Sheppards Brook Corn Mill Sheppards Brook
52 Yardleys Iron Works River Stour
53 Bedcote Mill River Stour
54 Lower Bedcote Mill River Stour
55 Stourbridge Cloth Mill River Stour
56 Stourbridge Forge (Royal Forge) River Stour
57 Town Mill River Stour
58 Gig Mill Withy Brook
59 Bradleys Iron Works River Stour
60 Wollaston Forge River Stour
61 Leather Mill Audenham Brook
62 Kinver Street Mill Wordsley Brook
63 Bells Mill River Stour
64 Prestwood Wire Works River Stour
65 Stourton Rolling Mill (1832 list) River Stour
66 Hyde Iron Works River Stour
67 Hyde Slitting Mill (Early 17th C) River Stour
68 Kinver Slitting Mill (1832 list) Mill Brook
69 Whittington Iron Works River Stour
70 Sleepy Mill Island Pool Stream
71 Cookley Forge River Stour
72 Wolverley Slitting Mill (1832 list) River Stour
73 Wolverley Forge (1832 list) River Stour
74 Spout Mill Blakedown Brook
75 Breach Mill Blakedown Brook
76 Brakemill ? Blakedown Brook
77 Broome Mill Blakedown Brook
78 Slingbrook Forge Blakedown Brook
79 Churchill Forge (Ganlow Brook) Blakedown Brook
80 Hurcott Mill Blakedown Brook
81 Upper Broadwater Forge Blakedown Brook
82 Lower Broadwater Forge Blakedown Brook
83 Caldwell Forge River Stour
84 Kidderminster Slitting Mill (1832 list) River Stour
85 Falling Sands Rolling Mill (1832 list) River Stour
86 Shut Mill Hoo Brook
87 Moor Hall Mill Hoo Brook
88 Newtown Mill (Ram Alley or Belne Brook) Hoo Brook
89 Bell End Mill (Blundel) " " Hoo Brook
90 Hartle Mill (Bell Hall ?) " " Hoo Brook
91 Savages or Galtons Mill " " Hoo Brook
92 Middle Forge Mill " " Hoo Brook
93 Blade Mill (Waldron) " " Hoo Brook
94 Belbroughton Corn Mill " " Hoo Brook
95 Belbroughton Forge " " Hoo Brook
96 Lower Belbroughton Mill " " Hoo Brook
97 Weybridge Top Forge " " Hoo Brook
98 Weybridge Mill " " Hoo Brook
99 Drayton Mill " " Hoo Brook
100 ? Spinning Mill " " Hoo Brook
101 Hill Pool Forge " " Hoo Brook
102 Barnett Mill (Barnett Brook) Hoo Brook
103 Bellington Mill Hoo Brook
104 Heathy Mill Hoo Brook
105 Stanklyn ? Hoo Brook
106 Captains Pool ? Hoo Brook
107 Hoo Mill Hoo Brook
108 Wilden Iron Works River Stour
109 Upper Mitton Forge River Stour
110 Lower Mitton Forge River Stour
111 Jenny Mill River Stour
The author wishes to acknowledge the following main sources of
West Midland Stour Local Environment Agency Plan, Map 1 - Environment Agency
Looking At The River Stour - Halesowen & Stourbridge Local Resources Group
A Survey Of Surviving Industrial Remains Along The Stour Valley - Dr. Paul Collins
A History Of Stourbridge - Nigel Perry
A History Of Wollaston - History of Wollaston Group
Scythe Making In Belbroughton - Belbroughton Local History Group
Churchill Forge - Churchill Forge Website
Proposed Illustrations ( If published as a book)
Saint Kenelm's Well
Laconstoone Bridge Plaque
Belle Vale Iron Works
Cradley Forge site
" Rural Stour" Cradley
Flooding in Stourbridge
Dry Dock - Foster Rastrick works
Aqueduct, Stourbridge Canal
Round House - Graisley Iron Works
Smestow Brook Joins River Stour
Kinver Mill site
Hyde Iron Works site
Aqueduct, Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal
Confluence with River Severn
Environment Agency map on which all of the mill sites are located and numbered