"Goin' Down Hayseech" by Stuart Robinson
In the Beginning
The River Stour separates the Parishes of Halesowen and Rowley and once formed part of the boundary between Worcestershire and Staffordshire. The river has its sources in the hills above Halesowen and after leaving the town it flows through the Hayseech Gap between Haden Hill and Hawne on its way to Overend and Cradley. From Corngreaves Bridge you can walk upstream towards Hayseech. The ground rises through Haden Park up to Haden Hill, while along the river you are walking in a landscape tormented by its industrial past. Here lies the graveyard of Corngreaves forge where spades and shovels were made. It's a short walk to Hayseech and there you can pause again to ponder past events and personalities.
The Gun Barrel Industrial Centre
Although the buildings now known as the Gun Barrel Industrial Centre lie on the North bank of the river, they were inextricably linked with Cradley and Halesowen. Exploring the history of Hayseech can be compared to a journey in time where there is often much to see and interpret, while at others the view is obscured. New research illuminates events in the first part of the nineteenth century although our journey in time begins much earlier.
The Hadens of the hill were christened in St. Giles' church at Rowley village, but traced their ancestors back before the parish registers began. Their estates once included the Tudor Hall on the hill, three mills and a cottage at Hayseetch (sic). Ultimately the t was dropped from the spelling and the hamlet began to grow. There is evidence for metal-working on the site in 1690, a forge in 1775 and Brade's Iron Works opened in about 1780. The first phase in the development of the mill was instigated in 1793 and in 1795 a lease was granted on 16 February with a term of 99 years. Title deeds refer to a forge, boring and grinding mills, workshops, tenements for workers, a coppice (probably managed as a supply of charcoal) and other land owned by John Eld. The Eld family's principal estates were at Seighford near Stafford, though John's parents lived in Rowley parish at one time and John was born there. John died in 1796 and his estates in Rowley Regis and Halesowen were sold to set up a trust for his grandsons. The Earl of Dudley purchased some of these in 1804.
The Burr family is the one most associated with Hayseech Mill. John Burr senior was a Warwickshire man who moved to Halesowen in 1775. He earned a living as a millwright, a skilled worker who built and repaired mill machinery. According to one account John built a gun barrel works at Hayseech on the site of an earlier mill. This view is supported by a stone inscription 'Burr 1801' in the gable of the grinding shop at the entrance to the works. Until we have examined other evidence the only safe conclusion is that one building can be dated and John Burr was there at the time. Another account concurs that a gun barrel mill was built in 1801 and adds that an existing three-storey farmhouse was converted into a dwelling for the master with the basement used as an office. This account placed John Burr as the master, i.e. the person who managed industrial operations and leased the premises from the owner. Although John Burr junior was born circa 1780 and also worked in mills, most accounts agree that the inscription referred to the father though there is ambiguity over the identity.
About this time the leaseholder was actually Thomas Gill of Jennen's Row in Birmingham. Gill was a general manufacturer of iron and steel ware with a special line in ceremonial swords for the Royal family. Gill died in April 1801 and the mill was sold by auction at the Union tavern in Birmingham in November 1802. Prospective purchasers were invited to obtain particulars either from "Mr Robinson on the premises" (a tantalising reference to my own surname) or from Thomas Bate, Gill's clerk at Hayseech and an executor of his will. This settles the above question: Gill was the master and so Burr was probably the millwright. The building dated 1801 may have been commissioned by Gill and only completed after he died. Gill and Burr were probably the main developers of the site after 1795.
There is a concise description of the mill at the time of that sale. Water was supplied to two water wheels from a mill pool of two acres with a fall of eighteen feet. Both wheels were of the typical diameter of sixteen feet and they provided power to machinery for boring and grinding gun barrels, polishing sword blades and other operations. Other machinery included a plating and balling forge with air furnace and outbuildings which comprised five tenements for clerks and other workers, a two-story warehouse for scrap materials, a second warehouse, forging shops, clay and sand house, compting house, brewing-houses and stables. In addition there were circa seven acres of pasture under cultivation and right of pasture on Hayseech common. The advertisement claimed that it was the "best and most substantial mill on the Stour" and newly erected, though it wasn't a specialised gun barrel works and was used for a variety of metal-working tasks benefiting from water power. In fact it could be adapted for rolling and slitting or for drawing wire.
There was another change of ownership after the mill was again advertised for sale in March 1807. The mill description was very similar to that at the earlier sale, but the new advertisement revealed that further developments had occurred since 1803. They would have required the skills of a good millwright and prospective purchasers were invited to obtain particulars from "the millwright, Mr. Burr of Halesowen". There was a new gentleman's dwelling house and a "double-power steam engine" with associated machinery and a grinding mill had been installed in addition to the two original water wheels. The mill was fully operational and the advertisement claimed that it was the most "complete and substantial in the River Stour, inferior to none in the kingdom" and that the design of the machinery was based "upon the newest and most approved principles".
Traditionally mills used renewable energy sources to process grain, textiles and metals. Early steam engines were limited to crude operations such as pumping water out of mines. Steam could only be used as a prime mover in manufacturing after James Watt had developed his dual-action rotary engine. Watt's engine was a breakthrough because it was both more efficient and it transmitted power as a continuous uniform rotary action (note 1). This was essential for accurate boring, grinding and polishing of metal and glass and the machine at Hayseech was obviously one of Watt's engines.
John Burr married in 1804, signed the marriage register as John Burr junior and buried his father in November of the following year. His wife Sarah was the daughter of Richard Eaton who owned a mill at Lutley. John might have become the new master at Hayseech Mill in 1807, but in 1825 he was declared a bankrupt with debts of £400 despite his several occupations: ironmaster, millwright, surveyor, dealer and chapman. England was in the grip of a financial crisis and banks recalled loans to meet payments while others collapsed in the panic to convert bank notes into gold sovereigns. Bankruptcies and unemployment were widespread nationally. The new industrial economy was driven by bank loans as well as mills. Those masters whose loans were recalled were themselves caught up in events and perhaps that was John's fate.
The history of the mill is obscure for a few years until 1828 when Benjamin and Joseph Beasley and William Farmer took out a lease with tenure of fourteen years until 25 March 1842. Their rent of £240 per annum was paid in advance in quarterly instalments, but it appears that a middleman took a hefty commission because the rent received by the freeholder was only £120 per annum paid in half-yearly instalments. The new masters and tenants were two brothers from one of the Cradley Beasley families and their brother-in-law William Farmer. They were the sort of people who are normally exiled from history. Over the next fourteen years Beasleys and Farmer manufactured gun barrels, spectacle glasses, nails, chains, spades and shovels. The diversity of their operations is astounding though their gun barrels were sent to gunsmiths who manufactured the final article. There were thirteen other stages in the manufacture of a gun.
They were associated with the Parish of Rowley before 1828. Benjamin and his sisters Elizabeth and Frances married in 1810, but their weddings were in Clent rather than Cradley. At first sight this seemed a rather odd venue for Cradley folk. However, at that time Rowley was a chapelry of Clent and the Rev. Lyttleton Perry was the vicar of both Clent and Rowley. Perry's flock included all the iron workers on his side of the Stour and he insisted that they married in Clent to save himself the journey to Rowley. The three siblings were therefore working and living in Rowley Parish.
William Farmer came from Tamworth and married Frances Beasley. William could only make a mark in the marriage register, but Frances and her siblings could all write their names. He was an optical glass grinder in 1821 and so his experience in working optical glass and his association with Benjamin Beasley predated the joint venture at Hayseech Mill. Glass lenses were ground and polished with a metal tool and special powders using a circular motion. Each tool was machined to the correct curvature, a convex tool for a concave lens and vice versa. Presumably Frances completed the householder's schedule for the 1841 census and gave her husband's occupation as an optician, a slip which reveals something about her education. The third partner, Joseph Beasley, was the youngest son of the Cradley family. He lived and worked in Hayseech until his marriage to Ann Auden in 1838 when he moved to Rowley village.
Benjamin Beasley - Gun barrel Borer, Optical Glass Grinder and Publican
Benjamin was first mentioned as a gun barrel borer in 1814 in Corngreaves and again in 1818 "near the rolling mill in the Parish of Rowley Regis". At the time there were only a few cottages at Corngreaves Bridge where Benjamin and his family might have lived. He had several occupations between 1822 and 1835 when Cradley Chapel registers referred to him as an optical glass grinder at Haysuch (sic), a gun barrel borer of Rowley Regis parish, a publican or a victualler in Cradley. The curate at Cradley chapel must have tired of writing out Benjamin's occupations and once described him as a publican, &c, &c. Dual occupations were quite normal in the Black Country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and Benjamin's father was also a victualler and a gun barrel maker.
Benjamin moved back to Cradley circa 1826 and ran the (Rising) Sun inn at Overend as well as working as a gun-barrel borer. It was less than a mile from Overend to Hayseech and Benjamin could easily have walked to the mill. His neighbour and brother-in-law William Robinson had also settled in Overend. William married Elizabeth Beasley in Clent and became a clerk and warehouse man at 'Beasley and Co.'. Their son Moses was a gun barrel filer. While Benjamin moved back to Overend his sister Mary and her husband Joseph Edge, a nail maker and gun welder, moved across the river to live in Hayseech. Gun barrels were made in stages and Joseph welded strips of iron together to form a crude barrel which was then turned on a lathe by a different operator. The Edges raised their family at Hayseech and by 1841 five sons and a daughter all worked at the mill. Mary's eldest son Joseph was a glass grinder and he lived next door to his grandmother Ann Beasley, who stayed with William and Frances Farmer.
Although there was a strong family presence at Hayseech for support, socialising and apparently for recruitment, it should not be presumed that the mill was exclusively a family affair at that time. On the one hand organisation at the mill was quite different from that of the cottage industries which were based on units of the nuclear family. On the other it did not conform to that of the factory system where unrelated overseers exercised discipline and there was no intimacy between employees. The workers at Hayseech were wage earners engaged in specialised tasks at different parts of the site, but some of them were closely related to the bosses.
Shortly before the Beasleys' and Farmer's lease was due to run out the mill and two freehold plots of land were advertised for sale by auction on 6 January 1842 at the White Horse hotel, Congreve Street in Birmingham. The mill was in "excellent repair and condition" and the three "respectable tenants" were responsible for showing prospective purchasers around the premises. However, the purchaser knew his way around without any guide because he was John Burr. The previous tenants did not renew their lease and moved their operations to the District Iron Works in Brasshouse Lane, Smethwick (note 2).
The Birmingham Gun Barrel Company
Over the 1830s John Burr had earned a living as an engineer, surveyor and mining agent. In 1838 his bother-in-law Richard Augustus Eaton also went bankrupt. Dick had succeeded his father at Lutley and also owned Shilton forge, Cradley. He ground both corn and gun barrels, but he had mortgaged property to finance repairs and development. Burr was one of the surveyors who valued the properties prior to the sale of the freehold and mortgage. John eventually recovered from bankruptcy and made gun barrels again at Hayseech. In 1850 he ordered replacements for one of the water wheels from Turtons of Kidderminster. He bought freehold property including Bundle Hill House in Hasbury where he lived with his family. He was 71 in 1851 and gave his occupation as a civil engineer in the census. When he died in 1856 the gun barrel business was already Burr and Son and his sons Arthur Richard and Alfred were the main beneficiaries of his estate.
John had accumulated a collection of books, drawings, papers and instruments during his career as an engineer and surveyor and bequeathed them to Arthur. The leasehold and freehold premises at Hayseech and, in the words of the will itself, the "goodwill of my business as a gun barrel manufacturer", were inherited jointly by Arthur and Alfred who continued to run the business. Both were civil engineers and gun barrel manufacturers employing twenty men and ten boys in 1861. In 1870 they donated a small piece of their land at Hayseech to a group of Methodists who built a chapel. Arthur was a bachelor who died in 1875; Alfred and his wife were childless and his retirement in 1878 ended another family association with the mill. The original lease expired in 1894, but the Birmingham Gun Barrel Company was still operating on the site in 1901.
We have almost finished our journeys along the Stour and through time. When we arrive at Hayseech we are confronted by the past and experience a sense of walking in the footsteps of ancestors. The mill pond was drained and filled-in when the mill no longer used river water for power, but the mill buildings are neither ruined nor derelict. The original farmhouse was converted into flats and the remainder of the site was redeveloped in 1983 by Emery (Halesowen) Ltd. who recognised that the mill is an important part of the industrial heritage in the Stour valley. Here you can reflect on its history: the diversity of industry, the role of families, millwrights who became engineers, the workers who became the masters and John Burr who bid for his mill in a Birmingham hotel.
Any piece of history is only as good as its sources. I am indebted to several authors for secondary sources and to the staff at Dudley Archives and Local History Service and Worcester History Centre for primary ones. My personal thanks are due to Nigel Brown, Charles Cooper, Jill Guest and Jackie Kendall for their help. Text and original research by Stuart Robinson.
1. Congreve Street was later renamed Summer Row.
2. Steam was originally condensed in the cylinder which contained the piston. Watt condensed the steam in a separate vessel which was maintained at low temperature to improve efficiency. Steam was admitted alternately above and below the piston, hence the term double-action steam-powered (double-power steam engine in the advertisement). Watt's other contribution was to engineer transmission in the manner required by the manufacturing mills.
3. The history of Beasleys and Farmer will be related in a future article.
Abstract of title to the Birmingham Gun Barrel company to land at Hayseech in the Parish of Rowley Regis in the county of Stafford, 29 April 1886.
Advertisement for the sale of freehold and leasehold estates at Hayseech on 6 January 1842 by auction in Birmingham.
Amphlett, John (1890) A Short History of Clent, Parker & Co., London.
Anon, (December 1988) 'The John Burr Story', Black Country Bugle annual.
Anon (1984) 'The Gun Barrel Industrial Centre, Hayseech, Halesowen', Emery (Halesowen) Ltd.
Aris's Birmingham Gazette, 18 October 1802.
Dudley Estate Archives, Dudley Archives and Local History Service, Coseley.
Barnsley, Peter Two Old Cradley Mills, Cradley Links web site.
Bentley Trade Directory (1840/41).
Booth, D. T. N. (1985) 'Water mills and water powered works on the river Stour: part 4 Halesowen' in Wind and Water Mills No. 6 the occasional journal of the Midland Wind and Water Mills Group.
Bowling, R (1983) New lease of life for early industrial estate, County Express, 16 August.
Census Enumerator's Books:- Cradley (1841) HO107 Piece 1197; Rowley Regis (1841) HO107 997; Hasbury & Halesowen (1851) HO107 2034; Halesowen (1861-1881) RG9 2063/4, RG10 3018 & 3020, RG11 2885.
Cradley Chapel Registers, 74/1-5, Worcester History Centre.
Ferguson, James (1784) Lectures on Select Subjects in mechanics, Hydrostatics, Hydraulics, Pneumatics and Optics, London.
Gwilliam, H. W. (1980) Forges, Furnaces and Mills on the Upper Reaches of the River Stour, Worcester History Centre.
Hunt, J (2004) A History of Halesowen, Phillimore, Chichester.
Marriage Registers of St Mary, Kingswinford, Dudley Archives and Local History Service, Coseley.
National Burial Index (2004), Federation of Family History Societies & Associates.
Old Ordnance Survey Maps, Cradley (South) (1901), Alan Godfrey, Consett
Page, W and Willis-Bund, J.W. (eds.) (1913) The Victoria History of Worcestershire, Volume iii, Dawsons, Folkestone.
Parish Registers of St. John the Baptist, Halesowen, Worcester History Centre, 126/4.
Parish Registers of St. Leonard, Clent, 64/2 Worcester History Centre.
Parish Register Transcripts of St Giles, Rowley Regis, Staffordshire Parish Registers Society. The originals were destroyed in a fire in 1913.
Pigot & Co. Trade Directories (1829, 1835 & 1844) Halesowen with the villages of Cradley & Netherend & neighbourhoods.
Post Office Directory of Birmingham, Warwick., Worcs. and Staffs. (1854)
Price, Benjamin (1970), 'Centenary of Hayseech Methodist Chapel', The Circular, from the private collection of Mrs. J. Guest.
Rowlands, Marie B (1975), Masters and Men in the West Midland Metalware Trades before the Industrial Revolution, Manchester University Press, Manchester.
Rowley Regis Parish map, A622, Dudley Archives and Local History Service, Coseley.
Staffordshire Advertiser, 19 March 1807.
The Universal Directory, 1793-1798. Facsimile edition, Michael Winton, Kings Lynn (1993).
Wills: Joseph Beasley of Upperend (1821), Worcester History Centre, PG1036; PCC John Burr (1854) 11/2228, John Eld (1796) 11/1275, Thomas Gill (1801) 11/1356, Thomas Haden (1652) 11/245 & Henry Haden (1675)11/3512.