Where there’s muck.....
Try to imagine the tranquil river Avon between Bath and Bristol as a booming hub of power and industry. It’s not easy to do, but that’s how it was 300 years ago. Large numbers of furnaces and mills colonized the banks of the river, feeding the burgeoning local brass industry. By lucky chance one of these industrial complexes survives, just upstream from Keynsham. Tony Coverdale from the Saltford Brass Mill Project came to the February gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society to tell the story.
Such is the importance of this rare survivor of early industry that the buildings have been scheduled as an ancient monument because of their unique status within the UK, and possibly within Europe, as forerunners of the industrial revolution. Though in fact it was the ‘glorious’ revolution of 1688 that made the whole thing possible, when royal monopolies were dissolved and entrepreneurial businessmen stepped in with new ways and ideas.
One such monopoly was the trade with Africa, where there was a huge market for goods manufactured from brass. It was said that an African would step over a golden guinea to get at a brass farthing, such was the popularity of the metal. In 1702 the Bristol Brass Company took advantage of the opportunities to set up foundries and mills in Bristol and along the Avon.
Many people know of Abraham Darby as a leading figure of the industrial revolution, but few realise that he learned his craft in Bristol with the Bristol Brass Company. While working here he visited Holland for a spot of industrial espionage, bringing back secret processes, experience and a few skilled foundry workers. In 1709 he left Bristol to set up his own works at Coalbrookdale and become a world renowned leader of the industrial revolution.
With Mr. Poldark mining his copper down in Cornwall, why set up a brass industry around Bristol? In fact, to make brass, it took four times as much coal as copper. So, together with zinc from the Mendips, local coal, and transport along the Avon into the Bristol Channel this was a prime location. Saltford originally had 4 furnaces for annealing (hardening) the brass, together with 4 waterwheels that powered sets of mighty hammers where men would beat the brass into pots and pans.
The output of brass expanded dramatically throughout the 18th century. In 1770 two of the waterwheels were used to drive huge rollers which produced sheets of brass that were used to sheath the hulls of ships. One of the original furnaces survives, and one of the mill’s wheels is still powered by the waters of the Avon. Replica hammers and rollers have been installed in the mill using early plans and diagrams (including a 1750 report of a Swedish spy), together with Victorian photographs.
Saltford mill finally stopped production in 1925. The complex of buildings was taken over by a local landowner who turned it into an early form of sports centre with a squash court and skittle alley. The remaining waterwheel powered a dynamo to produce electric light. After WW2 a series of speculative owners never quite got round to redeveloping the site as a hotel (luckily) and in 1977 the buildings were listed as grade 2*, which made development rather difficult. In 1981 the site was leased by Avon Industrial Buildings Trust and scheduled as a monument in 1986.
In 1998 the Saltford Brass Mill Project was set up to restore, conserve, research and interpret the site. There is now much for the general public to see on the early industry of the area. Tony is one of guides for groups on the site tour, and we thank him for this fascinating talk on a little known but important local topic.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.