The West Midlands armed soldiers of the English Civil War, and one family grew rich and powerful as a result, writes Chris Upton.
The West Midlands had a chief role to play in the English Civil Wars of the mid-17th century. It was not simply that hostilities began with an inconclusive battle at Edgehill in Warwickshire in 1641, and ended much more decisively at Worcester in 1651.
Nor that, along the way, sieges at Lichfield and Dudley, and battles at Birmingham helped to determine the course of the war.
The West Midlands also had a major part to play in the supply of armaments. The hardware of warfare by the 1600s relied on iron and steel, and nowhere produced as much as Birmingham and the Black Country.
No one epitomises that contribution more than Richard Foley. Over the course of 1644 and 1645 alone, when the first phase of the war was drawing to its close, Foley was supplying thousands of pike-heads – perhaps as many as 10,000 of them – to the royalist cause, together with all kinds of bullets, grenades, cannon, shot and other iron and timber work.
The fact that Richard Foley was, by natural inclination, a Parliamentarian, with little sympathy for the high-handed and high church politics of King Charles, shows how business was rather more important than conscience.
And Foley probably had little choice in the matter anyway. When the King’s nephew – Prince Rupert – came on a business trip to his house in Stourbridge, there was little the ironmaster could do.
The story of Richard Foley is outlined in a fascinating new book by Roy Peacock. Published under the auspices of the Black Country Society, The Seventeenth Century Foleys (£12.95) charts the rise and rise of four generations of the family from late Elizabethan times through to the early 18th century.
For more than a century the Foleys were the dominant force in iron production in the region.
When Roy Peacock launched his book in Oldswinford church back in January, he did so standing above the vault where a dozen Foleys lie. I fondly imagined they might rise from the tomb and stand in the queue for a signed copy.
It was Richard who lay the foundations of the family’s power and influence. Born in Dudley in 1580, he inherited a modest nail-making business and a little land from his father. also named Richard.
By the time he was 50, Richard Foley junior lived in the largest house in Stourbridge, and had an industrial empire that stretched from Brewood in Staffordshire to Shelsley in Worcestershire, and from Bromford to Bridgnorth.
They key to Richard Foley’s rise to prominence was what we would today call “vertical integration”. The iron industry, in the Black Country as elsewhere, had two chief components. First there were the furnaces where the ironstone was smelted with a mixture of limestone and charcoal, and the metal ore extracted. Then there were the forges where iron was hammered, forged and made malleable.
Both these processes had a long history, and the West Midlands was dotted with already existing furnaces and forges. Proximity to timber and charcoal, and to watercourses like the Stour and Smestow brook, determined where they were.
By the early 1620s Richard Foley was using his hard-earned money to acquire both forges and furnaces. In 1624-5 he snapped up Greensforge and the nearby furnace at Himley, adding another forge at Whittington near Kinver two years later, and others at Trescott Gange and Swindon.
Ten miles east, around Wednesbury and West Bromwich, and as far across as Aston, Foley acquired a second group of forges, and a furnace to supply them near Halesowen.
Foley introduced a third component into the equation too. In 1627 he took over the lease of an old fulling mill at the Hyde, near Kinver, and converted it at a cost of some £500 into one of the region’s first slitting mills.
The idea was to roll and cut the iron plate into rods before they were passed on to the nailers, adding considerably to the volume of nails they were able to produce. A second slitting mill, supplied by the eastern forges, was added at West Bromwich a few years afterwards.
And thus Richard Foley had integrated the whole production process from the moment the iron ore was delivered to the furnace to the time the rods were handed over to the nailers.
It probably did little to improve the life or the income of the nail-makers themselves, but it certainly enriched Mr Foley. And his efforts to increase the prosperity of the iron trade, no doubt he would have argued, benefitted all.
When Richard Foley took his family to live in Stourbridge in 1630, it was as a gentleman, and his fine house in the High Street – now the Talbot Hotel – reflected his exalted status.
But Roy Peacock’s book would have been much shorter by far, had not Richard Foley devised astute ways to pass on his wealth and his business to his offspring, and thus he avoided what Peacock calls the “third generation trap”, whereby the wealth earned in one generation is lost by the third.
Nor did they have to wait for a reading of Richard Foley’s will. By the time he died in 1657, Richard’s three sons – Richard, Thomas and Robert – were themselves property owners, helped along the way by their father’s money.
Robert had a house next to his father’s in Stourbridge High Street, while Richard had acquired Longton in North Staffordshire, which just happened to be at the centre of yet another group of forges and furnaces around Stoke-on-Trent. In 1655 the third son, Thomas Foley, purchased Great Witley, which, in time, would be more famous than either.
By the time he came to write his will, then, Richard Foley could concentrate on his daughters and his favourite charities, and reflect on a life well managed indeed.