When I study the history of the West Midlands with my students, I set them a just-for-fun quiz. They are given a list of towns and a list of specialist trades, and they have to marry up the two lists.
Most of the pairings they get effortlessly: Cradley and chains, Stourbridge and glass, Worcester and porcelain, and so forth. The one that always pulls them up short is Belbroughton in Worcestershire. Now what on earth might they have made in Belbroughton ?
The answer was the result of one of those chance combinations of regional demand and local skills, coupled with a close proximity to the Black Country, which generated most of the other pairs too. In Belbroughton they made scythes.
In this part of rural Worcestershire there was always a pressing need for edge-tools for agricultural work, and especially for that great leveller of corn and grass, the hand scythe. Such sharp edges could not be made easily by hand; they needed grinding on a mill stone; and that mill needed power to turn it.
The source of power for Belbroughton’s mills came courtesy of the Ram Alley or Belne Brook, which plunges down from the Clent Hills to join the River Stour at Kidderminster. A whole series of mills tapped the brook’s waters from at least the 13th century, gradually switching from corn milling to metal grinding as the industrial revolution began to take off. Thomas Aston Waldron set up the first scythe works in the village in the 1790s.
The industrialising West Midlands not only provided a place like Belbroughton with its raw materials; it often supplied the entrepreneurship as well. Savages Mill, for example, was purchased in 1793 by the Galton family, who made their gun barrels in Birmingham, before despatching them to Belbroughton for grinding. Later still, Galton’s Mill, as it came to be called, moved into scythe production.
The man who, more than any, laid the foundation for Belbroughton’s supremacy in scythe making was Isaac Nash, who also brought Black Country expertise into the village. Nash served his apprenticeship as a forger and plater in Dudley, before moving to Belbroughton to take over Newtown Forge in 1840.
At this time the Belbroughton mills worked in combination, one worked doing the forging or plating, and another the grinding and polishing. Isaac Nash was the first to achieve vertical integration, taking over neighbouring mills so that he could combine the whole process. By the 1880s Nash owned or rented some eleven mills and forges in the area, and was employing more than one hundred workers.
The Grim Reaper finally came for Isaac Nash in September 1897, no doubt wielding a locally-made scythe, but the firm’s future was secure, at least for another half-century.
Isaac Nash put Belbroughton scythes on the international stage, supplying blades across the Commonwealth, as well as to the United States, South America and parts of Europe. Danish farmers alone bought some 10,000 a year. Yet curiously many of the Nash exports bore the trade name “Thomas Waldron”, the man that had started the industry in the first place. When Nash bought out Waldron’s, he purchased the right to retain their name.
Bear in mind that different parts of the world, as well as different counties in England, preferred scythes of a particular design, varying greatly in length and thickness. In addition, different plants – whether they be mint, lavender, hay, grass, hedge and even peat – required handles and blades of variable length and thickness. The Belbroughton scythe-makers had to meet all of those many particular demands.
What made the Nash scythes and sickles the industry leader was the way in which they were put together. While cheaper blades could be made from a single piece of steel, the Belbroughton scythes consisted of a layer of metals. On the outside were two thin strips of Swedish iron (considered to be the best in
Europe), and sandwiched between them was the sharp cutting steel, which was supplied from Sheffield.
Such a blade went through a complex process of welding together and forging, before it was tempered and hardened. Then, when the scythe was ground, the cutting steel was exposed. The Belbroughton blade was thus more easily sharpened, and less prone to breaking than its less robust rivals.
It was ironic that the mechanisation which had stimulated the Belbroughton industry was eventually the cause of its downfall, as agriculture shifted from hand-operated cutting to mechanical harvesting.
In the wake of such changes, Nash’s diversified into other areas, supplying butcher’s knives and palm cutting equipment to Africa, but slowly the mills fell silent. The firm was taken over a number of times in the 1960s, ending its days as part of Spear & Jackson. In April 1968 the works came to a grinding halt.
Most visitors to Belbroughton today would have no idea that it had an industrial past, and there is little in the village today to give any hint of its significance. A few of the old mill pools survive, but most of the mills themselves have been demolished.
You can add Belbroughton scythes to that long list of lost industries of the West Midlands. But that’s where we came in.