This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99

Preserving and restoring Finch’s famous Foundry

Posted in Geology, Historical articles, History, Industry on Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about Cornwall’s Finch Foundry originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 719 published on 25 October 1975.

stereotype foundry, picture, image, illustration

A stereotype foundry in the mid-nineteenth century

If you have travelled to or from Cornwall along the A30, you will almost certainly have passed through the hamlet of Sticklepath. It lies at the foot of a steep hill four miles east of Okehampton, on the northern fringe of Dartmoor. A few small, stone-built cottages and a shop or two, are all that it consists of. You probably think it not worth looking at. But how wrong you would be!

For this is the setting in which you can find one of the most interesting examples of a family-run manufactory that has ever existed. Do not expect to find a factory in the usual sense. There are no smoking chimneys here, no warehouses, railway sidings, iron-barred gates or office blocks. But it is a workplace for all that. And it has been a busy one for a century-and-a-half.

In 1814, William Finch bought what had been a cloth mill, and proceeded to set up in business as a manufacturer mainly of edged tools for the tin miners, farmers and the agricultural workers in the region. He started in a very small way. But he had one very important asset. Almost on his very doorstep he had an unlimited source of power to operate any machinery he might install. This was the swift-flowing water of the River Taw. William Finch was a clever man. Very soon he had harnessed this water to serve his ever-growing needs.

To begin with, he had built and installed a 10 foot (3m) diameter water-wheel, and constructed a leat to carry water to it from the river in such a way that the water would fall on his over-shot wheel. As soon as it became necessary, he had a second, and larger, wheel built and installed, and then a third, larger still. With three water-operated wheels, he could make full use of the various machines that, over the years, he installed in his stone-built workshop.

The Finch family – William, and his sons and their sons too – ran this foundry, as it was always called, and is still called, for very nearly a hundred and fifty years. Strictly, it is not a foundry, for neither wrought-iron nor cast-iron nor steel is smelted there. It is in fact a small engineering works, its many and varied pieces of machinery operated not by steam but by water power.

In 1960, the Finch brothers Albany, Thomas and James, realised that all those years of continuous vibration, from the heavy weight of water tumbling on to the giant water-wheels, and the pounding of the heavy machinery that they operated, had at last made the stone workshops unsafe for further use. Reluctantly, they decided to close the workshop down. It looked like the end of a record run.

But then its fame had come to be recognised very much farther afield than the slopes of Dartmoor and neighbouring Cornwall. Also, it was realised that such a place would soon decay and fall into ruins, if nothing was done about it. So, the Finch Foundry Trust was set up, and volunteers moved in, as they have done in recent years in so many fields of activity, to save what they could and restore as much of the Finch brothers’ work as possible.

This is certainly a place to visit, and visitors are welcome. The River Taw, of course, continues to flow past the old building. But the three water-wheels have been strengthened where the ironwork made this necessary, and the giant buckets of heavy elm planks have been rebuilt or replaced – thirty of them in one smaller wheel, no fewer than forty-eight in the 5 foot (1.5m) thick 12 foot (3.6m) diameter one. The axles and their massive bearings have been checked.

These three wheels, of course, were the “power house” of the Finch Foundry throughout its long life. One of them was connected, through an elaborate system of cogs and gearwheels, to the enormous trip, tilt or drop hammers. These were mechanically operated and vastly heavier than any that even the brawniest smith could wield. The hammerhead, variously shaped for different types of forgings, rose and fell at carefully regulated intervals according to the controlled speed of the water-wheel. The forging was held in position on a massive, giant-sized anvil bedded into the stone floor of the smithy. The smith held the forging gripped between powerful tongs, turning it this way and that between the hammer blows. If the forging was large, then a mate stood facing him. The noise was so great that they had to communicate by exchanging signs, not words.

This same wheel could also operate an enormous pair of shears that could cut through cold metal up to several inches thick as easily as you can cut a piece of paper with scissors. Like the tilt hammers, the giant shears were opened and closed by a series of massive cams. These were set in the rim of a wheel mounted on an axle driven by the force of the water pouring into the buckets outside.

For the actual forging, powerful bellows were required. To operate these, one of the other wheels was brought into action. The air from the bellows, which were far larger than a blacksmith could work by hand, was forced through a series of 4 inch (101mm) ducts to whichever furnace or hearth was requiring it, to step-up the heat to the right degree. Cherry-red, dark red, white hot, the forging passed through these stages until it was ready to be transferred to the anvil. The power of the water, falling on to the wheel, brought the forging to the exact heat.

While power-hammering and forging were going on, and the anvils and furnaces were in use, grinding was being carried on in another part of the Finch Foundry. For this, yet another water-wheel was called upon. The grinders were highly skilled craftsmen. They had to be, for the products coming from the Finch brothers’ works had always to be of the highest possible quality. Most of these were edged tools. The blades were laminated. Mild steel was used, and also a harder, brittle steel, the middle of the ‘sandwich’. If expertly handled, this could take on a razor-sharp cutting-edge.

The grinders lay stomach-down on a board suspended over the grindstone, which ran in water-troughs. The stones varied from coarse to fine. Power-driven, they ran steadily, and the grinders had to judge to a split second how long each blade should be applied to the spinning rim to acquire the right edge. One grindstone was five feet in diameter to begin with, but was reduced to half that diameter with constant use over the years.

The Finch Foundry turned out a wide variety of edged tools, the names of which may sound strange to us today. Cross-handle hay-knives, spear-hooks, twil-bills, wing turf iron hooks, crank grass hooks, Kent axes, straight browse hooks, Devon potato choppers, and many others. Every item was designed for a special use by a particular user, perfectly suited to its requirement.

In its heyday, twenty craftsmen worked there, all of them highly skilled. It was claimed that one five-man team could turn out 400 swan-neck hoes in a single day, from the iron to the finished product. Hours were long, but it was no vain boast. Whatever their task, these men took pride in turning out the best.

Since 1960, Finch’s Foundry has operated no longer as an individual concern. But it has been brought back to life by the Trust and you can go and see it today as it was for all those generations. The water-wheels work, the tilt-hammers operate and there are samples of all their products on view. And in the background, the waters of the Taw, which were the foundry’s source of power, slide cheerfully past, playing their vital part, as they have for so long, in this example of our long heritage.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.