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The Foley family

If there was one family that dominated the charcoal iron industry in Britain during the 17th and early 18th centuries then it was the Foleys, who were based in the Midlands. The principal members were Richard Foley (1588-1657), Thomas Foley (1616-1677), Robert Foley (1627-1677), Paul Foley (1650-1699) and Philip Foley (1653-1716).

Richard Foley was the head of the family and the man responsible for amassing the family's considerable fortune. He had grown up in Stourbridge in Worcestershire, the son of a yeoman during the reign of Charles I. At this time Stourbridge was the centre of the iron manufacture in the Midlands and Richard worked in one of the numerous branches of this trade - nail-making.

The nail-making industry was at first very prosperous but later began to lose trade to Sweden, where the same products could be made more efficiently and cheaply due to improvements in processing and machinery. Richard Foley recognised that the only way to stay competitive was to learn about the Swedish techniques and so he boarded a ship for Sweden, working his passage as he travelled.

He told no one where he was going and the only possession he took with him was his fiddle, which he used to busk and beg his way to the Dannemora Mines near Uppsala. He was welcomed by the ironworkers there and began to work alongside them learning the process of iron splitting - not that he told his fellow workers that that was what he was up to.

He later returned to England and spoke to a Mr Knight of what he had learned abroad. Mr. Knight and another acquaintance put up the funds needed by Richard Foley to erect buildings and machinery for the splitting of iron. However the process did not work as it should and Richard Foley set off once more for Sweden. This time he made detailed drawings of the machinery and noted the stages of processing.

When Foley returned to England this time the results were very successful and soon he had built up the foundations of a large fortune. By 1629 Richard Foley had set up the first slitting mill in the Midlands, at The Hyde. By 1636 the Foleys' iron empire had grown to include five furnaces, nine forges and slitting mills. The money and expertise of the Foleys enabled them to be involved in several of the large iron-making partnerships of the late 17th century. Two of the most important were the "Ironworks in Partnership" and the "Staffordshire Works".

The "Ironworks in Partnership" was set up in 1692 with the partners agreeing to contribute £39,000, although only £36,277 was finally paid up. Of this total, £21,957 was described as "total debts" and £14,320 as "stock at the works". The original partnership consisted of Paul Foley (a one-sixth share), Philip Foley (one sixth), John Wheeler (one quarter), Richard Avenant (one quarter) and Richard Wheeler (one sixth). The partnership controlled four furnaces, 13 forges, four slitting mills and a warehouse. These ironworks were situated in the Forest of Dean, the Stour Valley and Pembrokeshire.

The second partnership entered into by the Foleys was the "Staffordshire Works". This controlled Mearheath Furnace, forges at Oakamoor, Consall, Chartley and Cannock, as well as slitting mills at Rugeley and Consall.

The Foley enterprises promoted a pattern of trade that benefited the iron industry of the Midlands. Furnaces and forges were often spread out to take advantage of sites with sufficient water power and the availability of charcoal. Pig iron made at the furnaces was then transported to the forges to be converted into wrought iron. By controlling several furnaces and forges in one area the Foleys could limit the distance that pig iron was transported. Most of the forges of the Midlands produced wrought iron for the nail-makers and associated trades of the region. To fulfil the requirements of this industry pig iron had to imported into the area from other furnaces around Britain.

Pig iron also had to be imported into the Midlands because the forges used two different types; cold, short iron (most common) and the tough pig iron (more valuable). Tough pig iron was produced in the Forest of Dean, the Cumberland area and Scotland. Using various mixes of the two types of pig iron in the forge produced a whole range of grades of wrought iron. 

At the beginning of the 18th century reorganisation of the "Ironworks in Partnership" took place, and the group withdrew from the works in the Stour Valley. These were taken over by Richard Knight (most likely the same Mr. Knight who had helped Richard Foley set up his first factory). Richard Knight later joined the partnership and so a link to these works was maintained.

In 1670 Thomas Foley of Great Witley negotiated with the trustees of Sir Henry Lingen for the purchase of Stoke Edith estate to the east of Hereford for his son Paul (who was to become Speaker of the House of Commons). At the time of purchase the estate was estimated at £9,800 by Paul Foley's attorney. The Foleys eventually agreed to pay £6,100 and, after some drawn-out legal wrangling over the contract and Sir Henry Lingen's will, the deal was done in 1677.

Paul Foley went on to buy an estate in the parishes of Yarkhill, Tarrington, Weston Beggard and Sollers Hope, as well as property in Woolhope, Mordiford and Monkhide. The Foleys also had 436 acres of demesne at Stoke Edith, Tarrington, Ashperton and Stretton Grandison. Much of the land purchased by the Foleys was covered in woodland, and this fitted in with their plans to extend their ironfounding business into Herefordshire as the wood could be used for charcoal burning.

In 1679 Paul Foley was elected M.P. for Herefordshire, and he became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1695. He represented Herefordshire until his death in 1697. During his time as M.P. he not only helped to restore the Corporation of Hereford's independence but also promoted an Act to improve the navigation of the river Wye. This last act was not entirely selfless as the navigation of the Wye would reduce the cost of carrying pig iron from his forges in the Forest of Dean to the Foleys' furnaces in Herefordshire.

In 1695-8 Paul Foley rebuilt Stoke Edith House, having already had the gardens re-designed. The house passed down through the Foleys but in 1927 it was burnt down and subsequently demolished.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]