ARCHAEOLOGICAL INTEREST AND EARLY DEVELOPMENT
The Churnet Valley has a long history of industrialisation and exploitation of local minerals. Local supplies of iron ore (mined from the area to the north-west of Oakamoor), charcoal (from the immediate wooded hills and valleys, Alton Park and Croxden Abbey woods), and later coal (mined in the Cheadle area) and copper (mined at Ecton), together with a reliable source of water power from the River Churnet and its tributaries, provided all of the essential resources required
to process metals within a small geographical area.
Local supply and production enabled the costs of transportation to be kept low and created all of the factors required to foster important metallurgical industries. This took place from the 13th century until the 21st century, a fairly remarkable continual process of industrial development.
The closest medieval settlement to Oakamoor is Farley, to the south-east, which contains evidence of ridge and furrow within the landscape. The land to the north and south of Oakamoor was only properly “farmed” from the 18th century and by this time there would have been considerable clearance of woodland, enabling the development of associated isolated farmsteads.
From the earliest period of industrial development, Oakamoor was pivotal to the
development of the local mineral industry, although there were other satellite developments, at Consall and Froghall.
Oakamoor was located at a strategic point in the river where the river was shallowest and easily fordable. The development of industry would have contributed to the need to cross the river more easily, hence a bridge was constructed as early as the 14th century. The Croxden Chronicles referred to bridges over the Churnet in 1370, and the replacement of a bridge in timber at Oakamoor was recorded in the 1590s. Following flash floods, this was regularly repaired or replaced.
A report to the Stafford Quarter Sessions in 1708 identified the presence of a decayed
wooden bridge that was considered to be very dangerous and noted that several people, horses and cattle had drowned trying to cross the River Churnet at Oakamoor. At the next Session, the Court awarded £100 to build a stone bridge for carts and carriages. Although the court paid the building costs, the local people had to carry the 300 tons of stone to the site. The bridge was built between 1709 and 1710.
The bridge was widened upstream in 1778 to comply with the turnpike requirements following the creation of the Blythe Marsh (Bridge) to Thorpe (Spend Lane) Turnpike
Road in 1762 (B5417), which ran east / west.
Oakamoor is located in a strategic place, at the junction of three historic parishes, Kingsley, Cheadle and Alton parish, where the townships of Cotton and Farley (Alton parish), on the east side of the river, met the township of Whiston (Kingsley parish), east of the river and north of the Cotton Brook, and Cheadle parish (west of the river). Eventually in 1897 Oakamoor became a parish in its own right but until that time the diverse histories of the parishes and historic manors had a significant impact on the development of the valley – land to the east of the Churnet, owned largely
by the Earls of Shrewsbury for most of the industrial period, was relatively undeveloped, whilst land on the west side of the valley was acquired and developed by the important industrialists.
Early Industrial Development – 13th Century
The earliest written evidence of iron manufacture in the valley is from 1290; “old mines of iron” and “old Forges” Veteres Forgias were described in “The Secunda Carta of Chedle” at Esteswelle (Eastwall) – the Santcheverel family granted the manor of Hounds Cheadle to Croxden Abbey in parcels between the late 12th and late 13th century but retained the rights to their mines and forges at Eastwall. These forge sites would have been hand-forging iron, before the advent of the hammer mill.
The earliest process of producing iron was by using a clay-built furnace, called a
“bloomery”. A fire was made from charcoal, intensified by manually-operated bellows, and small pieces of iron-ore were laid on top of the burning charcoal. Little pieces of bloom (wrought iron) were produced. This process of smelting, extracting the iron from the ore, had gone on for many centuries in Britain from even before the Roman period, and in north Staffordshire from at the least the 13th century. Sites with a stone bloomery floor have been discovered during archaeological investigation in recent decades along the Churnet Valley.
Around the same time, at the end of the 13th century, there is documentary evidence that the monks at Croxden Abbey were burning charcoal as a source of revenue, using wood felled from Hawksmoor and their woodlands, which extended from the Churnet to the south-west towards Counslow, near Threapwood. These woodlands were being managed on a 20-year cycle of coppicing and re-planting.
Remnants of the bloomery process of making iron can be found scattered around the area in the form of heaps of slag or “scoriae”. The largest of these bloomery sites were at Eastwall and Mathers Wood. Other sites have been identified from deposits of slag at Frame Wood, Star Wood, Cherry Eye Bridge (East and South), Consall Wood, Wallgrange and Jackson Wood, the latter about 800 m to the north of Eastwall Farm across the River Churnet.
16th Century Developments in Iron Making
Water-power was applied to ironmaking from the 13th century onwards, when bloomeries were enlarged through the addition of water-powered bellows and when water-power was used to drive large tilt-hammers at forge sites. By the middle of the 16th century, there was a hammer-mill on the Churnet at Oakamoor recorded in a court case – a “Forge Okam More in Alveton” (1573).
Pig-iron brands were pounded by the water-powered hammer, worked by the hammerman, before the next stage of the process of refining the metal by further forging. The hammer mill site and small forge were located on the site of the later Brassworks, on the west bank of the River Churnet (downstream of the bridge). By the end of the 16th century, Oakamoor was a small hamlet with a few houses.
In 1602 a victualler was recorded at ‘Okemore’, indicating that there was enough activity and passing trade to warrant food to be served.
The Countess of Shrewsbury, the riparian landowner, received an annual rent for the water of the Churnet to drive the forge. The land to the east of the River was still largely in the ownership of the Earl of Shrewsbury by the time of the Tithe map of 1844.
A major development in smelting iron took place locally in 1593, when a blast furnace
was purpose-built to the south-west of Oakamoor, at Greendale. This was located in a remote place alongside the brook running through Dimmingsdale, on a site that had been previously used as bloomery in the late medieval period. The blast furnace process of smelting was continuous, operating with a charge of several months at a time, and needed to be located away from habitation;
if there was already a small settlement at Oakamoor, this may be why a remote site was chosen some distance from the existing forge. The blast furnace combined charcoal with the iron ore and limestone flux in a process known as indirect reduction.
The site of this furnace is at the head of the Dimmingsdale valley but the main part was built over by Old Furnace Cottage. The name of the furnace is preserved in the names of the local houses.
“Old Furnace” was, therefore, the first iron-smelting blast furnace to be built in the north of the County. It was operating for a short but productive period between 1593 and 1608, and was the initiative of Lawrence Loggin, under the ownership initially of Sir Francis Willoughby, and later Sir Percival who effectively used the proceeds to prop up his debts by charging a high £140 annual rent.
Recorded as the ‘Oakymoor Works’, it was believed by Loggin that local supplies of charcoal and ore would keep the furnace in production. However, rising raw material costs, together with rent rises and problems in keeping key workers at the site, were all factors that made it unsustainable.
This furnace used the water power from the stream, via a millpond, to drive a waterwheel-driven set of bellows. It was running in conjunction with the earlier complex of buildings alongside the River Churnet, (to the south of the present bridge) which comprised the forge, the hammer mill and a purpose-built chafery and finery. Loggin persuaded Willoughby to invest in extending the hammer mill and building the new finery and chafery. The finery converted the iron pigs produced
from the new smelting process into wrought iron. The chafery contained a second hearth used in the manufacturing process. These combined industrial processes worked together to create the first “ironworks” in north Staffordshire. The local woods provided the source of charcoal but by 1606 woodland within a five-mile radius had been largely stripped and clear-felled to keep up with the demand. During the later years of the ironworks, the search for a supply of charcoal became
increasingly difficult and remote.
17th Century Industrial Development
In addition to these processes, further developments took place in the development of
slitting mills and rolling mills and these had a major influence on the industrial development of the valley. Both of these processes required water power and a continuous process of manufacturing.
Rolling was first introduced in ironmaking in England in the 16th century, when the slitting mill was introduced to make small iron rods from strip, by passing it through rotating disc-shaped cutters.
In 1688-1689 an iron forge and mill at Oakamoor operated with a furnace at Meir Heath and a second forge at Consall. This was a very simple operation, owned by Dr. John Foley, and known as the “Moorland Works”. Only pig iron from the Meir Heath furnace was used. A slitting mill was provided at both sites; the mill at Oakamoor existed before 1683 but operated only until 1694 when it was converted into a chafery.
18th Century Industrial Development
In 1719 Thomas Patten and his associates took out a lease on Alton Mill, further downstream on the Churnet which had been a corn mill, and he converted it into a wire making mill. He was not a local man, having established a copper works in Warrington, but saw an opportunity in the Churnet Valley. He also built a brassworks at Spout Farm near Cheadle. The company, the Cheadle Copper & Brass Company, was formally established in 1734, using copper mined in the Moorlands for making
In 1738 an account of the processes was given by Dr. Richard Wilkes of Willenhall of a visit to the Brass Works at Cheadle and Alton. This extract explains the process of first rolling the ingots into plates. These were then transferred to another site, heated and then rolled again into lengths of “wire”. This process strengthened the metal. The end-use mentioned was for making brass pins.
“I went to see the Brass Works at Cheadle & Alveton which had lately been there erected. At the former Place Copper wth. Lap. Calaminaris & Charcoal is made into Brass Pigs, or Ingots, wch. are then rolled into Plates of 4 foot long. These are carried to Alverton where they are nealed and rolled again 6 Times to about 21 foot long. Then they are slit into Several Peices & at 6 Operations drawn into Wire of a proper Size for Pins.”
A further forge site is documented at Oakamoor in 1760. Its precise location is not known but is presumed to be located alongside the Cotton Brook. A lease between the Earl of Shrewsbury and Thomas and John Gilbert gave permission for dams to be built and water to be taken from Oulsclough for the purpose of serving a forge.
From 1743 George Kendall started to acquire a large part of the land to the west of the river. In 1761, following the introduction of copper from Ecton copper mines onto the open market, the old slitting mill at Oakamoor bridge was used as part of the tin works developed by George Kendall, but it may have been demolished in 1771 when a purpose-built tinning mill was erected. Tinplating is the coating of iron sheets with tin to protect them from corrosion.
William Yates’ map of 1775 (below) identifies the “Tin Works and Rolling Mill” near the bridge in Oakamoor. The mill is marked by the conventional symbol of a waterwheel. It was the old forge site which was known as the Tin Mill. The mill head race was taken off the Churnet, upstream of the bridge, and this fed a millpond, all to the west of the River Churnet. The tailrace still survives near the site of the cottages known as “The Island”.
Kendall built himself a mansion to the west of the river, later called Oakamoor Lodge
(demolished in the 1960s). In 1781 George Smith and Henry Knifton took over the operation.
In 1790 the tin works at Oakamoor were bought by Thomas Patten and Co. and tin plate continued to be produced by Smith and Knifton until 1793 when the site was converted for the rolling and slitting of brass and copper. By the end of the 1700s
Patten and Company were the chief suppliers of copper and brass, ingots and wire to Birmingham and the Black Country.
At the bottom of the Dimmingsdale Valley, to the south of Oakamoor, was a lead smelting mill, described as new in 1741 and located at Alton Common. In 1760 lead was still being smelted and the site had a smiths shop, two houses, a barn, nine acres and a pool. The life of the smelting mill was relatively short; it was converted to a corn grinding mill in 1784 and by the late 19th century it was operating as a sawmill.
19th Century Industrial Development
During the first decades of the 19th century, the canal network was developed to serve the burgeoning industries in and around the potteries and the heavy industries of the Staffordshire Moorlands. The prime movers behind the campaign for a canal in the Churnet Valley were John and Thomas Gilbert, who also leased the Caldon Low Quarries. A branch canal from the Trent and Mersey Canal was proposed to serve the Caldon quarries. First proposed and surveyed in the 1770s, there were significant changes in level to overcome and because of these level changes, Froghall was chosen as the canal terminus, to be combined with an inclined tramway. The Caldon
Branch Canal opened in 1777. Following this, in 1797, an Act was passed allowing the construction of a canal from Froghall to Uttoxeter, which passed through Oakamoor. John Rennie was appointed as engineer and work finally began in 1807. It was completed in 1811 but had a relatively short life as it was displaced by the building of the railway.
Thomas Patten and Company’s sites at Cheadle, Oakamoor and Alton continued to work as a unit until 1828 when a rent rise forced the closure of the Alton Mill and the transfer of wire production to Oakamoor. Shortly afterwards the Cheadle Works closed and brass production also moved to Oakamoor.
In 1819 John Wilson (1802-1892), second son of Thomas Patten (later known as Thomas Wilson), became heir to the family industrial wealth and church livings of Warrington and land in Lancashire, Cheshire and Staffordshire.
In 1823, when he came of age, he adopted the name of Wilson Patten, and in 1827, following his father’s death in December, John Wilson Patten became a partner in the family firm, the patent roller manufacturers, and the company changed its name to John Wilson Patten and Company.
An Act of Parliament in 1846 authorised the North Staffordshire Railway Company (NSR) to build a branch line through the Churnet Valley. In 1847 it was decided that the NSR should act as canal carrier and the North Staffordshire Railway and Canal Carrying Company was formed and the railway company took over the Caldon, Leek and Uttoxeter Canal Companies. The deep and winding Churnet Valley necessitated the building of several tunnels where the river course proved hostile and the Oakamoor tunnel, at 462 yards, was the longest. The tunnel was also the wettest in
the system, creating an endless maintenance problem throughout its use.
The canal through Oakamoor was closed in 1849 when the Churnet Valley Railway opened and NSR ceased to use it for conveying materials for the construction of the Churnet Valley line.
Large sections of the canal bed were used for the new line, although the main section avoided Oakamoor. A small station was built at Oakamoor, although this was demolished in the 1970s and only the Crossing Keeper’s lodge and station platforms survive. Railway sidings and a track known as the ‘wing line’ was eventually laid along the bed of the canal to enable goods to be brought into the Cheadle Copper and Brassworks goods yard, Bottoms brickworks and Eli Bowers lime burning kilns to the east of the site by railway trucks pulled by shire horses. These sidings ran on the south-east side of the site, following the line of the former canal, which was back-filled. A short section of sidings crossed the river via a bridge from the east bank of the river.
The mainline ran south-west of the works and ran in a cutting before entering the tunnel under the hillside. Not all of the canal was back-filled and sections can still be found with water or dry cuttings. Where the railway tunnel cut through the hillside, an abandoned section of the former canal at the northern end of Oakamoor survived.
In 1851 the works were put up for sale and were bought by Thomas Bolton and Son and the company concentrated on supplying copper wire to the new telegraphy industry. In 1866 the wire for the first transatlantic telegraph cable was drawn at Oakamoor. In 1880 Boltons pioneered the use of electricity in the purification of copper, and in 1886 they developed the first continuous wire drawing machine. As the importance of the company grew so did the extent of the works. In 1890
a new factory was built on a greenfield site at Froghall.
The company expanded operations at Oakamoor and by 1890 all of the available lands.
Between the former canal and Mill Road had been used. This appears clearly by the time of the 1900 OS map.
20th Century Development
Thomas Bolton and Sons Ltd. remained at the Oakamoor site until it eventually closed in the 1960s and they moved their operations to the Froghall wireworks site, which continued operating until March 2014, when it too closed. The works site in Oakamoor was given to Staffordshire County Council in 1966 and was reclaimed in the 1970s when they developed it as a picnic site with the old railway line as a public park and a trail, called the Oakamoor – Denstone Greenway.
After the 1920s few houses were built and it was another 50 years before there was a significant development in the village, which took place at School Drive and off Star Bank.
SETTLEMENT PLAN FORM AND MAPS
The early County maps depict Oakamoor as a place name with a bridge and mill-site. On Yates’ 1775 County map, the line of the river, running down the east side of the valley, the stone bridge and the mill leat on the west side of the valley, leading from a point upstream of the bridge to the mill south of the bridge, are all clearly represented.
The most detailed mapping of the settlement comes from the mid-19th-century Tithe maps (ca. 1840-44), of which there are four covering the four different townships and three separate parishes which met at Oakamoor. By 1844 the canal had been constructed and it is illustrated on the Farley Township map with locks and a winding hole. This is the only map representation of the canal in local archives, as-built, although there may be others in the Gloucester archives. A narrow strip of land separated the canal from the river and this strip was altered over the course of the next century.
On either side of the canal and downstream of the bridge were operating a brickworks
(to the west) and limekilns (to the east). Downstream of the bridge, was an “island’, known as the Middle Meadow. At this time it was an open area of water meadow with no signs of industrial activity. Below this water meadow was a gasworks – the site of the gasworks remained fixed and is still evident today.
By 1844, the land north of the river, at Carr Bank, had been developed with a cluster of three terraced rows forming the core of the workers’ housing. Along Mill Road were built the complex of industrial buildings forming the Wire Mill site (to the west of the road) and the site of Patten’s Brass Works, sandwiched between the river and the road (the site of the original forge).
All rivers change over time and the River Churnet is no exception; even though it flows through a steep, deeply incised valley, its course has meandered over the centuries. This resulted in a split channel south of Oakamoor Bridge, which was removed during the County Council reclamation of Bolton’s Works in the 1970s.
Many of the changes to the course of the river have been man-made; the course of the river south of the bridge was altered in order to create a second millpond, which is first visible on the 1881 OS map (below). The changes in the alignment of the river are illustrated on a series of overlays. In conjunction with the alterations to the course of the river stone abutments and stone-lined channels were constructed.
The width of the river upstream of the weir has changed significantly and has narrowed, following the reclamation of the canal bed and the creation of Churnet View Road. By the time of the 1881 Ordnance Survey map, there had been some very distinct developments; the original millpond serving the forge site and Rolling Mill had been supplemented with a second millpond, providing a head of water to another group of buildings, the expanded Brass Works developed by Thomas Bolton and Son after 1851.
By 1881, the canal had been partially filled-in, above and below the bridge, and the reclaimed land was in use for tramways serving the brickworks, limekilns and former canal wharf. The old canal beyond the wharf survives as an open channel and the railway line and Oakamoor Tunnel had been built. There was little evidence of any expansion on the housing stock, although a few new public buildings had appeared at Carr Bank.
By the time of the 1900 Ordnance Survey map (below), there had been a rapid growth in the amount of housing. This was concentrated on the flattened land that fronted the former canal basin.
Four terraces had been built by 1900 and a tennis ground cut into the hillside below the school, which was located on the site of a filled-in canal lock.
A final intense period of development came between 1900 and 1924 when further terraces were built along the line of the old canal, re-named Churnet View Road. The remaining sections of open canal were filled in. A number of the smaller terraced cottages at the western end of Churnet View Road were later demolished.
By 1924 almost the entire flat area of land within the valley bottom had been built upon. Some of the “millyard” remained open, in places where the original millponds had been displaced and culverted.
During the 1960s and 70s, the land was reclaimed by the County Council and the 1970 OS map (below) illustrates the site as it is today but with the eastern channel still in place. Since that time the village has expanded a little to the east along Star Bank and at School Drive.
LANDSCAPE SETTING, GEOLOGY & TOPOGRAPHY
The landscape of the Churnet Valley has some breathtaking scenery and, in recognition of this, is currently being considered for designation as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Around Oakamoor, the highest terrain along the Churnet Valley gently undulates at around 250-280 metres AOD, running parallel with the river valley and capped with dense tree cover. In places, where the floor of the valley is at its widest, as at Oakamoor Bridge and at Stoney Dale, the landscape is dished and the flood plain has fewer trees. Although the land rises in places above 280-metres, views are contained to the valley as the rocky outcrops (bluffs) define the structure of the valley and the gradient eases off beyond many of these.
The generic description of the area, as described in the Staffordshire Landscape Character Assessment, is “Dissected sandstone cloughs and valleys”. Many of these little cloughs, with grooves cut by brooks and streams, are only evident when walking through the woodland.
There are large Forest Enterprise leaseholds in the Churnet Valley and some commercial coniferous woodlands. There are also a large number of nature reserves in and around Oakamoor owned by conservation organisations and the County Council. The most significant locally are;
Carr Wood forms the northern backdrop to many of the views within the conservation
area and the northern setting of the village are dominated by woodland, stretching northwards from behind Churnet View Road and The Valley School. Carr Wood is a mixed deciduous and coniferous plantation, dominated by beech, Scots pine and oak. It was re-planted after charcoal burning stripped the local woodlands in the 17th century, but was an ancient woodland before that.
Underneath this wooded blanket is steep-sided bluffs, which have been colonised by pines, rhododendron and young oaks. These reveal much of the underlying Chatsworth Grit sandstone and the geological structure of the Churnet Valley. One of these bluffs lies within Carr Wood. The southern margins of the wood, closest to civilisation, also contain chestnut and birch.
Photographs © Mel Morris Conservation or Guy Badham Photography, unless otherwise stated