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Marefold and the Furnace
MAREFOLD AND THE FURNACE. Forging the Links - by Keith Webb

The dry stone boundary walls round our home, Marefold, south-east of Coleford, in the Forest of Dean Gloucestershire are built with stone and slag from the nearby Dark Hill furnace by Forest miners who had been out of work in the 1920's.

David Mushet senior had built the foundry in 1819, with the intention of producing iron direct from the blast furnace. His son Robert had subsequently carried out many experiments there. He had been the first to use spiegeleisn, a compound of iron, manganese and carbon, alloyed with steel in various ways. This resulted in smoother and stronger tinplate. His experimentation with tungsten, chrome, manganese and titanium brought about the birth of high speed steel given the name R. Mushet's Special Steel which, without doubt, was the first alloy steel ever made commercially; self (or air) hardening steel. One of the many steel alloys that went on to be used world-wide in everything from mine drilling bits to lathe tools and turbine blades.

It was apparent that Marefold has always held tantalising secrets which the years have slowly revealed. Because of a lifetime with horses, many of our friends assumed we had given the house its name, but not so. The word means a sheltered place with good views where a mare would feel safe enough to give birth to her foal. Dr. Cyril Hart's book "The Industrial History of the Forest of Dean" makes reference to a quarry named Marefold in 1680 and is the earliest mention of the name that we have found. It was evident the property had been well established before the coming of the tramroad in 1812 for its course skirted the property's boundaries.

The making of the steel for the first steel railway rail was carried out by Robert Mushet at Dark Hill. The double headed rail was rolled at the Ebbw Vale Iron Company. In 1857 the rail was laid in Derby Station where the Midland Railway had experienced problems with the iron rails then being used. They had needed replacing every three to six months. For ten years the new rail showed no signs of wear despite it being assessed that seven hundred train movements a day passed over it. It was removed and scrapped in 1873 despite repeated requests by Robert Mushet to have it returned when removed, because of its historic importance. By 1873 steel rails were in common use and the world had no time either for Mushet or his piece of rail. Others were too busy making money from his inventions to care. It is hoped that a tribute to this achievement will be erected by the Forestry Commission at their Beechenhurst site.

By 1866 Robert Forester Mushet was in ill-health and destitute. His young daughter, Mary, took her courage in both hands and travelled to London with grim determination. She confronted Henry Bessemer in his office where she claimed that Mr. Bessemer's success was based on the results of her father's discoveries. She made it quite clear that although her father might not have any legal claim upon Bessemer she felt he had a justifiable moral one. This was quite an undertaking when seen against the background of the difficulties of travel and the customs and etiquette of her day.

Evidently Bessemer was moved enough, to give her a cheque for £377.14s. 10d. at once. A great deal of money in those days. This sum covered her father's debts and thus safe-guarded her parents from losing their home. Bessemer subsequently made Robert Mushet an annual allowance of £300, explaining that he did so to make Robert Mushet his debtor, rather than the reverse; which sounds to me like someone either trying to hide a conscience or a kinder heart than he would have us believe. He is described as a proud and assertive man.

There is a frozen moment in time I would like to see immortalised in the centre of Coleford town. When Bessemer was having difficulty with his own process, and he heard that Mushet was succeeding where he had failed, he hastened to Coleford where he attempted to see Robert Mushet several times but to no avail. On calling yet again at Forest House, he was inadvertently told that Mushet was out somewhere in the town.

Bessemer went looking for him but Mushet must have spotted him and avoided him by hiding behind his umbrella as they passed each other. I would like to imagine that incident occurred somewhere close by the Angel Hotel, where Bessemer might have stayed. A tableaux of two distinctively dressed Victorian figures passing one another, with one hiding behind an umbrella, would immortalise a moment, when history held its breath.

Through the kind offices of the Forestry Commission's Deputy Gaveller, Mr. Albert Howell, I was privileged to examine the Commission's maps and records. Marefold is shown as number 440 of Parkend Walk and it evidently has a chequered history. The major part is shown shaded in red, denoting an encroachment upon the Forest before 1787. A second small area is shaded in blue as an encroachment between 1787 and 1812. A third section of the property is shown in yellow, thus showing it was an encroachment after 1812. It is said that the Forest of Dean is known for its creeping hedges and walking walls!

An Indenture made the seventeenth day of October 1866 between the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty of the first part, the Honourable James Kenneth Howard, the Commissioner for Her Majesty's Woods and Land Revenues to whom the management of the Royal Forest of Dean has been assigned of the second part, and Robert Mushet of Belgrave House, Cheltenham in the County of Gloucester, Iron Master, and Goodrich Langham of Coleford in the County of Gloucester of the third part, goes on to complain that these two gentlemen claim to be proprietors of certain premises and buildings now used as a smith's shop, situated at Dark Hill in Parkend or York Walk, and that at some time they laid down certain pipes for the purpose of conveying water to the said smith's shop, under certain wastelands of the said forest, without any license or authority from Her Majesty or Commissioner, etc.

The Indenture then calls upon and requests the said Robert Mushet and Goodrich Langham to accept and take a license to use, etc. This beautifully written record is accompanied by an equally detailed map, scale 3 chains to 1 inch, showing both property No. 440 (Marefold) and No. 351 (Dark Hill furnaces). The offending pipes are shown in red, running from well to smith's shop. There are members of a family who used to live at Marefold who remember that as children their first task after coming home from Ellwood school, was to get fresh water from that same well.

The next reference to both Marefold and Dark Hill furnace both appear in a ledger with the grand title of "The Original Directory to the Royal Forest of Dean 1870". The book is, in fact, a diary kept by James Thompson, aged 18, who was born at Lords Hill House, Coleford. Entry 505 states, in clear copperplate handwriting -

"Dark Hill Furnaces are not worked at present. There is a large pond of water, one on one side and also one on the lower side. Blacksmiths are employed in some parts to make hammers. There is a most beautiful spring of well water which is useful. Some parts of it was used for a fight between the Liberals and the Blues, namely KINGSCOT and MARLIN and old Blue Somerset, he lost a grand day that time. The Foresters do not want for any herrings to eat for supper in the place of a lump of beef. There is an old road that leads into the turnpike road, we will follow it."

Make of that entry what you will, but entry 516 is brief and to the point.

"Mr AMOS POWELL lives at a place called MAREFOLD. He has a large garden with fruit trees around it to set it." It still has!

Amongst the Local History Society's records is to be found a "REGISTER OF COW KEEPERS, DAIRYMEN AND PURVEYORS OF MILK, for the West Dean Rural District Council." An entry for Feb. 14th 1887 shows Ann Powell of Marefold as being registered as a "Cow Keeper and Purveyor of Milk".

The two properties are so nearby, but there never seemed to be any link between them. There must have been. We were yet to find it.

In the mid 1960's, Alec Pope, a committed and lifelong local historian, undertook a trial dig at the Dark Hill site with a number of friends, which made some interesting discoveries of slag bosses and a space below the charging bridge to the furnace. They were also told of an "iron" road, and a trial trench found a wide access road made up of iron slag. Although their exploratory dig showed great promise it was evident that a much bigger undertaking was needed.

In 1976, the Forest of Dean Rotary Club sponsored a job creation scheme and about two-thirds of the site was cleared. In 1978 the Forestry Commission set up a second scheme, but regrettably the archaeologist who had been in charge of both schemes failed to follow up the work with any detailed reports. Many valuable research opportunities were lost and the secrets of the Mushets' work at Dark Hill remain a mystery, even today. The Department of the Environment at that time had plans to have the site listed as an Ancient Monument, but that has come to nothing.

Since the clearing of the site much preservation work has been carried out by the Forestry Commission. An interpretation board has been erected on the disused railway track. The site is now recognised as an Industrial Archaeological Site of International Importance. Damage by vandals is a constant source of concern.

The area round Dark Hill and Marefold might be peaceful and quiet today but it was not always so. Robert Mushet and his brother David quarrelled continuously after they took over the affairs from their father. One or the other was always complaining that whatever had gone wrong was due to the gross negligence or incompetence of his brother. There are reports of the explosive effect of water getting into the furnace, and another of workmen with their clothes catching fire.

What of that link with Marefold? Alec Pope was to find it, and only recently, after painstaking and patient research in the Gloucester Local History library. It concerned a report from the Gloucester Journal, dated August 1st 1846. The item begins:-

"Frightful and fatal explosion. We deeply regret to state that a steam engine at the ironworks of D. Mushet Esq. at Darkhill, near Coleford, exploded on Tuesday last, causing most frightful injuries and several deaths. A man named George Powell, and an infant also named Powell, were killed instantaneously. The child was at the time in the arms of its mother, who had arrived at the works with her husband's breakfast. No less than ten men were injured in the explosion, of whom 3 have since died, making, as we have heard, 5 deaths altogether. An inquest was to have been heard yesterday on the bodies, before J.G. Ball Esq., Coroner; but we have not heard any further particulars of this lamentable event."

A further entry in the Gloucester Journal, dated August 8th 1846, states:-

"The fatal explosion at Coleford. G.J. Ball Esq., held an inquest yesterday (Friday) week, on the bodies of George Powell, aged 26, Herbert Powell, aged 1 year and 10 months, and William Powell, aged 31, the father of Herbert, who were killed by the explosion of a steam boiler at the Dark Hill Iron Furnace, near Parkend, the property of Messrs. Mushet, which unhappy occurrence we briefly reported last week. Powell's wife and another of his children and some other persons, were dreadfully injured but expected to recover."

"The boiler was an old special one, but considered quite safe, and it is feared the unhappy workmen brought on the accident by negligence. According to calculations made by Mr. Walkinshaw, the engineer, he arrived at the conclusion that a force equal to 4260 tons or 9,542,400 lbs. would be requisite to have torn up the boiler, as it appeared to have been done by one effort. This would give a pressure of 656 lbs. per inch, far beyond any ever attempted, except with Mr. Perkin's steam gun. The whole of the upper part of the boiler had been torn from the bottom near the junction, and although weighing about 3 tons, was projected into the air perpendicularly, to a height of many feet, some of the witnesses believing at least two to three hundred; it came down precisely upside down on the very spot from whence it had been torn. A verdict of accidental death was given"

We are left with a clear picture of the harsh realities experienced during the industrial revolutions on which our world is built. Both David Mushet and his son Robert are not acknowledged for what they achieved, at some considerable cost and sacrifice.

I have described the Dark Hill foundry site as being where the age of IRON ended and the STEEL age began. "Incorrect" some will cry! "Over simplification or misleading", will say others, but that simple lay statement goes right to the heart of the matter.

It is a statement and concept that the general public will understand and it is their interest and imagination that needs awakening, and then perhaps the Mushets will get the credit they deserve. David Mushet brought down the curtain on the age of Iron and his son Robert raised the curtain on the world stage of the Age of Steel Alloys. Dark Hill is where the Prelude was performed. As a jet liner, high above, leaves its white trail across the sky it would not be there but for what happened here.

Without constant reference to my copy of "The Story of the Mushets", by F.M. Osborn, reference to Forestry Commission documents and records; reports and other plans given to me by Ian Standing, Vice President of the Forest of Dean Local History Society, the wealth of other material, photographs and encouragement that was given to me by Alec Pope, a much admired local historian, this article could not have been written. I thank John Everard who was, at the time of my research, Deputy Surveyor of the Forestry Commission for his keen interest and the help of his staff at the Coleford office.

My wife, June, encouraged my interest in the subject and she found much of the early material. She bought me a copy of the very hard to find “Story of the Mushets” . She typed many of my early drafts. By the time the third version was also covered in corrections she rebelled and I had to buy a Word Processor.

©. Keith Lloyd Webb. Marefold GL16 7LR. GB.
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