Once upon a time, long before estate agents roamed the earth; when Michael Gove was just a figment of our imagination, this blessed plot of ours was noted for many things like wheat, fruit, pottery, fish, beer, gunpowder and surprisingly - swords. It is recorded that in the late 16th century, during the reign of Elizabeth 1st, those who wished to rent land near the Rivers Colne and Crane for the construction of gunpowder mills had to pay the Government a rent of 1000 swords… which sounds a little cut throat to me!
The early history of local sword manufacture is hazy. Some records suggest that the first smithy making blades opened on Hounslow Heath in 1620 with the help of immigrant sword makers. Another more confident claim is the first water-powered sword mill was established in 1630 at Baber Bridge on the River Crane/Duke of Northumberland’s confluence, near East Bedfont, by Benjamin Stone. He later became “His Majesty’s Blademaker for the office of the Ordnance”. Many of the craftsmen working there were from Solingen in Germany, celebrated as a centre for high quality blades. There were also a number of English-born smiths working at Hounslow including Richard Hopkins, who signed his swords “RECARDUS HOPKINS FECIT HOUN-SLOE,”(Richard Hopkins - Made in Hounslow) and Joseph Jencks whose swords read “JOSEPH JENCKES ME FECIT HOUNSLO.” (Joseph Jencks - Made in Hounslow)
Before the English Civil War (1642-1651) the Baber Bridge Mill produced thousands of swords and sword blades, many of them identified with the ‘Me fecit Hunsloe’ inscription. Such were their reputation that in April 1643 Sir William Waller, a leading parliamentarian general, wrote to the authorities asking specifically for 200 ‘Hounslow Blades made by Jonann Kinndt’. In 1645 Parliament ordered a further 3200 swords and belts at five shillings each.
These were the days before the Industrial Revolution. There was no steam power or railways or mechanised factories or organised labour. The production of swords in Hounslow was essentially a cottage industry. A local blacksmith would pick up rough iron billets from the factor at Baber Bridge, take them home and forge them into blades. The smith would then return the blades to Baber Bridge where they would be given cutting edges and then processed into swords.
Local historian G.E Bate witnessed a similar process himself in the early 1900’s with the production of nails…
“I remember, as a boy, watching a woman making nails in a forge by her cottage. There was the forge with its small heap of charcoal, and by its side the bellows and the anvil, while on the floor were the strips of iron she had fetched from the factor and the bags of nails to be returned to him.”
For all their unsophisticated methods the Hounslow mills produced swords of high quality and in various styles, including the backsword which had only one sharpened edge, the mortuary sword which apparently carried portraits of the executed King Charles 1st and his wife Henrietta Maria and the hanger sword which was short and curved and could be hung from a belt rather than carried in a scabbard.
Towards the end of the 17th century, in the face of foreign competition, the German sword makers began either returning home where more sophisticated methods of production were being developed or setting up elsewhere. One such community established itself in Shotley Bridge in County Durham, The abundance of iron ore deposits and the fast flowing River Derwent created the ideal conditions for sword production. During the Industrial Revolution the U.K sword industry moved to Birmingham where it could service the requirements of both the military and the smart-set who carried swords more for fashion than defence. Although swords are no longer a fashion item they are still regarded as an essential part of a smart dress uniform and their manufacture continues… on British equipment, in Solingen, Germany, where it all started, and India.
“The pen is mightier than the sword, and considerably easier to write with.”
– from Martyn Day
Credit: The portrait of ‘Sir William Waller’ is by Cornelius Janssens van Ceulen