The attractive village of Sticklepath on Dartmoor is home to Finch Foundry, a feat of Victorian ingenuity and engineering that produced industrial tools right through to 1960, and is now part of our rich and varied industrial heritage.
Sticklepath is derived from the Saxon word ‘staecle’ meaning steep. It’s located at the foot of a steep hill, on the northern fringe of Dartmoor, and was part of the ancient main thoroughfare from Exeter to Launceston up until the construction of the A30 dual carriageway in the 1970s-80s.
The large village is located approximately three and a half miles east of Okehampton, an ancient market town with a Norman castle; and less than a mile from South Zeal which was home to a 12th-century monastery. It’s also situated on the boundary of three parishes – Belstone, Sampford Courtney and South Tawton and close to a crossing point of the River Taw in whose valley it lies.
A Water-Powered Industrial Village
It’s not clear when the village was first inhabited, but, Sticklepath was first documented in the 13th century. A leat was constructed, perhaps as early as the 12th century, redirecting water from the River Taw to Sticklepath in order to generate power for the milling industry.
The leat powered fulling mills (otherwise known as tuck mills) which removed the oils and dirt from the cloth that was being produced by Dartmoor’s thriving woollen industry. It also powered grist mills which turned grain into flour and middlings that were used as food for livestock.
With the proximity to important market towns, on the boundary of three parishes and the main thoroughfare between Devon and Cornwall, Sticklepath became an important industrial location of which the leat was of paramount importance.
By the end of the 18th century, there were four mills operating in the village and all of them were powered by the leat diverted from the River Taw.
No one really knows why the name Finch Foundry was coined. Finch obviously pertains to the Finch family, but, Foundry is a term used for heating metals until they are molten and then poured into moulds. An example of this is the Morris Singer Foundry, established in 1848, that specialises in bronze casting and moulding. This was never carried out on the premises at Sticklepath.
Finch Foundry was always, from its establishment, first and foremost a forge where metal objects were created through being heated in a fire and then hammered into shape.
A Water-Powered Forge
At Sticklepath the machinery was, and still is, powered by waterwheels which operates the bellows, drives the hammers and shears and turns the polishing and grinding stones.
Below is the grinding stone and this is where the rather odd expression nose to the grind comes. A worker would have been bent over the wheel either polishing or sharpening a tool against the rotating stone.
The waterwheels are in turn powered by the leat that has always been crucial to the running of the business.
This has been cleverly diverted overhead to create gravity fed waterwheels known as overshot meaning the water pours into the buckets on the wheel from above, this weighs them down and forces the wheel to turn in the direction of the water flow, but using relatively little water.
William Finch and Family
In 1814 William Finch, from nearby Spreyton, moved to Sticklepath and took possession of a derelict fulling mill which he transformed into a water-powered forge; all five of his sons worked alongside him. He had originally worked at the Tavistock Iron Works making edge tools and his foundry gained a reputation for making quality tools, ie. scythes and shovels etc.
The family were certainly entrepreneurial and by the late 1880s had added a sawmill, powered by the same wheel as the forge. This was used to produce the tool handles and all manner of other carpentry including coffins for an undertaking business they set up.
You could say that the Finch family created a monopoly in the area and the Foundry quite literally became the go-to place in the village. They added a wheelwright business and sold domestic fuel to the villagers since they bought coal and coke in vast quantities for the forges. Even the village store operated from within Foundry House!
Finch Foundry reached its zenith at the turn of the 20th century when there were half a dozen hearths in use by a number of blacksmiths; and more than twenty men were employed in the business, creating over four hundred tools a day.
The National Trust at Finch Foundry
By 1960, with mass production and agricultural mechanisation the company was no longer competitive and closed. The National Trust eventually acquired the property in 1994.
The range of buildings that make up Finch Foundry are nothing out of the ordinary. However, the machinery housed within and operated by the leat flowing through and above the building are the last remaining residues of a foregone era and as such the site is Grade II* listed. It is a legacy that is crucial to preserve in working order as a reminder of our industrial heritage.
Okehampton Castle – The ruins of a Norman motte and bailey castle that was constructed between 1068-1086 and is the largest castle to be found in Devon.
Castle Drogo – Set high above the Teign Gorge is the last Castle to be built in England and designed by the eminent 20th-century architect – Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Chagford – A historic vibrant Stannary town set on the northeastern edge of Dartmoor with numerous places to eat and small independent shops and galleries.