FOR 2,000 years, from the Romans to the Victorians, the iron ore of north Durham has been a magnet for ironmakers and users – although really it was some German settlers who made the area famous.

In the late 1680s, about 20 families of expert German bladesmiths left their homes in the Solingen area and settled near the River Derwent at Shotley Bridge.

No one really knows why they chose this quiet corner of the world in which to found an industry. Some say they, as Protestants, were fleeing religious persecution; others that they had betrayed the secrets of the Guild of the Running Wolf – the German cutlers’ association – and so needed to get away; others that the north Durham area already had a small, and well-treated, Germanic community; others that it was the local ironstone, and the soft water of the Derwent which was ideal for tempering their steel, that drew them in; others that they had been enticed over by the British government to combat a sword shortage.

It may well be that it was purely a business move: the German sword market was saturated and bladesmiths could not export to Britain because of high import duties. Therefore, a London financier, Sir Stephen Evance, founded the Hollow Sword Company and imported the swordmakers so that they could make and sell swords in Britain without worrying about duties.

The Germans were settled in Shotley Bridge by 1688, much to the dismay of their fellows back in Solingen, in the Ruhr. They were accused of betraying the secrets of the Guild. Their leader, Clemens Hohemann, was labelled “a seducer deserving the severest punishment”, and once they had crossed the English Channel, they were never able to return to their homeland.

The prime secret they brought with them was of “the hollow sword”. Its blades had a triangular or diamond shaped profile, with a hollow centre. This made them light but lethal – able to remove a man’s arm from his shoulder with one blow. Nothing like this was made anywhere else in Britain.

The specialists in hollow sword making were the Ohlig family (later Anglicised to Oley). They marked their blades with a flying fox – their answer to the running wolf.

The other leading families were the Mohls (Anglicised to Moles) who specialised in sword grinding, the Bertrams, who ran Blackhall Mill, and the Voose, who were the sword traders.

They settled in the Wood Street area, which was cleared in the 1960s, and the nearby Derwent powered their mills, forges and workshops. Here they made 37 kinds of blades, including rapiers, scimitars and cutlasses.

The swordmakers’ arrival coincided with Jacobite rebellion, with the Scots and the English at one another’s throats over whose man should be on the throne. This was good for the sword industry, which supplied both sides.

However, the Battle of Culloden of 1745 put an end to the Scots’ aspirations, and so the bladesmiths experienced lean times, but Shotley Bridge began using Swedish ore which enabled them to keep afloat, and it had its reputation for making the finest swords in the country to fall back on.

Shotley swords were said to be so flexible that the tip could bend back to the hilt without snapping – in fact, it would spring back to straightness without a bend in it.

One day, Robert Oley was involved in a wager with two other swordsmiths and the participants were given a fortnight to make the best sword possible. When Robert arrived at the scene of the competition – perhaps in London – his opponents had their 3ft long blades in public display and they mocked Robert for apparently forgetting his.

But Robert’s nine inch blade was so flexible that he had concealed in his hat, winding it around the brim. And it was double edged, so that when the other bladesmiths tried to remove it, they sliced their fingers. Only Robert’s secret technique could extract it.

He was declared the winner – he won the crown – and back in Shotley Bridge, the Sword Inn was renamed The Crown and Crossed Swords in his honour.

The Northern Echo: The Crown and Crossed Swords in Front Street, Shotley Bridge, in 2006The Crown and Crossed Swords in Front Street, Shotley Bridge, in 2006

It still stands, as does the Cutlers’ Hall, which William and Ann Oley built in 1787 – it may even have been the meeting place for the members of the swordmakers’ guild.

The Northern Echo: Cutlers' Hall beside the A691 in Blackhill. Picture courtesy of Google StreetviewCutlers' Hall beside the A691 in Blackhill. Picture courtesy of Google Streetview

There was another spike in swordmaking when the Napoleonic Wars broke out in 1803, but the peace of 1815, and the rise of guns as the preferred weapon, once again threw the industry into recession.

It looks as if the Shotley Bridge men tried making more peaceful cutlery and shears, but they couldn’t compete with the heavily industrialised processes of Sheffield.

Robert Mole took his skills to Birmingham where, in 1889, his business was taken over by Wilkinsons of Pall Mall, the razor blade manufacturers now known as Wilkinson Sword.

The final fighting blade was turned out in Shotley Bridge in 1840 by Joseph Oley, who then turned his attention to hammers of an auctioneering kind. He died in 1896, aged 89, and is buried alongside several generations of his family in Ebchester churchyard where his headstone notes that he was “upwards of 50 years an auctioneer” and that “he died in the Lord, The last of Shotley Bridge sword makers”.