Richard Foley (1580–1657) was a prominent English ironmaster. He is best known from the folktale of "Fiddler Foley", which is either not correct or does not apply to him.
Richard’s father was another Richard Foley, a nailer at Dudley. Richard (the son) himself is likely to have traded in nails rather than making them.
In the 1620s, he became a partner in a network of mostly ironworks in south Staffordshire, which were undoubtedly the source of the family's fortune.
By 1624 Foley was obtaining leases of local iron mills.
According to the folktale, he went to Sweden, where posing as a simple fiddler, he succeeded in discovering the secret of the slitting mill, which was enabling English nails to be undercut. He returned home and set up a slitting mill at Hyde Mill in Kinver, thus making his fortune. Unfortunately, the earliest version of the legend, while applying to Hyde Mill referred not to Richard Foley, but to a member of the Brindley family (his second wife’s family) who owned the mill until the 1730s. This may possibly have been George Brindley, Richard's brother-in-law. Richard certainly leased Hyde Mill in 1627 and converted it to a slitting mill, though it was not the first in England or even in the Midlands.
Between 1624 and 1633 Foley acquired leases of 5 furnaces, 9 forges, and other ironworks, either alone or in partnership with others. Foley also bought property in the neighbouring parish of Oldswinford. In time, his sons Richard (1614-1678), Thomas (1617–1677), and Robert (1626-1676) took over parts of the business.
1627 Hyde Mill, at Kinver (Kingswinford, Staffordshire), was converted to use waterpower for the slitting of iron rod, the basic raw material of nail makers. Richard was credited with the introduction of the slitting mill from Sweden, but the process was not new; his main achievement was the successful organization and exploitation of water-powered charcoal iron furnaces, forges, and slitting mills, leasing them from landowners who, having built or converted them, found them difficult to manage. He established a business structure which combined centralised control with dispersed plant, thus spreading his risk.
By 1631, Foley had moved to a brick house in High Street, Stourbridge.
By 1638, the family had a warehouse in London, adjoining Leadenhall, and were competing with the London ironmasters and ironmongers in a national market.
1642-45 Contrary to his moral beliefs, Richard and his son Thomas, supplied iron ordnance, shot, pikeheads, and nails to the king's armies.
Will of Richard Foley, Gentleman of Stourbridge, Worcestershire, in Church of England. Province of Canterbury. Prerogative Court. Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Probate Records, 1384-1858, PROB 11/270/504.
His will mentions, among others:
-his sons Robert, Richard, Thomas, Samuel, John;
-his daughters Margery, Katherine Comberledge, Anne Normansell, Priscilla Glover, Honor Prittie, Margaret Tyson, Sarah Baker;
-his son Richard’s children: Richard, Josias, Thomas;
-daughters of his son Richard by his first wife Margaret Brinley: Lydia Foley, Hanna Foley;
-his sons-in-law John Baker, Edward Tyson, Henry Glover;
-his daughter-in-law Anne, wife of his son Thomas Foley;
-his brother John Foley’s children;
-his godson Richard Foley, son of his brother Edward Foley;
-the sisters of Thomas Robinson alias Mason deceased
Biographical details (posted 02 Nov 2015 on Ancestry) by Lesley McCarthy
Richard Foley established the family fortune, moved to Stourbridge about 1630, where he set up slitting mills and obtained a virtual monopoly of nail-making in the West Midlands.
He seems to have preserved neutrality during the Civil War, though his sympathies were royalist, and he supplied ordnance to the King’s armies. Foley himself is not known to have taken part in the war, but he was a friend of the Presbyterian divine Baxter, and during the Interregnum he secured valuable naval ordnance contracts and was appointed to county office.
‘A religious, faithful man’, according to Baxter, ‘of unquestioned fidelity and honesty’, he bought Witley in 1655 and represented the county in Richard Cromwell’s Parliament, the first of the family to sit in Parliament.
Book Notes and Queries (page 262)
(Posted 09 Jun 2018 on Ancestry) by M. Nielsen
Foley, the founder of the ennobled family of Foley, was, says Sir Simon Degge, " first a seller of nails, afterwards a forge-master, and a very honest man at Stourbridge in Worcestershire."
He died on the 6th of July 1657, aged seventy-seven, and was buried at Oldswinford on Thursday, the 9th of the same month.
All the pedigrees that I have seen make him a native of Stourbridge, and the son of one Edward Foley of that place. This I think must be a mistake; for not only is there no trace of this Edward Foley in the parish registers, but the very first Foley entry therein is the baptism, on July 20, 1631, of " John the son of Richard Foley." He was Richard's youngest son, and was living unmarried in 1682, aged fifty.
In the year 1616 a Richard Foley was Mayor of Dudley, and in that capacity signed a petition to the magistrates assembled in Quarter Sessions at Worcester.
In 1634 the name of Richard Foley of Stourbridge appears in the list of " Disclaimers" at the Heralds' Visitation of Worcestershire, taken in that year; and I imagine that he settled at Stourbridge about the year 1630, when he purchased the manor of Bedcote (i.e. Stourbridge) from the Sparry family.
The Rev. Robert Foley, Rector of Oldswinford, in a letter to Dr. Nash, the historian of Worcestershire (dated May 13, 1781), enclosing an imperfect list of the Foley entries in the parish register, remarks: " There are numerous entries both of baptisms and burials of the Foleys, of which name there have been and still are many very poor families in this parish and the neighbouring ones of King's Swinford, Dudley, Rowley, &c."
And he adds: " I have only glanced my eye cursorily over it (the register) and transcribed such as offered themselves to notice by being written in capitals, ornamented with flourishes, or distinguished by ' Mr.' or 'Mrs.' in front."
Mr. Foley's letter is misleading; for the Foley entries are not very numerous, and I am enabled to state positively, from a very careful examination of the registers, that, with very few exceptions, they all relate to Richard and his descendants, until about the middle of the last century, when some of the neighbouring poor families to which he refers put in an appearance.
Now it appears to me that Richard Foley was not a native of Stourbridge, but of Dudley. We have seen that a Richard Foley was Mayor of that town in 1616, and I find that in 1627 Richard Foley of Dudley purchased lands in Stourbridge ' from John Sparry. In 1635 Richard Foley of Dudley, yeoman, purchased a rent-charge on lands in Dudley; and in 1639 and 1640 Richard Foley, the younger, of Dudley, yeoman, acquired lands there which (including the rent-charge) were afterwards the property of Thomas Foley of Witley, Esq., son of Richard.
Finally, Richard Foley of Stourbridge, by his will, dated 1656, gave a rent-charge of £61, to be employed in the maintenance of a lecture at Dudley, and also of a certain building to be employed as a schoolhouse there.
Richard Foley was twice married. The name of his first wife appears to be unknown, (* It appears from a pedigree of Roberts of Sutton Cheynell, in Nichols's Leicestershire, that a "Richard Foley of Worcestershire " married Elizabeth, daughter of the Rev. John Roberts, Rector of Stony Staunton, who died in 1660.) but by her he had a son, Richard, who was thrice married, one of his wives being Margaret, second daughter of William Brindley, of the Hyde Kinver, co. Stafford, sister of his father's second wife, Alice, who was the eldest daughter of the said William Brindley.
In a pedigree of Brindley compiled by Randle Holme (Harl. MS. 2119, fo. 67'), from which I derive this information, Richard Foley, junr., is described as "of Dudley, co. Worcester, son of Richard by his first wife." And it appears that Johanna, the third daughter of the same William Brindley, was first married to an Edward Foley, of " Bristow," and secondly to Thomas Jackson, of the same place. This pedigree was compiled in the year 1637. "
Mrs. Alice Foley, the second wife of Richard Foley the elder, was buried at Oldswinford, March 28th, 1663, aged seventy-five, so she was only Eight years her husband's junior. It is evident, therefore, that he must have married his first wife at an early age; and it is equally evident that Richard the son must have been much younger than his wife Margaret, his stepmother's sister.
Shaw, in his History of Staffordshire, speaking of the Hyde in Kinver, or Kinfare, says:— " Here was the first mill for rolling and splitting iron that was erected in England.
One Brindley, whose posterity enjoyed it till about twenty years ago, went into Germany, there acted the part of a fool, and from thence brought this excellent machine, which has been so serviceable, and has brought so much money to this country."
Now the very same story is related of Richard Foley; and, without pretending to decide as to who was its real hero, I conclude this already too long paper with the following extract from Scrivener's History of the Iron Trade, 1841, p. 120, where it is said to be taken from Coleridge's letters: —
" The most extraordinary and attested instance of enthusiasm, existing in conjunction with perseverance, is related of the founder of the Foley family. This man, who was a fiddler, living near Stourbridge, was often witness of the immense labour and loss of time caused ty dividing the rods of iron, necessary in the process of making nails.
The discovery of the process called splitting, in works called splitting mills, was made in Sweden, and the consequences of this advance in art were most disastrous to the manufacturers of iron about Stourbridge.
Foley, the fiddler, was shortly missed from his accustomed rounds, and was not again seen for many years. He had mentally resolved to ascertain by what means the process of splitting bars of iron was accomplished; and without communicating his intention to a single human being, he proceeded to Hull, and thence without funds, worked his passage to the Swedish Iron Port. Arrived at Sweden, he begged and fiddled his way to the Iron Foundries, where, after a long time, he became a universal favourite with the workmen; and from the apparent entire absence of intelligence, or anything like ultimate object, he was received into the works, to every part of which he had access.
He took the advantage thus offered to him and having stored his memory with observations and all the combinations, he disappeared from amongst his kind friends as he had appeared—no one knew whence or whither.
On his return to England, he communicated his voyage and its results to Mr. Knight and another person in the neighbourhood, with whom he was associated, and by whom the necessary buildings were erected, and machinery provided. When at length everything was prepared, it was found that the machinery would not act; at all events, it did not answer the sole end of its erection—it would not split the bar of iron.
Foley disappeared again, and it was concluded that shame and mortification at his failure had driven him away for ever. Not so: again, though somewhat more speedily, he found his way to the Swedish Iron works, where he was received most joyfully, and, to make sure of their fiddler, he was lodged in the splitting mill itself. Here was the very end and aim of his life attained beyond his utmost hope.
He examined the works, and very soon discovered the cause of his failure. He now made drawings, or rude tracings; and having abided an ample time to verify his observations, and to impress them clearly and vividly on his mind, he made his way to the Port, and once more returned to England. This time he was completely successful; and, by the results of his experience, enriched himself and greatly benefitted his countrymen."
It is a pity to spoil so good a story by suggesting any doubts as to its entire accuracy.
H. Sydney Grazebrook. Stourbridge.