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No longer a future to forge; Fire goes out at pioneering Folkes after 300 years chief.

The closure of the pioneering Folkes Forge after more than 300 years marks the end of a chapter in British manufacturing history.

From humble beginnings as a blacksmith's shop, the company went on to play a major part not only in the Midlands but the country.

It was there at the start of the Industrial Revolution, it had an important role in both World Wars and went on to possess some of the most modern forges in the world.

Established in 1697 close to the River Stour at Lye, the foundry expanded and has been linked with the Folkes family since the 1790s.

Last night, workers were struggling coming to terms with the closure of the forge where many had spent all their working life.

Electrical supervisor Mr Sam Taylor, who has worked at the forge for 43 years, said he felt "gutted" by the announcement.

Mr Taylor, aged 59, said: "I have only worked for this company. I joined in January 1957 when I was only 17 as an apprentice electrician.

"I moved from the Black Country to work here and now live at Stourport. The majority of the workforce has been here for 35 years.

"The original John Folkes would be turning in his grave. He helped build the plant and even used his own car to pull equipment up to the roof to build the place. He worked you hard, but he was one of the blokes.

"I feel gutted because I worked for the original John Folkes and helped with the building of the plant."

Another worker said: "It has come as a shock but not as a total surprise. I have worked there for over 25 years and most of the workers have invested their lives with the company.

"Most of the workers will be affected. It is an ageing workforce and there has not been investment in training younger staff.

"There are two sides. The strong pound is a factor but there is also the neglect of the factory and old equipment not being updated.

"Ten years ago, a lot of investment went into Somers Forge of Halesowen and it looks as though most of the work will go there.

"Talks are expected with management and unions over the next week or so. We understand there will be compulsory redundancies and possibly up to 100."

The company was born in 1697 when Zachary Downing converted a corn mill into a blacksmith's forge and called it Lye Forge after the name of the village in which it was sited.

Only 100 paces from the banks of the River Stour, the mill and the forge used water for power and the location was ideal.

Lye Forge initially made farm implements, traces for draught wagons, horseshoes, nails and equipment for soldiers, such as swords and breastplates.

Steam power arrived with James Watts' invention of the rotary engine, opening the first chapter in mechanical engineering.

It was some time later that a steam engine supplanted the water wheel operating at the Lye Forge and even then the odd "helve" continued its rhythmical resonance for many years.

At this time, the Folke family, then known as Fulk, were forgemen based in Cobham and then Abinger Hammer, Surrey.

But in the 1790s records show that James Fookes, later to be known as Folkes, moved to the area, working at Lye Forge.

In the early part of the 1800s, production at the forge remained spasmodic due to either a lack of puddling iron, lack of orders or natural disasters such as a great flood and the breaking of a helve, as extracts from entries in the pocket book of James Folkes showed.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the business flourished when demand for blacksmith products rose dramatically.

Flood gates were installed on the River Stour in order to protect the forge's business from more natural disasters and these were in place by the time of the Coronation of Queen Victoria.

It was 12 years later that the first steam hammer was introduced into the area at the Netherton Ironworks of Noah Hingley, later acquired by the Folkes Group.

The connection between the business and the Folkes grew and in 1853 Constantine and William Folkes bought the business and control has since remained with the family.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, the forge was feeling the pressure of increased competition as more and more firms took advantage of the profit to be made in iron and steel forging.

It was the time when the Wright brothers were taking to the air and Herbert Folkes took control of the company and was determined that it would survive. Working side-by-side with his small team of workers he increased turnover and pulled the forge back into confident shape.

Steam-driven hammers had been installed in the second half of the 19th Century and demand continued to grow, particularly during the First and Second World Wars when forgings were an integral part of most armaments.

The company was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1953 and with a growing order book, a 16-acre site in Kidderminster was later bought for pounds 21,000 where a new factory was built to house Lye Forge.

Shortly after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in 1963, the company moved into property development.

In 1965, some 21 acres of land were bought at The Hayes in Lye and new buildings were erected and let to tenants.

By 1966, Lye Forge had expanded to such a degree that a new factory was built on the outskirts of Kidderminster, about 12 miles away, the only open-die forge to be built on a "greenfield" site in Britain during the 20th Century.

The old site in Lye was converted into a range of factories and let, adding to the growing property interests of the group and still houses the head office.

In 1985, the name was changed to the Folkes Group and in 1990 the group made the single largest acquisition in its history by spending pounds 10 million to buy the Walter Somers Forge business and Clarkes Crankshaft, its main competitors.

In the 90s, the forges were computerised and generally upgraded and by the start of this year the group possessed some of the most modern in their size range in the world and employed 500 people.
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Author:Smith, Sue
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 15, 2000
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