Fussells of Mells

The Fussell businesses were in the main concerned with the production of agricultural edge tools – scythes, sickles, billhooks and the like – although output was by no means confined to these items. The ‘Fussell Country’ story so far as the Fussell dynasty concerned starts with the establishment of their first ironworks at Mells in 1744 by James Fussell (conventionally referred to as James III). Rapid expansion followed, albeit within a well defined geographical area, to the extent that by the beginning of the 19th century Fussell tools were being exported to all parts of the world. Branches of the Mells concern were established at Great Elm, Chantry and Railford in the late 18th/early 19th century and a separate business run by one of James III’s sons, John I, was operating at Nunney by 1791.

In 1791 Collinson says of Mells, ‘It is worthy of remark that in this sequestered vale there are two iron forges which at this period are carrying on a trade, little inferior, in point of extension, to those in the northern part of this Kingdom. All the Western counties are supplied at these manufactories with every iron implement of husbandry, and their connexions extend to the European and American continents’. It is clear that the Fussell business had become extremely successful.

James Fussell IV (1748-1832) was, in addition to his ironworks interests, an active promoter and proprietor of the aborted Dorset & Somerset Canal, for which he successfully designed, patented and had built an ingenious ‘balance lock’ or boat lift; he also patented a number of other inventions. The Fussells were becoming major landowners, with interests also in coal mining, quarrying and property.

Morris’s Directory of 1871 lists four Fussell ironworks-linked businesses. These were: James Fussell Sons & Co; Mells Ironworks; John Fussell & Co; Upper Ironworks (Mells); William A Fussell; Rock House; and Isaac Fussell & Co. of Nunney.

The Fussell empire collapsed towards the end of the 19th century. A variety of reasons for this have been suggested and all of them probably made their contributions. It was probably a case of too little, too late, in terms of keeping up with technical developments in the great industrial centres of the Midlands and the North. For example, the Fussells depended almost entirely on water power to a late date, although they did use steam in the later years. They also installed rolling mills at the Lower Works at great expense, but seem to have had difficulty in getting these to work satisfactorily. By the time this happened, a catastrophic collapse in English agriculture in the 1870s hit the market for edge tools.

Late in the life of the Fussell operations there was an attempt at rationalisation with the fusion of the various branches into James, Isaac & John Fussell Ltd, Mells and Nunney Works, but again it was too late. William A Fussell’s company was diversifying, an 1881 advertisement featuring garden chairs, cold frames and propagating stoves. In 1894 the Fussell empire was adjudged bankrupt and liquidated. The company was taken over by Isaac Nash of Belbroughton, Worcestershire. By 1895 all production in the Mells area had stopped, although the name and reputation were still used by the Nash organisation, which had even taken Fussell employees to Worcestershire. Isaac Nash was itself later taken over by Tyzack Son & Turner.

Reproduced with permission, Derrick John Hunt – see more on his website.

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