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Who invented the modern day folding umbrella?

Most won't know the name of Samuel Fox, but they'll certainly have benefited from his invention Photo: Getty Images
Most won't know the name of Samuel Fox, but they'll certainly have benefited from his invention Photo: Getty Images

Given our usually somewhat damp weather, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that Samuel Fox (1815-1887), the inventor of the folding umbrella frame, came from the Hope Valley village of Bradwell.

Generations of people, including many of the tourists who come to the Peak District, have been grateful for Fox’s innovative invention, which has kept them dry during the rain showers which can frequently dog their visits.

The son of a shuttle weaver, Fox was born at Bradwell in 1815, and started work as an apprentice wire-drawer in nearby Hathersage in 1831.

Great British Life: The birthplace of Samuel Fox in Bradwell Photo: commons.wikimediaThe birthplace of Samuel Fox in Bradwell Photo: commons.wikimedia

Extensive wire drawing was an important industry in Hathersage in the 19th century, alongside the associated trade of needle grinding, which was not without its risks.

The work of sharpening needles to a fine point on a grindstone was very unhealthy, giving those early needle grinders a life expectancy of just ten years.

The whole village also paid a price in grimy, dust-laden air, with minute metal particles eating into the glass and stone of buildings near the mills – not to mention the lungs of the inhabitants.

Wire drawing was one of the secondary metal trades dependent on the iron industry of east Derbyshire, where ironstone occurred in the coal measures.

Iron smelting is recorded at Barlow as early as the 12th century and iron was also later put to use on the borders of the Peak, where the Hallamshire region of Sheffield developed as a manufacturing centre for scythes, sickles and knives.

Great British Life: Beautiful Hathersage, where Fox learned his craft Photo: Gary WallisBeautiful Hathersage, where Fox learned his craft Photo: Gary Wallis

Sheffield, of course, later became world famous for its cutlery, a trade still represented at Hathersage in the distinctive, award-winning circular factory of David Mellor, on the Grindleford road on the site of the former village gas works.

Sheffield brass foundries also provided metal for the manufacture of brass buttons in Hathersage, but this was small scale compared with the wire drawing industry.

The story of its development in Hathersage may date from a patent granted by Queen Elizabeth in 1565 to Humphrey and Schütz for a wire drawing works at Hathersage for the ‘making of steele and iron wyer’.

An important early product were sieves, or riddles, for washing mineral ore, chiefly for the local lead industry. Hathersage was also the main supplier of sieves to the Ecton Copper Mine in the Manifold Valley.

Late 18th century accounts include an invoice from James Hodgkinson containing a reference to wire brooms: ‘24 Sive bottoms of No 48 wires £12.16.0d; 12 Wire brooms £4.18.3d; 12 Ridles at 1s 2d per Ridle 14s 0d.’ Also in this period, cast steel wire for clock springs was being drawn at the Hathersage works of Robert Cocker.

Great British Life: Samuel Fox Photo: The Founders and Builders of Stocksbridge WorksSamuel Fox Photo: The Founders and Builders of Stocksbridge Works

Needle making appears to have been introduced – along with a few experienced workers – from Studley in Worcestershire. Records from Redditch show that their needle makers were obtaining wire from Hathersage by 1790; and in 1798 one of the Hathersage suppliers was Thomas Cocker.

Samuel Cocker, who had been apprenticed to a Manchester needle maker, set up in the trade at Hathersage in 1810. The young Samuel Fox was apprenticed to Samuel Cocker in 1831 and initially worked as a wire drawer in Hathersage.

Cocker also possibly held an additional interest in Barnfield Mill on the Hood Brook, sharing the premises with Robert Cook, a wire drawer who moved from Studley in 1811. Cook produced cast steel wire, needles, gill pins etc. and Barnfield was one of only three firms worldwide to manufacture hackle pins for combing wool and raising the nap on cloth.

Fifty years after arriving in Hathersage, Robert Cook had 100 employees, including 20 young children. One nine-year-old girl told the Childrens’ Employment Commission of 1862 that she was at work shaping umbrella ribs from 6am to 7pm, while one 11-year-old boy said that he sometimes worked a 15-hour day.

The name of Henry Cocker is also associated with Dale Mill on the Dale Brook, which he took over around 1824, when a second storey was added and the manufacture of brass buttons was abandoned in favour of wire drawing for the production of steel pins and needles. Henry Cocker was already producing these in workshops across the road from Dale Mill, in the present Eastwood Cottages.

Great British Life: Bradwell, a village that Fox never forgot despite his huge success Photo: The Roaming Picture Taker, FlickrBradwell, a village that Fox never forgot despite his huge success Photo: The Roaming Picture Taker, Flickr

A mill later known as Victoria Works was owned by Tobias Child, who from the 1830s produced among other things hackle and gill pins for the textile industries. John Stead, a ‘pin manufacturer’ who also made gramophone needles, was also here at the beginning of the 20th century.

Atlas Works, near the confluence of the Hood and Dale Brooks, was another wire drawing mill operated between the 1840s and 1880s by the Cocker family and was probably the first in Hathersage to change from water to steam power. Output from Atlas Works included bicycle spokes and umbrella frames, this latter having a firm local connection.

Although the invention of the world’s first successful collapsible umbrella frame is attributed to Samuel Fox, credit should also perhaps go to Joseph Hayward, one of Fox’s employees at the Stocksbridge Steel Works.

Waterpower for the Hathersage needle mills was supplied by the Hood and Dale Brooks, with steam engines introduced from 1841. By the following decade, however, the needle industry was in general decline, and the factory of Samuel Cocker & Sons closed in 1852/3.

Robert Cook & Co. remained in business until the early 20th century, since which the factory buildings have met various fates. The Atlas Works was demolished in 1907 after several years lying idle, while Victoria Works, which had moved into millstone production, closed down after the steam boiler blew up in 1910. Barnfield Mill and Dale Mill have been converted to residential and commercial use.

Samuel Fox went on to establish his own wire-drawing business in a former cotton mill at Stocksbridge, South Yorkshire, in 1842 – reputably having arrived on foot from Bradwell, a distance of some 18 miles.

In 1851, his company, Fox Umbrella Frames (now based in a cotton mill bought by Fox in 1851 with the mortgage paid off by 1856) developed the ‘Paragon’ folding umbrella frame, and umbrellas with Fox frames were eventually sold worldwide.

Having initially started out with just one employee, the business continued to expand and started producing different products, and by the mid-1860s the works included furnaces and rolling mills. At its height, the company would employ 8,000 workers.

In 1862, Samuel Fox began to produce crucible steel. The company installed two five-ton Bessemer converters, the invention of Sir Henry Bessemer. In 1863 a rail and billet mill was established, followed by a rod mill in 1864. A railway line was even built to link the steel works with the wider region.

Fox bought the Bradwell Grove Estate at Holwell in Oxfordshire in 1871. He died in February 1887 at the age of 71 and was buried in St John’s churchyard on his estate North Cliffe, near Market Weighton, in the then East Riding of Yorkshire.

Throughout his life, Fox frequently returned to his home village of Bradwell, and for many years regularly sent money to benefit the poor.

These charitable donations were always sent anonymously, and it was only a few years before his death that the actual donor became known, when he also bequeathed a further £1,000 for the poor of the parish.

The magnificent Saint Matthias Church overlooking the steelworks at Stocksbridge was funded by the Fox family and was built following his death. It was so named because Samuel Fox died on St. Matthias’s Day.

Fox himself had planned the church, and the church was completed in his memory under the instruction of his son, William, at a cost of around £5,000. Due to dwindling congregations, the church closed in 2018.

As well as being celebrated in Bradwell and the wider Hope Valley, this self-made Derbyshire man's legacy lives on in Stockbridge. In 2016, the £50m mixed-use Fox Valley opened on the former steelworks site, creating more than 700 jobs and contributing to the area's regeneration to the extent it won the RICS Pro Yorkshire Award fro Regeneration in 2017.

Samuel Fox was a true pioneer who remains fondly remembered both sides of the Derbyshire/Yorkshire border.



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