From the Somerset Standard, 7 June 2001
Standard reporter Caroline Wood looks into the history of the Fussell family and its famous business
Today Fussell’s Iron Works, nestling in several acres of land between Mells and Great Elm, is a tranquil place, the home of wild flowers and rare animals. Two hundred years ago it was probably a hell-hole emitting foul smells and loud noises where up to 250 men worked with their noses to the grindstone.
The story of the Fussell family is a remarkable one. During Victorian times they owned a firm famous for its agricultural tools. The family is first mentioned in a parish register in 1644. But 1744 seems the most likely date when the company was founded. By 1791 it was established in Mells and exported its products to America, as well as parts of Europe. By the end of the century it is recorded that Fussell’s offered to supply the Army with 2,000 pikes a week as their effort against the expected invasion by the French.
Fussell’s was at its height by 1813 making scythes, billhooks, hay knives, spades, shovels and drainage tools. The business expanded with the opening of branch factories at Nunney, Great Elm and Chantry providing work for many people. The Fussell family built Wadbury House which stands above the derelict works shere cellars once ran beneath. Legend has it that during the 1840s Thomas Fussell would creep through the underground caverns from his home to check that his workforce was doing its job.
It is difficult to imagine the noise, smell and heat coming from the great industrial site with its worldwide connections. Evidence of the scale of the works can be glimpsed between he trees and the carpet of wild garlic, ivy and buttercups. The derelict labyrinth of stone tunnels, the old offices, the turbine house, wheel pits and huge arches are still there abandoned when the business failed in 1880.
Geologist James Fussell remembers visiting the works as a boy with his father. He said: “I am not sure of my connections with the Fussell family but I always loved visiting the site as a boy.” In 1974 the Bristol Industrial Archeological Society excavated the works to whos the layout and James’ interest in the area was rekindled. In the past year a Fussell Forum has been created to preserve and enhance the ironworks.
It is also in response to a number of planning applications, the latest to build a house in the old offices. The application was refused by Mendip District Council and has since gone to appeal. It will be examined at a hearing by a government inspector in July.
James Fussell would like to see a museum opened there and the offices used as a study centre. But he is aware that a lot of the area’s appeal is its unspoilt ambience and tranquillity. “It is a gorgeous place and needs to be conserved, but in the right way,” he said. The ironworks are also believed to be a roost for the greater horseshoe bat. Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society describes it as a “very significant industrial archaeological site in a dramatic setting”. James said: “It is a really special place and should be treasured. It is not often that you come across what was one of the biggest ironworks in the country tucked away in the Somerset countryside.”