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History of Finch Foundry

Black and white photo of a family group seated outside a house, including three generations of the Finch family.
The Finch Family, pictured outside their family home | © National Trust, Finch Foundry archive

From its 19th century beginnings through to its closure in the 1960s, the history of Finch Foundry in Devon is one that spans multiple generations of the same enterprising family. The foundry rose from humble beginnings to become a key player in the British tool industry under the leadership of Rebecca Finch, before branching out in unexpected directions under her son, Albany George.

The founding father: William Finch

William was born in 1779 in Spreyton, West Devon. He worked in Tavistock Ironworks for most of his early career and this is where he purchased the equipment to start the business at Finch Foundry after the ironworks had gone into decline.

He married three times, fathering many children, four of whom were born in his last marriage to Suzanna. A family legend states that Suzanna gave birth to their youngest child after walking to Tavistock – almost 20 miles away – to sell tools, whilst heavily pregnant. She carried the baby back only a few days later, after selling the tools she had carried to market.

George: a short stint

William and Suzanna’s youngest son, George, took over the foundry in 1882 after the death of his brother John and John’s wife Emlin, both of whom ran the business for a short time. Emlin added greatly to the business’ holdings during her nine-year stint.

George ran the business as an agricultural and mining implement maker during the boom of the mining industry in West Devon. Although he did quite well, he spent a lot of money on building a house for his family and was also the victim of a local financial downturn. Towards the end of his life, he was sued by the local pub after accidentally flooding it.

He only ran the foundry for three years, dying in 1885 after taking an overdose of laudanum while trying to cure a stubborn toothache, although according to his death certificate there were underlying health issues.

Woman seated outside a house at a table, bible in hand
Rebecca Finch, pictured outside her family home. | © National Trust, Finch Foundry archive.

Rebecca Finch takes over

Upon the death of George, there was an assumption that his eldest son would take over the business. However, it was his widow Rebecca that took control of the firm, under the title of R Finch Edge Tool Manufacturer.

Rebecca inherited the business, and a good amount of money and land, as her and George’s sons were either too young or involved in other ventures. Although the inheritance wasn’t enough for Rebecca to live a life of luxury, it enabled her to build the business and make it a leader in the British tool industry.

Finch Foundry’s most profitable phase

During her tenure Rebecca added around £300 to the estate and appears to have expanded the business to include delivery carts and horses, houses for the family and a coal merchant.

She also made inroads to purchasing additional assets such as stores and investing in Rawnsley Mine, to the north of Sticklepath.

Rebecca used the resources available to her, putting her now adult children – Thomas, James and Albany George – to work and using their talents to help with the business.

She used her administrative skills to draw and publish the first catalogue of tools for sale, and to manage a growing workforce at the foundry, which now comprised of around 20 male workers.

Black and white archive photo of a group of workers at Finch Foundry, Devon
Workers at Finch Foundry, Devon | © National Trust / Tamsyn Flannery

By now, there were various additional strands of the business that Rebecca controlled:

  • The family-owned rental properties
  • Materials brought in from many different companies, including fuel, metal, wood, and other items to be sold in the shop
  • Albany would sell tools at over six local markets during the week
  • Orders were taken for tools, funerals were booked, and coal and award-winning manure from the family farm was sold
  • Looking after the other businesses that the Finch family dipped in and out of over the years

She would also have overseen calculating and distributing the wages.

After a full day’s work at the foundry, Rebecca then returned home to fulfil the usual tasks of a Victorian housewife, as well as keeping her 10 grandchildren in line.

Rebecca ran the business until her death in 1891; it was under her leadership that the business hit its most profitable and productive phase, during the last quarter of the 19th century.

The final years of production: Albany George

Rebecca’s son Albany George oversaw several changes in direction of the business, partly due to the changing industry and partly a change in foreign trade due to the two world wars.

To survive, the business had to diversify and the passing years saw them branch out as scrap metal merchants, a funeral director, a timber merchant, occasional car mechanics, painters and decorators, a coal merchant and an 'importer of American goods'.

After Albany’s death in 1945 the business was run by his nephews until the building and business collapsed in 1960.

The Finch Foundry Museum

After the Foundry closed for business, Dick Barron, whose mother was a Finch, inherited the site and wanted to prevent it decaying and disappearing for ever. Along with his brother, Bob, Dick secured funding from charitable trusts which allowed the site to be repaired. It was eventually reopened as the Finch Foundry Museum in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Coming under National Trust care

In the mid-1980s, due to the building of the new A30, fewer visitors passed by and it became difficult for the museum to operate successfully. The North Devon Museum’s Association, which then owned the foundry, approached the National Trust about taking it on.

After a survey, the Trust found that over £60,000 worth of work was needed to support the building’s crumbling walls. Thanks to a local supporter (Mr Espley) who left a gift to the Trust in his will, the Science Museum and the Dartmoor Authority, we able to take on the care of the foundry in 1994.

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