A certain item was once praised for its usefulness in beating dangerous dogs, stopping mad bulls in their tracks and thrashing erring husbands. Many years ago, one such object was given (along with a pair of sensible boots) to a servant girl about to emigrate to a new life. Young Martha was instructed to guard the gift well – ‘it will be a comfort to thee when it’s wet, and when it’s dry thou may want it to drive off some man’.
This invaluable weapon was a Paragon frame umbrella. Its inventor, Samuel Fox, had been born in June 1815 at a cottage on Water Lane (now Church Street) in Bradwell. His father, William, made a living as a weaver’s shuttle-maker but by the time young Samuel sought work, times were hard and wages low. The chief cause was a slump in the lead-mining industry, in fact poorer villagers were dependent upon charitable collections to keep their families supplied with food and blankets.
Samuel doubtless considered himself lucky to become apprenticed into the wire trade at Hathersage, an industry that thrived on wire-drawing and the attendant manufacture of needles and pins, combs used in textile production, and even fish-hooks. The last few years of Samuel’s apprenticeship were completed at Sharrow Moor, Sheffield, from where he joined a firm at Rivelin Valley as a working partner. At the early age of twenty-seven he bought his own premises at Stocksbridge, converting this former cotton mill and grinding works into a successful wire-drawing factory. Within a few years he could afford to experiment with the production of hollow, flexible wire, for which he had a particular use in mind.
A Worldwide Success
Umbrellas of the day were either cumbersome or rather fragile affairs, their frames made from either solid steel, whalebone or cane. It would be Fox who invented the world’s first successful collapsible umbrella frame which, with his improved rib terminals, ensured the immediate success of ‘Fox’s Paragon Umbrellas’. Naturally his trademark was a fox.
There was also a more fashionable use for lightweight frame cages as supports for crinoline skirts, so a ‘crinoline shop’ was added to the Stocksbridge premises. The collapsible umbrella frames were to prove a rather more enduring success and exported worldwide, even finding a similar market in hotter climes as parasols and huge sun-umbrellas.
The Stocksbridge steel factory continued to expand and the business became a limited company in 1871, by which time a railway siding had been specially constructed to bring steel straight to the workshops and to transport completed orders.
His Native Village
Samuel Fox was a good employer and generally kept Bradwell workers on the payroll. He was a frequent visitor to his native village, making regular gifts of clothing, fuel and food to needy inhabitants. The donations were intended to be anonymous but no-one could think why anyone else would take such a generous interest in the village.
In 1868 Samuel openly gave land to provide a vicarage and churchyard, plus the sum of £100 towards building a church. His was the largest single subscription, followed by a gift of £75 from the Duke of Rutland.
In 1883 the inventor’s only son, William Henry, became High Sheriff of Oxfordshire. Samuel himself died on 26 February 1887, leaving a £1000 legacy to provide income to the needy of Bradwell ‘for ever’. At his death his company employed 2,000 workers, a number that was to increase three-fold by 1948.
On the front of a house opposite Bradwell church is a brass plaque inscribed ‘The inventor of the Paragon Umbrella Frame and founder of the extensive Stocksbridge works, a generous benefactor to the parish of Bradwell was born in this cottage June 1815.’