A smith is a person involved in the shaping of metal objects. The traditional working place for a smith is a forge or smithy. He needs a way of heating iron and an anvil to hammer it on with a selection of hammers. To heat the metal he uses a forge, burning coal, wood or charcoal. A hot fire is produced by blowing air into the fire using a bellows. The four main hammers used are sledge, straight peen, ball peen and cross peen. The hot metel is brought to the anvil held in long tongs. Along side the anvil there would be a trough of water to quench and cool the work. Traditionally the smith wore a thick leather apron which in art is often shown as cut along the bottom.
We think of a blacksmith as being a big strong man and living in the cottage attached to his smithy. As Flora Thompson describes in Lark Rise to Candleford “On the farther, less populated side of the green a white horse stood under a tree outside the smithy waiting its turn to be shod and, from within, ... the ring of the anvil and the roar of the bellows could be heard.
Attached to the smithy was a long low white house which might have been taken for an ordinary cottage of the more substantial kind .... above the door of the smithy was another board which read: Dorcas Lane, shoeing and general smith”
A similar North Oxfordshire smithy cottage can still be seen in Tadmarton near Banbury in Oxfordshire.
Shown on the right is a detail of the small sign on the cottage wall the larger sign that can be seen in the main photograph belongs to the next cottage.
Photograph was by Eric McMullin 14 July 2007
In Devon Robert HEARD  a blacksmith, lived in a Devon Long House trading with the farmers at a cattle market. He eventually started selling beer to his customers and converted his house into an Inn. He continued with the smithy as well as being the publican.
The book by Flora Thompson shows how the work of a village smith also covered the work of a farrier. Some also fitted the metal tyres to wheels. John DYMENT  was described as a blacksmith on the 1881 census and as a wheelwright & carpenter on his marriage registration just 4 days later, so he probably combined both rolls. Dorcas Lane took over the smithy from her father in Candleford Green and the book tells us that she was in charge but not working as a smith. Charlotte HEARD nee STANBURY  took over the smithy in Dolton after her husband Richard  died. Her son Robert  was a blacksmith but only 19 and newly wed with a young baby in 1871 but by 1881 he had taken full control. In the same way that Miss Lane in the above extract from Lark Rise to Candleford was the village postmistress as well as owning the smithy Charlotte had opened a grocer & drapers shop with the help of two of her daughters. In 1901 Robert  was still the Blacksmith and his wife Betsy was a Grocer working from home which implies that the shop was indeed part of the smithy.
Susan HEARD nee GOODING  the wife of blacksmith George HEARD  also opened a shop. This one was a grocer and bakery in Beaford. The shop is shown next to the smithy on the 1891 census but as yet we don’t know if it was part of it in the same way that Dorcas Lane’s post Office was part of the smithy building. Susan’s son Silas  had taken over from his father as the blacksmith. In 1861 Mary HEARD  appears to be a Grocer in the same shop. She was a widow, her late husband was a cousin of the blacksmith John HEARD .
The most quoted reference, in literature, to nineteenth century blacksmiths is from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The main character, Pip, lived his early life with a village smith and learnt the traditions and song of the blacksmith. He sang as he pushed Miss Havisham around her room the song was to the beat of the smith and striker’s hammers;
“ Hammer boys round -
With a thump and a sound -
Beat it out, beat it out -
With a clink for the stout -
Blow the fire, blow the fire -
Roaring dryer, soaring higher -
The old Clem mentioned in the song is the patron Saint of Blacksmiths St Clement. Tradition says that the Saint was thrown into the sea with an anchor chained around his neck and for several years on the anniversary of his death the sea retired out to the spot where he was drowned and stayed in that position for seven days at a time. Smiths still celebrate his day November 23 often gathering to hold competitions to find the best smith. They also strike gunpowder on the anvil causing a loud noise and sparks to fly (if the anvil is weak it breaks and will be recast).
The smithy was also eulogised by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.in his poem The Village Blacksmith, which starts
Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
What ever romantic ideas we have about them, village blacksmiths must have been clever crafts men able to turn metal into so many useful things everything from a well fitting horse shoe to a majestic weathervane, from a humble spade to a magnificent gate for the local manor. They must also have been shrewd business men building up a business to pass down through the generations. They had to move with the times being able to repair all the farm implements and machines several smiths became the early motor mechanics once the motor car arrived in their area.
A fitting epitaph for all blacksmiths is the following from the grave of Richard Stephens, blacksmith of Lowesmoor Wharf, who died 1931;
“ His sledge and hammer he's declined,
His bellows too has lost its wind,
His fire's extinct,his forge decayed,
And in the dust his vice is laid;
His coal is spent, his iron's gone,
His nails are drove,his work is done.”
Not every Smith worked in a village setting. Most mines had their own forge on the surface and a shoeing smith would have had a shop underground to tend to the pit ponies that never surfaced. Some smiths also worked in factory situations.
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