Crafts: Blacksmith

The blacksmith was perhaps one of the most important of the historic building crafts a fact attested by the legends of the blacksmiths convincing variously, kings Solomon and Alfred, of their significance to all of the other crafts as the makers of the tools needed by artisans, without which work would stop. This photograph (above) from Dartmoor of the remains of a blacksmiths workshop nearby to the Swell Tor and Foggintor quarries also shows how blacksmiths were needed by quarrymen. The photograph on the right shows a blacksmiths shop in Torun, Poland, 'kowalstwo' being the Polish word for blacksmith.

The craft has a longstanding association with the gypsies, the Roma and Sinti peoples, who migrated westwards from India many centuries ago. Blacksmiths were often viewed as outsiders, their workshops sited beyond the city walls, partly for practical reasons, the possibility of fire, but largely due to the divisions of labour between 'clean' and 'unclean' crafts, and their practitioners.

Smithing has a history that can be traced back to ancient Egypt and before, where smiths first worked in copper and bronze. Whenever and wherever any significant building took place blacksmiths were an essential craft and element of the construction industry. Located next to quarries, building sites and on the outskirts of urban settlements the evidence of the blacksmithing trade is common to virtually every historical period until the 20th century.

In London the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths has records dating back to the 15th century. Originally it was mainly a religious fraternity (of St Loie) linked to a 'mystery' or trade. [1] Outside of London in rural areas blacksmiths produced tools for agricultural workers, for miners and quarrymen.

Although mainly a male dominated trade women are found working as smiths in medieval and early-modern records, and in the 19th century census. In Cornwall the 1841 census records a William and Ann Davey as both being blacksmiths in Lantegloss, near Camelford. In Charlestown near to St Austell, a small port for the nearby china clay works with a dock built by John Smeaton, a Hannah Bradhurst, aged 30, is listed as a blacksmith, living in a household that includes four girls, presumably her daughters. [2]

A contemporary example of women working in the blacksmithing trade is Melissa Cole, a fellow of the Worshipful Company who learned the trade from her father. [3] Significantly although she describes the teaching she received from her father as being the 'traditional' craft of blacksmithing she also lists herself as an 'artist blacksmith', and various commissions attest to this fact. As well as becoming competent in 'traditional' techniques she also studied for a BA in Art Education and now teaches the craft. Clearly Melissa Cole's work highlights the often arbitrary divide between an 'artist' and an 'artisan'.

Blacksmiths played a significant role in the industrial revolution and the craft changed accordingly. The traditional idea of the village blacksmith (and farriers who shoe horses) was superseded by large scale metal works such as the Hayle foundry in Cornwall, started by John Harvey in 1779. Blacksmiths' workshops were often visited by travellers, because farriers would shoe horses and blacksmiths could repair metal work on carts. There is also evidence of links between the banking industry and metalworkers, notably the goldsmiths. Lloyds Bank (with their 'sign of the black horse') was started by Sampson Lloyd II, who owned a forge and worked as an iron dealer. He started the banking business with the button maker John Taylor in 1765, creating Birmingham's first bank.