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Blacksmiths and smithies
in bygone times

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Why blacksmiths and smithies were essential in bygone times

old woking smithy blacksmith

Inside a working smithy by Rosemary Hampton.
Reproduced with permission

In the early 1900s and in previous times, travelling any distance needed the services of one or more horses, and these horses had to have shoes, which needed the services of a blacksmith. A blacksmith's place of work was known as a smithy or a forge and there was at least one in every village and more in towns and cities. Possibly this is why Smith is such a common surname even today.

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Inside a smithy

A smithy was a hot and humid place. During working hours a very hot open fire was always burning with its large bed of red-hot coals. This was for heating the metal so that it could be hammered into shape.

Prepared horseshoes hanging on a smithy's wall

Prepared horseshoes hanging on a smithy's wall.

inside a smithy

One view of inside a smithy

By the fire, on separate benches and around the walls hung all sorts of instruments for holding and bending metal.

There was also an anvil to beat the hot metal against, various hammers and a selection of nails. A bucket of water stood nearby for cooling the red hot metal after its shaping.

On the walls hung various sizes of pre-made horseshoes.

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The work of a blacksmith

Blacksmiths worked with metal, usually iron, by heating it in a very hot fire and beating it into the shape required. These shapes were many and varied, but primarily blacksmiths' work was fitting new horseshoes to horses whose old horseshoes has worn down or come off.

At slack times when there were no horses in to be shod, blacksmiths would make various size horseshoes and hang them on the wall in readiness. This 'wall decoration' could always be seen inside any smithy.

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How a blacksmith shod a horse

The cavernous appearance inside a smithy

The mysterious implements hanging on the walls of the dark cavernous place looked to us boys looked like instruments of torture.

Malcolm Head

The smell!

The charred hoof from a hot shoe made the most horrible smell that seemed to hang around inside and outside a smithy.

Bill Hogg

Blacksmiths' goggles

Our local blacksmith would stare at the very fires of hell through begoggled eyes and sparks flew in all directions as he beat the metal into weird and wonderful shapes.

Malcolm Head

Blacksmith's goggles were to protect their eyes from hot sparks rather than against glare. The blacksmiths needed to be able to judge temperature from the colour of the coals.

Bill Hogg

How blacksmiths served the community

There was nothing our local blacksmith could not make and nothing he could not mend - to us he was Merlin the magician, but to the grown-ups who were able to coax a few more years use out of ancient machinery during war-time shortages, he was a Godsend. I don't think he ever went short of food, drink or cigarettes!

Malcolm Head

Blacksmiths had to be strong. Not only to spend their days beating metal but also to hold a horse steady while it was being shod.

First the old shoe had to be removed with pliers, by holding the horse's leg between his own legs. This was a quick job unless the horse felt like moving. The blacksmith took various new shoes off his wall and tried them for size, just by holding them against the horse's hoof. Then, having selected a suitable shoe, he noted how its shape needed fine adjustments and set about reshaping it. He held the new shoe in the red hot coals until it too became red or even white hot and he reshaped it by beating it onto the anvil.

Once the blacksmith was satisfied with the new shape and while the shoe was still hot, he held it against the horse's hoof. This made a 'psssh' noise and burnt an imprint into the hoof. It didn't hurt the horse of course because horses' hoofs have no nerves rather like our own nails, and they are very much thicker. The imprint served to keep the shoe in position while the blacksmith nailed it in place.

How often a horse had to have a new shoe depended on the type of work that the horse was doing, but as a rough guide it was about once a year.

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Outside a smithy

Smithies were always situated at a roadside for easy access. During open hours, the doors were kept open, not only to encourage trade but for ventilation. Smithies were hot, humid and very smelly places. You could feel the heat and smell the smell from outside.

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From smithy to forge

forge

Forge specialising in elegant ironwork. Note the anvils on display outside as a link with the smithy past.

As the century progressed, cars and other petrol driven vehicles were gradually replacing horse-drawn transport, but in rural areas, where horses were still used on the land, blacksmiths and their smithies remained. Only as tractors began to replace farm horses and petrol rationing stopped, did almost all blacksmiths become almost redundant.

Most smithies simply closed, but others concentrated on producing elegant ironwork. Then the name 'forge' took over from 'smithy'.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster