Almost every village had a blacksmith at the beginning of the 20th century. Many would have closed in the natural course of events, as the growth of motor transport made shoeing of horses redundant, but were reprieved by the advent of the Second World War. The difficulty of importing petrol made the horse again an important part of the nation’s transport needs. Grass and locally grown oats or carrots were the only fuel the horse required, not oil from across the dangerous seas with their lurking U-boats. The blacksmith’s coal came from Britain, and there were still plenty of carts that could be dragged out of the farmer’s barn and be put back to use. Animals which would have been sent to the knacker’s yard were kept for few more years of work. Near my home in the village of Caistor the milk was delivered by horse and cart throughout the war; the the smith (Mr Cogman) was kept busy shoeing horses. He did not retire until 1944 when he was nearly 70.
Whissonsett kept its smithy until 1972, and I went to the sale of the forge. In 1845 even the tiny hamlet of Arminghall (population 79) had its blacksmith, Robert Sand. It had no boot and shoemaker, shopkeeper or Post Office, but it had a smithy. Forty years later the population had increased to 105 but the village still had no shops. It still had a smith, named Robert Saul. This blacksmith must have closed in the late nineteenth century; it was located in the north east corner of the farm yard of Manor Farm, on the opposite side of the road. I know where the Taverham blacksmith was too, on the corner of Sandy Lane and The Street; until 1899 he was kept busy making equipment for the paper mill. Drayton smithy was in Taverham Lane, and he used the old gasometer from the mill as the smith’s workshop once the mill had closed.
I can remember the site of the of the blacksmith in Framingham Earl but it was closed after the war, like many others. Poringland kept its smith into the 1950s, as part of a larger business that included carpentry and a garage. The smith at Heydon only closed about 5 years ago; it must have been one of the last traditional smithies in Norfolk. There are still some forges, mostly producing architectural ironwork and sculptures. There is a regular demand for farriers to shoe horses, but nowadays these tend to travel round to stables, rather than the horses travelling to the nearest blacksmith as formerly.
I particularly remember the forge at Ditchingham which was right on the main road, by the bus stop. Horses were sometimes brought in to be shod, but this was a few years after the war when everybody wanted a car and nobody wanted a horse. The main trade concerned the mending of farm machinery and this involved electric welding rather than old-fashioned welding on the forge. You could tell all these operational forges because when you went past there were iron bars scattered about outside the blacksmith’s forge.
This view of a blacksmith’s forge in Brooke, Norfolk, was photographed in the 1970s. The forge is lit and a horse is being led to be shod.
My father was very keen on all these old crafts, and not just as spectator. He never had the opportunity to try thatching for example, and bricklaying was rather rough on the hands for his tastes, but metal working, pattern making and optical instrument making were all skills that he not only possessed but was good at. He was as good with his hands as was with his brain. He was keen for me to follow his example and set me up with an anvil and forge, hammer and tongs, and had me making wrought iron pokers and other decorative ironwork. It was all pretty basic as far blacksmithing goes, but I don’t suppose many university students would spend their vacations bent over a forge!
For a list of Norfolk blacksmiths CLICK HERE to visit the relevant web page of the Blacksmiths’ Index..