The blacksmith’s forge: a community hub

Image: A view of a blacksmith at the forge door using an anvil, HOYFM.WAG.2947.
A view of a blacksmith at the forge door using an anvil, HOYFM.WAG.2947.

My name is Jenna Fox and I am currently undertaking a placement with National Museums NI at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra as part of my Master’s degree in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at the University of Ulster.

My placement involves transcribing a collection of handwritten notebooks which were compiled by individuals in the late 1950s and 1960s. These notebooks were essential for the development of the Folk Museum as they record by county and locality anecdotes and information on truly diverse topics. The notebook that I will be discussing was written by a teacher from Larne who covered all manner of topics including local country cures for ailments, superstitions and folklore, teaching practices, as well as her favourite confectionery that she enjoyed as a child.

Here are some of the respondent’s childhood recollections about the local blacksmith in her town. Her story reflects how blacksmiths weren’t only an essential presence in a hardworking town, but also served as a community hub which was bustling with activity on a constant basis.

“…the blazing hearth with roaring bellows, the ring of hammers on the anvil with the sparks flying from the red-hot metal, the cheerful young smith singing his love-song, the merry laughter at the country joke among the onlookers, and the patient horses waiting.”                

Layout

Image: Hand drawn floor plan of “A town blacksmith’s shop” taken from the notebook.
Hand drawn floor plan of “A town blacksmith’s shop” taken from the notebook.

The respondent describes the blacksmith’s forge as a long room filled with all manner of tools, from “huge grappling irons” to farm implements which were made in the shop. The most important parts of the shop were the Hearth and the Anvil, both of which deserved a capital letter, “as those two were the life and centre of the forge”. But, the blacksmith’s forge was more than just a labour yard, as she discusses.

Image: Young apprentice working on an anvil, HOYFM.BT.1296.
Young apprentice working on an anvil, HOYFM.BT.1296.

A meeting place

While many may think that the blacksmith’s shop was purely a place for hard working labourers, it was a place where “farmers wives and women-folk" often gathered “when they had their shopping done”. Of course, they kept out of the way of the working men as “it was not done for women to wait in “the shop””, gravitating instead to the smith’s family, especially “the smith’s kindly wife who often showed her hospitality”. Indeed, the respondent notes that, “most of the news of the country round could be heard in the blacksmith’s shop on market day.”

Image: “The shop was often filled with chatter”, BELUM.Y10092.
“The shop was often filled with chatter”, BELUM.Y10092.

Playground

Adventurous children also enjoyed gathering at the shop. The respondent notes that “the smith’s yard was a place of great interest to children after hours” and that “many games were invented there”. These games included using a chill-plough as a “fine steed” or building up piles of old shoes into heaps. The unstoppable commotion that occurred in the blacksmith’s shop was “a constant source of delight” as children took interest in the “many and varied” types of carts, cars and lorries that came into the yard. Waiting customers in the yard also indulged the children. She notes how “Old Ned” would take the children on “a short drive when his horses were “done””.

The smith often allowed the children to help in the shop, as “young boys and children” often got “great satisfaction in the roar of the furnace” that would happen when they blew the bellows.

Image: Children often gathered at the smith’s shop to play, HOYFM.WAG.390.
Children often gathered at the smith’s shop to play, HOYFM.WAG.390.

Car(t)-park

The blacksmith’s “stables and byres around the yard” were also used as an old-fashioned carpark by the country-folk who “went out on business”. Like today, busy market days in the town meant that spaces for parking one's cart were scarce, and the respondent notes how “some manipulation was needed to regulate the traffic!” However, if one was a “favoured customer” of the smith and his family, they were allowed to “stable his horse while he and his family went to church”.

Image: “The lucky customer got to stable their horse on busy market days”, BELUM.Y3814.
“The lucky customer got to stable their horse on busy market days”, BELUM.Y3814.

Veterinary clinic

Smiths worked with more than just metal and fire. She notes how smiths were often consulted “when a purchase was to be made” of an animal as the smith was considered “skilled and experienced” and his opinion was well respected. Smiths also acted as a veterinarian if required, as “sick animals were often brought in to be treated.”

Image: The smith’s opinion on animals was well respected and sought out, HOYFM.WAG.258.
The smith’s opinion on animals was well respected and sought out, HOYFM.WAG.258.

I hope you have enjoyed reading these recollections of a local blacksmith’s shop.

You can read about the Ulster Folk Museum’s two forges here:

Lisrace Forge

Pound Forge