Friday, January 11, 2013

Let's Hear it for the Smith by Deborah Swift

Without the smith most of life in previous centuries would be unthinkable, yet he often does not appear in historical novels. Nearly all of life was supported by the Smith. Forged tools were used by all other craftspeople such as shear hooks for thatchers or chisels for carpenters. All farmers and agricultural workers  relied on him for scythes, ploughs, rakes and so forth. Women used iron cooking pots, metal spoons and knives, all hand-made by the smith.

There were several different types of smith; the traditional blacksmith who shod horses and was an expert in veterinary practice, but also the brightsmith or whitesmith who polished his work to a higher degree of finish.  Cutlers and weaponry makers would come under this category. Some smiths made bells and included the business of bell-hanging in their trade, some were locksmiths manufacturing only locks and keys. Often they worked closely with wheelwrights (sometimes called wainwrights) to make the parts of wagons and coaches - a trade as complex as manufacturing a car today.In the period I enjoy writing about, the 17th century, all transport was by horse or horse and trap/carriage.

As well as large items, the blacksmith would often have apprentices making nails, hooks, hinges and other small items for every day use. Nails were used to hold everything together - furniture, shoes, musical instruments all required hand-made nails.

As the demand for nails was so great, some parts of the country specialized in nail-making. The improvement of slitting the iron into bars came from the France early in the 17th century, and this helped create an English nail trade. Godfrey Box built the first slitting mill in England at Dartford, Kent in 1590. It used water power to slit the iron.

Many forges were close to water because of the need to 'quench' the iron between heatings, and because the wheelwright often required water to soak and bend the wood for wheels. Because their trade involved keeping a fire going all day, villages often built the bake-house with its bread-oven near the smith's. So a symbiotic relationship between all the trades developed with each using the advantages of the other. I'm sure many smiths enjoyed the benefit of a hot pie at the end of their day's work!

18th century painting of a Forge by Wright of Derby

Some blacksmiths specialized in making cutlery and so came to be known as “cutlers”. They had a great knowledge of the properties of iron, and how to control the heating and cooling processes to achieve a particular result. These men made knives, scissors, razors and swords.

For my next novel 'A Divided Inheritance' I researched the making of swords and weaponry, which I will explore in a later post as making a cutting edge is a very specialized skill involving the creation of steel through tempering the metal. But just to whet your appetite, here is a section of a sword discovered hidden in Cropredy Church, believed part of a cache of arms left over from the English Civil War. More about this can be found by following this link.

Quote from

For more on the history of the Blacksmith I can recommend Simon Grant-Jones'website,
For more on nail-making
English Heritage's 'A Book of English Trades'

My book The Gilded Lily is currently this week's Giveaway, so pop over if you'd like to win a copy. You can also win a copy of The Midwife's Tale by Sam Thomas this week, just scroll down from my Giveaway.


  1. Very interesting post. I tweeted.

  2. Fascinating article - I followed the link, and it mentioned found cannon balls also. We had one from the Battle of Newbury which we found when uncovering an old fireplace. The builder thought it had been dropped to clear a chimney blockage!

  3. Darned hard work, being a smith - hot, and requiring both muscle and skill. I've watched my farrier trimming horses' feet and shaping the iron to fit, and I have been filled with admiration every time.

    I hadn't heard of wainwright and wheelwright being interchangeable though - I thought one referred to making the body and carriage etc of a wagon, and one to the specialised skill of making wheels.

  4. A good article. I hadn't heard of brightsmith or whitesmith. Nice to hear something about the ordinary working side of history.

  5. Blacksmiths where concerned with shoeing horses are also called farriers, and in the Middle Ages you will often find them listed in Latin as Marescallus or English Marshals as part of a town's occupants. Marshal obviously has a crossover with other functions, but there's enough evidence to show that blacksmiths were being listed under the occupation Marescallus.
    Interesting article btw! :-)

  6. My father was a blacksmith and to watch him work a piece of white hot iron was awe inspiring.

  7. Great post; very informative. I've sent it to the Beau Monde loop. Thanks!


  8. I agree. The indispensable artisans and other in trade don't get much page time considering their roles in their communities. Interesting facts.


  9. Hello everyone, thanks for your comments. Yes, Sue Millard, I think you are right, strictly speaking the wainwright was responsible for the body of the cart (like The Haywain by Constable). But evidence suggests that ironwork was also needed for hinges on the tailgate, axle fittings and so forth, and the two jobs could often be combined very successfully. When I was a child our horses were shod by a travelling 'farrier' or blacksmith as Elizabeth points out. That is fascinating - the link to the word Marshal, btw - I love finding out about the etymology of words.

  10. Excellent post! Thank you for taking the time to shed some light on this crucial, if often ignored, trade of the past.

    However, there is one very important product of those smiths who worked iron which you have over-looked, though it is very easy to do. That is smith's dust, what we would call iron filings today. Each night, the floor of the blacksmith's shop would be swept clean, and the sweepings would be bagged and stored for sale.

    The highest volume buyers would be local gardeners, especially those at the great houses. These gardeners would use the smith's dust, or black earth, as they sometimes called it, to cover the soil in ornamental flower beds. The dark color of the soil would accentuate the delicate color of the blooms, and the iron would gradually leach into the soil as the filings oxidized, nourishing the plants.

    Builders regularly bought smith's dust as an important ingredient in making a water-proof flooring material, which also included bullock's blood and slaked lime.

    A smaller amount of smith's dust was purchased by men, and women, of science, who used the iron filings, along with lodestones, to study the properties of magnetism.



  11. Thank you for the link, the craft of blacksmithing is very much alive. we are celebrating our patron saints day on 23rd November at Finch Foundry at sticklepath in Devon, the last working water powered forge.Come and see the firing of the anvil (using black powder, the only place inthe UK that you are likely to ever see it).This is a public event and all are welcome
    Simon Grant-Jones


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