Getting to know your blacksmiths

This is essentially the same as two articles (Part 1 and Part2) published in Destinations, the Journal of the One-Place Society in December 2020 and March 2021. Based on an assignment for Pharos online course(1). (2)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, before mass production, almost every village and community had at least one blacksmith. Everyone needed household items and garden implements. As you walk around you can spot signs, perhaps “The Blacksmith’s Arms” pub or a house called “The Old Forge”,  a mandrel cone, grindstone or decorative wrought iron.

Smiths in rural areas made agricultural items; in urban areas some made parts for canal barges, perhaps even restraints for prisoners or slaves. Everywhere there were horses to be shoed, hinges, locks and latches needed. Opportunities for employment, perhaps mining, mills or shipping, and developments in those industries shaped both the blacksmiths’ work and their migration. The complex interplay between factors such location, customers, non-conformity, historical influences and the need to adapt over time is key to understanding the influences on each smith and smithy.

The trade ran through several generations.  Evidence from Somerset and Dorset (3) suggests this is most commonly seen within a local community around 1750-1850.  The Finch family worked in Sticklepath for almost 150 years from 1814, as edgetool makers, blacksmiths and whitesmiths, working closely with the farrier and wheelwright.  The smithy, known as the Finch Foundry, at the heart of the village, was a key employer.

There are often traditions associated with the blacksmith and their forge.  During the 1960s in Sticklepath, and probably long before, a great effort was made each year for what was effectively the unofficial village charity – St Loye’s College for the disabled in Exeter.  Many cakes were baked and transported 20 miles. Why was that event was so important?  St Loye or Eloi, bishop of Noyon in Northern France (640-659), is the patron saint of metal workers. Today St Clement, another patron saint, is celebrated in the village, with blacksmiths demonstrating their art each November. Others would claim St Dunstan as the English patron saint (4).

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his ballad ‘The Village Blacksmith’ in 1842 bringing out many common characteristics: ‘under the spreading chestnut tree’, a source of shade for the horses, perhaps with a drinking trough and somewhere to tether animals; ’a mighty man’ with ‘large and sinewy hands’ and ‘muscles as strong as iron bands’; as well as describing the heat and sounds of the smithy.  Charles Dickens’ Joe Gargery, a gentle giant of a blacksmith also points to their large size.  Many do seem to have been above average height (3), remembering height has increased over time. This can be confirmed if your blacksmith did military service. Some have therefore excelled in sports such as weightlifting and boxing (4). Longfellow also stresses he was a hard worker.  Bailey (5) claims “village craftsmen of former times worked hard and long hours – 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. being quite usual.” Work usually required light, so many worked sunrise to sunset. 

The blacksmith, working at the heart of the village, was known to all, a problem solver. Seen as strong and reliable, and needing to be literate, it is not surprising he was often elected to roles like village constable or highway warden. Evans found evidence for their reputation as ‘pillars of the community’, at least for Dorset and Somerset, in the number of Parish roles undertaken. 

Blacksmiths and wheelwrights needed to be able to read, write and do arithmetic to keep accounts, order supplies, measure and plan production of more complex items. This requirement is seen in some job advertisements and was a livery company pre-requisite.  Good handwriting made them eligible for appointments such as Parish Clerk, (which in small communities could include the sexton’s heavier duties like grave digging), overseer of the poor and later the role of census enumerator.  Aldermen of town and city Trade Guilds often included at least one blacksmith.

As rate payers they were eligible to be church wardens.   Being part of an established family of blacksmiths made such roles more likely, no doubt at least in part due to the practicalities of taking time out of the business without family back up.  A high proportion of blacksmiths were non-conformist.  Early non-conformists who challenged the status quo and their community authorities were less likely to be put in a Parish role, but they may have taken a lead in the religious community such as lay preacher. 

Sticklepath’s Wesleyan chapel was a centre of social and spiritual life from the early 1800s. Born in 1864, Albany George Finch took on being a Poor-law Guardian, a J.P. and was both a local preacher and Parish councillor for 50 years, in addition to tool-making and sales.

                                   Some Explanations.

IRON FOUNDER  Person making iron castings, usually from ore, or by removing impurities from old iron. No evidence this happened in Sticklepath.

IRONMONGER Dealer in hardware made of iron. In later times a shop keeper. However in the later 1600s and early 1700s, it would have been more like a workshop. 

IRON TURNER An iron turner was a metal machinist. The lathes were driven by a belt attached to a pulley wheel on a line shaft up at ceiling level which was driven by an engine. The ‘Turners’ turned (machined) cast iron, brass and bronze castings.

FARRIER  shoes and cares for horses and originally was essentially a horse doctor (until vets started about 1870).  Farriers had a separate Livery Company 1674 charter, from 1887 they had to pass an examination in making horse shoes.  Shoes could be made by blacksmiths – some farriers were also blacksmiths. Army school of farriership not established until 2nd WW

STRIKER made the fire and hammered the hot metal, but blacksmiths shaped the metal. 

WHITESMITH – often stated to work with white metal such as tin but used by my relations to delineate those working with cold metal eg sharpening, oiling, polishing and adding handles to tools. Evans (3) says: “did finer work than the blacksmith  producing a shiny finish on goods that were to be used for eating and cooking” often using tin alloys.  

FORGE – originally the hearth and fire, later the whole of the blacksmith’s work place (4).

Whilst there is an association with honesty and reliability, the blacksmith could also be a bit of a rogue.  Was yours the parish constable or on the other side of the law? The local petty sessions or Quarter Sessions might be enlightening for an individual, though perhaps not related to his blacksmith’s work. 

 The blacksmith needed a suitable forge, minimising risk of fire with water close at hand, where customers could gather and supplies were accessible. Many chose a site at a crossroads, to increase customers.  Early blacksmiths essentially worked to orders, perhaps taking a few products to the local market.  Later, groups formed making specific items to take to the local markets.  The setting affected the type of work, demand and opportunities. Many struggled to make a living, few made sufficient to retire. 

Sticklepath is in a valley, a typical one-street Devon village with many thatched cottages.  An agricultural area, with livestock put to pasture on Dartmoor during summer, granite available for building, peat cut for fuel. On the geological ‘Sticklepath fault’ there were local copper mines, arsenic and stone quarries.  All these required tools made, mended and sharpened.  The river Taw, running parallel to the village, spawns a leat providing water-power for up to 5 mills.

White’s Directory 1850(6) includes:

Finch and Sons, edge tool manufacturers
William Hooper, corn miller
George and Thomas Pearce, woollen manufacturers
Henry Phillips, corn miller
Thomas Watts, bone miller

The Finch Foundry was converted from the second village woollen mill in 1816 (7, 8). Many Finch family members in nearby villages were blacksmiths, but in Sticklepath they specialised. With waterpower for trip hammers and shears, a good trade route, the industrial revolution underway and steel available, the edgetool trade flourished. This involved ‘sandwiching’ steel between the cheaper iron plates to give a cost effective but longer lasting and sharper cutting edge to the tools. (Steel became widely available from about 1856).

  • Tip: Don’t forget to consider spelling variations when researching occupation.  Both ‘Edgetool’ and ‘Edge tool’ can be correct. Several enumerators, registrars and vicars heard “Hedge tool maker”!

Set in a valley with ‘punishing’ hills at either side, coaches arriving in Sticklepath frequently needed their metal tyres and other parts replacing.  In the coaching era many smithies, as here, were strategically placed close to the inn or postoffice.  Sticklepath blacksmith John Cann set up the post office in his cottage in 1828, which his wife ran for many years.  Many brewed their own beer to help quench the thirst from working close to the fire all day. So it was not uncommon for the blacksmith to run the inn.  Others were non-conformists and part of the temperance movement.  For those nearer London the Drover’s routes were a good place for your forge as the cattle moving many miles also needed shoeing.

Whilst the first coaches appeared in the early 1700s it was after the lighter faster mail coaches were developed in the mid-1780s that coaching took off.  By  the early 1800s there were over 3300 coach services and 700 mail coach services, with local services too (9).  Omnibus companies and fire services needed blacksmiths and farriers. The Omnibus Company employed 5000 blacksmiths/farriers in its heyday. 

A natural business development for the Methodist Finch family was horse and carriage hire.  Similarly as coal was required for the furnaces, selling coal and paraffin was an obvious sideline.  Being on an arterial route, Sticklepath had easy access to iron mongers, farmers, industries and markets across 3 counties so this business could expand to more than just village customers (7,8). On the main route to ports and Cornwall, specialist markets developed such as the china clay industry.  

Ian Waller in his excellent SoG lecture presented census data showing that in 1841 there were 112K rural blacksmiths compared to 380K ag labs (10).  He also showed that  the number of people identified as blacksmiths in England and Wales almost doubled between 1841 and 1871 (to 203K) but fell dramatically from almost 200K in 1881 back to 121K by 1891 and 102K in 1901.  An individual family may reflect these changes – Marcia Evans talks about eight generations of the Curtis family, blacksmiths in mid-Dorset (3): 

“There were two forges in the early 1700s and by the 5th generation in the 1820s these had increased to eleven, all within a ten mile radius of Frome St Quintin.  By the 1900s there were only two forges left.”  

The greatest proportional decline was in the under 25 age group, so fewer entering a general blacksmith profession(11). By 1911 about half of those calling themselves blacksmiths were employed in different industries (12):

“17,099 were employed in iron foundries, in boiler making, or in engineering or machine making works, 10,091 in connexion with coal mines, 2,947 in railway coach, wagon making or in tram car making, 740 in motor car making, 2,244 in the construction of coaches, carriages, and other vehicles, 5,514 in shipbuilding works, 3,640 on railways and 2,600 in iron and steel manufacture.” 

The rise in coaching co-incided with expansion of various industries and building the railways.   New towns like Swindon almost exclusively housed migrant railway workers including many blacksmiths, vital for building and maintaining the railways.  They moved where and when the companies needed them, as demonstrated by Sampford Courtenay Parish (of which Sticklepath was a part).  The population peaked in the 1871 census, with around 200 extra, railway workers and their families, as the railway track reached Sampford Courtenay and approached Okehampton Station (opened 1872).  For many the skills gained offered a chance to emigrate, to work on railways worldwide.

The new steam engines of the industrial revolution brought jobs for smiths to build and maintain machinery in the engineering, textile and mining industries.  Mechanisation brought jobs in the military, Gas and Coke works, with companies such as Cadbury’s and Rowntree’s, and larger estates, including Royal households. Workhouses, hospitals, houses of correction, all needed the services of blacksmiths, the larger ones employed one or more directly. 

However, from about 1830 on, depending on the local situation, the railways took much business from coaches. Industrialisation, with stronger materials and cheaper manufacturing meant local customers started to replace broken ironware with the cheaper machine-made items, by-passing the local smithy.   When work was short, moving to an area of higher demand was the obvious solution.  Specialising was a common strategy, eg  becoming locksmiths, clocksmiths, chainsmiths etc.  Would this have been exciting or a traumatic necessity?  A number of blacksmiths moved from the villages around Sticklepath to the shipyards in Topsham, Exeter, or took advantage of work at the new docks in Devonport, Plymouth. Wheelwrights similarly became shipwrights. Ship maintenance again brought inherent opportunities for travel.  

Cars further decreased customer demand.  Many blacksmithing families adapted to this by becoming agricultural engineers and motor mechanics.  Carriage hire for my family morphed into running the local taxi and haulage firms.  

When thinking about your family blacksmiths, you might investigate:

  1. 1)Daily Life – types of work undertaken by blacksmiths in the area and the tools used. Changes over time. Descriptions of clothes worn (13): Shoeing smiths wore a split leather apron to accommodate the horses foot.  Blacksmiths working for the railways had specific uniforms, cloth cap leathern apron, blue baggy serge trousers. Strikers were closest to the fire so had canvas and asbestos fibre aprons. Railway rule books state what was expected or available at the time. A historical re-enactment society may have someone with extensive knowledge of the local blacksmith role of the time too. Understanding the differing heats of the fire, the many tools used, the parts of an anvil and their purpose, mounted on an elm block to cushion blows and angled slightly away to avoid burns (4), can help you understand the skills needed and picture the daily activities. 

2) Products – with intriguing names (whippletrees) or which changed over time could be interesting.  Farming implements vary in different parts of the country, depending not only on types of farming but on local practices. Specialist mining tools, such as the large ‘ladles’ Finch made for moving the clotted-cream consistency china clay from the settling pits to the drying sheds. A Finch specialist sideline, for unused curved grain wood was ‘boat knees’ (7, see 14 for further information).  

3) Supply of iron could be interesting to work out,  Much iron was re-used eg old horse shoes re-worked. Would ‘new iron’ have come by road, rail or canal? Shipped from abroad, or distributed from a Foundry or nearby city?

4) Employees and related professions- blacksmiths’ employees included strikers, hammer boys, bellow boys. They would have worked closely with farriers (may be mobile), and the wheelwright or wainwright too.  Finch Foundry employed 25 men in its heyday, but, using water power to provide the bellows action, did not require bellow boys. Numbers can indicate success of a business and its prominence in a community.

5) Military records – rank on a personal record or descriptions in a battalion diary may outline the types of work done. Sapper James Cook, village wheelwright was a specially enlisted Royal Engineer, given pay of 5s per day 1915-19. 

6) Not uncommonly there are stories that centre around the smithy, these can ‘add colour’.  In particularly inclement weather, our headmaster used to send pupils with a note to Mr Finch requesting that they be allowed to dry off near his furnaces, as the school had no heating (7). 

7) The economics and statistics- how much money might your smith earn, how does that compare with others?  Was barter between tradesmen common in your place at the time? How common were blacksmiths compared to say Ag labs in your place?  It would be interesting to see what their wives did too. For licensed victuallers, the women of the family often ran the inn.  On the other hand laundry, which many ag lab’s wives took on to make ends meet, might not be a good mix with the black of smithing for those living above the forge!  A number of Finch ladies ran the Foundry business (notably Emlin and later Rebecca), drew illustrations for the catalogue (Rebecca), and Albany’s youngest daughter Muriel did the accounts, for example. 

8) Consider the effects on disability and life span.  C Turner Thackrah (15)  expresses concern about the heat, persistent perspiration and muscle energy required of such occupations and going from hot to cold many times a day with little precaution.  The smoke and sulphurous fumes, eyes constantly exposed to the glow of the furnaces and sparks of welding and the large amounts of beer consumer are all noted. 

“The Complexion is rendered pale; and the digestive functions are impaired. In all, the tongue is milky-white.” 

 Burns were common and inevitably blacksmiths and farriers suffered injuries from horse kicks, even death, crushed by a horse.  Serious accidents might be reported in the newspapers. 

Evans reports (3) that: “Many blacksmiths suffered from bad backs and the mixture of iron dust and hot damp conditions  produced consumptive-like diseases”. 

She also suggests weaker family members sometimes became shoe or bootmakers.  

9) There is an association with clandestine marriages which might be relevant to you. 

Using Sources:

Occupation means a whole career pathway to discover – for each person as well as following development through the generations.  Our village wheelwright took apprentices, and became a coach builder but his son, as times changed, became a carpenter. 

 Consider synonyms and related trades when searching for sources. No entry for Blacksmiths or Smiths is found in “Occupational Sources for Genealogists” (16). There are however, several entries for the related occupations of clockmakers and gunmakers, and 5 other potentially useful sources listed as iron workers, foundry men, coachmen, farriers and shoeing smiths, and “The Coal Trades’ Directory” which includes important trades and professions connected with coal and iron. Metal workers (17) is another option.  Some industries such as ship building the roles such as blacksmith, anchorsmith and shipsmith are clearly delineated with hierarchy and pay differentials (18).

Oral history. gives an oral history of a blacksmith working there. Does anyone know of other oral histories from smiths? PLEASE let me know.

Census, Parish registers and civic BMD records give an idea of the date range when each person was working and their career path.  Look for ‘competing’ blacksmiths and potential employees.  The address may be a clue too (eg Foundry Cottage or The Smithy).

Parish Chest – pauper apprenticeships; roles undertaken such as overseer or constable; accounts may enumerate work taken on as blacksmith. A blacksmith moving away, perhaps to set up business, could be mentioned in the vestry minutes. It is possible a journeyman (day worker) would request a settlement certificate if travelling to find work, or suffer removal if he fell on hard times.

Non-conformist records similarly – particularly relevant for many blacksmiths and their families.

Wills often state details of how the business was passed forward. In many cases the land was not owned so it was the goodwill, tools and goods of the forge with perhaps the copyhold that was passed on. If the eldest son had already been provided with the means to set up in business the will might leave the forge to a younger son. Some passed through the widow or female line.  Should an inventory exist, it can help piece the business together, perhaps showing evidence of farming or brewing in addition to smithing. 

Apprenticeship records can state the dates, conditions, name of master, address, and may give the father’s details.  Note however, there is little evidence of formal apprenticeship among the rural blacksmithing families.   Apprenticeship commonly finished age 24. Apprentices were not allowed to marry, however a master blacksmith was expected to be married before taking apprentices.  So 24 is a common age of marriage! 

Livery Company, Trade Guild and Freemen records, mainly in cities or towns, may indicate Master status and if taking apprentices,  suggests standing in the community. Cliff Webb’s indexes to Livery companies includes blacksmith apprenticeships. The Blacksmith’s Company or Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths  records in the Guildhall Library include apprenticeships, freedoms, fire insurance. Membership could spread far so worth checking. (19,20,21).

Trade Union/ Societies – interesting to consider what this meant regards local politics, and impact particularly for employees.(22,23,24,25)

Trade Directories – a key source of information for any business.  Advertisements can show products changing over time, company name changes, and competing smithies.  Bear in mind information could be 2-3 years out of date and not necessarily comprehensive.

Newspaper articles – may relate directly to individuals, employers or the business eg complaints about workmanship and the response; fires or accidents.  Adverts, auctions and sales would show types of business undertaken and indicate the health of the business at points in time.  Consider fairs and markets where sales may have taken place. Walking far with heavy tools to sell was not easy.  Reference to your blacksmiths’ work may be found in articles relating to agricultural shows for example too. 

Forge Premises – title deeds, also look for changes to the building plans, especially if incorporating a modernisation.  Some groups of blacksmiths set up holding companies eg Sheffield Blacksmiths, to manage premises. 

County Archives for company records, fire insurance policy – fire an ever present risk in the smithy. 

Museums – many rural museums and specialist museums (eg railway or shipbuilding) include a smithy.  Wheal Martyn China Clay Mining Museum, Carthew, St Austell, helped me picture their daily life and use of the Finch tools.  


Having visited the Finch Foundry itself many times, I remember the grindstone being demonstrated, a man lying on a wooden board, literally nose to the grindstone as it spun down in front of him, with water to cool it.  Very dangerous and tiring.  Easy for an accident to happen with a moment’s inattention.  The drop hammers too, now too dangerous for visitors to try but as a small girl I tried to lift the 50lb hammer using a bell rope.  Impossible, until the water power was turned on.  A leather strap above the bell rope over a rotating wheel did most of the work and a light tug took the hammer up, then crashing back to the anvil to shape a shovel in the mould below.  Demonstrations of the thunderous tilt hammers along with photos of the formidable blackened frontage right at the roadside, and the inevitable smoke and smells, make you realise this was a dominating feature in the village. 

The Finch Foundry (National Trust) still gives demonstrations of the tilt hammers – if you are passing that way, worth a minor detour and a coffee (or cream tea) stop!  Make sure to book when demonstrations are happening.

Other useful sources:  gives A-Z of blacksmiths by county.  Also some general information.  Doesn’t include my family yet – don’t forget to feedback about your own blacksmiths to update such sites.

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History eg. gives

information about the place William Finch was said to gain his work experience and buy the equipment (tilt hammers etc).

Earlier sources: Manorial Records – The earliest blacksmith records are perhaps from monasteries, castles and manors, with the possibility of a name. Militia lists often state occupation.

Comments about blacksmiths in particular roles:

  1. A.Records for the Army  (eg Royal Artillery – Shoeing smith was equivalent of Captain rank, follows sergeants in musters ordered by rank.)
  1. B.Naval dockyards called their workshops smitheries employing perhaps 30-40 smiths each. Chains, stoves, anchors, cannons etc all required the blacksmith’s input. Vital as maintenance crew members aboard ships, though over time their role became mainly welding. Chief blacksmith ranking equivalent of Chief Petty Officer, then blacksmith 1st – 4th Class, artisan 5th class.
  1. C.Railway – mainly in works and depots, an integral part of the engineering labour force.  Some lived in cottages attached to the stations, especially the Great Western Company. (Records with railway company staff at TNA). A 5 year apprenticeship from age 16y, then ‘improver’. Handbooks show developments in track, engines and rolling stock. 
  1. D.Colliery – note blacksmiths worked above ground as the combination of heat with the gases and products below ground was not compatible. Responsibilities would include smooth running of machinery including lifts, as well as making, mending, maintenance and sharpening tools.


  1. Information from Pharos online courses especially the  Employment records module, used throughout. 
  1. Illustration
  1. Marcia Evans The Place of the Rural Blacksmith in Parish Life 1500 – 1900

Somerset & Dorset Family History Society, 1998

  1. Ronald Webber The Village Blacksmith The Country Bookclub Newton Abbot 1972. 
  1. Jocelyn Bailey The Village Blacksmith, Shire Album 24, Shire Publications Ltd 1977.

 Accessed Nov 2020

7. Robert A Barron Finch Foundry Trust & Sticklepath Museum of Rural Industry local booklet

8. Jessie E Barron Sticklepath 1900-1950 local publication in 1950s.

9. Following the Stagecoaches’  by Rosa Young.  Article in Local Historian 14 (6) 1981, 341-6. Accessed Nov 2020 (Currently available free online at ).

10. Ian Waller: My ancestor was a Blacksmith. Society of Genealogists online lecture July 2020.  (Now available online to rent from SoG.)   Data derived from Census of England and Wales 1911. 

11.  accessed Nov 2020 

12. Occupations (part 1), England and Wales, Vol. X, 1911    Page lxv accessed 2 Nov 2020 via

13.  Jayne Shrimpton: History in the details smiths, butchers, bakers. Discover Your Ancestors Issue No. 87 July 2020 p27 

14. *Boat knees make use of the curved grain sections of wood not used for tool handles, used in constructing wooden boats primarily.  See this website for example (photo bottom of page) and explanation.

15. C Turner Thackrah, Esq. Leeds, in ‘The effects of the Principal Arts, trades, and Professions, and of Civic States and Habits of Living,  on Health and Longevity – with particular reference to the trades and manufacturers of Leeds, and suggestions for the removal of Many of the Agents which produce disease and shorten life.’  (Baines and Newsome 1832).

16. Stuart A Raymond Occupational Sources for Genealogists 2nd edition by Federation of Family History Societies (Publications) Ltd. 1996. 

17. Jonathan Scott’s ‘Metalworkers’ surveys an impressive range of resources  in Who Do You Think You Are? Issue 165 June 2020 p49

18.  Alex Ombler Ancestors at Work:Shipbuilders. Who Do You Think You Are? Issue 165  June 2020 p57.




22. For a brief history of various unions:,_Forge_and_Smithy_Workers%27_Society

23. Records of the Associated Blacksmiths, Forge and Smithy workers 1857 – 1968 accessible from the Modern Records Centre via  

24.  Amalgamated Society for Boilermakers, Shipwrights and blacksmiths 1872 – 1976 MRC Warwick. 

25. Working Class Movement Library in Salford  have some northern records.