The Village Blacksmith
Noah Harris & Sons, 58 Rowley Village, Rowley Regis
Within sight of Rowley Church, on the hill leading to Blackheath, The Forge was situated behind four small terraced houses owned by the family. There were two houses then a large gateway, then two further houses. Access to the forge was through this entry which led to a cobbled yard. It was a brick building comprising one large room where there were several hearths, small windows along one wall and some electric light bulbs over the working areas. The walls were lined with racks containing a wide selection of tools, including hammers, tongs, files and other blacksmithing equipment. (Hence the expression "going at it hammer and tongs”)
I first entered this building in 1954 and felt that I was stepping back nearly a century in time. It seemed very dingy and dirty and what hit you was the heat from the fire in the hearth, which glowed red hot. My father-in-law was "the blacksmith" who had been handed down the skills from his father and who was now handing the reins to my husband to carry on the family tradition. It was not what he had intended to do originally. He was a laboratory technician at Stewarts and Lloyds, Coombs Wood, where he started after attending grammar school and had studied physics, chemistry and metallurgy at college. However, his studies were interrupted by conscription at 18 when he joined the Royal Navy and did two years National Service. On demob, he was undecided on his future, but as his father was in his fifties, he was looking forward to reducing his workload and encouraged Jack to join him in the forge.
Jack Harris working in the forge
Some of the work undertaken also needed two people to work together, one to hold the hot metal and the other to "strike" with the hammer. They worked with several different metals, iron, steel and copper, all requiring different forging. The metal arrived on a flat-back lorry in long rods about 10 - 12 foot lengths and in different diameters, according to the requirements of the order. The rods of metal then had to be cut into workable lengths and then heads shaped according to the drawings that came with the order, e.g. ten gross of 3/8th moonheads; ½ inch eyebolts etc.
Most of the companies they worked for were factories based in inner Birmingham and if "the order" was for a small quantity, it was not financially viable for the factories to produce the tools and set up a "run" on their machines. Hence the work was "farmed out" to small specialised units - like the forge. The bulk of the work was classed as "Builders Ironwork" e.g. scaffolding, fencing and construction work in general. There was little time to do "fancy wrought ironwork"! It didn't pay the bills!
Over time, the work had changed from making shovels, pokers and repairing farming equipment to more sophisticated, specialised work for the modern era, though the basic processes remained the same. There was little mechanisation, the need for bellows to create the intense heat required was superseded but otherwise it was all very physical.
Sunken in the floor were troughs where strong wooden planks were connected to overhead spring poles, and by jumping on the treadle it activated the pole which brought down the hammer onto the block holding the dies and the hot metal waiting to be shaped. It had to be struck several times while turning the metal rod, re- heated, and then struck again and again. Then placed in a container to cool then repeated again and again. During this process, the tongs holding the metal got very hot and frequently had to be cooled in a “bosch” - a container filled with water that sat alongside the hearth.
It was repetitive and physically draining - needing to take on plenty of liquid, mainly water. Coke and anthracite were the fuels used to create the intense heat required and protective clothing was worn, the main item being a leather apron, because leather does not burn, at times, thick gloves and on occasions protective eye wear though these were not often effective because of the sweat trickling from the forehead onto the glasses. Also, he always wore a vest under his shirt to soak up the sweat, sturdy shoes and always had a small towel, called a "sweat cloth" to wipe off the excess perspiration. Often during the summer months, especially if a spell of very hot weather was forecast he would leave home at 6am and cycle from Quinton to Rowley, work till midday, cycle home and after lunch would set off to work on the allotment where he tended his "veggies". Every bit helped to feed the family. There were no paid holidays - if you didn't work, there were no wages, but we tried to have one week away, usually to North Wales in a caravan, so that we could enjoy time together and the seaside and fresh air.
Sadly, early in the 1970s, the council placed a compulsory purchase order on the houses, saying they were to be knocked down, so it was also the end of an era for the forge too, which was also demolished, the land cleared and eventually new houses erected.
This article was written by Vivienne Harris, after a society visit to the British Ironworks Museum at Oswestry. I wasn’t aware that her husband, Jack was a blacksmith and so I asked her to let me have an article about the family business, which went back several generations. She also loaned to me ledgers and books from the family business, which given my Accountancy upbringing I obviously found most interesting. I took a few photos which I hope you will find fascinating.
The Blacksmith’s Forge at the British Steel Museum
Expenditure from the Forge Ledger 4th Quarter 1924
The weekly wages paid to Isaac Harris by Noah Harris from 4th October to 24th December 1924. Quite an eye opener as to the level of wages paid and for those youngsters amongst us obviously shown in £. s. d.
And finally an invoice in the pack from Vivienne which I thought may interest the gentlemen (No sexist comments please ladies!)
An invoice from 29th February 1972 showing the 6000 miles service of Mr J Harris’s Mini Car for the princely sum of £9. 35 including labour and parts – “Oh Happy Days!”
Click here to go back to the Oracle page.