An­thony Bur­ton

Looks at the lives of crafts­men who forged a liv­ing by work­ing with iron

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he dic­tio­nary def­i­ni­tion of a black­smith is quite sim­ply some­one who works with iron, as op­posed to a white­smith who works with tin. As such, this can be con­sid­ered a very old oc­cu­pa­tion prob­a­bly dat­ing back to some­where around 1000 BC, when iron was first smelted from its ore. It is the way in which the ore was smelted that is cru­cial to the whole story.

We do not need to look as far back as an­cient his­tory, but in­stead can pick up the story in me­dieval times. The fuel used in the fur­naces was char­coal and the end prod­uct was a very pure form of iron, which we know as wrought iron. Seen un­der a mi­cro­scope, it has a seem­ingly fi­brous tex­ture and this gives it a very spe­cial prop­erty – it can be bent and shaped with­out frac­tur­ing. Al­though cast iron was sim­pler to make and very strong un­der pres­sure, it snaps un­der ten­sion and could never be shaped by a black­smith.

For cen­turies, the work­ing of iron took place in forges, and the black­smith be­came a vi­tal part of so­ci­ety and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. Ev­ery town and vil­lage re­lied on him for a whole range of prod­ucts that could be made from iron, from hinges for a door to cut­lery and chains. In small farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties, the black­smith was also the far­rier re­spon­si­ble for shoe­ing horses.

From the Middle Ages on­wards, the work of the black­smith changed very lit­tle. The forge was al­ways at the heart of ev­ery com­mu­nity, a dis­tinc­tive build­ing, of­ten with an open frontage and with a large chim­ney over the hearth. Iron can only be worked when it has been heated to a very high tem­per­a­ture, so the hearth was con­nected to bel­lows – usu­ally worked by an

Ev­ery town and vil­lage re­lied on the black­smith for a range of iron prod­ucts

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