At James Hoyle & Son, Iron Founderers
Brian Barrett, the foreman at James Hoyle & Son invited me to return to the foundry last week to watch the iron casting. The men were in from six and one set of casts had already been poured when I arrived, as they were hastily preparing for the next session. Through the haze, I could see the moulds laid out upon the black sandy floor within the cavernous gloom of foundry building, waiting as the iron cooled within, until they were ready to be broken open and their progeny revealed.
At the far end, illuminated by a fiery glow, Brian was stoking up the furnace again with pig iron, while on the other side, mould makers Raymond Bates and Bill Wakeman were busy pumping sand mixed with quick-setting resin into wooden pattern boxes to make the fresh moulds for the next round of casts. And working alongside Raymond and Bill was twenty-one year Benjamin Hoyle, fourth generation iron founderer and great-grandson of James Hoyle who established the Bee Hive Foundry in 1880 – currently training under Brian Barrett’s instruction to learn all the workings of the foundry that he will take over one day. “I’ve been coming along since I was fourteen,” Benjamin revealed, as he continued work, absorbed in making a mould for a set of railing heads,“but when I was eighteen I told my dad this is what I wanted to do and I’ve been full-time since then.”
“I plan to do it until I feel happy enough that my children are ready to take my place.” he added in passing, almost to himself. It was an extraordinary declaration of commitment, spoken with conviction yet in the midst of work, and Benjamin was ceaselessly engaged with multiple tasks the whole time I was there – wheeling huge barrows of pig iron in and out, as well as energetically breaking open and clearing the sand moulds to release the newly cast pieces of iron. “If Brian is busy, I tend to the furnace, loading the pig iron as well as making the sand moulds – and, as I am the youngest, I do most of the lifting,” Benjamin told me plainly, eager to embrace his responsibility.
“This is very old England, eighteen eighties,” he qualified with a smirk, casting his eyes around this venerable foundry that is a charismatic survivor of the Industrial Revolution, “I wouldn’t have liked to work here when they had to bring in the pig iron by horse and cart,”
“I value it because its my heritage but also because it is interesting.” he confirmed for me as he leant over the completed sand mould in deep concentration, using compressed air to clean off any residue. “We’ve had page three models in here ordering railings,” he bragged, suddenly changing energy and rolling his eyes in excitement, “and we cast some iron balconies for Jennifer Saunders, a fireplace for Elton John, garden furniture for the Queen and we made the railing heads at ten Downing St.”
Then, “I say I am an iron founderer, and people are impressed when I tell them what I do,” he confided shyly, with a bemused grin, “but mostly they haven’t a clue what it is, they think I am a blacksmith.”
The iron was ready to be poured and all the fresh moulds were laid out with lines of weights upon each one to hold them secure. The founderers put on their protective goggles and Brian instructed me to avert my eyes, avoiding the brief magnesium flare when the iron first runs into the crucible.
Then, in a moment of blinding light as the liquid metal was poured, billowing smoke filled the entire space, blocking out the daylight that became supplanted at once by the volcanic glow of molten iron. Brian tilted the motorised furnace to permit the iron to flow into the crucible, before Benjamin and Bill, the moulder, lifted the vessel together. Holding either end of yoke and keeping their glowing load balanced level, equidistant between them, they took slow deliberate paces, like ghosts in the fog, walking over to the moulds and tilting the crucible, while Brian directed the flow of the iron. Returning to the furnace to replenish twice, each of the moulds was filled and this stage of the task was complete, leaving everyone standing together in the miasma momentarily, sharing a point of arrival at the completion of their task, before dispersing in relief to brew tea and open windows onto the canal where trains rattled past on the other side, down towards Liverpool St.
I joined Raymond and Bill, the moulders, for a quiet cup of tea in a grimy peaceful corner where every surface was caked in foundry dust, as they devoured their sandwiches in paper packets from home. Earlier Bill had given me a handful of the sand mixed with resin and told me to squeeze it in my fist. When I opened my fingers minutes later, the sand had recorded an impression of my hand with all the lines and veins visible, as a vivid illustration of the subtlety of the moulding process. Everyone else had gone and we sat to enjoy the silence of the foundry while the dust settled, but the moment was fleeting as all the others quickly returned.
They began breaking open the moulds to reveal the finely detailed pieces of new ironwork, balustrades and finials in nineteenth century designs that are the history, the speciality and the lifeblood of James Hoyle & Son – giving the family a thriving business serving the restoration trade, which has enabled them to continue when all of the East End’s other small foundries have gone.
Twenty-one year old Benjamin Hoyle, fourth generation iron founderer, currently training under foreman Brian Barrett at the foundry established by his great-grandfather James Hoyle in 1880.
On the right are a set of patterns for railing heads and on the left is one half of the completed mould.
Raymond Bates and Bill Wakeman, mould makers.
Brian Barrett, foundry foreman, stokes the furnace.
A magnesium flare flickers at the moment the molten iron is poured into the crucible.
Brian, Bill and Benjamin pour the molten iron into the moulds.
You may like to read about Brian Barrett, Foundry Foreman.