Tom Burch, Farrier
Tom Burch & Finn
On the corner of Wood St and Love Lane – beneath the shadow of the solitary tower of St Alban’s – is the last stable in the City of London where Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven and I went to meet Tom Burch, the farrier, on his monthly visit to change the horses’ shoes. Even as we entered the yard at the rear of the police station, the pungent aroma of burnt toenail clippings assailed us, indicating that Tom was already at his work.
Where once the horses would have been taken to the forge, now Tom works out of a specially-equipped van with a furnace and a portable anvil. Otherwise, dressed in his custom-made leather apron with a split down the middle allowing him to take the horse’s foot between his legs, he presents an image which has been familiar in the City of London for more than two millennia. The only working farrier in the City now, Tom is a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Farriers, one of the original twelve livery companies in the City, dating back to 1356.
Tom has come to shoe the nine horses kept by the City of London Police for the past fifteen years. None of those that were here when he started remain yet the horses that Tom visits today recognise him intimately – standing patiently throughout the process, lifting their feet obligingly, even raising the next when the previous one is complete. “A horse is a beast of flight but these animals are trained to stand their ground,” he confirmed, as he gripped the hoof of Finn, a large white stallion, in preparation for removing the old shoe.
After a month, the hoof will have grown a quarter of an inch and over time the shoe will become uncomfortable if it is not changed – and here in the City the horses walk on concrete which wears away the metal shoes quickly. With his farrier’s knife, Tom trims the hoof once the old shoe is off and then removes the new shoe from the furnace with pincers, hammering it to fit. “I’ve got a picture in my head of the shape of the horse’s foot, so I am altering the shoe to it,” he explained, turning red-faced with droplets of perspiration forming on his brow as he gripped the glowing arc of steel upon the anvil, pounding it with his blacksmith’s hammer and sending sparks flying.
Taking the shoe in his pincers, Tom pressed it into place on the horse’s foot, inducing plumes of brown smoke as the hoof singed. “Finn, I don’t suppose there’s any chance of putting your weight on the other leg?” he asked and the creature obliged, unable to resist acquiescing to such a polite request. “It has to fit,” added Tom, speaking to me now, as he returned the shoe to the anvil to work it further, “the shoe must be level and the foot must be level.” Then he plunged the finished shoe into a bucket of cold water that suddenly bubbled into life as the iron cooled.
On the return trip, Tom nailed the shoe into place firmly in an action that caused me to wince, yet did not even occasion a blink from the horse. “The hoof is made of hair, it takes a year to grow and the area where the nails go is insensitive,” Tom assured me, returning again to the silent absorption that is his natural mode of working.“Some horses prefer to have their hooves shod clockwise, others I will do diagonally and if they’re nervous I will do them one at a time.” he revealed to me, thinking out loud, as he filed down the shoe now it was nailed in place. Farriers tend to be solitary characters, attending to the same horses regularly and becoming in tune with their charges. “You have to be quite content with your own company, because a lot of the time you are by yourself.” he confessed with a placid smile. And then, in a moment of repose at the completion of the morning’s work, Tom spoke a little of his personal history whilst standing at Finn’s side.
“When I was a kid, my dad had a farm near Canterbury. He bought me a pony and, until I was sixteen, I worked at the stable up the road where local people and showjumpers kept their horses. Then I did a four year apprenticeship as a farrier and followed it by working as a blacksmith for three years. In 1979, the Metropolitan Police were advertising for a farrier based at Bow, and I stayed thirty years until I retired in 2009. I gave up riding when I became a farrier, I just didn’t have the time, and when I joined the police I discovered other things to do, like golf.
It’s not the kind of job to do unless you enjoy it because it’s hard work. I enjoy working with animals, but thirty years doing big horses like this every day is enough. I’ve got arthritis in both knees, but I can’t just give up because I have been doing it so long. Now, it’s no longer a full-time job. I only have three days a month when I get up early, otherwise I can sleep in until half past six. After thirty years of getting up at half past four, it’s difficult to sleep in.
I’ve got two and a half more years until I’m sixty and then that’ll be it completely. You have to maintain a certain standard. I don’t want it to be said,“Tom’s shoes are dropping off right, left and centre.” A friend who did his apprenticeship with me, his son is doing his apprenticeship now and he will be qualified when I come to retire, so we have agreed he can take my van.”
It was time for Tom to pack up the van for another month and drive back to his home in Kent, five miles from where he grew up. Meanwhile, horses that had been on duty early that morning were being walked in circles around the yard as exercise before duty that evening and their hooves echoed in the quiet courtyard. “Would you like a horseshoe for luck?” Tom offered unexpectedly, eagerly pulling the nails out of one of Finn’s shoes worn down by the streets of London. He handed me the shoe with a generous smile, I wrapped it in my handkerchief, we shook hands and I carried it back to Spitalfields as my proud souvenir of meeting Tom Burch, the lone farrier in the City of London.
One shoe off, one shoe on.
The old shoe worn by city streets.
Shaping the new shoe, hot from the furnace.
Fitting the shoe.
The new shoe in place.
Planing off the excess.
A farrier’s knife.
A horseshoe for luck.
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
You may also like to read about