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Ian Lowe, Blacksmith

April 10, 2013
by the gentle author

“I am happy to be a blacksmith, it’s a noble trade”

Ian Lowe‘s forge is in the shadow of the ancient tower of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, and it is a singularly appropriate location for this line of work, since St Dunstan – who brought Christianity to Tower Hamlets over a thousand years ago and founded the church in 952 - was also a Blacksmith. When I saw Ian wield his red hot tongs, it reminded me of the stone carving over the church door illustrating the local legend of Dunstan catching the devil by the nose with a similar implement and, possessing the necessary phlegmatic temperament and brawny physique, it is not impossible to imagine his contemporary equivalent in the forge also undertaking such a feat.

“I’ve never met anyone that didn’t enjoy it,” Ian admitted to me with droll understatement, “You get to play with fire and hit things!” Yet even this quip revealed the age-old nature of his trade, since the word Smith derives from old English, ‘smyten’ – to hit, and the common surname ‘Smith’ reflects the former ubiquity and diversity of Smiths, whose skills were essential to our society even until the last century. There were once Blacksmiths (who worked iron, known as ‘the black’) and Whitesmiths (who did fullering and polishing to produce bright steel), not to mention Goldsmiths, Silversmiths, Tinsmiths and Coppersmiths.

Ian is a proud Yorkshireman from Pontefract and he told me that, when the Vikings ruled the north, the automatic penalty for killing a Smith was death because they were of such critical importance in making weapons for war, as well as tools for work, and he said it as if it were yesterday. “Vicars and Blacksmiths alone were able to perform weddings, exchanging the rings over the anvil,” Ian assured me, “Forges were at crossroads and became social centres where people gathered around the fire. If you wanted everyone to know something, you told the Smith.” And so it is in Stepney these days, I was reliably informed.

“During the late fifties through to the seventies, Blacksmithing was pretty much gone. It was down to a couple of lads who fought tooth and nail to keep it alive.” Ian explained, adopting an elegiac tone as he ignited in the fire, “Now in the UK, there are less than a thousand registered Blacksmiths and only one Grand Master Blacksmith.” Ian did an apprenticeship with Glen Moon, a Master Blacksmith in Bradmore near Sydney and then travelled Europe for two years, meeting more than four hundred Blacksmiths and working with more than a hundred. Before this, Ian studied English Literature at university. “I just fell into it,” he confessed, “My ex-wife was selling jewellery that she imported from the Far East and she asked me to repair it when it broke, so I thought I can make better stuff than this and I got to the point where I was semi-professional. But I got frustrated with making little things.”

“I’ve been a Blacksmith for eight years now,” he continued, holding a strip of iron in the fire with tongs,“Yet I think it will take fifty to sixty years before I master it. It’s the doing of it that I enjoy, it’s about making something beautiful and long-lasting. You see pieces in London from the fourteenth century and I hope my work will outlast my great-grandchildren.”

“People think the hammer is a crude tool, but it is capable of finesse, like a paint brush – I could make you a pair of earrings with my hammer” he declared, lifting the implement in question and making vigorous blows to the red hot steel upon the anvil, “After the hammer, the most important tool is the fire. Without heat, steel is not malleable but when it is hot it becomes like stiff clay – if your hands were fireproof, you could bend it.”

I watch mesmerised as Ian twisted the rod with his tongs, shaping it with the hammer and moulding it to his desire. “‘By hammer and hand, do all stand’ – that’s the Blacksmith’s creed,” he declared, holding up his creation in triumph.

“The Blacksmith is the king of trades.”

Photographs copyright © Alex Pink

You can visit Ian Lowe in his forge at Stepney City Farm

.

You may also like to read about

Norman Riley, Metalworker

At James Hoyle & Sons, Iron Founderers

13 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    April 10, 2013

    an english major with muscles. i think i’m in love.

  2. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    April 10, 2013

    Very interesting story about a very interesting man. As my Hoopers from around the East End were Wheelwrights, I’m curious to know how these two trades linked. Did the Wheelwright also have to be a Blacksmith, or did he need the Blacksmith’s skills to assist him in his trade?

    Carolyn

  3. April 10, 2013

    Yes I noticed smithing seems to keep you trim!
    Another excellent insight into a life and a world, thank you.
    Would like to add that last time I looked, Pontefract was in the mighty county of West Yorkshire.

  4. Annie permalink
    April 10, 2013

    I was a Smith before I married and I like the idea of smiting things.

  5. Ian Lowe permalink
    April 10, 2013

    Hi Carolyn,
    Hooper as I’m sure you know makes reference to the iron bands used to both shod a wagon wheel (essentially the old equivalent of a tyre) and actually compress the structure of the wheel because the bands were put on at black heat (under 500C) and shrank as they cooled, tightening up all the wooden joints.
    This was a practice the Hooper did himself most commonly, a big fire would be lit and the bands thrown on top and left till they were just starting to show colour (very dull red) then they’d be dragged out, left to cool to black hot and then put over the wheel and cooled out with water to make a ‘shrink fit’. Its a very tricky job as you have to know how much the band will expand and plan for it to just fit the wheel whilst its still hot. Get it wrong and your tyre wont fit! I’ve seen several records from old Forge works that show billings from the Smith to Wheelwrights for making the bands themselves but I’d bet a lot of Wheelwrights could make them too. So to answer your question I’d say the Wheelwright would use some of the Blacksmiths skills rather than needing to be a Blacksmith as well.

  6. Vicky permalink
    April 10, 2013

    I liked it when counties were Counties and Yorkshire was Yorkshire.

    I think I’ll nip along to the City Farm and search out Ian. I love these old skills and its even better to see them still flourishing here in London where we are now, in the main, out of touch with such things. Thank you for telling us about him.

  7. Caroline permalink
    April 10, 2013

    Another fascinating story, thank you so much. I particularly liked this one, as one branch of my Spitalfields forebears were in the same industry in the 17th and 18th centuries. Originally from Bruges, they called themselves Lorimers, which I understand meant they specialised in horse bits and bridles. My 7x great grandfather Antoine Allar was married in St Dunstan Stepney in 1703, and gave his occupation as New Feron!
    All the best, Caroline.

  8. sprite permalink
    April 11, 2013

    A very inspiring post propulsing me right back into childhood when most French villages still had their own Blacksmith, rather their Marechal Ferrant (Feron) and I remember horses still being shod by them. Though I never understood as a child nor do I now why horses would need some bit of iron underneath their hooves.

    https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mar%C3%A9chal-ferrant

    Those ‘Ferrant’ were also blacksmiths and mainly repaired bits of old farm tools that were quickly being replaced by rubber from the tyres to the haycarts to the wooden cloggs that also were reinforced with metal underneath. I can still smell the forge. It all vanished within a decade.

    fire mysteries -
    the secret of anvils
    still unravelling

    sprite

  9. mary permalink
    April 11, 2013

    I recently had the pleasure of 5 days of seeing Ian working in the forge an was absolutely astounded with the quality and design of his work when you see a item made from scratch it makes you understand and respect the quality of Ians work its just amassing to see a straight peace of metal turn into a thing of beauty. my great Grandfather was a blacksmith working in the coal mines and they had horses in those days beside machinery to mend or make. Ive seen a lot of Ians work and Art work, hes on with a cover for a frog pond at the moment and if you look carefully at the photo`s you can see some of it lying round the forge but if you get the chance. Check it out when its finish.You can tell from the interview Ian is VERY passionate about his work but I also know he loves to teach .and i think the have a go night is a cool idea at least you can have a go its on a Wednesday nites. `l am from Yorkshire myself and were well known for saying it as it is! you might think its easy because Ian makes it look easy but trust me its not its a VERY SKILLED JOB having said all that its GREAT FUN to try and make something lol

  10. Tarja permalink
    April 11, 2013

    An intellectual, stubborn and out and out honest Yorkshireman and not altogether bad looking either … Well done Ian – you rock! Oops you smith!

  11. June 22, 2013

    hi Ian this is glenn moon here i came across you site, well so i am your instructor in smithing i am pleased that you are taking up this skill of black smithing ,well i have been doing it now 38 years nearly i think longer than your life so fare. but this smithing it can take you and give you spirit or can take your spirit, so be careful,
    h- th- bk holds

    lololololololololololololol

  12. MARY LOWE permalink
    October 30, 2013

    found your artical VERY good but then I am Ians mum funny how things turn around i found out not long after Ian went to Europe that there where BLACKSMITH way back in my Family which none of us knew about. Unfortunately Ian is moving from Stepny city farm in december but if you check his web page he`s got details where his new forge will be and i`m sure he`d be happy to see you .

  13. Nick foyston permalink
    November 11, 2013

    Hello good morning, I’m looking for some rustic simple iron brackets to hold my scaffolding boards that I’m looking to use as shelves. I can’t find the brackets I like anywhere, they all seem to too ornate or hanging basket type brackets.

    I do have a picture of the kind of brackets I’m looking for, if you would like me to send I can, someone just suggested I contact a blacksmiths so here I am.

    Best regards

    Nick

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