Ian Lowe, Blacksmith
“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
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