Kevin Boys, Blacksmith
Kevin Boys, Blacksmith
At the eastern extent of Rotherhithe, there is a tumbledown shack open to the elements where blacksmith Kevin Boys works at his anvil each day from seven every morning. A century ago, this was a receiving station where smallpox victims were wheeled in from ambulances before embarking onto quarantine vessels, but today it is the only old building amongst a sea of recent construction and sits in the midst of an overgrown city farm.
Yet this rural anachronism reminds us of Rotherhithe’s agricultural past, while the ringing of Kevin’s hammer would once have been a familiar sound in the shipyards that superseded it which have, in turn, been supplanted in the last generation by new housing.
There was soft rain falling on the cold November morning I paid my visit to Kevin’s magnificent shed with a forge of hot coals at the centre, illuminating the interior with a golden flickering light and drawing my attention to the vast array of different varieties of rusty tongs and other iron-working tools acquired in the twenty-five years he has been working here. In his battered hat and old leather waistcoat, Kevin worked with relaxed concentration to shape a piece of hot iron with his hammer, sending a loud clanging resounding around the damp farmyard.
“Beware of sparks!” he warned me as I leaned over with my camera.
“I learnt blacksmithing off my grandfather Edwin Thurston, he worked as a blacksmith on the railways in Kent during the thirties and it was his brother Leopold who came up to London. When I was younger, I was interested in sculpture and printing, so when I left school in Bournemouth I did a foundation course followed by a degree in Fine Art & Sculpture at Canterbury. That was where I started blacksmithing and, from there, I came up to London to work with Jeff Love & John Gibbons at their studio in Woolwich, making sculptures in steel. But, after a year, I got the opportunity to do post-graduate study in Baltimore.
I returned to London 1984 and set up my first forge off the Old Kent Rd in 1985, where I started working as blacksmith, making things like candlesticks and furniture. I did commissions for Paul Smith and Joseph Ettedgui, and sold my work through the Fiell Gallery in the King’s Rd. Then I moved to Deptford to one of the railway arches next to station – my lighting and furniture business was kicking off and I did a lot for the South Bank Centre.
In 1991, I came to Rotherhithe. The whole area was desolate then but the farm had already been here a few years. Since then, I have been making gates, doing interior design, manufacturing furniture and sculpture – I did the angel at the Angel Tube Station. All this time, I have been working continuously, it has been non-stop.
It was my job to recreate the torture equipment from about 1580 for the Tower of London. I made the stretching rack, ‘the scavenger’s daughter’ and some manacles. It was an amazing job to get. Although I did a lot of research, the only image of a rack I found from this era was a decoration on the inside of an edition of Shakespeare but from this engraving we were able to reconstruct it. We got the oak rollers made down in Dorset and the rope was manufactured at Chatham Dockyard.
The Constable of the Tower asked me to make a speech, so I had to think on my feet and stand up in front of three hundred people at the unveiling. It turned out to be quite a macabre speech, not because of what I said but because, when we started ratcheting up the rack, it made a rather horrible clanking sound, which had an hypnotic impact upon the crowd.
I especially like the design side of things, but blacksmithing involves a huge range of activities from blade-smithing to historical restoration and recreation. Doing all these different jobs allows you to become very experienced.
The future of blacksmithing lies in sculptural design for interior and exterior projects, and in historical recreation. There are blacksmithing courses available and the level of skill is fantastic now. I have three apprentices today. The difficulty lies in making things that people want to buy. We do mostly commissions and we go into schools with a mobile forge doing demonstrations. All the kids do hot metal work and we often make something for the school, at St Luke’s in the East End we made a sculpture of Christian from Pilgrim’s Progess.”
Kevin Boys’ forge was originally constructed in 1884 as a receiving shelter for ambulances delivering smallpox patients to quarantine ships moored off Rotherhithe
Kevin Boys, Blacksmith
Looking east from the Surrey Docks City Farm towards the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf
You may also like to read about