England Metal Working Occupations A to C (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Metals[edit | edit source]

Bell founding[edit | edit source]

The first bells to be made in England was a peal of seven at Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire in the early 8th century. The work was carried out initially by monks who travelled around from church to church casting bells in their portable furnace. As demand increased they set up permanent foundries in London (Taylor 1954), Loughborough, Gloucester, Salisbury, Bury St. Edmunds, Norwich, Colchester, Burford, Nottingham, Reading, and Croydon (Wymer 1949, Jennings). All these places are in the southern half of England but only the centres in London and Loughborough remain active.

The metal used for the best bells is an alloy of copper and tin in the ratio of about 4:1. Descriptions of the process are given by Wymer (English Town Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to the Present Day. Batsford, London, 1949), Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982), and in the most detail by Jennings (Bellfounding. Shire Publications, 1988) who gives more history and illustrations. Inscriptions on bells are noted by Ketteringham. This town craft was often combined with that of brazier or potter, and bells were cast in bell-moulds in pits next to a reverberating furnace. When a bell was recast the bell founder often did this in a pit sunk into the nave of the church, hence the references to repairs to church floors in churchwardens accounts after such work on the bells.

Blacksmiths[edit | edit source]

The blacksmith manufactures a great variety of useful and decorative articles from iron, and a village smithy would have seen a bit of every part of the trade. Town smithies may have specialized in farriery, household and farm implements, or wrought iron work. Gradually, during the 19th-20th centuries, specialist firms took over the manufacture of agricultural tools and machinery so the smith was left with repair work on domestic and farm items, and ornamental iron work for gates, railings, balconies etc. as well as farriery if he did this as well. In the early 20th century some became the first auto mechanics, growing with the new machines. The country blacksmith-cum-farrier was the one epitomized by Longfellow:

Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

Descriptions of the blacksmith’s work are not hard to find, some of the better ones are in Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), Maurin (The Town Blacksmith. Family Tree Magazine Vol 8 #9, 1992), Marcia Evans and Jocelyn Bailey’s well-illustrated Shire book. The history and romantic legends associated with smithies can be found in Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), Filbee (Cottage Industries. David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1982), and Marcia Evans (The Place of the Rural Blacksmith in Parish Life 1500-1900 (with Particular Reference to Somerset and Dorset). Somerset and Dorset FHS, 1999), whilst wrought iron work is described by Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974), Arnold (All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970), Hayman (Wrought Iron. Shire Publications), and Filbee (Cottage Industries. David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1982).

Brass, Bronze and Copper[edit | edit source]

Brass is an alloy of copper with zinc, and most was imported before the establishment of a mill in Bristol in 1702 (Hey). Brass has been used for the manufacture of a number of disparate articles including decorated brass guns, monumental brasses, brass musical instruments, horse brasses (see Vince’s Discovering Horse Brasses. Shire Publications.), kettles, pails, candlesticks and other household utensils, and the best pins are made of brass wire. Some of these articles are made by beating with a hammer and then uniting separate parts with solder; others are cast in moulds, then polished and finished by the brazier.

Copper alloyed with tin is called bronze or bell metal. Copper is used by itself to make coppers, boilers and other large vessels for brewers, distillers and household use; any vessel used for food preparation needs to be well tinned on the inside to prevent copper poisoning. Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) and Eveleigh (Brass and Brassware. Shire Publications) present the history and descriptions of the brazier’s art. Santaana runs an index of brassworkers including brass fitters, dressers, founders, bit filers, hame-makers, polishers, harness dressers etc. The apprenticeships of the Armourers and Brasiers’ Company c1610-1800 have been indexed (London Apprentices Volume 22. Armourers and Brasiers’ Company c1610-1800. Society of Genealogists, Webb 1998).

Coins[edit | edit source]

Coins have been made in England since at least 100 BC (Cooper). Coiners would cast buttons of metal, hammer them flat to form blanks on which a design would also be hammered thus forming a coin. Metals used included iron, copper, gold and silver and alloys of these. Higher value coins were made of silver and gold, and as the coins were worth more than the actual weight of precious metal the moneyer made a substantial income. The phrase worth his weight in gold was originally applied to a good moneyer. Anglo-Saxon coins bore the moneyer’s identifying mark and mints started to be regulated during Alfred the Great’s reign (871-901).

Manufacturing methods improved and the first coining machines were operating in Europe by about 1500, with the various methods depicted by Cooper (Coins and Minting. Shire Publications., 1996). There was a great shortage of low value bronze coins during the 17th-18th century and privately issued trade tokens were widely abused by traders who only supplied goods for half the face value. This troubled manufacturer Matthew Boulton who was able to get a 1797 government contract to mint large copper coins each made from a pennyworth of copper. The contract was large enough for him to invest in one of Watt’s new steam engines to power his automatic press. Much further development of machinery and metals ensued, with post WWII coins being only tokens, in that they do not contain their face value in metal.

Cooper is an excellent introduction to minting coins, whilst Munby (How Much is That Worth? Phillimore, for the British Association for Local History, 1989), and Chapman (How Heavy, How Much and How Long. Weights, Money and Other Measures Used by Our Ancestors. Lochin Publishing, 1995) discuss the actual coinage in use and its value. Staff records of the Royal Mint are at the Public Record Office (Records of the Royal Mint 1446-20th century (MINT 1-29). List and Index Society publication 234, 1989). White (My Ancestor Was a Faker. Family Tree Magazine Vol 5 #10, page 11-12, 1989) tells about coin fakers.

Cutlery[edit | edit source]

The cutler made knives and other cutting instruments such as scissors, razors, skates, swords, sickles, scythes, awl blades, files, scalpels and lancets, as well as forks and spoons. In London cutlery was established as a separate trade from blacksmithing by the 12th century and a Cutlers’ Company was formed in the 13th. The apprenticeships from 1442-1448 and 1565-1800 have been indexed by Webb (London Apprentices Volume 35. Cutlers’ Company 1442-1448, 1565-1800. Society of Genealogists. 2001-1). Other early centres of the cutlery trade were in Thaxted, Essex; Ferry Fryston near Pontefract, West Yorkshire; Leicester; Ashbourne, Derbyshire; Salisbury; York; and Birmingham. Birmingham was noted for swords, and Salisbury for scissors and spring knives, and these outlasted the other centres. Sheffield is first mentioned in the mid-14th century, the Cutlers’ Company of Hallamshire was founded there is 1624 (Hey), and by the 1770s Sheffield had over 150 workshops (Smithurst). Sheffield completely dominated the cutlery industry by the 19th century because of its access to superior local grindstones and water power.

The wealthy cutlery masters and factors eventually usurped the power of the Cutlers’ own regulatory company and conditions for the workmen deteriorated. To protect themselves the craftsmen formed early trade societies in the later 18th century, long before trade unions became legal in 1871. Smithurst (The Cutlery Industry. Shire Publications, 1987) recounts some of their battles with management, among which were the dreadful hazards. One was from bursting grindstones, but more prevalent was silicosis which resulted in most grinders dying before the age of 30, until the extraction fan became compulsory in 1867.

Descriptions of the processes used in cutlery can be found in Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), Smithurst (The Cutlery Industry. Shire Publications, 1987), Walmsley (The Scythe Makers of Abbeydale. Family Tree Magazine Vol 15 #1, page 56-57, 1998) (scythes) and Wedge (Trades From the Past: Every Boy Should Have One. Practical Family History #48, page 26-28, 2001) (pocket knives). Simon Moore has written Shire books on spoons; table knives and forks; and penknives and other folding knives. Saunders (My Hammerman Ancestor. Family Tree Magazine Vol 18 #5, page 54-55, 2002) tells of her cutler ancestors, one of whom advertised his business in Piccadilly, London as surgeon instrument maker and cutler, table knife, wild board spear and hunting knife and tailor’s shears maker.


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