Tag Archives: blacksmith

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A History of Garston Forge at Chiltern Open Air Museum

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Chiltern Open Air Museum is what is known as a ‘living’ history museum, where traditional working methods are used in our centuries-old buildings. Nowhere is this vitality clearer than in its Victorian-era blacksmith’s forge, once located in Garston, Hertfordshire, and now found at the heart of the museum: the village green. It sits at the centre of our footpath network, and when the hearth is lit and the doors are open, passers-by will hear the slow pumping of the bellows and the rhythmic beating of metal.

It is a working building in the truest sense of the word, used by local blacksmiths to make both decorative and practical pieces, such as the tree guards in our apple and cherry orchards, pictured below. The museum has always had a focus on conservation and sustainability, and having the facilities to provide authentic constructions and repairs on-site is a major boon. There are several smiths and volunteers who are trained to use it, and visitors can book experience days on which they learn how to make a few items of their own.

These tree guards were made in the forge.

The forge was built around 1860 and run by the Martin family, who were blacksmiths at Park Street and Leavesden, until 1926. It subsequently fell into disuse and was due to be demolished to make way for housing developments. Thankfully, the building was donated to the museum and dismantled by volunteers, led by Phil Buller and assisted by North Watford Venture Scouts, in 1982. It was kept in storage until resources were available and re-erected at the museum in 1984.

The forge is not alone in being a well-timed rescue. Many of the buildings that are now here at COAM were set to be altered, scrapped or destroyed because of changing regulations and demands on the land. The Chiltern Hills have a long and rich history, but like many places across the country, the demand for more housing and new facilities is high. This demand is neither unprecedented nor unreasonable, but it is the duty of museums like COAM to preserve that which it can, not just in its buildings, but also in its landscape and culture.

The balance between preservation and functionality can be a difficult one to maintain. Physical artefacts such as buildings inevitably decay over time and repairs and replacements must be made for their continued use. After all, the museum would not be very ‘living’ if its buildings, though unaltered, were unusable. For this reason, authentic changes are made, such as sourcing the forge’s hearth from a similar Victorian forge in Naphill, and the bellows from Leavesden Hospital. These replacements allow COAM to provide visitors with a view of history that is tangible and to which they are connected, something to be experienced rather than observed from a distance. They highlight the importance of preserving cultural history as well as physical history, so that good judgment may be used when telling the stories of our past. With its collection of ordinary people’s homes and workplaces, COAM’s aim has always been to invite visitors to take part in a history that is not simply preserved but sustained, in which their role is not just to remember the past, but to revive it too.

An interview with Mark Harding, one of the forge’s blacksmiths, can be seen below.

Written by Joe Wilcock, Digital Assistant


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Garston Forge

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Working historic forge used by our volunteer blacksmiths

  • The forge was originally built in the back garden of a house in Garston, Hertfordshire in the 1850s.   Many of the bricks are marked ‘JC’ showing they were made at John Chapman’s brickworks in Garston.
  • From the 1860s until 1926, the forge was worked by members of the Martin family.  Descendants are still in contact with the Museum.
  • The forge fell into bad disrepair, and permission had been given for its demolition, when it was donated and moved to the Museum in 1982.
  • Outside Garston Forge, there is a circular cast-iron platform used for putting the metal tyres on wooden wagon and cart wheels.
  •  The hearth is from Naphill and matches the original foundations and date.
  • The bellows are from Leavesden Hospital.
  • The forge was used in 2014 for the filming of an episode of television drama The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

Things to do:

  • The Forge looks great at night-time, so we’ll be sure to have it working for our Halloween Spectacular event in October.
  • If you fancy having a go in the Forge, the Museum offers Blacksmith Experience Days.  You can buy vouchers for these, which make a great present.
  • There are some souvenirs made in the Forge for sale in the Museum Shop.

The forge was built around 1860 at Garston, near Watford. From the early 1860s until 1926, members of the Martin family practised their trade in the forge. After it ceased to be used as a forge, the building was used for storage until the site was sold for development in 1982 and the building was donated to the Museum. It incorporates a wide variety of materials. The walls are of bricks, many of which have the initials ‘JC’ cast in them (indicating their production at John Chapman’s brickworks at Bucknalls Lane, Garston). The forge was originally in a yard and, to recreate this environment, the Museum has built a brick and flint wall outside it. Such walls are typical of the Chiltern area, the flints found in the soil are free, these combined with brick provided a decorative effect.

The roof is covered with slate. Many of these would have come by canal from North Wales; their provenance is indicated by their colour (North Welsh slate is dark grey; slate from Cumbria is purple). The roof has clay ridge tiles with decorative points typical of the Victorian era. The floor of the forge reflects functional constraints. The area where the horses would stand to be shod by the farrier has timber baulks which provide a non-slip surface; bricks form the step by the door and stone covers the floor around the hearth to provide a hard, fire-resistant working surface.

Blacksmiths-forge-COAM-600pxConstruction materials

Clay
7,200 bricks, made by J. Chapman, Bucknalls Lane, Garston and 28 ridge tiles.

Tyring ring (outside)
Cast iron (0.5 Tonne). This provides a level surface for putting iron tyres on wooden wheels. The hole in the center is for the hub of the wheel.

Leather
Bellows, which are kept supple with an annual application of Renaissance.

Stone
Setts in the floor laid in the original patterns.

Floor
Setts: stone around the hearth provides a strong fireproof floor. Sleepers – wood, provide a non-slip surface for horses while a farrier shoes them.

Hearth
Brick built with one edge of blue engineering bricks. Two spaces for fuel beneath the hearth. The Tue iron channels air from the bellows into the hearth.

Wood
16 wooden sleepers form the floor area where horses would have stood. A very strong wooden bench supports the vice.

Metal
Tue iron in the hearth cast iron tyring ring outside the door Anvils Quenching trough.

Slate
850 grey slate tiles from North Wales.

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