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Blacksmiths and Farriers

Known as ‘Trueloves Blacksmith’s’ this was the last Farrier’s Shop in Mexborough. It was demolished in 1992.

Many of you will know that during my early years I was heavily involved in various aspects of the horse world, riding in particular. I was also involved in the schooling and training of horses which went on to become household names of the time. This was during the 1960’s and 1970’s when some of the old men, who had worked with harness horses, on the farms and in industry, were still to be found and ‘Rag and Bone Men’, with their horse and carts were still a common sight on our streets.

There was, and still is, much superstition associated with the equine world and some of this the old men tried to explain in story form, akin to the ‘Just So Stories’ by Rudyard Kipling. Before these stories disappear into the ether, as many of our old folk tale have, I would like to impart the story of how the Farrier got his name and how he became worshipful. But firstly I believe we should find out what a farrier is and some of the immense training involved in becoming a farrier.

Firstly, although a farrier shoes horse they are not to be confused with a blacksmith, who also works metal, but is more akin to the vocation of the veterinary surgeon. But only a farrier is allowed by law, to shoe horses, and anyone practicing as a farrier, and not carrying a certificate awarded by the Farrier’s Registration Council, is libel to a fine of £1,000. It is a highly trained and qualified profession and firstly they have to learn how to work iron as a blacksmith.

Following this they will then undertake an apprenticeship, with an Approved Training Farrier, of at least four years and 2 months, combined with study at one of the three colleges approved by the Farrier’s Registration Council. Here they will learn: equine anatomy; shoeing; advanced forging; advanced therapeutic and corrective shoeing; and horse handling. After the statutory registration with the registration council they then undertake further study to acquire the Associateship and Fellowship Diplomas awarded by the Worshipful Company of Farriers.

In short the farrier, of long ago, was not just a man who shoed horses but was a horse doctor as well.

In folklore
At the beginning of the world when God was still forming the earth, and the earth was still young, a tragedy happened.

The man who shoed the highly spirited, fiery, golden horses, who pulled the sun across the heavens died. God had to think of a way in which he could find someone who was good enough to shoe these powerful animals and devised a test to discover the most suitable person.

Quite simply they had to be good enough to be able to shoe the devil. God travelled the world for years, trying to find someone suitable, and many men came forward when they learned that God was looking for someone to shoe his horses, but when they learned they had to shoe the devil they tactfully declined his offer. After many years of travelling, God was going to give up the search, when he came to a small island in the North Sea and began to make enquiries.

He asked various blacksmiths and each time was told that they couldn’t do it but they knew a little man in the New Forest who could, and directed him there.

When God got to the New Forest he was told to go to a clearing where he would find a large rock and there found a little, quiet, man, working metal. God thought “this cannot be the man who everyone is talking about who is so good at shoeing horses?” “He’s so little he cannot be capable of shoeing a donkey never mind the devil”.

God went up to the man and asked him if he would shoe his horses and the little man told him that he would. Then came his demand that, to shoe God’s famous horses, firstly the little man must shoe the devil. To his surprise, this time God was told that it would be no problem and he would be delighted to do it.

The little man realised that he would have to use much guile and wit in order to shoe the devil and knowing that the devil was proud, avaricious and greedy he devised a cunning plan.

The next day found him stood in front of the devil where he told him that he had heard that a pot of gold was buried beneath a large rock in the New Forest and he needed someone who was immensely big and strong to move it as he was took small to do it himself.

The next day the little man set a trap for the devil and sat on top of the rock, in the middle of his clearing, to wait. As the devil stepped into the clearing, dwarfing both the rock and the little man, the man, quick as lightening pull tightly on a rope which he had concealed behind his back, toppling the devil to the ground.

The devil writhed, kicked, screamed, and roaring his angry defiance, but the more he squirmed the tighter his bonds became until at last he lay still. Quick as a flash, the little man shoed him, not only did he shoe him, so people would know wher

e the devil had been, he placed the shoes back-to-front and put one on his tail for good measure. Only then did he release the devil, who slunk off into the bushes with his tail between his legs, leaving his tell tale footprints of back-to-front horseshoes behind him.

God was astounded and revealed that all the time he had been hidden in the bushes watching, and asked the little man what his name was, to which he answered Farrier. God said “henceforth your sign shall be three upside down horseshoes to depict that you are the only one who can control the devil and, all men, who are as good at shoeing as you shall be known as Farrier and all farriers shall be my right hand workmen.

Your home shall be my home and my home yours and your workbench mine, and you shall become worshipful”.

There is still a large rock in a clearing in the New Forest known as ‘The Devil’s Rock’.

Until recently: the farrier’s shop was used as an alternative to a church, this being particularly in smaller parishes in the cold winter months and the anvil was used as an alternative to the altar; it was customary for the local farrier to carry some official posts within the church.

Also to this day weddings can still be performed at the forge (Farrier’s Shop) at Gretna Green where the anvil is used as an altar; a bride still carries a horseshoe down the aisle when she gets married and the sign of a farrier is still three upside down horseshoes.

Following the birth of my son in 1983, the time came for him to be Churched and I took him to our parish church of St. John the Baptist, and discovered that, for the first time during its long life, it was without a vicar, and our old church looked abandoned.

Coming home along Church Street, I had call to pass the old blacksmith’s workshop which was situated at the junction of Quarry Street and Church Street and there saw a farrier at work and as it was inclement I call in to see him. I explained why I was walking along Church Street and that our old church was closed and we did not have a vicar.

He must have been fully aware of the farrier’s other, spiritual role, and picked up my son. Cradling him gently in his arms the farrier placed his right thumb in the cooling water he used at the forge, he then placed it in the ash of the forge, and laying my son on the anvil drew a cross in the middle of his forehead. And so my son became the last child to be Churched in a Farrier’s Shop in Mexborough.

Soon after, following the death of my father in 1991, the building was demolished and bungalows now stand where the ancient forge once stood and no longer do we hear the ring of metal on metal in our town.

This month we have covered the folklore which is attached to the farrier and blacksmith. Next month I would like to tell you of the history of the farriers and blacksmiths in Mexborough and why we needed so many.

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