When Europeans first arrived in Aotearoa, blacksmithing was absolutely vital. Most things in settler society relied on the skill of the smith: nails, hammers, axes, saws, wagon wheels/turning gear, picks, shovels, weapons, etc. The list would be endless.
Blacksmithing used to be called the 'King of Trades' because almost every other trade relied upon the skills of the smith.
By Jon Hall
Blacksmithing, or the art of shaping metals with heat and force, has been an integral part of human development for thousands of years. Without the evolution of these skills, life as we know it simply would not exist, and yet today very little about this once essential craft is known.
Over this extended stretch of human history the essence of forging metal has largely remained the same. Beginning with copper and bronze, and progressing through iron to steel, with seemingly primitive tooling, it has been the task of the blacksmith to produce an endless array of solutions to engineering and decorative problems.
The king of trades
The three most ubiquitous and essential tools of the smith are the hammer, anvil and fire. Singularly they appear to be elementary in nature, however when the iron is heated to the correct temperature in the fire, without “burning” or melting, the iron is moved to the surface of the anvil quickly, as to loose as little heat as possible, and worked over the different surfaces with repeated furious hammering.
The skill and training of the smith can quickly be observed. Working largely by eye, due to the short timeframe that the material retains the heat from the fire, the smith must make lightening fast decisions: Where to place the steel in order to move it quickly with as little energy as possible; how much stock to pinch and stretch in order to achieve the final form required; and when to stop working the metal before damage is done to the structure which could compromise the integrity of the finished work.
When heated and worked correctly, one of the most fascinating elements of metal becomes apparent: The material's ability to be moulded into almost any form imaginable, which is not too dissimilar to clay worked by hand.
Once referred to as the “King of Trades” due to the fact that almost every other trade relied upon the skills of the smith for tools and technical advancements; today the products delivered from the fire, hammer and anvil are largely limited to the decorative arts.
Looking back to the relatively recent past, however, tells a very different story of a trade that was integral to the function of society. Weapons, agricultural equipment, early surgical instruments, forestry tools, horse shoes, wagon wheels and turning gear, nails for the building industry, hammers and crowbars, picks, shovels, rock splitting wedges for the mining industry, whaling harpoons, and whale oil rendering pots, ship building, anchors, chains and locks - the list is endless and the products entirely produced with the skills of the smith.
New Zealand, in this regard, was no exception to the rest of the world. When early settlers arrived here, the blacksmith’s craft was essential for Europeans to establish homes and work the land. For the removal of trees to create grasslands suitable for farming, axes and saws were necessary. To keep horses that laboured before machines were available, a blacksmith was required for shoeing and for general maintenance on farms.
Not only would the blacksmith’s skills have been vital in the production of such tools and accessories, but also in the consistent upkeep and refurbishment of them in order to keep production flowing and efficient. Examples of these early tools can be found today in most second hand dealers with a bit of understanding of the processes used to make them. Old forged chisels, axes, hammers, picks and crowbars can be found, as well as many other items which still circulate the market.
Soft floors and hot steel
Workshops in these times were basic structures, often with dirt or coal dust floors. This may seem like an unimportant aspect, overlooked by the general observer, but like most things in the smiths workshop, it served a combination of purposes. Long hours of standing at the fire and anvil is less taxing to the body when standing on softer ground, and the earth or coal dust could be scooped together to bury hot steel when annealing a finished item.
When setting up a 'smithy', care must be taken when considering the placement of equipment. The fire and anvil must be close enough together to enable efficient movement between the two, where most time will be spent. This is always the “heart” of the workshop, and all other items and areas are spaced accordingly around it.
Being so far from England and the old world, it was imperative for the advancement of European settlement here that a self-sufficient industry be established as fast as possible. Waiting for supplies or replacement parts from England could take weeks to months and the ensuing downtime disastrous.
Examples of these industries can be seen with the establishment of the railway system across the country. The importance of an iron industry can also clearly be seen by the level of iron and iron products imported in the late 1800’s, with the consequent number of operating metalworking shops and their employees.
One area which relied upon the skills of the smith and which in turn enabled the trade to thrive here, was the establishment of New Zealand Rail. The first rail lines were opened from Christchurch to Ferrymead in 1863 and this quickly expanded around the country. These systems opened up difficult to reach areas for industry and pushed settlement further inland, away from coastal areas.
New Zealand’s first railway workshop, or "Shop” was also built in 1863 in Christchurch. This was followed in 1870 with others across the country which progressed into large scale heavy industrial complex, which were capable of not only repairing and refurbishing trains and carriages for service, but also of producing their own unique style of New Zealand locomotives.
A large and important part of New Zealand’s blacksmithing history existed within these 'Shops'. Skilled smiths made and refurbished leaf springs, forged parts under large scale hammers for the locomotives, riveted boilers and made a wide range of tooling which supplied the entire rail network with it’s requirements. They also perpetuated the survival of this ancient trade by offering an apprenticeship system which trained young people to become skilled craftsmen.
Header image: A blacksmith at his forge, photographed by Fred Brockett, c.1910. CCBY-NC-ND 4.0, Te Papa, B.027899.