Keeper of the flame

Most forges may have closed, but the fires are still burning in a small corner of Doncaster. Phil Penfold meets one of the last urban blacksmiths.

Say the word “blacksmith” to anyone of a certain age, and an image immediately pops into the mind. You can picture the old village green, probably next to a pond full of noisy ducks, and a church and a pub way over there. In the foreground, a forge, and in front of it, a lad holding a couple of fine-looking shire horses, each waiting to be shod. And, taking centre frame, a strapping great fellow, with hobnailed boots and leather apron, glistening with the sweat of his labours and the heat of the white-hot coals burning in the grate behind him.

So much for the rosy-hue of nostalgia, because Mark Bailey is about as far from that bucolic picture as you can possibly get. He’s a slim chap, 47 years old and, far from his workplace being set in idyllic surroundings, his forge is next door to a chemist’s shop, adjacent to a car par, and right slap bang in the middle of Doncaster.

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Mark – who lives in the nearby village of Branton with his schoolteacher wife Beverley and their son Alex, who has just turned 11 – is probably one of the last of the urban blacksmiths in Britain. He trained at the local technical college to become a welder, and then joined the family firm, run by his late (and much-missed) father Les. Les in turn had taken over the establishment some years before, from a family called Mitchell, and, if the memories of the more long-lived South Yorkshire residents are to be believed, there has been an operating forge on Frances Street in Doncaster since around 1900, and probably for many years before that.

“I talked to a very elderly lady a good few years back, and she offered a lot of information about the business in former years,” says Mark. “Of course, I had the manners not to ask her age, but we were going back many, many decades. And back then, of course, every town would have had a few smithy businesses, all competing with each other for a fair amount of on-going business”.

What everyone forgets, says Mark, “is that it wasn’t just the shoeing of horses, although that was a large part of the trade, because at the turn of the last century, the horse was still very much the main form of transport. But the local smithy would also put the metal rims on the wheels of carts and carriages – and all the big houses had at least one carriage to hand. They’d mend things, make gates and grates, in fact, they could turn their hands to just about anything. They were a vital part of a community’s light industry.”

Once there were dozens forges scattered across the town and at least three forges in Silver Street alone. Now, Mark’s about the only one left and the last working horse shod in Doncaster was, he believes (and he has razor-sharp powers of recall) back in 1988.

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“My dad did that one,” he says. “He was one of the best farriers in the county, and he was much admired and respected. He loved the horses, and he built up an enviable reputation on the Yorkshire racecourses. He’d be booked in for various race meetings, and he’d attend to the shoes of the racehorses as and when they required it. He had to be quick, efficient, and on the spot, so that the next race wouldn’t be held up.

“He wasn’t a man who went to the races to have a drink and to gamble, as a lot do, but because he loved the beasts, and he loved the people.”

It’s too early to say whether Alex will continue the family tradition, but Mark does worry that we will soon be faced with a shortage of skilled tradesmen.

“A lot of young people are eager to get into further education, but not enough who want to learn any of the real hands-on jobs. It’s sad, but true. We all need a good plumber, a good chippie, a good car mechanic, they are all vital to our lives. After leaving college, I was, to all intents and purposes, an apprentice to my father, and I learned what I was doing as we went along. Another great influence on me was one of my father’s friends, a wonderful man called Gran Mitchell, who work in a forge and metal business just across the way. He was marvellous at passing on skills of all kinds.”

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Mark’s main business these days is in making gates, grilles and fencing, but he still has the traditional anvil and the various tools and implements remain much the same as they were centuries back. At the rear of the yard sits there equipment to make the hoops for cart wheels.

“I am extremely blessed in that I have what I can call a ‘good eye’,” says Mark. “The customer always gets what he or she wants – even if, in my heart of hearts, I think that it won’t look that good, or quite right, in the location in which it is placed. But, well, the customer is always right, even when, occasionally, they are wrong. They are the ones who pay the bills. All you can do is to explain what they need, whether it be two posts, hinges to a wall, one post, or whatever, and they always get the highest quality of craftsmanship”.

And, he says, work is steady.

“We’re living in tough times,” 
says Mark. “But people still need and want the specialist service that I give them. When I’m driving around I do go past 
some pretty hideous creations. I suspect 
that a lot of them are ready-to-hang things that people have had delivered. I’m 
pleased to say that they haven’t come from my forge.

“On the other hand, I go past some marvellous pieces of work as well – I have been known to stop, get out my camera, and take a snap or two.”

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There have been some customers who, says Mark, “don’t seem to quite grasp what I do for a living”.

“One lady rang up and asked if I could adjust her much-loved coffee table to a different size. I assumed that she meant that she wanted the metal legs cutting down a little.

“She brought the table to me – and it was a wooden one, and she wanted the top surface made much smaller, a section had to be cut out. Well, I’m not one to turn business away, and I was able to help. “But I’m not so sure that she knew what the function of a forge is, and that we deal almost exclusively in metal!”

He can’t think of any requests, however off-field they maybe, that he hasn’t been able to make. “I even had one come in to commission a ship’s anchor, once,” he say. “And he got what he wanted, and seemed very happy with it. I often wonder what foreign waters that’s travelled to over the years.”

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In contrast, later in the afternoon he will return to working on the metal plate and pole which is currently standing on the anvil. By the end of the day it holding a satellite dish in position.

He says: “That’s how far we’ve travelled – from hooves and horseshoes to today’s technology. Just think, 100 years ago, a customer just wouldn’t have believed what a satellite dish was, or what it could do, they’d have thought that you needed locking up if you attempted to explain the idea… times have certainly changed. And you have to move with them.”