Why Yorkshire is leading the way in heavy metal

Topp and Co have established themselves as one of the go-to specialists for wrought iron and bronze. Phil Penfold visited their HQ in North Yorkshire.

Blacksmith Sam Pearce pictured at work. PIC: Simon Hulme
Blacksmith Sam Pearce pictured at work. PIC: Simon Hulme

It is almost a certainty that you have seen the work of Topp and Co somewhere in the UK, or on your travels. You may well have been photographed in front of it, or taken a selfie when it was in the background. And the probability is you won’t have ever known that this leading Yorkshire firm was even involved. In fact, the skilled work and craftsmanship of Topp and Co is recognised throughout the world.

So are they based in Leeds, or Huddersfield, Sheffield or Bradford? Hardly. You will find the firm just outside a remote little village that sits betwixt and between York and Easingwold. And, unless you live there, you will have to look for Tholthorpe on a map, or summon it up on your Satnav. Tholthorpe (population around the 300 mark) has a village pond, a pub, an infrequent bus service, and what used to be an RAF and Canadian Air Force base. And it is at that base, set squarely in the middle of arable farmland, that you will find the Topp business, now based in just two of the old (but refurbished and modernised) wartime aircraft hangers.

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They are the biggest blacksmith business that you are likely to see. As their MD Jerome Peycher puts it with a smile: “We are metal bashers”. That is a whopping great understatement from French-born and raised Jerome, who now lives in Ripon and commutes to the firm each day.

Topp and Co are the go-to specialists in wrought iron and bronze. They cast, they repair, they restore and they create. Just a few of the current clients are the Houses of Parliament and the Science Museum in London – where they are giving new life to the railings and gates and lamps – and Halifax Market Hall whose gates are about to be re-hung after a complete overhaul and repainting. Topp and Co were also responsible for the work on the gates for the historic and newly restored Piece Hall in Halifax, which are heavy in both symbolism and in weight – they come in at a hefty 40 tonnes each, and they needed specialist equipment to lift them from their hinges.

Then there are Russian billionaires, one of whom has a house in London which he wanted “to look better than Kensington Palace”, and whose ornate new exterior fittings are still in storage and waiting to be collected and erected on site, and which look like something slightly more splendid than the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Oh, and there’s the Japanese businessman who is completely renovating his private yacht.

Jerome regrets that he cannot name the names of his many American clients, but says quietly: “They are nearly all people who we see, from day to day on our TVs and on cinema screens. Big and very familiar names who want special things, unique features, in their homes and offices”. Bronze handrails, stairs, balconies, fountains, anything that you care to name, and which the uber-rich can effortlessly afford.

The firm was founded in 1982 by Chris Topp, now in his late 60s and retired, although he still has a keen interest in how things are going. Jerome took over from Chris and a new era started.

So why is Topp and Co doing so well? There are two main answers to that – the first is that this is very much a niche marketplace, and the second is that wrought iron stopped production around 1960, which means that the base metal has to be carefully sourced and make its way to Tholthorpe. This explains just one heap of huge anchor chain links in the corner of the metal store, which look almost sculptural in the way that they are laid on top of each other. Many still have barnacles adding to their texture. One of Jerome’s team is an expert in finding items like this, and buying in bulk. They are then replaced with modern chains in lighter metals, which are resistant to rust. But it doesn’t come cheap. At the moment, chains like these are going for around £600 a tonne, and the price – like most things – isn’t likely to fall. The process is that this wrought iron will be cut, re-rolled, and then turned into whatever the current project, or customer request, demands.

There are 19 or so staff at the moment, ranging from the people in the administration team to the lads on the shop floor, both the skilled workers and the apprentices. Bordeaux-born Jerome isn’t one of those bosses who just walked in and assumed control. Now 38, he himself was an apprentice when he left school at 16, and spent many years in the enviable French system (The Metal Workers Guild) of working for one accredited firm for a year and then moving on to another, so that a different skill could be learned.

Jerome was made a Companion of the Guild, came to the UK, and hasn’t looked back. Married to Aurelia, a French lass (who has just qualified as a nurse), the couple have two children, Thibault, 12, and Heloise, seven, who were both born in Harrogate, which makes then, says their dad with pride, “Half Yorkshire and half French – I always emphasise the word ‘Yorkshire’”.

As an aside, Jerome says that it is a struggle to find skilled people for the business in the UK, and that, over the years, workers have been recruited from across Europe. There is only one college in Britain which has courses in blacksmithing and associated foundry-work, and, like a lot of other craft skills which were once commonplace, it is now limited in its appeal.

But, just as we all need good plumbers, plasterers and (a few of us maybe) expert thatchers, there is an active demand for the product that Topp can deliver, and Jerome is considering a collaboration with other businesses in the same field, to offer short part-time courses to those who want to develop their skills. “What I would love”, he says, “is that schools and colleges came to us and asked what we thought young people should do, what they should specialise in, and how. Not everyone wants to go to university. Hands-on work is also vitally important.”

That’s one for the future. What is of the now are the jobs in hand. Jerome is a font of knowledge on the history of his market. It may seem strange to us today, for example, that the doors for Halifax and the railings for Parliament and for the Science Museum, are all painted. We have got used to seeing the plain black metal in our parks and around the public places.

The Victorians and Edwardians were huge fans of colour”, he says, “and it’s probably the cost-cutting of the last decades that has made people go for a uniform drab grey or black. The ones we’ll be sending back to London are a lovely crimson, with gilt tops. As with the Halifax gates, we carefully take off layer after layer of paint so we can see what the original colours were, and we try to replicate that as precisely as possible. The chemical dipping process is very complicated and you simply can’t rush it”.

Just like any firm, Topp and Co. have to tender for work and they have to come in on a budget. “Shipping it out”, smiles Jerome, “is the easy part. Architects and designers are wonderful people – but they aren’t skilled blacksmiths and metalworkers, so we sometimes have to suggest tweaking projects just a little. It’s all a voyage of discovery. We recently did the cast-iron cladding for the façade of the late Duke of Westminster’s hospital for rehabilitating veterans, which is near Loughborough, and which was huge, and very complex. That was a vast learning curve for us all. But it was wonderful when his son, the seventh duke, told us he loved what we have achieved, and we have continued to work on his family seat at Eaton Hall, near Chester”.

But in case anyone believes that the work carried out here is all for grandiose schemes and developments, over in a corner are some jaunty panels for the promenade at Redcar and a rather fine lamp-post, complete with gas lantern, refurbished “as a return favour” to one of the firm’s many friends. In another corner is the sparse chassis of a French car which is Jerome’s own “pet restoration project” for the future. He does not, he says rather ruefully, expect work to start on that one any time soon. “We are, I am pleased to say, rather busy elsewhere.”