Wearside Echoes: Moulding the future from the past

Still following the craft he learned in the village smithy at Old Penshaw, 72 year farrier John Wilkinson pictured in 1955.

Still following the craft he learned in the village smithy at Old Penshaw, 72 year farrier John Wilkinson pictured in 1955.

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NEW life is to be breathed into a crumbling Wearside landmark.

Hetton’s Grade II-listed blacksmith’s shop has defied the industrial revolution and computer age to notch up more than 200 years as a working smithy.

Now the late 18th-century Bog Row building is to be revamped as part of the Limestone Landscapes project, to ensure it has a bright future.

“The shop was once at the centre of village life but, over the years, the trade has changed and I work as a mobile farrier now,” said owner John Guy.

“Instead of people bringing their horses to me, I go to them.

“I still use the building occasionally, but it has become difficult to maintain as the years go by.”

John was a lad of 15 when he left Eppleton School and secured an apprenticeship with blacksmith Ernie Taylor at Hetton Smithy. It was to be his first, and last, job.

The era of the Swinging Sixties was just dawning but the blacksmith’s shop was still doing a roaring trade in metalwork, horse shoeing and agricultural repairs.

“The popularity of horses was declining when I first started, but I really enjoyed the general work, such as welding and fixing farm equipment,” he said.

“Blacksmiths did bits of everything back then.

“We used to shoe the horses of the local Co-op stores, as well as put tyres on cartwheels for Vaux and Newcastle Breweries.

“There was also subcontracted work for the shipyards, such as making links and bolts, and at one time we used to make all the ironwork for horse-drawn vehicles.”

John served a seven-year apprenticeship under the guidance of Ernie, who himself had learned the trade at Hetton Smithy during the depression years of the 1930s.

Ernie continued working into his 80s and, when he passed away in the late 1980s, John took over the shop.

Today, at 67, he still relishes the blacksmith business.

“The shop has seen, and survived through, all the changes since before the time of the industrial revolution, the railways and all things mechanical,” he said.

“Village blacksmiths used to make agricultural equipment from scratch in the early days, then they became repairers, rather than makers, when automation came in.

“Nowadays things are much easier than even when I first started.

“You used to have to make the horse shoes yourself, but now they are ready-made. It’s a sign of the times.”

Blacksmith shops could be found in most Wearside villages, as well as throughout Sunderland, at the turn of the last century.

Today, however, very few still survive.

“It is a trade in which you have to move with the times.

“Ernie did, by bringing in new equipment over the years, and so have I,” said John.

“The popularity of horses has now come back with a vengeance, although the number of blacksmiths has fallen. It all keeps me busy and I still enjoy my work.”

Work on revamping Hetton Smithy, which will open its doors to the public this Saturday as part of the Heritage Open Days programme, is expected to get under way later this year.

John has joined forces with Ken Bradshaw, heritage officer with the Limestone Landscape Partnerships, for the project. Support will be provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

“The idea is not just to restore the building, but to bring it back into daily use, although we are limited by space. It is only a small building,” said Ken.

Much of the old shop is expected to be demolished and rebuilt during the project, using original stone and tiles. A “traditional style” will be used during the restoration.

“We would like to use it for demonstrations, and maybe even some sort of apprenticeship in the future, as John is keen to pass on his skills,” added Ken.

** A chance to take a look round Hetton Smithy is on offer this Saturday from 2-4pm. Admission is free.