By Oliver Richardson

A HUNDRED years ago, Kelly’s Directory for Shropshire listed more than 290 blacksmiths, wheelwrights and farriers. In Wem there were eight.

In the 19th century blacksmiths’ forges, or smithies, were at the centre of urban and rural life.

There, horses were shod by a farrier, the blacksmith made household items as well as mending existing ones and metal bands put onto wagon wheels by a qualified wheelwright. Wem had a number of each, many doing all three jobs.

There were two in ‘Maypole End’ (Aston Street). One was on the site of the current Methodist Church, and the other at the back of what is now the ADOS theatre.

The latter was owned by Master Blacksmith John Watkin and his son Thomas who also ran a wheelwright’s business.

Another, operated by Richard Wycherley, occupied a site in New Street, opposite what is now the entrance to Edinburgh House.

In Back Street (now known as Noble Street) Thomas Minshull was the smith and farrier in 1828. He was succeeded by William Humphreys and the business survived into the 1940s under the ownership of Herbert Rogers.

Typical smithy – this one at the Welsh Folk Museum at St. Fagans, was originally at Trefegwys in Powys

One of the longest surviving was the smithy in Dark Lane, now known as Leek Street. Just to confuse matters, what is now called Chapel Street was previously known as Leek Lane.

Even 40 years ago, Leek Street was narrow and dark and several Wemians remember it as a place where their parents told them not to venture!

Where the modern carpark has been constructed was a row of cottages set back about twenty yards from the road, with the Smithfield (Cattle market) behind them.

The cottages each had a long front garden and the privy beside the road. Number nine was a blacksmith’s forge which survived until just before the Second World War.

In 1828, Thomas Watkin (probably a relation of John) was the Master Blacksmith, with a family and young sons Thomas and William.

They followed the family profession, and by 1851 were listed as ‘journeymen blacksmiths’.

This term came from the French ‘journeé’ meaning someone who was paid by the day.

In England it meant that their apprenticeship was successfully over, and that they were qualified to practice their trade, but had yet to submit a piece of work to the Blacksmiths’ Guild for assessment, in order to be considered as Master Blacksmiths.

Thomas obviously passed this test, for by 1861, following the death of his father, he took over the smithy as a Master.

His ownership did not last long, for by 1871, William Breeze from Market Drayton had taken over.He lasted until his early death in 1883, after which his widow went into service at Tilley to support her young family.

As soon as he was old enough and had qualified as a smith, their son Joseph took over the smithy and was advertising ‘all kinds of ironwork done on the premises’.

He also was a qualified farrier so his work would involve the making and fitting of horses’ shoes, as well as equine foot maintenance.

This work combines the skills of a blacksmith and a vet, so requires extensive training. His tenancy lasted until his death in 1924.

The following year, the forge was being run by John Boyden, who described himself as a wheelwright rather than a blacksmith.

He probably did both jobs, for a wheelwright’s skills involved making a cart’s wooden wheel as well as putting on the protective metal band.

This metal tyre was made slightly smaller than the wheel, and then heated in order to cause it to expand.

The tyre was then fitted over the wooden framework and the whole wheel was put into water in order to contract the tyre and produce a tight fit.

Boyden was still there in 1941, but appears to have closed the business shortly afterwards.

Other businesses in the 19th century the town relied on the blacksmiths. Opposite the Leek Street forge was a carters business run in 1895 by Richard Crewe.

With the coming of the railway in 1858, the amount of goods needing to be moved increased dramatically and coal merchants flourished, some with offices in the goods yard. Crewe also handled household moves.

It is likely that his transport would have been horse-drawn, for motor wagons had yet to be widely available, and horses would have needed constant attention from a nearby farrier.

He was still trading in 1911, but appears to have retired shortly afterwards, and died in 1921.

With the increase in motorised transport, and the reduction of horse-drawn wagons, much of the demand for blacksmiths, farriers and wheelwrights had disappeared by the mid 20th century.

In their place, car repair shops sprang up. In 1925, Herbert Rogers of 20, Noble Street was describing himself as a

motor engineer rather than a smith, though still operating a smithy as well.

By 1939, Strongs Almanack of Wem listed two wheelwrights, but four motor engineers. The future had arrived.

The closure of the cattle market in the 1960s and the need for car parking led to North Shropshire Council buying up the whole Leek Street site, demolishing the row of cottages (compulsorily purchased for £100 each in 1962) and replacing it (and the old smithy) with the central car park.

Leek Street is now wide open on the western side. All the other smiths and wheelwrights have now also gone from Wem.

A hundred years ago, a visitor could have walked into a smithy in just about every village and town in Shropshire and seen a master smith at work.

Now they are a far rarer sight, with 27 listed farriers and 10 blacksmiths across the whole county.

Sadly, Wem no longer echoes to the ancient and traditional sound of a smith’s hammer.