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Week 15: From Fire to Form

A blacksmith is a metalsmith who creates objects from wrought iron or steel by forging the metal, using tools to hammer, bend, and cut (cf. tinsmith). Blacksmiths produce objects such as gates, grilles, railings, light fixtures, furniture, sculpture, tools, agricultural implements, decorative and religious items, cooking utensils and weapons. The place where a blacksmith works is called variously a smithy, a forge or a blacksmith’s shop.


While there are many people who work with metal such as farriers, wheelwrights, and armorers, the blacksmith had a general knowledge of how to make and repair many things, from the most complex of weapons and armor to simple things like nails or lengths of chain. Wikipedia

Blacksmiths and gunsmiths

A quick query of my family tree software shows me that of those who have an occupation entered, I have 32 smiths or related occupations of whom 8 are blacksmiths, 2 gunsmiths, 3 silversmiths, and 4 whitesmiths and also some charcoal burners.

Of those, 4 of the blacksmiths, and one gunsmith, are my direct ancestors from the Hampshire/Surrey/Sussex border, more or less following the route north along today’s A3 and A31 from Westbourne near Havant via Bramshott to Farnham and south from near Odiham to Farnham.

Molly Elkins, my 4x great grandmother, was the only child of a gunsmith, himself the son of a blacksmith, Charles Elkins, who married Mary Hudson, the daughter of a blacksmith, in Wrecclesham near Farnham.

Not only Mary’s father was a blacksmith but so too were her maternal great grandfather and great great grandfather,  George and John Hawkins who came from South Warnborough near Odiham. Her grandfather is described as a yeoman in land records but perhaps he was also involved in the smithy work too.

It may be that Mary’s Hudson line extends further back, but I’ve not found any evidence of that yet. John Hudson’s first wife was the daughter of Raphael Boxall, yet another blacksmith, of Headley in Hampshire.

Molly’s paternal aunt Ann married a blacksmith, James Varndell, in Odiham, and her cousins either married into or were smiths and in related occupations. Varndell, Hounsom and variants, Elkins, Hudson, Boxall and Hawkins are names frequently associated with smithing in the area and their families were very interlinked. I wonder if it was a case of propinquity, pre-arranged marriages, or as simple as falling in love with the boss’s daughter. My “plan” is to see how they were linked to me, if at all, but big families and repeated forenames will probably make it impossible to ever be 100% accurate or even finished.

As I was living overseas, when I started investigating my roots seriously in 2002, I could only research by using what was available online and by buying CDs and fiches. Thanks to online will transcriptions and the IGI on familysearch, I came across my Elkins ancestors very early and West Surrey FHS was already publishing CDs which took me further. I had added information to my direct line over the years but when I came to write this article, I realised that I hadn’t kept up to date with the details of all the descendants of Charles and Sarah Elkins as all the census returns and other records for Surrey and Hampshire became available online – and there are a lot, so my current task is to get up to date and I shall keep an eye open for anyone in smith related occupations.

A casual remark from my brother led me to ask why there seemed to be so many blacksmiths in this area – I know that horses were important and they would have made tools as well as some fancy work, but there just seemed to be too many trying to earn a living doing only that in the area, so I started to explore the iron industry in that part of Sussex.

The iron industry in Sussex

Waggoners Wells in Grayshott. Believed to have been created as hammer ponds for Bramshott, aka Wakeners Wells, but never used as such.

Modern West Sussex consists of a flat area next to the sea, with the South Downs behind and then flattish areas north of that going into Surrey with heathland to the west going into Hampshire. Farming, fishing and smuggling are common occupations among the other usual local occupations in the towns and villages, but I wouldn’t really have thought of it as industrial.

I have come across possible distant links to glassmakers in the same area and on the same paternal lines, but generally, the occupations I had come across were mainly involved in feeding and clothing the population.

In fact, the Sussex Weald was the centre of the iron industry, peaks arising first in Roman times and then again in the 15th century. There was ironstone available, water for running the bellows and copious amounts of wood for making of charcoal for the smelting. There was competition for the wood with the glass industry and shipbuilding and the amount of wood was finite so that laws were passed to stop more new ironworks in Sussex in 1581 and the use of wood for glass furnaces was banned in 1615.

Bramshott is on the western edge of the industry, just over the Hampshire border, north of Fernhurst in Sussex where there are still visible remains of the North End furnace. At the time when the Elkins were there in the early to mid-1700s, the iron-making industry was still active, making cannon for the Seven Years’ War, but by the end of the century, most of the Wealden area’s ironworks had closed following a cut in the prices paid, which forced many ironmasters into bankruptcy. The use of coal elsewhere in Britain had also made using charcoal for the smelting furnaces too expensive as well as the competition from imported pig and bar-iron.

Charles Elkins (1727-1790) Blacksmith

Charles Elkins, son of Nicholas Elkins who was described as an innkeeper in the administration of his will, and Elizabeth Burgess(?), was baptised on 29 January 1727 in Westbourne, Sussex. He had had four older siblings, three of whom died as infants before he was born. His parents, Nicholas and Elizabeth Elkins were in Bramshott by 1733 where they had two further children. Elizabeth was buried in Bramshott in February 1739 and Nicholas in December of the same year.

The oldest child, Elizabeth was 19 when her parents died and had had her own daughter two years before so presumably, she took on the responsibility of looking after her siblings, the youngest of whom, Myrtilla, was 4 years old. Charles was about 11 at the time – I haven’t managed to find out yet if he had already been apprenticed to a blacksmith by then. A bond for the administration of Nicholas’s estate had been awarded to a Thomas Elkins cordwainer of Winchester on the 29 February 1740. If I have the correct person, Nicholas’s brother John had also been buried in Bramshott in July 1739. There are several Elkins families in this area of Surrey/Sussex/Hampshire and I’ve not managed to find a connection between Nicholas and Thomas as yet.

Blacksmith shop – Rural Life Centre, Tilford 2010

Tilford is in the area where my blacksmith families lived and worked.

Charles married a Sarah, but as yet I have not found a marriage for them. For a brief time, I speculated that her name might have been Diggins but having now seen a better image of the marriage on familysearch, this is clearly not the correct Sarah. Unfortunately, many people have assumed that I was correct and had copied the wrong bride all over ancestry without the messages and question marks after the surname. Others have speculated that she was Sarah Allen. That surname does show up several times in the other relationships, so maybe, but as yet I have found no evidence of this.

Charles and Sarah’s oldest son, also Charles, was baptised in Bramshott in 1751, and by 1753 the family were in Farnham where their first daughter, Sarah, was baptised. They went on to have another seven children. Charles senior was buried on 2 June 1790 in Farnham, Sarah was buried in Farnham in 1798 having outlived her oldest son who had died in 1792.

The younger Charles married Mary Hudson on 30 November 1775 at Saint Andrew’s in Farnham, Surrey. They had one child, Molly. Molly married Joseph Hart, a coachman in and they went on to have nine children: seven girls and two boys of whom one boy died in infancy. Molly’s son Charles was described as “Ironmonger, Tinman, Brazier, Cutler, Gasfitter, Bellhanger etc.” at 117 West Street in the heading of a receipt in 1889. (Exploring Surrey’s Past). Mary outlived her daughter Molly.

Blacksmiths of Wrecclesham

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland. Map images website.

One of the Charles is listed from 1780 until 1790 in the Surrey, England, Land Tax Records, 1780-1832 and thanks to Wrecclesham History Project Briefing Notes: Wrecclesham Forge and  Wrecclesham Maps, it is possible to make an educated guess at where in Wrecclesham the forge will have been located: “There had earlier been a Forge, at a house called the Link, which was behind the Bear Inn ( now known as the Bear and Ragged Staff).”

In 1780, Charles is listed as the occupier but in following years he is listed as owner-occupier. It isn’t clear which Charles this would be, but in 1789, a Charles is listed as owner-occupier and another is listed as an occupier, with the owner being John Cook who is listed as the owner.  Surrey Quarter Sessions records that in 1766,  “George Millams was accused of stealing an iron ‘Beck’ the property of John Novell of Wrecclesham, Farnham, labourer, from the hop ground of Charles Elkins where he was working.”

There are records of releases of messuages and mortgages by Mary and her brother-in-law William in the papers from Crowley’s Brewery, Alton. (Hantsweb)

Bundle of deeds and papers relating to a tenement, orchard and blacksmith’s shop in Wrecclesham, Surrey.
Owners and occupiers include: John Robinson of Binsted, yeoman, 1754; Charles Elkins of Wrecclesham, blacksmith, 1754; Charles Elkins of Farnham, gunsmith, 1790; William Elkins
1: release of a messuage, blacksmith’s shop, etc, by Mary Elkins (widow of Charles Elkins of Farnham, gunsmith, who was son of Charles Elkins of Wrecclesham, blacksmith) and others to William Penfold of West Chiltington, Sussex, yeoman (the premises are described as having been successively occupied by John Robinson senior, John Robinson junior, William Hammond and Charles Elkins senior), 1799
2-3: lease and release and assignment of a mortgage term in the property by George Charman of Earnely, Sussex, husbandman, and others to William Elkins of Wrecclesham, baker (one of the sons-in-law of William Penfold), and his trustee (reciting Penfold’s death in 1801), 1819
4-5: mortgage by William Elkins to William Varndell of Crondall, bricklayer, 1819

Will of Charles Elkins the younger – 1792

Later, Mary is listed as being in Farnham in the land Tax records, firstly as an occupier with different owners, but latterly as owner until her death in 1839.

47 Castle Street, Farnham on the left.

In the tithe map records for Farnham, a property in Castle Street, Farnham is listed as:

Landowner Party: John Macdonald & Mary Ann Hart
Relationship to Landowner: Executors of landowner Mary Elkins
Occupier: Mary Ann Hart
Parish: Farnham, Surrey
Original Date: 22nd October 1840

Mary Ann Hart was her second oldest granddaughter and John Macdonald was the husband of her older sister Harriet. A comparison of the tithe map and modern maps would indicate that the left-hand building in the picture left would be the house. They were the daughters of Joseph Hart, coachman, of Farnham and Molly Elkins who was the only daughter of Charles and Mary. The families’ properties, and those of their descendants, are documented in “Farnham Buildings and People” by Nigel Temple. Another granddaughter, Jessamine, my direct ancestor, was living there in 1861 with her three youngest children.

This house had been owned by Samuel Hare until his death and was willed to his nephews, Richard and George Lewcock sons of George Lewcock and Barbara Hare of Odiham, in 1758. In 1812 it was sold by John Newell. Perhaps sold to Mary – this would fit with the dates when she was listed as an occupier. Jessamine’s father-in-law, Samuel, was the son of Richard. Samuel’s son, James, his wife Jessamine and family were living there in 1841 and Jessamine lived there in 1861.


Sources and further reading

The picture on the right is a moving model of a Wealden post-medieval blast furnace based on the excavated site of Fernhurst Furnace, Fernhurst, West Sussex, England. It has twin overshot waterwheels powered twin bellows to provide the air blast. Wikimedia

The videos below show the process.

BOOK: Scenes Of Rural Life In Hampshire Among the Manors Of Bramshott – W.W. Capes.

Wikipedia: Gunsmith

English gunmakers

19th Century gunsmiths

Wealden iron – a brief history

The Sussex Weald iron industry

Archaeology of the Wealden Iron Industry

Sussex Archaeological Collections Relating to the History and Antiquities of the County, Volume 2.

Wikipedia: Ludshott Common and Wakener’s Wells

Wikipedia: Wealden iron industry

The Iron Industry of the Wea1d

Fernhurst Society 

The Fernhurst Furnace Preservation Group

Facebook: Fernhurst Furnace

Bloomery furnace

Early iron smelting

South Downs Way

Surrey’s Industrial Past

Wealden Iron at the Rural Life Centre

Making Iron In The Woods – Bloomery Furnace

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