The Smithy Heritage Centre, Kiln Lane, Eccleston, St Helens, WA10 4RA
Tel: +44 (0)1744 730744
Smithy Report – January 2022 SMITHY REPORT JAN 22
The Smithy was transformed by Eccleston Parish Council into a local history museum dedicated to the heritage of Eccleston. Although it is only small, the Curators strive to cram in as much variety as possible to bring history to life.
The History of the Smithy
The Smithy Heritage Centre was once a busy blacksmith’s forge and a focal point of Eccleston village. Until the mid-20th century, much of Eccleston was rural, with many farms and working horses.
The site has evolved over the centuries; although what remains suggests that it was only a small business, it was in fact both a blacksmith’s forge and a wheelwright’s shop combined on a much bigger site to meet the demand of the area and outlying farms. Work was so plentiful in the 1800s that at least another two smithies existed in Eccleston, alongside The Griffin Inn, and at Eccleston Lane Ends.
It can be assumed that it was at full working capacity in the Victorian and Edwardian periods when horse-drawn transport was at its peak. One photograph from the early 20th century shows many workers from the Ranson and Hall families stood in the grounds of the Smithy and a wooden building in the background which seems to be the wheelwright’s workshop.
Few records regarding the Smithy survive; it is not known how much land was associated with it, how many outbuildings existed or where the materials were sourced from. There would have been a saw pit, lathe, tyring platform, circular fire, furnace, grindstone and water tanks. A ready supply of oak, ash, elm and beech would have been needed, either grown on land owned by the business or bought from local estates. It would have been felled and then transported by carters with teams of horses, cut by sawyers, and then stacked for seasoning from five to ten years.
The building is now much smaller than it was in its heyday and in a slightly different location. It stood directly on the junction of Kiln Lane and Millbrook Lane until it was moved stone-by-stone in the 1930s to make way for a library (now Eccleston Village Hall). It was scaled down when it was rebuilt, using the original red sandstone blocks from Taylor Park quarry. The many outbuildings that must have once surrounded it are long since gone.
Blacksmiths and wheelwrights played vital parts in everyday life before motor vehicles became commonplace, making and repairing wagons, wheels, tools, agricultural implements and, of course, shoeing horses. Horses need to be fitted with iron shoes to protect their hooves; when walking on hard and rough surfaces continually, these shoes wear down and need to be replaced frequently. In winter, special frost studs can be fitted to the shoes to provide better grip on the ice.
The skills of the blacksmith and wheelwright converged in the making of metal-rimmed wheels. This demanded teamwork, and the individuals’ use of their specialist knowledge and skills. The many precision-made wooden components were assembled by the wheelwright, and an iron tyre was forged by the blacksmith. The hot hoop of iron was applied to the wheel, which was then quenched in a water tank. The metal would cool instantly and shrink, compressing the joints of the wheel and strengthening it. The blacksmith would have to ensure the tyre was exactly the right size – if it was any looser or tighter, the wheel would either fall apart or collapse in on itself.
Another important service the Smithy once provided was as an undertakers. The wheelwright made the coffins whilst the blacksmith would make all the ironwork fittings, and usually their wives would sew the fabric linings.
At the beginning of the 1900s, the Smithy was owned by wheelwright James Ranson. Blacksmith Thomas Hall worked for him and his sons became apprentices. Thomas’s son Peter took over after his death in 1919 and bought the business from Ranson in 1924, who opened another wheelwright’s shop half a mile away.
Peter’s sons Joseph and Elias (known as Ellis) were apprenticed as blacksmiths, and Kenneth worked as a wheelwright. Joseph was called up for National Service during the Second World War; Ellis, by this time, had become a skilled farrier and blacksmith and continued to work in the Smithy.
Peter Hall died in 1957 and Ellis took over the business. By then, the local economy had undergone huge changes: farming was still practised, but far fewer horses were used as processes had become mechanised and motor vehicles replaced the carts and wains that the wheelwright would have mended.
Ellis continued to shoe horses, but as the years went by demand dwindled. Some horses came to the Smithy to be shod, but Ellis also travelled around the stables and farms in the area with his portable forge. After his death in 1989, the blacksmithing trade at Kiln Lane ended.
Many local people are connected to the Ranson and Hall families and some remember Ellis shoeing horses at the Smithy. If you have any stories or images to add please come along to the Smithy and speak to the Curators.
Tel: +44 (0)1744 730744