Fire in the Hole
Fire in the Hole

“Fire in the Hole!”

by David Baker of Ovingdean, UK

Despite Frank Dean’s 84 years he is still a practising farrier, and determined not to allow the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday to pass uncelebrated he could think of no better way to mark the occasion than with the blacksmith’s tradition of firing the anvil, watched by close friends and villagers at his forge in Rodmell near Lewes.

The anvils shown in the accompanying photograph weigh around 2.5 cwt each (127 kgs, 280 lbs) and the powder is inserted into a hole in the body of the anvil below the bec and covered with a wooden plug. Modern anvils do not have this hole and so are unsuitable. There is an alternative method of firing using two anvils, one upside down on another where the top anvil is actually lifted into the air by the force of the explosion, and I remember seeing this done in the fifties probably to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II although the only part of the commentary I can recall is that it was an ancient ceremony originally designed to drive out the devil, a seemingly constant preoccupation of our ancestors! The patron saint of blacksmiths is St. Clement whose feast day is 23rd November, when it used to be customary to fire the anvil as part of the festivities but like many another ecclesiastical date this day may only have replaced far older celebrations. Iron has always been held to have mysterious powers and his mastery of iron and fire coupled with the reliance on him for tools by all other trades made the blacksmith paramount. Of all ancient trades blacksmiths have the richest traditions.

In truth the origins of this practice are unknown but Frank has no doubt it has been employed to mark high days and holiday since the invention of gunpowder. Certainly it is a memorable spectacle even today and when one considers the explosion has been heard more than 10 miles away it must have been a high point in past days when the pace of everyday life was slow and predictable and public entertainment an infrequent affair. Traditionally the firing is carried out at the wedding of a blacksmith’s daughter and it is not only in England that firing the anvil is used to mark special events. When in Canada some years ago Frank saw a reprint of a newspaper reporting it being used to mark the joining of the transcontinental railway tracks that had been laid from the east and west coasts when the expected army firing party failed to put in an appearance.

Frank first participated in this ceremony when he was 21 and his father fired the anvil to celebrate the coronation of King George VI in 1937. Matters were far more relaxed then and it was just a case of buying the necessary gunpowder over the counter of the local gun shop, but now a police licence must be obtained and the wise blacksmith ensures the local police are fully informed of the time and place of the firing! Today only a small number of blacksmiths carry out this ancient ceremony and Frank’s expertise has been called for in many places. One he particularly recalls was at the Master’s Reception held by The Farriers’ Livery Company at The Honourable Artillery Company Headquarters close to Guildhall London.

The Dean family’s blacksmithing business has been established at Rodmell near Lewes for nearly a century. Started there in 1910 by Frank’s father Christopher Charles Dean, it was continued by Frank who began his apprenticeship there in 1932, and he has been followed by his son Roger and recently his grandson Stephen. Of course in the earlier days horses were taken to the forge, but now with the advent of the mobile forge the farrier travels out to his customers. Time to time Frank still turns his hand to smithing back at Rodmell. Not only is he qualified as a Registered Shoeing Smith and an Associate of the Farriers’ Company of London, but in 1964 passed the exam to become a Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Farriers, in which he takes an active part. Instituted in the 1920’s this has oral, written and practical elements and there have been only about 180 successful entrants, but difficult as it was then Frank freely admits it is now even stiffer, surely an indication of the overall high standard expected of the modern day farrier. But one thing doesn’t change. Whatever the next celebration Frank decides to mark in the traditional way it is an occasion not to be missed.