Alan before Retirement
Alan Middelton - Dartmouth's Last Blacksmiths
Alan Middleton is a keen photographer and smiles as I admire a stunning image of the town fountain frozen in ice. It looks like a crystal sculpture, but Alan isn’t looking at the icicles.
“I made those railings!” he says, and the same could be said for most of the gates, railings and arches in Dartmouth, not to mention the candlesticks, fire companion sets and toasting forks sitting in hundreds of houses throughout the town.
But at the age of 70, this multi-award winning blacksmith has decided to retire. There’s been a forge on the same site in Broadstone for 300 years, and the Middleton family has been at its anvil for three generations, but changing times have taken Alan and wife Pauline’s sons Sean and Wayne away to other work, and with no-one else to take over the family firm, the forge has been shut down for good.
It’s the end of a very long era for Dartmouth, and surely a sad time for Alan? “It hasn’t really hit me yet, I’ve been so busy packing up and emptying the forge,” he said. “The building has been sold. The new owners asked to keep the furnace and the bellows, but everything else has gone. It was strange walking out for the last time.”
Alan and Pauline’s family helped them sort through tools, metal and equipment, some of it extremely old. Much of it has gone to Exeter, bought by an enthusiast who plans to incorporate it into a working blacksmiths’ museum.
“We sent away 12 tonnes of scrap iron - two tonnes of that was old horse shoes,” Alan said. “Horses haven’t been shod in Dartmouth for years, but when they were we just used to take off the old shoes and chuck them back in the corner. There they stayed. I had no idea there were so many back there!”
There was a poignant moment when 12-year-old granddaughter Jessica asked to try her hand at making a metal coil for a gate: “I only showed her once and she took to it instantly. She instinctively knew what to do and the tools to pick up. Pauline and I looked at each other and wondered if we had made a mistake. But as Jessica said herself, she’s too young to start and I’m too old to carry on, so the place is empty, the forge is sold and that’s that.”
Alan was born in a flat above the forge in Broadstone on January 23rd 1941. As he packed up the building he found his father’s old Home Guard notebook from the Second World War, and said: “The entry for the night I was born says it was a quiet night with a lot of low fog and nothing to report, but that my father was excused duty!”
The Middletons came to Broadstone when Herbert George Middleton took over the forge in 1920. The business remained HG Middleton & Sons. Known as George, he came from North Devon and trained as a blacksmith in Bideford. He married Margaret and the couple moved to Cotterbury near Blackawton and Prout’s village forge. The forge building still stands at the crossroads.
“In those days every village had a forge – and Dartmouth had five,” said Alan. “The Broadstone forge was originally on the river and was an anchorsmiths, making chains and anchors for boats. All the land between there and the river was reclaimed and the trade became more agricultural - shoeing horses, making farm equipment like chain harrows, repairing cartwheels.
“The Prouts owned one of the Dartmouth forges, where the Flavel is now, and my grandparents moved there in 1909. When the family at Broadstone retired, my grandfather bought the forge as his own business.”
The Middleton’s had five sons – Bob, Tom, Jack, Derrick and Jim – and the family of seven squashed into a small flat over the blacksmiths shop. Bob and Tom went into the family business – Bob as farrier and Tom as blacksmith. Tom married Win and took over the forge and the flat, where their three sons Alan, Nigel and Paul were born.
“Like our father and uncles before us we were all over the town, getting up to mischief and playing, and helping out in the forge. In the War the Americans were just across the road from us and named their jeeps Alan and Nigel. We were only small and used to go and talk to them. When the bomb dropped on the town we were in the Market Café with Mum. The lady there used to make jam and all the jars fell off the shelves and smashed. I remember the jam all over the floor. My father thought we’d been killed and were buried in the butchers. He went to try to dig us out, and they found the butcher inside the walk-in fridge – it saved his life!
“I remember the smell of the spices and bacon in Cundell’s, and how we used to run one way with buckets to pick up coal when the barges spilled it by the gasworks, and the other way to pick up mackerel when the Lower Ferry scooped them out of the water and onto the slipway. Word would spread around town and women and children would come running.
“We used to go over the road to the cinema, and it would make us jump when the cat who lived in there walked under the seats. He tickled the backs of our legs with his tail – it made the girls scream.”
After primary school in Dartmouth Alan passed his 11-plus and was sent to a Catholic boarding school near Exeter. With his father, uncle and grandfather handling all the work in the forge, Alan joined Phillips and Son as an apprentice then worked on farms before returning to Dartmouth in the Sixties, now married to Pauline, to work on the Lower Ferry. When his uncle and father retired, the business went to Alan and his brother Paul. Paul still works as a mobile farrier, horse owners now preferring the farrier to come to the stable.
“It meant I could follow my Dad and uncles and join the fire service – you can’t down tools when you work on a ferry! My brothers were firemen too for many years.”
The sense of public duty was strong. Several Middletons served as Mayor of Dartmouth, and Jack was a benefactor, paying for the archway at the entrance to the Royal Avenue Gardens, Alan’s biggest ever project, designed and made entirely by him.
“I’ve seen the work change a lot over the years, from heavy agricultural work to ornamental pieces – just bits and bobs really. I’ve always enjoyed it, but it’s not as it once was. Now I need to try to get the hang of my new laptop – and it’ll take a while because I can’t even type yet!”
First Published February 2011 By The Dart