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Sunday, March 16, 2014

History Detectives: What Do You Notice About These Irish Farriers?

 Irish Farriers at the Barracks, Waterford, 1909
You don't need to wear a funny cap and carry a magnifying glass to be able to apply Sherlock Holmes's "deductive reasoning" to old photos of farriers. Well, a magnifying glass might be helpful.


More than one Sherlock Holmes story involved the ingenious application (or removal) of horseshoes, so it's safe to say that if Sherlock Holmes was a real person and if he was around today, he'd be right at home solving mysteries like who the people are in photos, how they relate to each other and what's going on.

I have admired this photo for a long time but only recently looked closely at it. There's an awful lot going on, even though everyone is standing still, as old cameras required them to do.

It's perfect for St Patrick's Day!

Here's what we know: The photo belongs to the National Library of Ireland and is believed to be from 1909. The place is the British Army barracks at Waterford, Ireland, where a regiment of the Royal Field Artillery was stationed. The man at the anvil may or may not be someone called Sergeant Murray. And that's it.

In 1909, all of Ireland was still part of Great Britain, as it would be until 1921. But Ireland was headed down the road of revolution and "troubles", including the Easter Rising of 1916.

Were these fellows Irish or English? They might have been military farriers, or they might have been Irish civil employees.

One of the most immediately striking things about this photo is the variety of aprons worn by these men. The farrier at the anvil would be the master, as designated by the fringe on his apron, not to mention his commanding presence. History tells us that farriers who worked at the anvil (as opposed to farriers who worked under the horses) fringed their aprons in order to be able to quickly wipe off the anvil face. As time went on, the fringed apron became a critical identification: You could walk into a forge where six men like this were working, and you could immediately spot the person in charge.

But wait. As with most things in the farrier world, there's an alternate explanation. Another history reference claims that the fringed apron designates the nailmaker. The fringe even looks a bit like a row of nails hanging from the apron.

I always wondered if there might be a third theory: the fringe signified a near-death experience in the forge. Almost get kicked in the head? Cheated death again? Cut a notch on the hem of your apron. By the time someone advanced to master farrier, the apron hem might look like fringe. But that's just my theory, here's Wendy Fraser's reference:
"If you ask a smith today why the edge of his leather apron is fringed he will probably tell you that at one time he was regarded second only to the King in importance. Seated on the right hand of King Alfred at a feast he caused the tailor to feel jealous. The tailor proclaimed that his craft was older than that of the smith, but the smith reminded the tailor that he had first forged the tailor’s scissors to enable him to cut his cloth. As the feast continued the tailor crawled under the table and slyly snipped the edges of the smith’s apron."
But in this case, the fringed hem is on the apron of the man who appears to be in charge. Three of the men are looking at him, with deference, while he and the other two men look directly at the camera.

Detail: The waist skirt of Sgt Murray's apron is fringed as well as the leg hem.
The head farrier actually has two sets of fringe. The bottom hem of his apron is fringed, and the top is as well, but only on the left side and middle.

They are all wearing clean shirts and seem to be tidied up for the photo. Don't you wonder how long they had to hold those two hind feet up for this photo to be taken? No doubt they carefully chose the horses to be used in the photo.

Can you see that there are two strikers at work here; you can barely see the one on the left, but he is poised to strike. He probably had to freeze in that position, with the hammer raised.

One dead giveaway that the photo is posed is that Sgt. Murray is tilting what appears to be a finished shoe toward the camera; it wouldn't require two strikers at this stage. Perhaps he's also showing off his hammer, which looks quite new. A set of shoes, presumably waiting to be nailed on, lie on the stones to the left of the anvil.



These German farriers photographed a few years later, during World War I, didn't wear aprons at all. However, at this time, the German military was experimenting with glue-on shoes and shoes made of compressed paper. Would they really provide stable jackets for grooms while neglecting the farriers' safety by not providing aprons? Chances are that those big loose pants were reinforced to prevent nail-through. Either that, or the farriers were required to be so precise that a clinch-ready hoof wall never grazed their legs. (Flickr photo via CraftyDogma)


The Waterford barracks anvil is not mounted on a stump or any sort of stand. Perhaps the wooden block was devised to act like a sled for dragging it in and out of the forge--or maybe they dragged the anvil out just for this photo. It has rope handles at either end.

Notice that the barracks stableyard is paved with irregular stones. It's not level in any sense of the word. Other photos of the barracks show very precise paving with stone blocks. But this is what the original cobblestone streets were like. They particularly looked for round stones and an ideal cobblestone street looked sort of like a sheet of bubble wrap, made of stone.

It is hard to imagine that farriers would prefer to shoe on such a surface, since the horses would be less sure on their feet. Yet there are tie rings in the wall behind them. Also, the stones would be difficult to clean and the horse on the left has already deposited manure on the stones. There were no high pressure hoses in those days to wash off the stones.

A group of sergeants in the British Royal Field Artillery stationed at Waterford, Ireland around the time of the farrier photo. Notice that they all have moustaches! The fellow standing third from left, decorated with two medals, has an inverted horseshoe on his sleeve, denoting that he is farrier sergeant. Is he the head farrier in the forge photo? (National LIbrary of Ireland photo)

These types of streets, alleys and courtyards were made for the safe slow steps of horses pulling loads, horses who were shod with toe and heel calks that would ideally slip into spaces around the stone to give traction. The streets were constructed with filler between the paving stones that would accommodate a calk. 

Detail: Farrier sergeant
emblem on sleeve
If you look at some of the old shoes worn by city dray horses, you might ask why on earth they needed such high calks, but the spaces around and between the cobblestones help explain it. Walking through an area of rounded stones must have been very slow going, even on a good day. But perhaps the horses appreciated the placement of the stones on wet days.

The flip side to this is the theory that round-top stones would possibly have offered some frog contact for the foot that was jacked high up above the ground by high heel calks. Bruised frogs and soles must have been problems with horses new to the city streets.

What did I miss? What do you see in this photo?

Bonus photo: The regimental mascot at Waterford was--no surprise--an Irish wolfhound. Apparently they were a type of dog (sighthounds), not an actual breed until a British army officer began selectively breeding them. According to the files, this photo was actually retouched back in the day to improve the hound's conformation. (National Library of Ireland)

Photo source: National Library of Ireland 
Additional information: Brief History of the Farrier by Wendy Fraser



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4 comments:

BKMuise said...

Enjoyed this! Do we know that the Waterford photograph would have required a long exposure? Only the horse on the left seemed to have moved his head at all, and only very slightly. The other two horses are not just standing asleep; the rightmost is clearly paying attention to doings behind him, yet hasn't budged during the exposure.

Fran Jurga said...

Good point, BKMuise, and great observation about the horses being attentive. I am not sure that it did require a super long exposure, since it was out in the light. Eastman's Brownie film camera was available in the USA at that time, not sure about Ireland? My guess would be that this was a glass plate camera image because it is so sharp, but what do I know? Maybe when the shutter clicked the horses pricked their ears!

Dan Verniero said...

In the top picture, I wonder if the anvil block was turned on its side? The anvil face is at the smith's knees, and I've never seen an anvil block that didn't have the effect of creating more space under the horn and heel than just the height of the anvil. Just for the picture, maybe?

Fran Jurga said...

Great observation, Dan, thanks so much. It just doesn't look right, does it? Especially with the shoes all made up, etc.

I wonder if we will ever know what was going on that day. It's so fantastic that this photo still exists, you can see on the lower left that the plate was partially damaged.