Neil Brown is one of the few modern-day blacksmiths, working from his forge at the Museum of Water and Steam, just across the river in Brentford. He talked to Pippa Duncan as he worked on pieces for his stall at this year’s Kew Fete
Not many people know that there is a forge at the museum. But it has been in existence since 1838 and is the oldest continuously used forge in London. There are only around 600 blacksmiths in the UK, but the numbers are growing as people return to a love of uniquely beautiful and traditionally made pieces, rather than mass-production.
Neil Brown trained as a blacksmith more than 15 years ago, having tried a variety of jobs that he hated. ‘I did sculpture at college and got a job making architectural models and sets so I knew I liked working with my hands, but somehow I ended up working in IT for years. It was actually my manager there who told me to find something I liked doing more! I found a three-day blacksmithing course in Leatherhead. It was January, freezing cold and I was outside all day, but I loved it. I knew this was what I wanted to do.’
Now a highly skilled blacksmith, with years of experience behind him, Neil makes bespoke pieces for his customers. ‘I recently created a gate for a lady in Kew. She came with a photo of what she liked. I drew up some ideas and we honed down exactly what it was that she wanted and based the gate on leaf shapes in forged metal. She was really delighted with the finished product and absolutely loves it.
‘For each piece of work, once the idea is firmed, I draw it up to full size, work out what materials I want, cut them to size and then light the fire and start forging the shapes. Depending on the piece, it can be a week’s worth of forging, followed by another couple of weeks of assembly, with a couple of trial fits on site to ensure it all works. But at other times, if I’m making an artistic piece it’s all cutting, welding, drilling and there’s no forge work at all.’
Neil has also created a large tree of life for St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey and recently, a garden table with metal vine leaves wrapping round the legs for a local couple. ‘I am starting work on a staircase balustrade soon. The customer wants two flights of stairs, starting with a lot of detailed work at the bottom. Elements will then be repeated up through the balustrade. I love the fact that I can make so many different things, from hooks to sculptures to garden ornaments.’
Before being turned into the museum, the building next to the forge was Kew Bridge Pumping station – created to produce clean water using steam, diesel and electric pumps. The pumps were made in Cornwall and a team came up to install them, including a blacksmith. He stayed on to set up the forge and, as well as working with the pumping station, worked with the local boats and stables. Recently, says Neil, his great great grandson paid him a visit, delighted to see the forge still in use.
You can see Neil’s stall – Hot Metal Works – at Kew Fete on Saturday 22 June, or see more of his work at hotmetalworks.co.uk
Find out about other local people here.