Billy Blacksmith of Barrowford
Published in Countryman magazine August 2011
Whenever I think of William Henry Whitaker, aka Billy Blacksmith, one of my strongest memories of this burly jocular man is of him reading our newspaper, but we took his evening visits in our stride because, as a staunch Yorkshire man, he derived great pleasure in not buying his own when he could read ours for nothing.
His family left the county of his birth when he was a lad, but for the whole of his working life in East Lancashire he plied his trade dangerously near the border. Indeed, his first job as a time-served man was in the village of Blacko, which actually straddled the border itself. It is here that the census of 1901 shows him as a farrier.
By the time I knew him in the 1940s he had his own forge hard by an ancient ford on Pendle Water near the toll booth in Barrowford. At the side of the forge was a waterfall and over the road he, his wife and daughter Edith lived at No 1 in the appropriately named Ford Street.
As children we would stand in the forge door watching in awe as the powerful Billy wrestled with huge shire horses or hammered glowing metal on his anvil in front of a blazing furnace. His flat cloth cap would be pushed back at a rakish angle on top of a thick mass of white hair, through him constantly wiping the sweat from his brow with a brawny forearm.
He seemed to have endless patience with the most awkward of horses. From our lowly stance these were massive frightening creatures and whilst we often caught our breath, for fear he would be kicked across the forge, it never happened: he was always in command of the snorting beasts. I bet he could have packed a punch too, had he been of that disposition, which he certainly wasn’t.
Amazingly he seemed to love our attention and his twinkling eyes would glance in our direction every so often as he delivered bursts of kindly humour that seemed out of context with the mission in hand.
Billy worked into his eighties, gradually weaning himself away from his beloved smithy as the need for his services diminished. In the early 1980s, by then a widower, he went to live with his daughter Edith Bibby and her husband in Newark, Nottinghamshire, where he died in 1968.
I had never known of his connection with that part of England until after his death when I learned from his sister that their great grandfather had been an ostler at the Angel and Royal in Grantham, Lincolnshire – possibly our oldest English inn. Martha Brand, the ostler’s daughter, married Peter Lambert, a nail maker from Dublin who had settled in Newark. Ultimately the pair moved to Silsden in Yorkshire where Billy’s mother Margaret was born and she eventually married into the old Silsden family of Whitaker.
Once his forge doors closed for the night Billy didn’t relax for he had many hobbies, the main ones being football and cricket for which he travelled the length and breadth of the country as a supporter of his favourite teams. As I grew older it amazed me that, despite being an active member and one-time president of a local men’s club for over forty years, Billy was a non-smoking teetotaller. And whilst he professed to have had little education he could recite the poetry of Robert Burns for hours on end, off by heart.
Another great love was his motorbike. He would tell a self-effacing story of how, in the early days of the machines, he had gone to York in two hours and taken two days to return because the bike wouldn’t start and he’d pushed it. It wasn’t until he was within a few miles of home that he had another go at starting the engine and it burst forth immediately.
Two other special memories of Billy come back to me. Considering his physique and the trade he plied it was a surprise, even as a child, that he had a soft spot for Snow White. Each year the Walt Disney classic would appear at the cinema around Christmas time and Billy would accompany my father and me. On one occasion, at the point where she lies in the glass coffin and the prince is mourning her supposed demise, a sniffle caused me to turn sideways. And there, trickling down Billy’s cheek was a tear.
Not surprisingly for a Yorkshire man Billy and his wife Elizabeth had a weekend abode in the Yorkshire Dales, at Cracoe. It was made of wood and nestled on the side of a gurgling beck in a quiet corner of the village. There were crisp gingham curtains, a view of sheep cropping the greenest of grass and lots of wild forget-me-nots and primroses in the hedgerows come spring.
The war had just ended when we began visiting the Whitakers on our motor bike and sidecar but they were never short of food to entertain us. Billy was able to exchange his blacksmith services for goods in kind and was repaid with home-cured bacon, yellow salty farmers’ butter, and free-range eggs with glorious golden yolks, none of which had travelled more than a few metres.
In my teenage days when the Whitakers had ceased to use their holiday home Billy let a friend and me use it for a November weekend. We were keen cyclists but the journey was a nightmare through frost and fog and a puncture, and when we eventually gained access to the place it was long past its best for it was thick with cobwebs and decidedly damp. The pot-bellied stove wouldn’t light and we resorted to crisps and ale at the local pub, which didn’t serve food in those days.
The bed, a pull-down affair, comprised a mattress of inflated inner tubes that had lost their will to live, and we spent the night wishing we were elsewhere. Around two o’clock in the morning the legs collapsed and we got dressed. After shivering until daylight we set off for Skipton and the first café that could provide us with a full English breakfast. But neither that nor any other English breakfast in my entire life has come close to the ones Elizabeth Whitaker rustled up in their Cracoe hut.
Featured Image copyright of Ken Smith