Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - February 1999
The blacksmith was a very important figure in both town and country until the motor car and tractor displaced the horse. According to one Suffolk blacksmith "The smith is the next best man to the Lord, for the Lord changed water into wine and the smith changed old iron into new!" The smith was not only the man who turned swords into ploughshares but was also the shoer of horses and an expert on their diseases of the greatest value to the farmer who often consulted the smith before making a purchase.
The smithy provided a village meeting place for the exchange of news or just ordinary gossip. Occasionally there was hardly room for the smith to get on with his work but crowds soon dispersed if a new colt was brought in for shoeing. Young colts always objected violently to having iron shoes nailed to their hoofs and the extra effort needed was recognised, in East Anglia, by a custom known as "First Nail". Under this custom the colt's owner paid a shilling over and above the actual cost of shoeing so that the men could send out for six pints of beer as a reward for the effort! Six pints for a shilling (5p)! No wonder the local smithies were near the White Horse, the Angel and the Hare and Hounds. Farmers objecting to the custom, and refusing to pay, found that the smith held the upper hand as he merely added the amount to other work which he knew the farmer would require at some time.
We are indebted to the late Mrs Eames for much of what follows as she collected together snippets of information which she published in "Glimpses into the History of Three Villages". She wrote a number of chapters about local characters and places. For Birch we have some idea of the smithy at Heckford Bridge as it was described by the Rev. William Harrison, Rector of Birch from 1848 to 1881. He wrote a-book "The Light of the Forge" telling of conversations he had with a parishioner, Emma Munson the daughter of Isaac Munson the blacksmith. The smithy may now have gone but the scene is still recognisable despite the flowery Victorian language.
"As the traveller journeys from the venerable town of Colchester to that of its rival neighbour Maldon, after passing over some five miles of ordinary looking country, with pretty bits of woodland scattered here and there between, he comes to a spot where the road turns at a right angle down a sharp pitch of a hill. The ground over which he has been passing is probably commemorated in the pages of Tacitus: and the two towns just mentioned, claim respectively the honour of having borne the ancient title of Camulodunum, an honour, however, which most antiquarians seem disposed to assign to Colchester."
"On reaching the foot of this hill, and ere he begins to ascend another, he must pass through a stream of water which runs merrily over a bed of shingle and gravel across the road. This stream is dignified with the high sounding title of the Roman River. It takes its rise some few miles further up the country, and flows through a rich and grassy valley, where in spring and summer time the bright eyes of many a wild flower enamel the carpet of green. Onwards it runs, sometimes faster, sometimes more slowly, like the uncertain wishes of our hearts, until it joins the River Colne, and with it loses itself in the sea. In its way thither it is joined by the contributions of many springs. Among others, there is one which, emerging from the bosom of the opposite hill, trickles down at the back of a cluster of buildings, and mingles itself with the waters of the river close by the side of the road. The traveller might not notice this, but for the eddying round the walls of the lower range of buildings which contain the blacksmith's forge. The scene is both pretty and striking. The walls of the shed stand very near the water, separated only by a railing, and, on the other side of the road, the stream is crossed by one of those old and simple wooden bridges for the conveyance of foot passengers which we still meet with now and then in the country. It seldom happens that more is needed; but the bright and quiet looking rivulet sometimes vindicates its claim to the rank of a river. For after a continuous rain, the waters hurry down from the upper country, and render the ford impassable either to man or horse; and thus Heckford Bridge like other earthly things, comes in for its share of the vicissitudes of time."
From the book we also learn that Isaac Munson was a tender hearted man and although his business took him about the country he would never touch anything to do with it on a Sunday. He died quite young, in 1852, leaving his wife with a large family and it is believed that she kept the business going for about ten years before selling out to an up and coming young man. Frederick Hutley purchased the brick built house having three sitting rooms, five bedrooms, a cellar, kitchen and brew house etc. plus two smith's shops, two shoeing shops, an iron warehouse, lofts and coal house. The auctioneer begged "to invite public attention to Lot 1 where a lucrative trade has been carried on; and to an enterprising young man the above offers advantages rarely to be met with, the trade in the immediate neighbourhood being of a first class description". Even in those days some of the property was said to be "Building Land".
This was not the first Hutley in the area as in 1841 Thomas Hutley, his wife and three grown up children, and an apprentice, lived at Layer Marney. Nearby were Jonathan Hutley, his wife and two children. In Layer Breton the smith was William Hutley with his wife and six children. We know that Thomas married Sarah Arnell at Halstead in 1797 but when they moved to Layer Marney is not known and Thomas, although born at Halstead, may have been related to the Hutleys who were blacksmiths at Easthorpe. Thomas and Sarah were the founders of the local "dynasty" having at least six sons, all of whom became blacksmiths. The Hutleys, at one time, had businesses not only in Birch, Layer Marney and Layer Breton but also in Feering, Easthorpe, Bradwell and Rivenhall. The latter branch were quite wealthy and several members of the family left wills which was not that common in those days. It is also known that Thomas inherited his skills from his forebears. There are records of Hutley blacksmiths back as far as 1700 and we know, that by 1881 there were Hutleys as blacksmiths in places as far apart as Lexden and Prittlewell as well as hereabouts. Clearly a case of a local monopoly. Did Frederick Hutley buy the Heckford Bridge business at the behest of the family, as a way of preventing opposition moving into the area, or was it bought so as to establish him in business? Despite this apparent monopoly the name died out quite quickly although we do not know how many of the daughters of the clan married into the trade. One at least, Henrietta, married a farmer and lived at White House Farm, Layer Breton, before moving to Canfields Farm, Easthorpe. Another, Elizabeth, married an engineer and lived in London. The sons either died young or moved away from the area it seems. By 1891 the Layer Marney blacksmith, at Smythe's Green, was Richard Chapman who was born in Norfolk but had lived at some time in Layer de la Haye. He did not stay long and was succeeded by Arthur Wass at the end of the century. Nothing much more is known about this forge but there was a wheelwright at the Green for many years and the two trades often went together. The forge at Layer Breton was at the top of the hill. On early maps it is shown on the left hand side when facing down the hill and in the Tithe map of 1842 it is shown as a cottage occupied by Hutley and Cole. Later on, in the earliest Ordnance Survey maps, it appears on the right hand side of the road. In 1891 the blacksmith was George Hutley, living opposite the forge. Lodging down the Hill, near the Rectory with Mrs Partner and her son, was James Bambridge, also shown as a blacksmith, born in Bardfield. He is still remembered in the area and his son Cyril, now almost 90 years old, recalls the sound of the bellows and of riding horses, as a lad, from Layer Breton hall to the forge on a Saturday, for shoeing. The family also lived in a house opposite the forge. Mr Bambridge, senior, had worked at Heckford Bridge at one time which meant a very early start from home to walk to work as the fire had to be going well before the day's business commenced and farmers were not the most patient of customers. Eventually the smith was no longer required to the same scale and businesses closed. The last to operate is believed to be Heckford Bridge then owned by a Mr Brown but this closed just after the war. Little remains in the area now apart from house names in some places but in Layer Breton there is an anvil and a sandstone sharpening wheel preserved as relics of an important trade now no longer needed.
Apart from the acknowledgements made above we are grateful to Mrs Anderson, Mr Green, Mr Luxmoore and Messrs J and L Taylor for information for this issue.