LETTER: The difference between a blacksmith and a whitesmith

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Although a local politician I don’t think of myself as being particularly interested in PC (politically correct).

One of your correspondents, Mr R. Spencer, tongue in cheek I suspect, says he is intrigued about the “black and white smiths” I mentioned in article 681 in my Peek into the Past column of January 3rd.

I was writing about an old photo of a blacksmith’s premises in Yorkshire Street, Burnley, and referred to the 25 black (and white) smiths operating in Burnley in 1914. The information came from the Barrett’s Commercial Directory of that year and, on page 206 of that publication, 25 black and white smiths are listed, although the directory does not indicate which firms were blacksmiths and which were whitesmiths. It was often the case that a firm undertook both crafts.

We are all familiar with what a blacksmith does for his living. There are still a number of them in business in the Burnley area today. A blacksmith works in iron in a forge and is particularly known for making shoes for horses. These men (usually men – this is the fullest extent to which I become politically correct!) are often called farriers.

The craft of the whitesmith is not so well known these days but there were quite a number of them in our part of the world, particularly in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A whitesmith is properly a worker in tin and, in this case, the word tinsmith was often used. However, a whitesmith was also a finisher of metal goods usually made from iron.

Tin is a soft, malleable, silver coloured metal which is also resistant to the chemical action of air and water at ordinary temperatures. The metal was used extensively to preserve metal cans (or tins) of food and drink and readers will be familiar with the tin plate industry which was once very large in South Wales and tin foil used in cooking.

Locally, whitesmiths were very important in the early textile engineering industry as their work was significant in the fight against rust in the damp conditions in early textile mills. Black and white smiths often worked together explaining their joint listing in the Commercial Directory I used.