Charles Dawson and a fireback

A woman sitting at a fireplace containing a fireback

On the home page of this website is the picture of a girl sitting in front of an inglenook in which there stands an impressive fireback with a motley collection of images upon its surface. The photograph appeared as the frontispiece of an article on ‘Sussex Iron Work and Pottery’ in volume 46 of the Sussex Archaeological Collections, published in 1903. The author of the article, and seemingly of the photograph, was Charles Dawson, who was later to achieve notoriety from the ‘scandal’ of the Piltdown Man. Dawson gave no clue as to the fireback’s whereabouts.

In 2000 I had given a couple of talks on the Wealden iron industry in the village of Waldron as part of their Millennium Festival, and the organisers kindly presented me with a copy of a recently published book on the village. I had not, at that time, begun in earnest my research into firebacks, so it was consigned to my bookcase without it being given much attention.

Several years later, when I had begun to leaf through the pages of books on Wealden villages in search of references to firebacks, I returned to it and found in its pages a different photograph of the same fireplace and with the same fireback, but this time with an elderly couple, Caleb and Philadelphia Newnham, sitting beside it. In the text it gave the location as Heronsdale, a farm within the parish. I duly contacted the owners of Heronsdale and arranged a visit, but I was disappointed to discover that the fireback was no longer there, and the then owners could not recall to where exactly it had been removed.

During the next year I had traced the fireback to Wickham Manor, a property belonging to the National Trust near Winchelsea. I arranged a visit and, sure enough, there it was but, frustratingly, a wood-burning stove had been placed in front of it so I was unable to photograph it for the database. What I was able to confirm, however, was that it bore decoration formed from a variety of stamps that I had recorded on other firebacks in several collections, including those in the museums at Hastings and Lewes, and one particular stamp I have yet to see on any other fireback – an image of a horned sheep.

About five years later, an Honorary Research Fellowship at Exeter University gave me access to a wide range of digital resources, among them the recently scanned copies of Country Life magazine, and I took the opportunity to seek out all the references to firebacks in its pages back to the last years of the 19th century. Among them was a 1901 article on ‘Sussex Iron’ by none other than Charles Dawson, and among his illustrations was one of the fireback then at Heronsdale, but it was not of the whole fireback. One thing seemed certain, though, several photographs of the fireback had been taken in 1901 or earlier. Would I ever find what I was seeking, a picture of the entire fireback?

I try to obtain copies of all books and articles written about British firebacks. In an article published in 1911, reference had been made to an earlier one, which I had not seen, written by Miller Christy but the precise citation was not quoted. After some lengthy detective work I tracked this down to the now-largely-forgotten The Crown, the Court and County Families’ Newspaper, and its penultimate issue in May 1908, in which there was the piece on firebacks by the aforementioned Mr Christy. More importantly, not only was one of the illustrations a different image of Mr and Mrs Newnham sitting in their fireplace, but there was a complete photograph of the elusive fireback, now here for all to see.