Back in 2018 the Kent Archaeological Society published a short article that I had written in which I proposed that the initials seen on most dated examples of a group of firebacks bearing shields with the arms of the 16th century judge, William Ayloffe, and his wife Jane were those of a founder, Charles Tyler. Tyler’s working life almost exactly matched the date range of the firebacks and suggested they had been cast at a succession of furnaces where he worked in west Kent during the first three decades of the 17th century. With one exception, all the reported examples were large castings, in excess of 4ft, or 1.22m, wide and all but two had been decorated with at least 13 identical shields.
While smaller castings with fewer shields, but without dates or initials, are more frequently encountered, I regarded the likelihood of coming across other dated ones as remote. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when my late wife and I called in for a lunchtime snack at The Crown Inn, in Horsted Keynes, recently re-opened after a disastrous fire, and what should I see in the fireplace but a small, dated Ayloffe fireback. Only 2ft 6ins wide and with a mere five shields, it nevertheless bore the initials, CT and a date of 1609. I made an appointment to go back a few days later and record its details. That was in February 2019.
Since then the pandemic and other misfortunes have curtailed the search for firebacks, until a few weeks ago when vaccination began to give one a renewed sense of freedom. I was browsing the internet for firebacks, as I do from time to time, and I lighted upon one for sale on eBay. What excited me was that it was another dated Ayloffe back. The photograph was unprepossessing but it looked ‘period’ and in reasonable condition, and the price was good. Having a modern house without space for more than the one fireback I already owned, and which I had inherited from my parents, I had always resigned myself to not being a collector. But this was too good to miss. I paid the price without making an offer and arranged to collect it the following day; at 2ft 10ins wide it fitted comfortably on a pallet in the boot of my car (raising it on a pallet makes it easier to lift out). What I brought home after a 150 mile round trip was a 1612 casting with eight shields and, once again, Charles Tyler’s initials. After writing the article about him it only seemed right that I should own one of his creations.
Restoring it was a three-stage process. After a stiff brushing to remove all the surface particles I used a paint brush to apply a dose of a proprietary rust-remover called Scale-X (there are other products that will do the same job, I daresay), agitating the brush as I did so. Discolouration of the liquid as I applied it showed that it had begun to eat into the rust. After a while I washed the liquid off and reapplied it, repeating this several times. When I was satisfied that the bulk of the surface rust had been removed, I began work on the surface with a rotating wire brush attached to an electric drill. You can buy sets of wire brushes of different sizes and it is useful to have a range of shapes and sizes to work around the varied forms of the decorative relief on the fireback. This is laborious work and a disadvantage with modern battery-powered hand drills, compared with mains-powered ones, is that you exhaust the batteries faster than they recharge. This eventually brings the surface of the fireback to a clean polish. Finally, to protect it and to give it a pleasing metallic finish, I brushed on a blacklead product such as Stovax, working it in to all the corners and crevices, and rubbing it all over with a cloth to burnish it. Beware, this is dirty work, but the result is worth it.