There is a small group of firebacks that were all cast in the same year, 1582, and on three of them there are lengthy, personal inscriptions that were formed in a sand mould by impressing individual letters. Below the main text on each of them are the letters I and A, which it can be assumed were those of the person, probably the founder, who assembled the design. Whoever IA was their level of literacy was some way from being perfect, but to my eyes that is part of the charm of these ancient artefacts. Unfortunately, I have only been able to record two of these firebacks in person. My knowledge of two more rests solely on illustrations that Mark Antony Lower included in his pioneering paper on the Wealden iron industry that was published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections in 1849. To his great credit, they are well drawn and a comparison between the detail on the drawings and on the two firebacks I have seen makes it clear that they are all from the same series.
This is the first of the two in Lower’s paper. Its inscription reads: THOMAS VNSTEAD IS FILD AND DINIS HIS WIF ANO DOMINO. Each letter S is reversed, as is each letter N although that form was not unusual in those days. The fireback was said to have been at ‘Misfield Farm’ in Worth, Sussex. This should be Miswell, but enquiries there have failed to locate it. Nor have I been able to trace any record of Thomas or Denise Unstead of Isfield. As well as the date and the initials IA there is a crowned Tudor rose supported by a dragon and a lion, and four, small crowned shields each bearing a fleur-de-lys.
Those same badges decorate the only fireback in the series that does not have an inscription, apart from the additional initials TM and I, which are probably those of whoever the fireback was made for. It is in the Haslemere Museum and its unusual shape meant that it was probably intended to fit into a specific fireplace. The artist who drew the Unstead fireback for Lower, seems to have exaggerated the rose and crown but the small crowned shields and the I and A are clearly the same.
The descriptive caption that used to be placed below this fireback on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London, claimed that the water bougets, the three devices in the arch at the top, indicated that it was connected with the Ross family of Helmsley in North Yorkshire. However, the presence of the date 1582 in the same form as on the Haslemere back, as well as the I and the A, strongly suggested that it is also from this series and therefore cast in south-east England. The V&A caption has since been amended. The inscription reads: THES IS FOR WILAM BRON AND ELISABTH HIS SISTR. Who they were I have yet to find out, but the shape of the letters and in particular the tiny fleurs-de-lys between the words, also seen on the Unstead back, reinforces this view. The mirrored tassel design on each side is curious. It was evidently mounted on a flat surface but I have not seen anything like it elsewhere. Incidentally, there were Sussex families whose arms included water bougets: the Roos or de Ros family of Easebourne, near Midhurst, and the Meeres family of Glynleigh, near Hailsham.
Lower illustrated the fourth fireback in this series and also drew it. The same decorated devices seen on the other firebacks are present: the crowned rose and supporters, a single shield with fleur, the fleur word separators, the date and I and A. Also there are two, star-shaped arrangements of rope lengths with fleur terminals. The inscription is: THES IS FOR IAMES HIDE AND ION HIS WIF. When Lower published this drawing the back was at Sutton Hurst, a house in Barcombe, Sussex, and a photograph from some sale particulars of the house in 1893 shows the fireback still there, in the hall fireplace. Alas it is no longer there.
We do know something of the people mentioned on this back. A James Hyde married Joan Blackefane in the church at Horley in Surrey on the 11th of October 1579. They went to live across the county boundary in Worth, then the largest Sussex parish and when, nearly 40 years later and ‘sick in body but in good remembrance’, James Hyde made his will in May 1617 he left legacies to his two sons, Benjamin and Henry, and his three daughters, Mary, Joan and Elizabeth, as well as to his 12 grandchildren. The rest of his estate went to his wife Joan who survived him. I do not know where in Worth their house was but presumably their fireback stood prominently at the rear of their main fireplace.
If anyone who reads this knows of the whereabouts of either of the firebacks illustrated by Lower, or any others from the same series (or any other firebacks, come to that) I would be delighted to hear from them. There is a link to my email address on the Home Page of this website.