Some firebacks from Waldron

Sir Thomas Pelham (1597-1654) owned the iron furnace at Waldron in Sussex and it had been in his family since his grandfather’s time. Sir Thomas was a hands-on owner although he left the day-to-day running of the works to his founder and to a clerk who kept the accounts. Most of the iron made there was pig iron that was sent to the family’s two forges to be converted into wrought iron and sold to blacksmiths and ironmongers. But periodically other pieces of ironwork were cast, with firebacks among  them.

In 1642, for what reason we do not know, a distinctive fireback began to be produced at Waldron. Of simple ‘Palladian’ shape, it bore the date, together with Thomas Pelham’s initials, and two straps each with a buckle at the top end. The buckle was the Pelham family’s badge, earned, it was said, by one of Sir Thomas’s ancestors at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 when he played an important role in the capture of  the French king, John II. The buckle was subsequently incorporated into the family’s coat of arms.

A Pelham fireback in the collection of Brighton Museum

The pattern for the fireback would have been formed from two boards battened together, the top one shaped with a central arch, and the two parts edged with ovolo moulding. It can be seen from the casting on the left and from the faint outlines surrounding their images that the date was separately carved and fixed to the  top board, as were  the initials. The straps with buckles were also carved from wood in imitation of leather and metal and fixed across the two boards. In this form the pattern could be used over and over again producing as many identical firebacks as were needed. And in that basic form a number of examples still exist.

A modified Pelham fireback

The lower parts of firebacks were often left undecorated because when situated at the back of a fireplace it was that part that was most affected by the heat from the fire and was often hidden by the inevitable accumulation of ash. However, customers who turned up at Waldron Furnace wishing to purchase a fireback and offered the standard pattern from which they could have a casting made, might have wanted something that differed a little from the plain original. In this example a larger fireback has been made by impressing the original pattern into a wider bed of casting sand and adding two extra initials. The basic pattern need not have been damaged despite the apparent removal of the edging from three sides, as all the founder needed to do was to fill in where the edging had indented the sand bed and smooth it over.

The fireback with extra stamps, in the collection at Hastings Museum

As well as having extra letters available, the furnace evidently had a stock of small carved stamps that could be used to decorate firebacks to their purchasers’ choosing. This heavily worn and cracked casting had a stamp of a small bird impressed four times along the top and a stamp of what appears to be a deer added a couple of times below Sir Thomas’s initials.

Mr Hughes’ sketch

In the late-19th century a Mr Edward Hughes of Heathfield in Sussex sketched this fireback at a farmhouse in Waldron, less than half a mile from where the furnace had stood. Obviously of the same type, it had been decorated enthusiastically with the deer stamps as well at least two other different stamps, which were repeated several times. Alas, an enquiry at the farm where it had been recorded by Mr Hughes revealed that it was no longer there.

The photograph in the auction catalogue

A chance email from a fellow fireback enthusiast led me to an auction where this fireback was going under the hammer. Its sorry state was reflected in the estimated price of £5 but clearly some of the stamps with which it had been decorated were those on the example Mr Hughes had seen and sketched. The only way I was going to be able to record it properly was for me to buy it and as the only bidder I paid the estimate plus the usual buyer’s premium. A friend generously fitted the two parts together by screwing a plate onto the back and, cleaned up and with stove polish applied, its detail can be seen in its full glory.

Restored, cleaned and polished

The deer stamps and small bird stamps are the same as those on the casting in the collection at Hastings Museum, although the birds were not on the Hughes sketch. In addition, however, are a dog stamp and a circular stamp resembling a fleur-de-lys, which may have been a recyled butter mould; both of these were seen by Mr Hughes. Finally there is another round stamp but with a symmetrical arrangement of a square and four small fleurs-de-lys, not seen on any of the other 1642 firebacks but which was something like one I had seen on another fireback. Could they be the same and, if so, would that indicate that the other fireback had also been made at Waldron Furnace?

The fireback in the Victoria and Albert Museum

The fireback in question is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is of an altogether earlier style, more typical of the 16th century and has an ‘M’ or two inverted ‘V’ shapes formed by impressed lengths of twisted rope; these are likely to be an apotropaic, or evil-averting, symbol associated with the Virgin Mary. The circular stamp is in its clearest form at the top of the fireback. Its diameter is 10.5cm. This compares with 10.2cm for the equivalent stamp on the 1642 fireback, a matter of a mere 1.5mm on each side, which can easily be accounted for by the condition. Although not as well-defined on the 1642 back the decorative pattern on the stamp is the same on both firebacks, which leads me to believe that the V&A casting was made at Waldron and that this circular stamp had been part of a stock of stamps available for the decoration of firebacks made there.

Barry Lucas’s sketch of the fireback in Catsfield Place

By way of a postscript, Barry Lucas, an old friend of my father, made sketches of three firebacks he had seen at Catsfield Place in Sussex and in 1950 published them in a short note in the, now sadly defunct, Sussex County Magazine. Catsfield Place had been the home of Sir Nicholas Pelham, Sir Thomas Pelham’s youngest son. One of the firebacks he sketched, seen here, has nine round stamps and I wonder if they might be the same stamps that are on the V&A fireback. One day I hope to obtain permission to verify this.

Some personal Tudor firebacks

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.

Thomas and Denise Unstead’s fireback

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.

1582 fireback in Haslemere Museum

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.

William and Elizabeth Brown’s fireback in the V&A

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.

James and Joan Hyde’s fireback
The Hyde fireback at Sutton Hurst, Barcombe

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.

Marriages in Horley parish register in 1579; James and Joan Hyde’s is third one down

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. James Hyde was buried at Worth church on 27th January 1618 Old Style*.

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.

*Old Style: Before 1753 Great Britain used the Julian Calendar and the New Year began on 25th March, so dates from 1st January until then were written as in the previous year; thus if the Gregorian Calendar which we use now had been in use on 27th January 1618 it would have been written as 27th January 1619.

A pre-Reformation fireback?

Warbleton Priory, pictured in 1861

Sir John Pelham (d.1429) had grown up in modest circumstances in Warbleton in Sussex, but rose to become a senior figure in the governments of Henry IV and V and constable of Pevensey Castle, so he was in a position to provide 100 acres of land in his home parish for the canons of the Augustinian Priory at Hastings when their premises became uninhabitable. The new priory was dedicated in 1417. One hundred and twenty years later it would be closed down as a result of the dissolution of religious houses during the reign of Henry VIII. The priory was destroyed but a farmhouse which was constructed soon after, using stone from the demolished buildings, survives to this day.

The fireback in a fireplace at Warbleton Priory (from a lantern slide, early 20th century)
Rev. Turner’s image of the fireback stamps

In 1861 a lengthy paper was published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections tracing the history of the priory at Hastings and its successor at Warbleton. In it the author, the Reverend Edward Turner, noted an iron fireback in one of the fireplaces and included an illustration of the repeated markings on it which were a cross and a Pelham buckle. The use by the Pelhams of a buckle as their badge dates back to an alleged incident at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 when John de Pelham was among those who captured King John of France, the buckle representing the surrendered sword of the French king.

A branding iron, of the sort that might have been used for the buckle stamp

Pelham buckles appear in a variety of forms on buildings, coats of arms, firebacks (see Pelham family firebacks) and even milestones. The ones on this fireback are unlike any of the others; they are formed of very thin lines, which would be hard to carve as a wooden stamp. The crosses are a bit more substantial and could have been impressed into the casting sand simply as two lengths of wood. My suggestion is that the buckles could have been impressed using a cattle branding iron, a tool that could have been fabricated by a blacksmith and which would necessarily have slender lines to minimise contact with the animal being branded.

What of this fireback’s age? The association of the priory with the Pelhams goes back to the early-15th century but smelting to make cast-iron was not introduced into England until about 1490, so if the fireback had been in the priory buildings before dissolution it would have to have been cast in the early-16th century. It could, of course, have been brought to the priory from another Pelham property elsewhere but the combination of crosses and buckles suggests that it might have been intended for a religious house that was associated with the Pelham family and, as such, could be one of the oldest English firebacks.

I first came across the fireback in 2009. It had been acquired by Ripley Forge and Fireplaces Ltd. of Robertsbridge. I immediately recognised it as the one Turner had illustrated. Having suffered considerable corrosion since the photograph above was taken, it was no longer in a state suitable for resale. They offered it to me in 2015. I cleaned it up and in so doing discovered a mass of iron slag on the reverse of the plate. This had resulted from slag floating on the iron in the furnace hearth not being tapped off completely before the metal was cast, causing some of it to end up on the upcast side of the fireback. Following basic restoration, I gave the fireback to the Sussex Archaeological Society for their museum at Anne of Cleves House, Lewes.

An early Sackville fireback

This heavily-worn fireback is in a house near Horsted Keynes in Sussex. The house was built in the late-Tudor period but part of it was demolished in the 1780s and then considerably restored in the 1930s. It seems likely, though, that there was an earlier house on the same site so it is not known whether the fireback was original to the property.

Firebacks with armorial shields are always intriguing and the small size of the shield did not make identification easy, but the dexter (or left) side had a distinctive feature – a bend vair – i.e. a diagonal stripe with a pattern representing squirrel pelts. In heraldry these are customarily coloured blue and white alternately, though other tinctures can also be used, as with the arms of the Farnden family which I showed on my note, ‘It’s not as old as it seems’. I had seen the bend vair before on the arms of the Sackville family which are widely found in eastern Sussex and Kent. The shield on this fireback seemed to belong to one of the Sackvilles, impaled with that of a couple of other families.

In the past the Sackvilles were a very influential family in east Sussex and west Kent, owning large numbers of manors and estates which included Ashdown Forest. They have, for many centuries, been based at Buckhurst in Withyham, although they also came to own Knole, outside Sevenoaks, now a National Trust property.

The arms of Fane impaling Colepeper in Mereworth church

The clue as to the identity of the two other families on the fireback shield came from one of the many magnificent stained glass windows in the church of St Lawrence in Mereworth, Kent. The window in question, in the Despencer Chapel, shows the arms of John Fane, 7th Earl of Westmoreland, who had the church rebuilt in the 18th century, surrounded by arms of his forebears. Among them is this small quarry (a diamond-shaped pane of glass) with the arms of Fane impaling Colepeper. In the top row are two ‘quarters’ with the same arms as on the right, or sinister, half of the shield on the fireback. Consulting Papworth’s Ordinary of Arms I found that they were the arms of Colepeper (Argent a bend engrailed gules) and Hardreshull (Argent a chevron sable between nine martlets gules, six and three). From that I was able to find out that Christopher, one of the sons of Richard Sackville of Withyham, had married Constance, daughter of Thomas Colepeper of Bedgebury in Kent.

The arms of Hardreshull

But where did Hardreshull come into this? Apparently, some seven generations earlier, in the 14th century a John Colepeper had married Elizabeth Hardreshull who was an heiress, entitling her family’s arms to be quartered with those of Colepeper thereafter.

The arms on Christopher Sackville’s fireback c.1541-59

So what do we know about Christopher Sackville and his wife? He had been born by 1519 and probably brought up at Chiddingly in Sussex. After his marriage to Constance, which had occurred by 1541, he gained a place at Court and also served in Henry VIII’s campaign in France. In 1558 he became MP for Heytesbury in Wiltshire. He was present at Queen Mary’s funeral in December 1558 but must have died shortly after. When he made his will in August of that year he was living in Worth, Sussex. Constance, with whom he had at least three children, survived him. Her family had been influential in Kent for several centuries, firstly at Bayhall in Pembury and later at Bedgebury in Goudhurst. Her father’s younger brother, also (curiously) named Thomas, was executed in 1541 for his romantic entanglement with Henry VIII’s fifth queen, Katherine Howard.

Christopher Sackville’s connection with Horsted Keynes is somewhat tenuous. His older brother Richard owned the iron furnace there, leasing it to Sir William Barrantyne, so it is possible that the fireback was cast at the local furnace. Wherever it was made, it would have been a unique casting and since Christopher and Constance Sackville were only together as husband and wife between about 1541 and 1559 the fireback must date from then, making it one of the earliest datable British firebacks.

John Knight’s fireback

Chawton House, Hampshire (photo: Charles D. P. Miller;

A distinctive, but rather worn, fireback is one of the features of Chawton House, near Alton in the north of Hampshire, that was noted in both of the articles that have been written about the place in Country Life. Best known now for its association with the novelist, Jane Austen, whose brother Edward inherited it, the house was built in 1580 by John Knight and passed down through the family, and various distant relatives and in-laws who all changed their names to Knight, until sold on a long lease in 1992 to a charitable trust as a study centre for early women’s writing.

The version of the ‘Armada’ fireback from which the Chawton back was derived

The fireback is a variant of one of the forms of the frequently copied ‘Armada’ back; so-called because of its decoration with one or more anchors and the date 1588. These firebacks come in several versions because, unlike most others, their moulds were formed from the assembly of a number of interchangeable panels. The Chawton fireback would have started off in the version seen here which comprises a repeated outer panel showing a vine and bunches of grapes, a single central panel with an anchor with a coil of rope, two fleurs-de-lys and some roses, and a semi-circular panel on top which contains the date and the initials, IFC. In Domestic Metalwork 1640-1820 (1994), Belinda Gentle’s compendious revision of Rupert Gentle and Rachael Feild’s English Domestic Brass, she asserted that the letters stood for In Factiem Concepta, or ‘In Commemoration of the Dead’ but the phrase does not mean that, if indeed it means anything at all. Instead the initials probably relate to the person or people for whom the original fireback was made.

John Knight’s fireback in the Hall fireplace at Chawton House

The casting at Chawton, however, has two significant differences: firstly, the initials have been replaced by IK; secondly, the back has been extended to each side and below, with a saltire of twisted rope on each side. This last feature was apotropaic and would have added a perceived measure of protection from malign forces that might enter the house down the chimney. What seems to have happened is that, early on its history, the original fireback with the IFC initials was used as the pattern to make a larger casting and the opportunity was taken to alter the initials to IK, in honour of John Knight. In its original form the fireback would not have been large enough for the fireplace where it stands to this day, so it is perhaps understandable that an easy solution would have been to enlarge it and to personalise it in the process. Over the years, and it is probably the fireback noted in the inventory of Sir Richard Knight in 1679, constant corrosion from the flames of the fire wore the detail of the decoration away and caused the metal to crack badly.

The 19th-century recasting of John Knight’s fireback (digitally reassembled)

In his recollections of changes at the house made since he was a boy, Montagu Knight related in about 1910 that his father, Edward Knight (1794-1879), had a new casting made from the older fireback because it was in such a poor state, but that this had later cracked and Montagu had the older back repaired and put back where it remains to this day. The nineteenth-century replacement fireback survives in two pieces and I was shown it in the stables and have been able to reunite the two pieces digitally. A further extension had been added with four more saltires, and it was evident that in the time since the earlier Chawton fireback had been used to cast the later one the former had suffered even more wear.

‘Made in Sussex by John Harvo’

This is that rarest of firebacks, on which the person who made it did not merely place their initials but identified themselves with their full name. The raised strip bearing the inscription had been carved on the original model or pattern from which it and several others have since been cast. John Harvo was an iron founder who lived in Sussex in the mid-sixteenth century and operated the iron furnace at Pounsley in the parish of Framfield. There he cast guns and round shot (i.e. cannon balls) for the Crown for which there are surviving records of payments he received in 1547 and 1550, even being referred to at the time as ‘the kinges gonnstone maker of Iron’. Perhaps somewhat late in life, he married Anne Bennys at Framfield in 1558. An official copy of John Harvo’s will, which he made in 1562, has survived. From it we can surmise that he had no children, or if he had they predeceased him, for his bequests went to his brothers or his nephews, and to colleagues and friends. To his wife he left the lease of his house and land, and his furnace and mill, though we know from other records that the furnace was subsequently operated by Robert Hodgson, who was both a beneficiary of, and a witness to, the will. Probate was not granted to his wife as executrix until January 1566 which is likely to mean that John Harvo did not die until just before. We do not know how old he was then but to have reached a position by 1547 of supplying guns for the royal service he is likely to have been at least in his thirties, putting him in his fifties by the time of his death.

The pattern or model for the fireback was evidently made specifically for John Harvo; why else would he have had his name carved on it? It was clearly not an afterthought as the strip bearing the inscription passes beneath the strap end of the Garter that encircles the royal shield. Had being a contractor to the Crown brought him a commission to cast some firebacks with the royal arms on them? The arms are actually those of Henry VII, with the quartered shield of France and England, in use since the time of Henry V, supported by a dragon and a greyhound. Henry VIII continued to use the same supporters during the first part of his reign, and certainly into the 1530s, so the original pattern could have dated from then. The superior quality of the carving suggests that whoever made the pattern worked at a ‘professional’ level and was probably aware of the latest changes in royal heraldry, and would have avoided designing arms that were out of date.

Fireback with the same letter ‘E’ repeated (Anne of Cleves House, Lewes)

The initials E and R would not have been part of the original pattern. It has been shown by their use on a couple of other firebacks that they were separate stamps, presumably added to later castings in an attempt, perhaps, to honour King Edward VI or, less probably, Queen Elizabeth, and they have been on copies ever since. No example of the fireback without those letters has been recorded.

John Harvo fireback with extension panels; a copy of a fireback in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Many examples of this fireback have extension panels to make the casting wider. John Starkie Gardner, the first to write about firebacks with some authority, recognised its importance but did not believe that it was intended as a fireback in its own right as it was not wider than it was high, which he saw as a prerequisite for backs of its period. Instead he assumed that it was always meant to have additional side panels, left blank for other decoration. He was not aware of John Harvo’s role as an iron founder so could not appreciate his deliberate intention implicit in identifying himself on the pattern.

John Harvo fireback from Mayfield, Sussex
John Harvo fireback at Plaistow, Sussex

Two more examples with extension panels of different designs.

To read about a spurious example of this fireback, read the note, “O what a tangled web we weave…”

“O what a tangled web we weave…”

This fireback was sold by a famous auction house in 2008, where it was described in the sale catalogue as ‘An Elizabethan Cast-Iron Fireback by John Harvo of Sussex, 16th century’. It fetched £1,375. When I saw this photograph of it a few years later I was struck by several details which suggested to me that its authenticity was unconvincing. There was something about the ‘chunkiness’ of the various stamps that adorned its side panels that did not seem right, yet its overall design was familiar.

There are several castings of the John Harvo fireback, most with side panels like this one, but some without, and the name by which it is known derives from the inscription below the arms which states ‘Made in Sussex by John Harvo’, clearly readable on early castings but less so on copies. Because the stamps used on the side panels would have to be re-arranged for each casting all the examples I had recorded differed to a greater or lesser extent, unless what I was looking at was a copy made from another fireback. Where I had seen this arrangement of stamps before was on a drawing of a badly damaged fireback from Chailey that Mark Antony Lower had included in his seminal article on the Wealden iron industry published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections in 1849, and shown here.

Of course, it would be a mistake to trust Lower’s drawing implicitly but there are other firebacks which use some of the same stamps with which direct comparisons can be made. The ‘rose-en-soleil’ stamp appears on another fireback in Hastings Museum but it has faint flowers around its edge which are absent on the one sold in 2008. The flower head (is it a rose?) on the same back is certainly very similar. And the same letter E is seen on a fireback in Lewes, though somewhat more delicate in its delineation. The ‘bird’s’ head on the side panel has not been recorded on another fireback, so no comparison is possible.

Where the 2008 fireback really betrays its fakery, though, is in the modelling of the dragon, the supporter on the left of the arms. On Lower’s drawing the top of it is missing altogether so whoever attempted to pass this fireback off as genuine needed to be able make a copy of the head of the dragon from another casting of John Harvo’s original. This never happened, as can be seen in the detail from an early casting also in Hastings. The 2008 version is quite different, there is no hint of the dragon’s wing and the dragon’s mouth extends further upwards and to the right.

It saddens me that the auction house was taken in by this fake, and that the purchaser paid so much for something that it was not.

To read more about John Harvo, follow this link

It’s not as old as it seems

The arms of Baker of Mayfield

This fireback is in Barbican House, next to the Castle in Lewes. At first glance it seems perfectly respectable with its coat of arms and date. But it is not; the date is spurious, and we know this because of whose arms they are. They are the arms of Baker quartering Farnden. John Baker (1643-1724) was a scion of an extensive family based around Mayfield in Sussex, and in 1668 he had inherited from his father the iron furnace to the north of the village. For reasons that I will come to later, though, it is unlikely that the fireback was cast there. The Bakers had been granted arms which were blazoned as Argent, a tower between three keys erect sable.

The arms of Farnden of Sedlescombe
Ruth Baker, née Farnden
© East Sussex Record Office (East Sussex County Council)

In 1663 John Baker married Ruth Farnden (1646-91) who was the youngest of the 11 daughters of Peter Farnden of Sedlescombe, a wealthy Sussex ironmaster who ran ironworks at Crowhurst, Brede, Westfield and Beckley. He had been granted arms in 1634, which were blazoned Purpure, between three leopard’s heads Or a chevron vairy Or and gules. Because Peter Farnden’s four sons had all predeceased him, his surviving daughters were co-heiresses. That led to the distribution of his estate being a very complicated business, but that need not concern us here.

The married arms of John Baker

Under the rules laid down by the heralds, following John and Ruth’s marriage the arms of the two families were marshalled so that the Farnden shield was placed as an escutcheon of pretence in front of the Baker shield. This arrangement endured until Ruth Baker, as she had become, died in June 1691, whereupon their families’ arms were quartered as they appear on the fireback. So a date of 1690 on a fireback with arms that did not apply until 1691 is clearly incorrect.

Fireback with the arms of Fuller, dated 1747

But the date is also spurious for another reason. The fireback is one of a small series of backs bearing a particular design of armorials of families of ironmasters. Undated castings of the Baker fireback are known, as are examples of the arms of the Fuller family of Brightling who operated Heathfield Furnace. And a clear casting of one of the latter reveals a date of 1747 that had been carved onto the original pattern in the four corners of the shield. Another casting, at Brightling Park where the Fullers lived, has the Fuller arms on the same shaped back as the Baker ones. So the strong probability is that this series of firebacks was produced in or around the 1740s and at Heathfield, as the Bakers’ furnace at Mayfield had ceased operation several decades earlier. The arms quartering Baker and Farnden remained unaltered for the next generations, but what occasioned the adding of the date 1690 to a casting of a fireback probably made 50 years later, or who was responsible, is a mystery.

My Ashburnham fireback

If I remember correctly, my mother told me that, back in the 1950s, she and my father were driving through the village of Hooe, near where we lived in Bexhill, in Sussex, when they spotted an iron fireback amongst some builder’s rubble outside a cottage that was being renovated. They stopped and enquired of the builder what was to happen to the fireback and were told that it was no longer wanted. Asking if they could buy it, the builder let them have it for a couple of pounds. For years it stood in a rusted state in our garage until my father decided to have it cleaned up and painted. When, in the 1970s, they moved house, the fireback was brought indoors and displayed in front of a redundant chimney breast. After my parents died and their house was sold I inherited the fireback, and it is what sparked my interest in these, often enigmatic, domestic relics. What attracts me to this fireback, and I suspect attracted my father in particular, was the strong connection it had with the area where we lived for, almost uniquely, we know without any shadow of a doubt where it was made.

In 1883 passed away William Hobday who, as a ten-year-old boy, 70 years earlier, had been witness to the end of iron smelting in Sussex with the blowing out of Ashburnham Furnace. He had continued to live near where the old furnace had stood and had been custodian of two of the original wooden patterns, or models, that had been used at the furnace to form the moulds from which firebacks had been cast. Such patterns are very rare; I know of only five of British origin that have survived. Crucially, one of the patterns William Hobday kept had been used to make my fireback.

The fireback bears an image of the classical hero Herakles ready to slay the seven-headed Hydra, one of the twelve labours that he had been tasked with by his master, Eurystheus. The particular design on the fireback was probably derived from a book illustration or a set of engravings, but I have not been able to identify it yet. At the bottom of the casting, below the picture, is the monogram TAN, which will have been the initials of the pattern maker, as the same monogram appears on two other firebacks.

Being moulded from a pattern, it was, of course, a simple matter for any number of examples of the fireback to be made, and several castings are known to exist and have been illustrated in books and articles. At an exhibition of the Wealden iron industry that I helped to organise at the Priest House in West Hoathly in the 1980s, I included both the Herakles fireback and its pattern, which I borrowed from the Sussex Archaeological Society. Both of the patterns that William Hobday had kept had been presented to the society by their owner, The Earl of Ashburnham. So, fireback and pattern were reunited for the first time, I suspect, since the one was cast from the other maybe two centuries earlier.

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.

Caleb and Philadelphia Newnham in front of their fire at Heronsdale, Waldron, Sussex

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 (see the Pounsley series in the database), 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.

The fireback in Charles Dawson’s Country Life article

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.