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.

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.

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; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

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.

Guns and Roses (and Crowns)

There is an established link between the casting of firebacks and of graveslabs, distinctive motifs or styles of lettering indicating that their production sometimes shared a common pattern-maker or location. Some of the artisans who made firebacks would have been skilled in other branches of the iron trade, and a significant specialism of some of the furnaces in the Weald of south-east England was gun founding. So it should be no surprise to find decorative elements associated with ordnance having a secondary use on firebacks.

The Rose and Crown on one of the guns from the Mary Rose

This splendid fireback is in a house near Rolvenden in Kent. It is undated, and while the initials ‘ER’ in all probability refer to either King Edward VI or his sister, Queen Elizabeth, there is no clue as to who was represented by the initials IC, which are likely to be of the founder or the person for whom the fireback was cast. The thrice-stamped crowned rose within a Garter, however, bears a striking resemblance to the badges that adorned early bronze, and some iron, naval guns, notably those made for the armament of ships such as the Mary Rose, which sank so dramatically at Portsmouth in 1545. It is comparable in size with examples that adorn medium-sized guns such as sakers and, being over-pressed into the sand mould into which the iron for the fireback was poured, the backing of this stamp shows that it would have originated as a piece of carved woodwork. My guess is that this was a reuse of a pattern or model made to decorate a gun. A brief examination of the badges on a variety of guns belonging to the Royal Armouries and the National Army Museum shows that they are unique to the guns on which they are found, and that gun founders used a different pattern for each of the guns they made. The French founder, Peter Baude, the Arcanus family from Cesena in Italy, and the Owen and Mayo brothers from England all made bronze guns for the navy in the Tudor period. The chances of finding a gun with the identical rose and crown are remote but were it to happen it would establish a link between the founder of that gun and an iron furnace in the Weald.

A fireback of 1695 in the collection of Brighton Museum. Sussex

This fireback also has a rose and crown stamp. Although of a much later date and a smaller size, the stamp is of a style that was typical from the second half of the 16th century and could also have originated as the royal badge on pieces of artillery and then remained in the stock of stamps at the furnace where it was subsequently used to decorate firebacks. No less than seven firebacks, made between 1677 and 1699, bear the same stamp. As yet, no gun has been found with the identical rose and crown.

‘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.

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 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.

A royal badge

Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein (Royal Collection)

This fireback stands in a house in Woodchurch, in Kent. Its somewhat plain appearance belies a connection with one of the great dramas of Tudor England. For on its surface are three impressions of the badge of Anne Boleyn, which is first known from the Letters Patent raising Anne to the peerage as Lady Marquess of Pembroke in 1532, eight months before she married Henry VIII and became his second queen. Later, her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, would also use it.

The badge shows a crowned falcon holding a sceptre and standing on an oak tree stump from which are issuing red and white roses. As with heraldic badges in general, Anne’s badge comprises several symbolic elements: the falcon represented the earldom of Ormonde to which her father, Thomas, was heir; the tree stump or ‘woodstock’ may refer to Henry VIII’s Plantagenet lineage, the manor of that name being a significant royal property for centuries; and the red and white roses signify the houses of Lancaster and York from which Henry was descended through his father, Henry VII, and his mother, Elizabeth, the daughter of Edward IV.

Hever Castle, Kent

While the badges on the fireback had been placed carefully in the sand mould, the initials ‘T’ and ‘B’ appear to have been added as an afterthought, perhaps to a subsequent casting. The ‘B’ is a bit odd, and looks as though it could have been a pair of shackles were it not a mere 8.6cm high. Whatever was used it was certainly not from a traditional character set; other instances are known of objects being employed as a substitute for letters on firebacks. The obvious question is, whose initials were they? The ‘B’ invites the assumption that it stands for Boleyn, the ‘T’ perhaps for Anne’s father, and that this fireback once stood in the Boleyn family’s seat at Hever Castle, 40 miles from Woodchurch. But we will probably never know.

And finally the slots cut into the bottom of the fireback. They are seen in a variety of forms on a small number of backs, and are to accommodate andirons, or iron firedogs, on which burning logs would be placed.

“Call me Risley”

I first came across what I thought was this fireback in a scrapbook compiled by John Starkie Gardner, an early and well-informed writer on firebacks, who had been Keeper of Metalwork at what was then the South Kensington Museum but is now the Victoria and Albert Museum – the V&A. He had assembled hundreds of photographs, sketches and cuttings from publications and pasted them into several of these scrapbooks which were then at the Beecroft Gallery in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex. They are now in the V&A Archive of Art and Design. The cutting gave no clue as to where it had been taken from. I saw the actual fireback when I visited a lovely house in Huddington, Worcestershire, to record an interesting collection there. I had no idea at the time whose elaborate arms were displayed on its surface and I feared it would be a difficult task trying to identify them given the indistinct detail on the casting. Its irregular shape also suggested it might have once been a larger fireback cut down, perhaps to fit in a smaller hearth.

Thomas Wriothesley by Hans Holbein (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
The Wriothesley arms at South Warnborough church

As is so often the case when I have tried to identify arms on firebacks, luck played its part and I spotted the shield on a 17th century map of Hampshire. They were the arms of the Earls of Southampton, whose most distinguished member, and likely subject of the fireback, was Thomas Wriothesley, Lord Chancellor at the end of Henry VIII’s reign. In Hilary Mantel’s best-selling novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Bring up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light, she has him announcing himself with “Call me Risley” to explain the pronunciation of his name. He was drawn and painted by Holbein, and his arms are displayed on his Garter stall plate in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and on a window in the parish church at South Warnborough, Hampshire.

As to the source of the fireback it was not until I had made the acquaintance of a collector at Wigmore in Herefordshire, who sent me photographs of the backs in his possession, that I was able to associate the Huddington fireback with a known series. As well as Wriothesley’s arms, on the Wigmore fireback are 13 little figures that are stamps frequently seen on what I have termed the ‘Royal’ series of firebacks. Some writers have described them as ‘mummers’ or ‘imps’, their postures suggesting mischief-making, and they can be seen in three forms on different backs in the series.

I subsequently discovered where Starkie Gardner had found the clipping that had alerted me to this fireback. It was in an article he had written on ‘Old Wealden Ironwork at Warnham Court’ in Country Life in 1907. Warnham Court in Sussex, then the property of a Mr Lucas, had a collection of firebacks that appeared as illustrations in several of Starkie Gardner’s published works. But the fireback at Warnham was not the same one as I had seen at Huddington, for the twisted rope edging was different and the rope crosses below the shield, presumably apotropaic, or intended to avert evil, were a different shape too, although the overall shape of the back was very similar and presumably not trimmed, as I had previously thought. So there had been at least two similar castings with Wriothesley’s shield in addition to the Wigmore one. One never stops learning in the quest for firebacks!

The Wriothesley fireback at Warnham Court, Sussex (Country Life, 25 May 1907)

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.

One of Charles Tyler’s firebacks

The arms of Ayloffe impaling Sulyard

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.

The Ayloffe fireback at The Crown, Horsted Keynes

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.

The fireback I bought, as advertised

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.

My 1612 Ayloffe fireback, after restoration

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 (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.

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.