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Don Barker - Prime Warden of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths

by Jan Lasnon

Published: July 2012

I love all the history and tradition that’s tied up with the Livery or Worshipful Companies in London so when I had the chance to speak to Don Barker, not only a member of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths but the serving Prime Warden, it was a real treat.

Don is the first working smith for many generations to take on the prestigious role of Prime Warden of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths in London. The role lasts for one year and involves him in representing the Blacksmiths’ Livery Company within the City of London and beyond, recruiting new members to the company, raising money for its good causes and being the figurehead of the company.

The Livery Companies emanated from medieval guilds and took responsibility for regulating their trades, ensuring fair wages and labour conditions and making sure their members behaved correctly towards their customers.

The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths was one of the original 48 Livery Companies and has been around for hundreds of years. In fact, the first historical reference to it dates back to 1299. Like its counterparts, its purpose was to govern the trade of the Blacksmiths, control prices and verify the quality of ironwork in the City. It also policed the trade, ensuring Blacksmiths didn’t upset their neighbours with noise and fumes. In the early 14th Century this was carried out by four wardens.

As well as ensuring smooth trading, there was a responsibility for Blacksmiths to be properly trained and approved. They served a seven year apprenticeship which began at age 14 and finished at 21, just as they reached the age of majority.

Before being declared “free” of their master and awarded a ‘Journeyman’s certificate’ which enabled them to work for other Blacksmiths, they had to make an “apprentice piece”. Perhaps it is from here the word ‘masterpiece’ originates?

This interpretation wouldn’t have occurred to me except that Don explained the saying ‘backs to the wall’ is believed to have originated from the Blacksmiths’ hall. Apparently, the Livery Blacksmiths all ate in a dining hall which had a fire in the middle. There was a seating order according to seniority and apprentices had the hot seats, closest to the fire. After being the Prime Warden and therefore the most senior you were allowed to sit around the outside of the Hall with your back to the cool wall, hence the saying ‘backs to the wall’.

He also told me, as an aside, that the original forty-eight Livery Companies were put in order. Apparently the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners used to argue about which of them should be 6th and which one 7th so they were swapped around each year - apparently that is where the phrase ‘at sixes and sevens’ came from!

Because of Don’s responsibilities in London he and his wife, Barbara, have to spend a lot of time in the Capital. For some people this might cause a problem with accommodation but Don and Barbara have simply cruised their narrowboat down to Limehouse Marina near Canary Wharf. Don says the boat provides him with a perfect base and plenty of opportunity for them both to visit the attractions of London.

Blacksmithing has been on both sides of Don’s family for the past two hundred years although there was a short break. His grandfather was the village Blacksmith but encouraged his children, including Don’s father, to get jobs for life in the civil service. However, that wasn’t the life for Don. He set up his own company, Don Barker Limited, Architectural and Ecclesiastical Blacksmiths of York, aged 38. Today he has a
superb, fully trained team looking after the business in his absence.

The York-based forge enjoys a superb reputation gained over the last four decades. It has carried out many prestigious commissions with over £100,000 of restoration and new work at Westminster Abbey including the two new Gothic style lanterns which now grace the State Entrance to the Abbey.

The Micklethwaite Entrance leads into the Abbey Cloisters. The gates were fully dismantled and restored and altered to accommodate a new disabled ramp. The new paintwork is believed to be a faithful representation of its original colour scheme. The original gas mantle and gas feed piping were removed and an electric light fitted in its place.

This entrance took centre stage last year as Kate Middleton, with her mother and sister Pippa, were photographed entering the Abbey through this entrance when they were preparing for her marriage to Prince William in 2011.

Another recent commission was for the four bronze lanterns which light the new monument to the Queen Mother on The Mall in London. The lanterns are over five feet tall and stand on fifteen foot high columns. Don’s forge also produced over 70m of bronze handrails for the steps and walkways which surround the monument.

Apart from being restoration specialists, Don Barker Limited also produces bespoke new work with stylish gates, handrails and railings. The company is well known for its ecclesiastical items which can be seen in many churches and cathedrals throughout the British Isles. He believes in embracing modern technologies alongside traditional skills to move forward - ensuring the best of both worlds.

In 2009 Don featured in the BBC2 series “Mastercrafts” presented by Monty Don where he had to teach three complete novices the basics of blacksmithing in six weeks. “It was exhausting but great fun and very satisfying. One of my students enjoyed it so much he went on to attend college and has become a fully qualified blacksmith” explained Don.

Another TV appearance for Don was a program with Tommy Walsh in which Tommy tries his hand at forging a railing top for some new railings at Harewood House.

For more information about the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths visit www.blacksmithscompany.org.uk or for Don Barker’s website www.theblacksmiths.co.uk.

 
Contemporary Glass Society

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