To extract the iron from iron ore, the ore is heated until, after some hours, it
melts and separates. When the separated iron cools, it hardens into what is called
a ‘bloom’ that can then be heated again to a temperature sufficiently high to make
it pliable enough to hammer into a different shape. Because it is beaten, or ‘worked’,
the finished product is known as wrought iron. It has a rather molecular texture
and tends to flake when it eventually rusts.
The skill of working iron in this way has been practised by blacksmiths in their
smithies for many centuries. It is not an easy craft to master, for it requires
accuracy and speed of execution. The iron has to be heated to the optimum temperature
as few times as possible, for each exposure to the heat will weaken it.
Above: Gates to Shadwell Stud near Thetford in Norfolk with sweeping swirly patterns
Blacksmiths reached a peak of technical perfection in the thirteenth century by the
use of specialist tools that enabled them to repeat small decorative motifs with
great precision. The results of their labours can still be seen on church doors
and old wooden chests.
Wrought iron is also associated with the Regency style. Verandah balconies with
balustrades made of iron are a characteristic feature of about 1810. Below is an
example on a hotel front at Great Yarmouth.
Above: Ornate brackets support an ironsmiths sign in Beccles, Suffolk.
Above: Swirly patterns on brackets supporting a pub sign at the ‘Swan Hotel’ in Harleston
in Norfolk. Right: Village sign in Norfolk.
If a bloom of iron is overheated it melts, and after cooling becomes too hard to
be hit with a hammer without it shattering into pieces. This is due to the carbon
in it. At the close of the Middle Ages it was discovered that if a bloom is heated
in a blast of air the carbon content is reduced and the iron becomes usable. With
the invention of the blast furnace it became possible to heat a bloom to a temperature
high enough to melt the iron and pour it into moulds. This is called cast iron,
and is made in a foundry. It can be mass-produced more easily than wrought iron
and was much used in the Victorian era.
Decorative ironwork is often seen on gates and street furniture, such as on these
churchyard gates at Blundeston (left) and (right) at a house in Dennington, both
Two further examples in Suffolk are these below. The left one shows ornate iron
brackets supporting a sign at ‘The Three Tuns’ pub in Bungay, and the right one shows
iron gates at the entrance to the boating lake at Southwold.
There are hundreds of other examples in East Anglia of ironwork swirls. Iron gates
at the entrance to the churchyard at Wymondham Abbey in Norfolk are similar in style
to those at Forncett St. Peter, also in Norfolk. Another good example in Norfolk
is at St. Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich. In Suffolk, there are ornate iron gates
on the church porches at Walsham -le-Willows.
Further examples in Suffolk are these three above at private houses. The left photograph
shows fancy porches at doorways, being two among a whole row, in Beccles, and the
one in the middle shows an entrance gate, also in Beccles. The green railing in
the picture above right tops a low front garden wall of a house in Botesdale.
The pictures on the left show two examples of church gates in Norfolk. Far left
shows those at Redenhall and near left shows those at Great Plumstead.
The first known foundry in Norfolk was set up in 1797. By 1845 there were forty
four, as recorded in White’s Directory for the county.
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Left: An iron altar rail in the parish church in Cromer, Norfolk.
Below left: Ironwork swirls on a door at Quidenham Church in Norfolk and below right
on a door at Brome Church in Suffolk.