Riviera People – Rex Latham, Blacksmith

Posted by: on Aug 9, 2016 | No Comments

Rex Latham 5Riviera People – Rex Latham, Blacksmith

One of the best-loved and longest standing craft studios at Cockington Court, a visit to Rex Latham’s real working forge is always a treat.  Richard Newcombe meets Rex and discovers some of the mysteries of the profession.

Until I met Rex Latham, Blacksmith at his workshop in Cockington Court, Torquay I had no idea what a ‘froe’ was used for or what exactly a mole-catcher would do with his ‘spud’. To find the answer to these and discover many other fascinating facts about the ancient and skilled world of the blacksmith, please read on.

Sitting in Rex’s workshop I am surrounded by the tools and contraptions of his work, the reassuring warmth and glow from the forge and the familiar clank of hot metal being formed upon the anvil; this is what I had come to see.

Rex shows me around the forge itself and I am able to handle the tools of his trade. Apparently a true blacksmith has to make his own tools, clamps, grips and hammers as part of his apprenticeship. I was shown, but didn’t handle, his personal hammer, which no one uses under “pain of death” as Rex put it. The only concession to modern technology is the use of electricity to power the furnace bellows.

I was intrigued to learn how Rex became involved in this brutal yet delicate art. Leaving school in 1960s Sheffield, Rex remembers his careers master, who incidentally was also the metalwork teacher, rather surprisingly advising against Rex’s childhood ambition to become a blacksmith. He recommended that Rex do something better with his qualifications and he accurately predicted the decline of blacksmithing in the UK. At that time there were over 100,000 blacksmiths working in every mine, factory and workshop. Today Rex estimates that there are only 500 to 600 remaining in the country. Rex heeded the schoolmaster’s advice and worked at Sheffield University as a metallurgical technician.

In 1969, Rex relocated to Brixham where he worked in retail and wholesale fruit and veg. However, his desire for ‘hot metal’ never left him and he taught himself blacksmithing from books, building upon the science of metals that he had previously learned. What was a hobby necessarily became a career as the big supermarkets squeezed the small fruit and veg traders out of business. Rex spent five years taking courses with the Guild of Wrought Ironwork Craftsmen of Wessex and it was there that he learned his trade based upon the 6 traditional techniques: drawing down (making it thinner), upsetting or jumpimg up (making it thicker), bending, twisting, cutting with a chisel and fire welding. He learned that a hole isn’t drilled into metal, it is punched through.

In 1997 Rex was working his own forge at Totnes and when those premises closed in 2000 he took the lease at Cockington Court; he has never looked back. His business has expanded over the years, and he converted his present workshop and retail space from a linney at the Court. Rex now works with his daughter Katie who is learning the art from her father and who moved into blacksmithing from her former career in visual merchandising. Looking around the retail part of their business it is easy to spot her influences. She has added dimensions to their work including new designs and products, a website and computer technology that Rex freely admits he could only have taken his hammer to!

Not all Rex’s work is within the workshop; his real passion lies in conservation and restoration. He describes how, under current legislation, only traditional methods can be used to work upon listed buildings and structures. There are examples of Rex’s work scattered all across Torbay and around, from the railings of the Bishop’s Palace at Paignton and the Coverdale Tower to repairs on the 13th Century doors at Berry Pomeroy Church. If Tudor hinges, gates or locks require attention, then Rex is your man.

Within the workshop Rex describes how 99 percent of his work now comes through commissions and he shows me examples of similar pieces that he has made. I learn that on a simple piece of scrollwork there may be many different finishes, from the fish tail or ribbon-ended scroll to the blow-over leaf. He shows me how a mass-produced machined scroll will have a flat end, where it had been held in a clamp whereas his own scrolls appeared to have no beginning or end, almost poetry-in-metal to me. Other unusual commissions include making a huge key for an ancient church door lock (when the vicar had been locked out) and welding a set of wheels onto the bottom of a commode to enable its elderly owner to scoot around.

I find Rex to be totally absorbed by his work. His passion for all things metal is quite apparent to me.  Here is a man whose hobby has become his passion, providing his living. The way he describes the things he makes and repairs shows a real desire to communicate and explain what he does; there was no keeping this a closed and mysterious art. By his own admission, he spends seven days a week at the forge and when his wife did manage to persuade him to take a holiday and visit friends in the United States he quickly discovered the local blacksmith and spent his holiday comparing skills and techniques with this fellow craftsman.

Rex Latham Blacksmith 2

If any of this has whetted your appetite to discover more or if you have a construction or repair commission, then visit Rex and Katie at Cockington. Or, if you would prefer to get your hands dirty, Rex runs taster courses, usually during the quieter months of January and February, where for a very reasonable fee, two people can spend the day with Rex learning some of the skills and actually producing a piece of work to take home.

Rex Latham’s Forge Shop has a fascinating collection of hand-forged items such as fireside companion sets; log carriers, candlesticks and candelabra, horseshoes, ornate hooks, doorknockers, BBQ butlers and many more beautiful pieces.

Now in answer to my questions at the beginning of this article, a ‘froe’ is a metal cleaving tool used by a craftsman to split wood such as hazel in the making of hurdles. The mole-catcher’s ‘spud’ is used to pierce the ground around a molehill to find the tunnel in order to determine in which direction the little blighter may have burrowed.

Did You Know?

The first blacksmiths – started making tools around 1500 BC.
The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths – is one of the Livery Companies of the City of London dating back to 1299.
Dimsy – is the subdued lighting, necessary for the blacksmith to achieve a consistent light level to ascertain, from the colour, the temperature of his work.
Horseshoes – are not lucky unless they have first been worn.
Strike whilst the iron is hot – this is why blacksmith’s tools are always racked close to hand; the blacksmith can work quickly before the metal cools.