Monday, 23 January 2017

The Evolution of a Country Blacksmithing Business


"Heenan's General Blacksmith", circa 1937-38
Note the blackened forge chimney.
[Photo taken by William Dykes]

In my past career working in a professional  archive, it was very interesting to see collections of old accounts and invoices which enabled us to see how these businesses had evolved over time and how they related to local areas. One such collection later made the subject of a very interesting public talk. Such documents illustrate the products and types of services offered to the local community, business expansion, inclusion of younger family members, expanded product ranges and services, diversification, and sale of the business to subsequent owners. This blog charts one such rural country business over a period of close to 80 years, but primarily using a fairly extensive and unique collection of invoices, records and photographs from my own family collections. As we shall see, these records clearly illustrate all of the above.

In my recent blog featuring the South Hillend Dairy Co-Operative Factory at the corner of State Highway 96 and the Hundred Line in Central Southland, New Zealand, I mentioned a blacksmithing business over the road. It is this business that forms the basis of this blog and charts the evolution over no less than four owners from a country Horseshoer, Blacksmith and Wheelright business in 1901 to an Engineering firm and full service garage operating through to the early 1980's. While technically located in the rural district of Heddon Bush, it also straddles the northern boundary of South Hillend.

Invoice from "P. Sheedy, Blacksmith",
Dated  31st January 1904

The first evidence of a Blacksmith at Heddon Bush is Mr Patrick (Paddy) Sheedy from July 1903 (as per the above invoice). Prior to this date my Grandfather used smithies in Drummond, Isla Bank, and Wrey's Bush which were all some distance away so it appears there was then no resident or qualified blacksmith at Heddon Bush prior to at least this date. Sheedy's work will have been based wholly around his forge, from making and fitting horse shoes to waggon tyres to repairing agricultural machinery and any manufacturing or repair work relating to metalworking in general. It was from this time that the strategic crossroads location became commonly known as "Sheedy's corner".

Long-time Heddon Bush resident as well as being our old neighbour, the late George Catto (1893-1990), recalled in 1981; "The blacksmith was an important person in any farming district, his work including shoeing horses, setting up ploughs, and repairing the agricultural implements. The blacksmith's forge where intense heat was generated by blowing into the fire with a huge bellows with a long handle, was always a fascinating sight as the cold iron was raised to a red hot condition before the blacksmith transferred it with his tongs to the anvil, there to hammer it into the desired shape with uncanny skill."  

Obviously a talented and bright man, Sheedy's 'claim to fame' while at Heddon Bush appears to have been the invention and patent of a "turnip topping and slicing machine". In September 1908 a group of around 70 farmers came to see the machine in operation, cutting the tops off a dray load of turnips as well as slicing them in a matter of just four minutes. "The operation was watched with great interest by a large body of farmers present who backed up their appreciation of the machine by placing numerous orders with the inventor."

In September 1912 we now find Sheedy advertising to new and existing clients that he has removed to new premises in the Main Street of Otautau, advertising himself as a "Horseshoer and General Blacksmith". By this time there were apparently three blacksmiths working around the Heddon Bush district.


Invoice from "Heddon Bush Shoeing Forge -
General Blacksmith & Horseshoer",
Dated 24 Feb 1922

The purchaser of his old Heddon Bush premises would be Mr Andrew (Andy) Melrose who marketed his business as the "Heddon Bush Shoeing Forge". I can find no record of where he may have worked previously nor the business being advertised for sale so it is certainly possible that he had been working for and qualified as an apprentice Blacksmith under Sheedy.


Receipt from the "Heddon Bush Shoeing Forge", 25th March 1922
Note the requisite stamps in payment of transactional stamp duty.

As with his predecessor, the breadth of his work and skills is impressive. I note on the invoice to my Grandfather that Melrose made and removed horse shoes, repaired bridle bits, manufactured bolts, cut notches in a "rack", repaired spokes of a mill, cut two waggon tyres, and bushed two wheels. And this is but one invoice.

It was during this period that Melrose purchased the cottage previously built for the South Hillend Co-operative Dairy Company manager and shifted it over the road next to his premises. You can see it in the first photo below.

I find it interesting that during these early years my Gt. Gt. Uncle, William Watson, and living no more than two kilometers away just down Boyle Road, went to the great expense of having a small forge building built on his farm where he installed a portable forge in the form of a large iron table with upturned sides, cast iron legs, and the requisite forced air operated by (from memory) a hand turned blower. As he had fully "tractorised" his farm from around 1913 there wasn't a lot of shoeing to be done! My father obtained this portable forge from my Gt. Uncle in 1955 and recalled the "great fun" we children had seeing it in use (I remember this occasion) and the red hot metalwork being hammered over a large anvil. In the earlier years, as in my Father's day, it probably didn't make economic sense to use your own forge just for occasional use so it was probably more of a hobby activity as my Watson family continued to regularly use the local smithing and engineering business.

In early 1924 Melrose issued his last invoice to my Grandfather. In June 1924, a qualified Blacksmith, Mr Alfred (Alf) Heenan, bought out the business, having worked for Melrose since earlier that year. Alf (whom I remember very well) and then just in his early twenties, had from 1922 previously served his apprenticeship in blacksmithing at Clifden in Western Southland. Part of his work involved shoeing the six horse teams which pulled the heavy waggon loads of supplies up to 15 times a day to the Monowai hydro-electric plant.


Invoice from "A.G. Heenan, General Blacksmith",
dated 3rd Oct 1924

The smithy was, when purchased, just 18ft by 24ft with no electricity, hanging kerosene brass lanterns with enamel or white painted reflectors then being in common use. This old weatherboard and corrugated iron roofed building was soon extended. During this earlier period of sole charge,  Alf initially worked the smithy alone. Desiring to go on his honeymoon, he simply left the door of the smithy unlocked and a note on the door, "Anyone who needs tools, please help yourself". Upon his return only one spanner was missing. "Alf declared until the day he died that it would not have been a local who took it". Otherwise when he was away, locals were always "free to come and go as they wished", entering any purchases in a charge notebook. No other items were ever unaccounted for.

Invoice from "A.G. Heenan, General Blacksmith",
Dated 6th Sept 1928

His wife Nellie recalled that in these early years even she was called in on occasion to work the bellows, their home being alongside the smithy (or "The Smiddy" as my Scottish born Gt. Grandmother down the road always referred to it). It was not uncommon to receive part or full "payment in kind", such as meat, during the depression years as it suited them and thus avoided embarrassment on the part of seasonally cash strapped farmers. I note my Grandfather often used this convenient method of payment, even for his Dentist. I perceive the tax man would have something to say about that now!

It took Alf a day to shoe five horses, the busy times being December through to February so that the horses were well shod before harvest time and for the carting of the requisite coal for the thrashing mills from the mine at Nightcaps. The gravel roads were then exceedingly smooth, "the steel-shod tyres of the wagons rolled the stones into a smooth surface".


"Heenan's General Blacksmith", circa 1938-39
[Photo taken by William Dykes]

Alf witnessed the slow decline from horse power to motorized transport in the district, aided himself by the installation of a petrol pump to cater for this new demand. The first petrol sold was "Tydol Motor Spirit" until bought out by the "Shell" company. Mrs Heenan recalled that they got threepence a gallon on selling "Tydol", the underground tank being refilled by the company from four gallon cans. By the late 1930's there were now three pumps. You can make out the latter name on the building and the "Shell" emblem on one of the pumps in the photo above. As my Grandfather's 1938 Ford V8 sedan is parked next to the pumps the photo would have been take after on or after 1938 but before the new house was built in 1939. I can in fact recall Mrs Heenan saying that the new house had been built a little too close to the workshop and garage for her liking, convenient maybe but noisy being just next door. I believe the new concrete and corrugated iron garage and workshop building probably also dates to 1939. By the 1930's this intersection of two busy roads was now known in the district as "Heenan's corner", a name that would remain for the next half century.

Licence for AG Heenan to Issue Fuel & Oil during the
Second World War / Immediate Post War Period.   

Heenan's Engineering & Garage, circa 1954
[Photo taken by William Dykes]

Slowly the nature of the business changed and diversified from a smithy to that of "a country garage" and the nature of the business adapted accordingly. One part of this changeover to servicing mechanized equipment included adapting a multitude of horse-drawn farm implements for use behind tractors. This was a task apparently more challenging than it sounds as he spent many a night thinking about the various "and [often] very odd" suggestions made to him as to how this might be achieved from a practical perspective. My own paternal family did not purchase their first tractor until 1942 so the regular shoeing and servicing of horse teams continued for some years.


Heenan's Engineering & Garage including the owner's House, circa 1954
[Photo taken by William Dykes]

By the 1950's, practically all the work appears to have been related to vehicle servicing, engineering / welding, and fuel sales. The name "Heenan Engineering Company Ltd" was first registered in 1950 and appears on the side of the building and the porch. The business also held the agencies for "Booth MacDonald" pumps and other machinery items. To facilitate and encourage orders for the former the family built and operated a well-drilling machine fitted to the back of an old Ford Truck.


Heenan's Engineering, circa 1956
Note the men sitting chatting, a common occurrence.
[Photo taken by William Dykes]

By the late 1950's Alf's two sons were brought into the business. By 1962 Alf, and at the age of 60, "retired" and turned his hand to farming, leasing a nearby farm from my family. One of his sons, Robert (Bob) Heenan, continued to run the garage and engineering business. A popular product made by the firm were "sheep handlers" constructed of sheetmetal, around 1,700 being sold over the following eight years and keeping three men busy.

Heenan's Engineering, circa 1956
[Photo taken by William Dykes]

I can recall the garage and workshop area through the 1960's, an area that members of the general public, let alone curious children, would not be able to wander around in today's safety conscious age. I always found the large welding goggles somewhat creepy. From memory the pumps were for "regular", "super" and kerosene, with oil and tins of grease also being available. I note in the colour image that, surprisingly, the garage had pumps for Shell, Europa and BP fuels.

On the 30th November 1964 this intersection of two strategic roads unfortunately claimed the life of Otautau Watchmaker and Jeweller, Mr WJ Wesney and his wife Mrs GL Wesney, who both died together in a motor accident aged 76 and 64 years respectively. The angular nature of the intersection may have been a contributing factor although visibility is not unduly obstructed by the garage building. The Heenan's were probably one of the first on the scene to witness this dreadful carnage.


A skilfully made miniature armchair made from
a tin beer can by retired engineer Mr Alf Heenan
in the 1970's and presented to my parents.
[From my own collection]

From the late 1960's the construction of portable farm buildings and hay barns now became a large part of their business. One of Heenan's welded steel truss and corrugated iron sheds blew down in a storm on my Uncle's farm in the late 1960's due to inadequate foundations and had to be totally rebuilt by the company. This was also an acknowledged problem with their removable but handy farm sheds build on skids when faced with a strong Southland westerly storm and "quite a few became airborne". Building sheds suitable for Southland conditions no doubt proved to be somewhat of a learning curve for Mr Heenan and his team of engineers.

The site of Heenan's Former Premises, 2010
[Source : Google Maps]

Further diversification and expansion in the 1970's saw the business move in the early 1980's to larger premises at Winton in order to accommodate an enlarged workforce, "leaving the [old] workshop to the starlings".  The old building is now well kept but in private ownership with the adjoining house and grounds attractively landscaped.


Copyright of Images :

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from my own family collection and may be used for non-commercial use provided this site is acknowledged.

Sources :

- Dykes family papers and photographs (from my own collection)
- Cochrane family papers (from my own collection)
- Papers Past [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- "The Southland Times"
- "Looking Back 100 Years - Heddon Bush School 1881-1981" (from my own collection)
- "Tales of the Turi : South Hillend Centenary 1884-1984", by Marjorie Cairns & Frank Plunkett
- McNab Room, Dunedin Public Library


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