Prometheus’ gift

In Greek myth, Prometheus was an elder god who one rainy day, not able to get out and with time on his hands, fashioned the human race from clay and gifted it with the knowledge of civilization.

It’s the sort of thing you do when you’re a Greek god, you know.

Prometheus was a Titan, a sort of Fat Controller of the ancient world with origins in the earliest form of the Greek Pantheon. In most versions of the myth, Prometheus steals fire from the flaming forge of Hephaestus, smuggling it to earth in a sheaf of fennel sticks for the greater benefit of all mankind. It was an act for which the big cheese Zeus punished him, but it was believed by the Greeks to be the source of all civilization, a thing still honoured today in the form of the flaming torch in the quadrennial opening ceremony of the modern Olympics.

Indigenous Australians hunting kangaroos with spears
“Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos” by Joseph Lycett, c1820. (Source: National Library of Australia)

Fire has always been thought of as a fundamental element and the ability to control it was seen as one of the critical points in the evolution of technology. Fire was being used by modern humans at least 125,000 years ago and by proto humans much, much earlier. It was used to manage the landscape and to provide warmth and light at night. It could be used to harden the pointy sticks the cavemen used to hunt their woolly mammoths and to split the sharpened flint blades of their stone tools. It is unclear exactly when our ancestors first discovered, probably through trial and error and a bit of indigestion that roasting the leg of a woolly mammoth was much yummier than bolting it down raw, but obviously the use of fire was an extremely important step in the biological and social evolution of the species. By the arrival of the Bronze Age about 5000 years ago, we were getting very inventive with it. Somehow someone came up with the idea of burning two types of rocks together, copper and tin to produce an alloy with so many expanded properties that the makers of such objects were deemed to hold almost supernatural powers.

There was nothing of the occult about it though. Just knowledge learned through trial and error. Bronze Age tools shaped the pyramids and built empires across the Mediterranean world for 2000 years – that is until it all went kaput around about 1200BC in a time mysteriously termed, “the Bronze Age collapse”. Nobody really knows what led to the end of Bronze Age empires roughly all about the same time, but one theory sometimes mentioned is the discovery of a new metal around about the same time – the Age of Iron.

Iron requires much hotter temperatures than tin or copper for smelting so new techniques were needed beyond the simple pottery kilns of the earlier people. Charcoal burning forges were developed in which bellows of varying design were used to force oxygen into the fire to increase temperatures. This technology was more complicated than anything found in the earlier Bronze Age but the basics remained the same. Start a fire and chuck some rocks into the flames. In the production of iron it was found that by introducing small amounts of carbon and hammering the result endlessly, the result was an extremely hard metal. The blacksmith was born.

Cart wheels and a horse outside a wooden building
The village blacksmith shop that operated in Burgundy Street, Heidelberg from the 1870s. (Source: A Pictorial History of Heidelberg since 1836, Heidelberg Historical Society)

It is a thing not readily appreciated now, but up until the modern day the local blacksmith must have been one of the most commonplace sights found in village life. The hammer blows of the typically muscle bound smith working at his forge would have been heard endlessly up and down and across the colonial landscape. It’s no coincidence then that the word used as a surname is still the most commonly found name in Australia. Iron was an essential commodity of the early settler community and the first pages of John Batman’s journal in 1835 give some indication of this with his description of the purchase of iron tools at Port Sorell while waiting for a fair wind to carry him over to Port Phillip:

A strongly built blacksmith in leather apron standing with hand on hip holding up a tankard of ale, a bottle of the ale on an anvil beside him.
“The hammer blows of the typically muscle bound smith working at his forge would have been heard endlessly up and down and across the colonial landscape.” Artwork by Arthur von Tossau from an advertisement for Victoria Brewery Bitter Ale, Victorian Patents Office Copyright Collection, c1890.

“May 23 – Got from those men four mawlrings, three axes, one hoe, one cross cut saw, four files, two throws, one shingle, and one paling ditto, one saw set, one gimlet, one auger, five wedges, one handsaw one spade.”

Iron forged steering ring taken from a bullock wagon left over from the farming days at Yallambie

I don’t know what a mawlring is but apparently Batman needed four of them in order to found a city. Clearly these were all iron made tools and evidently Batman wasn’t anticipating finding a blacksmith capable of producing them where he was going. Within a few years of Batman’s journal and in one of the earliest written reports from the land that would later become Yallambie, the gentleman settler William Greig wrote about how, after blunting the iron blade of his plough, it needed to be sent to a neighbouring farm to be sharpened.

The blacksmith was required in just about every aspect of farm life in the settler era. Blacksmiths were responsible for the fabrication and repair of practically any metal item you care to think of – from the simple hand forged nails and hinges used in building, the pots and pans used in the kitchen, blades of tools used in the garden, iron shoes of the horses and the metal tyres needed by the wheelwright. Even to the heated brands that marked the livestock. The services required of the blacksmith were many.

Two men with hammers and an anvil
An up country, bush blacksmith with rudimentary forge. (Source: State Library of Victoria)
An old horseshoe nailed to a fence post.
Rusted horseshoe nailed onto a fence post at Yallambie
Rusted horseshoes
Rusted iron horseshoes dug out of the garden at Yallambie

It seems likely that at Yallambee, the Bakewells and after them the Wragges would have had access to a smith when required and more particularly, if the number of old horseshoes found in the garden at Yallambie these days is anything to go by, a farrier actually located on the property producing shoes for the working horses. View V in Edward La Trobe Bateman’s series of drawings depicting the Bakewell brothers’ Yallambee, portrays a number of slab constructed, bark roof station outbuildings in which a blacksmith forge could well be one of the unidentified buildings present. In an arrangement probably not dissimilar to Yallambie, Winty Calder writing of the Wragge upcountry station Tulla said that the working yards at the homestead consisted of “a carpenter’s shop; a stables and harness room; a cart house with bark-slab roof” and “a blacksmith’s shop; stock yards, and milking bails”. (Calder: Classing the Wool, p164)

Bark roofed, slab constructed farm outbuildings.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view V (detail of station outbuildings) by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)

Whether it was a thing found on a farm or in a town, the principles of blacksmithing remained the same. The central feature of the blacksmith’s shop was the forge, basically a masonry platform holding the blacksmith’s fire underneath a hooded chimney with a heavy anvil located nearby. With a fire kindled in its heart and air beating in regular time to the pump of the bellows, the forge seemed to glow with life in the darkness. It was a darkness kept deliberately dim by the blacksmith to aid in judging the temperature of the red hot iron but for some the warmth and shadows only added to a feeling of an intangible mystery.

Old crumbling brick building
“…by the 20th Century it was a mystery that had faded.” Old blacksmith shop in Menzies Alley, East Melbourne, c1920. (Source: Picture by Ruth Hollick, State Library of Victoria)

It was a mystery born in fire but by the 20th Century it was a mystery that had faded. The surge in machine made items and subsequent rise in mass production reduced the role of the blacksmith almost to the point of extinction. But Prometheus’ gift is a gift that keeps on giving. Blacksmithing exists now as a bespoke industry with those who practice the craft thought of more as artists than industrialists.

A collective concern with the problems associated with global warming has lately seen the appeal of the naked flame in any form fall from favour, but if you’ve ever watched smoke curl from a chimney on a cold winter’s morning you may have sensed the primordial. It comes from the left over memories of the time when our ancestors on a dark night danced a merry step around the camp fire, poking the leg of a woolly mammoth into the embers while warming their bare bottoms at the flames.

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