I am taking part in the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge for 2021. The challenge is organised by Amy Johnson Crow who provides a weekly writing prompt. I should have completed all 52 prompts by now, but I will do so as soon as possible.
I initially planned to use this prompt to write someone who demonstrated great strength of character. But I just couldn’t choose anyone, and kept coming back to my 2nd great granduncle, Samuel Fisher, who was an iron puddler. I thought this must have been a job which required great strength. His father, Jessie had been an iron bundler which I am yet to investigate.
From previous reading when I first came across the occupation of iron puddler, I knew it was to do with making cast iron, working with furnaces and so on. I have been intending to visit the museums at Ironbridge to find out more, but well, Covid. I really must get there.
Samuel Fisher was born in about 1849 and lived in Topton, Staffordshire. It was on the 1871 Census that he was a puddler, and two of his younger brothers were puddler’s assistants.
In planning this blog post I googled “iron puddler” which took me to a page on Wikipedia where I learned that puddling was a process for converting pig iron into wrought iron boiling out the silicon, sulphur and phosphorus. A puddler and his assistant would produce about 1.5 tons of iron in a shift. It was hard, hot work with toxic fumes leading to a life expectancy under 40 years. Samuel lived to almost 80 years old, he must have been one of the lucky ones.
The Wikipedia page mentioned that U.S. Senator James. J. Davis had written a book about his early experiences of being an iron puddler. He was younger than Samuel Fisher, born in 1873 but he was working in the iron mill by the age of 12, so I felt I had to read the book to learn more about the working conditions Samuel would have experienced.
Davis describes a housewife sweating over a batch of biscuits, how the oven makes her hot and bothered. He explains how his job was similar,
“There were five bakings every day and this meant the shoveling in of nearly two tons of coal. In summer I was stripped tot he waist and panting while the sweat poured down across my heaving muscles. My palms and fingers, scorched by the heat, became hardened like goat hoofs, while my skin took on a coat of tan that it will wear forever.
What time I was not stoking the fire, I was stirring the charge with a long iron rabble that weighed some twenty-five pounds. Strap an Oregon boot to your arm and then do calisthenics ten hours in a room so hot it melts your eyebrows and you will know what it is like to be a puddler.”Davis, James J. (2019) The Iron Puddler : My life in the rolling mills and what came of it. [Kindle version] CAIMAN. https://smile.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B07V7H6KH2 : accessed 18 January 2022. p.48
Well, I was right about iron puddling being an occupation for a strong person.
I didn’t finish the book I’m afraid, it got really rather political, in a time where eugenics and communism where widely supported.
- Census records. England. Tipton, Staffordshire. 02 April 1871. FISHER, Jessie (head) RD: Tipton. RG10/3000. FL 52. p. 45. ED. 16. http://www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 21 November 2020.
- Wikipedia contributors. (2021) ‘Iron puddler’, In: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Iron_puddler&oldid=1051665209 : accessed 22 January 2022
- Deaths index. England. RD Dudley. 1st Qtr. 1928. FISHER, Samuel. Vol. 6b. p. 978. https://www.freebmd.org.uk/cgi/search.pl : accessed 21 November 2020.
- Davis, James J. (2019) The Iron Puddler : My life in the rolling mills and what came of it. [Kindle version] CAIMAN. https://smile.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B07V7H6KH2 : accessed 18 January 2022.
- Wikipedia contributors. (2021) ‘James J. Davis’, In: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=James_J._Davis&oldid=1023190926 : accessed 22 January 2022