Michelle J. Parker became the first female professional working blacksmith to be appointed as a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths in 2008. The first in fact in the Company’s over 700 year history since their incorporated by prescription in 1325, and a definite great achievement given the length of time the Company has existed.
Blacksmiths work primarily with steel to create wonderous objects from door knockers to gates, swords to armour, and everything in between. In Michelle’s words, ‘Most people see steel as being cold, hard and lifeless, but something encouraged Michelle to look beyond that and see what could be done when steel met fire. She soon discovered that steel took on a completely different character, no longer cold and lifeless, but full of life and movement.’1
Blacksmithing has long been a respected profession used throughout history, and they were treated with great importance and could sit at the head of the table when dining with royalty. The origins of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths are lost in time, however the first mention of them was in 1299 and they received their first Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1571. Their earliest written records are dated from 1496. It is known that from the 1300’s to the Reformation, the Company was known as a Fraternity having strong religious connotations. The Patron Saint of the Fraternity was St. Loie who is a French Saint from the Limoges region and today is the Patron Saint of the Blacksmiths.2
One of our Visitor Services Supervisors, Sophie Belau-Conlon, had the honour to be able to chat to Michelle and find out more about her, her work, how she became a member and also the dangers of working with horses.
How did you become involved with the First Women project?
Well, Anita contacted me to be honest. How she found out about me, I don’t know, possibly something in the papers.
How did you become interested and involved in blacksmithing? What does it entail to become a blacksmith?
Madness, I think.
Do you want the longwinded story?
Yeah, I love stories. Stories are great.
I’ve got to cast my mind back now. When I first started working, as I didn’t really go to school, I started training as a stud groom, working with horses. But then I decided I wanted to get a house, and a car, and the things that you think that you need, and I thought, I’m never going to get it working with horses. So, I changed completely, and I went to work for social services.
That’s a big change.
Yeah, I worked for social services for 12/13 years and supposedly got the things I thought I needed. You know how it goes. Then I thought, right, I’m going to see if I can get a farrier apprenticeship and go back to horses. So, I got a farrier apprenticeship and rented my house out here and got a farrier apprenticeship in Beauly in Inverness. And went up there. And I would have been the first female farrier, at the time, as this was many moons ago. Long and short of it; I decided I didn’t actually want to spend the rest of my life, upside down smelling of foot rot.
So, while I was up there as my holidays were limited, I started making Christmas presents in the fire at night. I then packed that up, came back and I went down to Hereford College and I got on a course for a HND in 3 dimensional design in blacksmithing and metalwork. And worked for myself since then really.
Wow. That is a really nice kind of way! I did wonder if you had ever done any farrier work and looks hard going, especially with foot rot and everything else is not that appealing!
*laughs* Yeah and of course I was a little bit older than as well. Cos I didn’t start until, I must have been in my 30’s.
That gives me hope, as I’m my 30’s, to try different things.
You can do whatever you want, don’t be thinking 30 is too late. It was a complete career change for me. From young offenders to going to college, having hardly ever been to school. You can do whatever you want. Life’s too short. You don’t really realise life’s too short till you get too old.
What was the process to become appointed as one of the Liverymen of the Worshipful Company? Did someone approach you, or how did it go with your career from that?
Yeah, so I was just working for myself and was doing quite a few of the RHS garden shows. I was doing gates, and garden sculptures and I don’t know, water features. And the Worshipful Company approached me and asked me, I don’t know what they asked me. They approached me, so yeah, I was sworn in as a livery. That was a disaster as well!
Is there a story there as well? Just in case anyone had not seen what happened when you were sworn in.
I had gone into London the day before, so that I got there on time. I booked the taxi, presuming, it would be a black cab! But it wasn’t a black cab, and he didn’t have a clue where he was going! So I ended up getting him to stop on some bypass, getting out of the car and running across London. And I complete missed it, as I needed to get the Freedom of the City to start off with and there is a process in that, and you have to walk fairly slowly down the hall and of course I wanted to run, because I wanted to get to the Worshipful Company. So, when I did get there, everything had finished and I got sworn in in front of everybody, while the meal was happening, which has never happened in history and is probably a bit, well is obviously, unorthodox. But I’m glad they did.
And does it still entail anything, do they do things every year that you take part in? Are there any obligations?
Yeah, there are still awards and events that go on. I tend to go to the main awards, luncheons, when medals are being given out because that’s the time when mostly blacksmiths are there.
And then the Lord Mayor’s parade. We had a float for the parade a few years ago. They also do a lot of charitable work. So, we’ve done stuff for different trusts and made items.
And because I am a medal holder I can assess for awards and I am also a judge for the Worshipful Company.
And have you assessed people to get in?
Yeah, we have a criteria obviously, because the Worshipful Company is about keeping standards up. They do a lot of promoting people through and give out grants and funding. They do a lot of good things and promoting blacksmithing and people coming through. They also support blacksmiths in troubled times, such as if they cannot work, suffer bereavement or other unforeseen circumstances.
That’s amazing, and great to hear all the good things coming from such a long history of blacksmithing!
And the funny thing is, people think that there aren’t blacksmiths, and there are. There are quite a lot of us, we just don’t advertise. I know of none in the Worshipful Company or outside who advertise. Metalworkers maybe. Its word of mouth, isn’t it? If you do a good job, then it gets passed on to other people. In 30 odd years I’ve been going, I’ve not advertised at all, apart from, I’ve got my name on my van.
Oh, and then apart from going to the shows, the RHS shows and meeting and talking to people there. I suppose what I am trying to get to is, that it is a bit of a myth that there aren’t any blacksmiths about. There are, we are just a bit hidden.
Have there been any more women appointed into the Worshipful Company since?
Oh yeah, lots now, a lot of women have come through, really good women smiths. I was the first professional blacksmith Liverywoman, but now there are a lot of professional female smiths in the Livery.
That’s great, so you started it off.
Yeah, hopefully. Things have moved on and if I think about it, I haven’t experienced that much sexism but actually I have, you just forget about it. When I was younger, then now older looking back, things have really improved. The blacksmiths are not sexist, it’s more, the general public, than other colleagues.
As people think in their heads this traditional image of a blacksmith, a guy in his forge, and a woman turning up is not this stereotypical image.
That’s it. I can remember doing the shows, and men would come past, well and women, and say ‘isn’t your husband clever?’ And depending what mood I was in, I’d be like ‘yes he really was clever’ despite the fact I hadn’t got one. *laughs* I think they thought I was the secretary; I was just the saleswoman.
I’m at a loss for words and just hoping people have moved on since.
Women have always been involved, for instance, in Bromsgrove, most of the nail and chainmakers were women. During the war women would have been doing tons of stuff, then for some reason, we all disappeared again. Well, presumably they wanted the men to have the jobs. Women were doing everything, then all of a sudden, we weren’t.
I’ve got, hopefully, a nice easy question for you. Is there a particular stand out piece you have forged?
I’m laughing as nothing I ever do is ever good enough. Ever. I do something, think this is just going to be it, and it’s not. It’s never good enough. I mean that’s a bad thing and it’s a good thing. Cos other people think it is good enough, but I don’t.
You are restrained by budget and time. The older you get, the more you learn because you learn through experience. I’ve done some pieces I’m pleased with.
Believe it or not, I don’t draw. Everybody thinks you have to be able to draw, and I don’t draw. My drawing is diabolical. I know you can teach yourself to draw, but when I was at college, the lads, well I say the lads I was the only woman on the course. Their drawings were absolutely incredible and mine was absolutely dire. In a normal world with commissions, people see my style of work. Say I was making a gate, rather than draw it, if it had specific parts I wanted them to see, I would make up that part and show them, rather than draw it.
In terms of standout pieces, I do garden sculptures such as irises and lilies, they are quite popular and do actually look spectacular. So, I’m quite sort of pleased with some of those that I’ve done.
I’m winding down now, and the kids can come through and take my place.
What would a typical day at the forge look like for you? Is there a routine you have, or do you go in and make what you are making?
Well, life in the fire really. This time of year, freezing cold, going in and lighting the fire and I do draw on the floor. I might have to do some practice bits. If I am doing a bit of an experiment, I might literally do an experiment at the forge. What I’m trying to make, but a bit smaller. It’s messy. You can’t go to the forge and come back clean, it’s a physical impossibility. I spend most of my life absolutely covered in soot, dust and metal.
And everything in-between! I guess then come home and have a shower and wind down.
God no! I have to have a bath. A shower is no good. I have to have a bath and shower after the bath to get clean. *laughs*
We touched on it, but my last question was if you had any advice for any women who would like to follow in your footsteps and forge a career in blacksmithing.
Go for it! Don’t let anything hold you back.
Thank you so much! This has been great and really appreciate your time to talk today and get to know the person behind the photograph.
First Women is now open until 8th January 2023 at the Wardlaw Museum and the Laidlaw Music Centre; where you will find the portrait of Michelle displayed.
First Women UK by Anita Corbin. 100 Portraits of 100 First Women to celebrate 100 years of women’s right to vote, created by photographer Anita Corbin over a decade and launched in 2018.3
Written by Sophie Belau-Conlon, Visitor Services Supervisor and Retail and Operations Officer for the Libraries and Museums team at the University of St Andrews.