The Last Gypsy blacksmith The end of an era?
The symbol for the Sussex Weald is an anvil. Many of our woods survive because they were used to create charcoal for blacksmithing, an ancient craft that lives on in artworks and gates and fences. So why is Hastings Borough Council attempting to shut down what could be the very last Gypsy blacksmith in England? Features co-editor Ben Bruges investigates.
Jake Bowers is known to me as a video production teacher at East Sussex College Hastings. He is also a journalist and producer and worked on, for example, party political broadcasts for Jeremy Corbyn and on a documentary series for Channel 4. He and his video students joined HIP to film our hustings before the last election. It was a surprise to me that he is himself a Gypsy, which we explored in a chat for HIPCAST #4.
What I did not know is that he is also a highly-skilled blacksmith – someone who forges metal and heat into artworks.
On World Peace Day 2014 Hastings’ then mayor, Cllr Bruce Dowling, unveiled a striking piece, a feather bench designed by Alan Wright of the Hastings Quakers and forged by Jake. It was a statement of peace; the mayor saying, “We need to help other people understand that we need peace, we need to get rid of war completely, we need to use our own powers to persuade people, not only locally but nationally, we need to talk to politicians and those who run the country.” As the bench was being fitted, Jake saw a bird of prey circling overhead, which to Gypsies is an auspicious sign.
The point of the artwork is to reclaim the white feather as a badge of pride instead of the sign of cowardice it signified when given to those heroes – the conscientious objectors – of the First World War. Hastings Online Times quoted Harry, 88, the oldest Hastings Quaker, as saying, “We need to keep the light of goodness on … We treat war as if it were unavoidable – but war is in the mind and comes from an absence of spiritual values, a vacuum of goodness. We shouldn’t wait until war comes, but make sure that the circumstances that lead up to it are inspired by the light, by spiritual values.”
You may have noticed the dramatic forged metal tree that forms the gate of Sandown Primary School on The Ridge. Again, a piece by Jake, and one that has become so much part of the identity of the school that you will see it as the school’s logo on their designs and badges on the children’s uniform.
I met Jake behind his beautifully forged gates on Rye Road. He emerged from his garage/forge with his face bathed in sweat.
PART OF GYPSY HERITAGE
The blacksmithing is essentially a hobby that gives him a connection to his Gypsy heritage and through which he keeps himself sane: “This is a one-man band – even to call it a cottage industry would be generous towards it. It’s a garage. It’s a hobby that finances itself. It’s not a threat to the environment. It’s not a threat to the amenity of the area. It’s actually a part of heritage.”
As he explains: “I’m from a Gypsy background. Gypsy people have been smiths – tin smiths, silver smiths, blacksmiths – for the last thousand years and I’m the last one I know of in this country. So, on the face of it, [closing down the forge] flies in the face of everything a Labour council should stand for. Blacksmithing is a part of cultural diversity in terms of work and craft – racial diversity – it’s part of the diversification of people earning their living, which everybody has to do in Hastings. It’s a poor area, in order for us all to survive we’ve got to have side hustles, a little bit of this a bit of that, in order to make just a normal living for our families. Just on a very basic level … the symbol of socialism is a hammer and a sickle, well hammers and sickles are made in forges! On so many levels it’s so symbolically wrong.”
It was because of a complaint from a neighbour that the council is attempting to close the forge down. I wondered if maybe the issue was danger, fire or noise? Jake dismissed that. “Not really. If you have a look at the forge, a forge is a box which is designed to contain heat. While it gets hot enough to melt metal – I wouldn’t have put it in a building on my property if I wasn’t able to control that heat. In the seven years that we’ve been here there hasn’t been a single complaint over noise, or a complaint over fumes, because I use smokeless fuel, and loads of people have got stuff from here that has made their property look nicer. I would understand if it was a big industrial enterprise, which some forges are; they have power hammers, hydraulic presses, free-phase generators which make massive noise and smoke.”
NOT ABOUT HEALTH AND SAFETY
In any case, the council’s record of the complaint states the issue was about running a business from home, not any problem with health and safety. “I’m going to have to close down at a time of an active pandemic when people have been encouraged to stay at home and work from home. The National Planning Policy says that councils should be encouraging rural businesses, live-work accommodation and be able to respond to economic crises. Well if a national pandemic which has created the biggest recession/depression ever is not an economic change, then what is? I feel I’m being bullied out of doing something that I’ve loved doing for ten years.”
He explains that councillors have been more sympathetic, but that these are delegated powers for officers: “What troubles me the most is we’ve had this enforcement letter, there’s no debate, it’s actually illegal, these are discretionary powers and they’ve used their discretion to force me out. And what makes it illegal in the letter: they’ve omitted any kind of right of appeal. So they’re acting immorally, but unlawfully as well.”
HIP have seen the enforcement letter, the key part of which says, “I do consider that a business is being run from the property … it is considered unlikely that a change of use for this business would be considered in a residential area. I therefore ask that the works associated with a business cease … within 21 days of the date of this letter.”
So, I wonder, why doesn’t he appeal?
“There is a system for appeal, but they won’t tell you about it. You have the right to go to a planning inspector, to appeal this to a planning inspector. But you’re talking thousands and thousands of pounds in fees for carrying out what is essentially a self-financing hobby. It’s extremely heavy-handed.
“It’s like all of these things – British justice is the best system that money can buy. You’ve got to have planning lawyers, you’ve got to have planning consultants, you’ve got to have reports, you’ve got to have audio reports, you’ve got to have this, that and the other. By the time you’ve looked into what it costs to stand a reasonable chance, you’re talking tens of thousands of pounds to protect a hobby that makes much less than that. But they haven’t even told me about that option. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to leave Hastings. This forge is going to have to leave Hastings. A bit of Hastings’ cultural diversity is being forced out by the disproportionate actions of a planning officer.”
Somehow, he hopes to be able to continue. “I have made loads of railings, loads of gates, loads of stuff and people seem really happy with it and it’s something different that people aren’t used to. I’m not going to let them beat me. It will continue. It has to continue! It’s an ancient craft.”
The attempt to close him down has resonance for Jake as a Gypsy: “Hastings has never done anything for Gypsies. I’ve lived here most of my life. They’ve never provided a site. They’re very quick to force people to leave. I am like the majority of Gypsies now, we settle, I live in a house. I have a caravan there. But the forge is a big part of my identity. I’m not saying it’s racially motivated, but it has an impact in terms of racial diversity if you’re forcing one of Britain’s last Gypsy blacksmiths (as far as I know) out of Hastings.”
A council spokesperson said: “This matter is being dealt with by our planning colleagues. We don’t discuss ongoing investigations.”
• To contact Jake Bowers or find out more visit www.thirstybearforge.co.uk
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