English Camp Blacksmith’s Shop

The Royal Marines’ Tool for Self-Sufficiency

Because when you’re at the end of the Western world, someone needs to make the door hinges.

The Royal Marines stationed on San Juan Island were effectively at the farthest end of the British Empire—which to them meant the end of civilization itself. Their supply line stretched for 4,750 miles across two oceans, and it took about six weeks to reach even the east coast of the United States.  The camp of the Royal Marines was essentially a small town unto itself, and like most self-sufficient towns of the era, they needed a blacksmith.

Blacksmiths were responsible for making virtually all sturdy metal items used by a settlement, including nails, hinges, latches, horseshoes, hammers, scythes, wagon parts, and so on.  An anvil may be the most recognizable tool of a blacksmith, but just as important were his hammers, tongs, and shaping tools.  A british military manual from 1853 lists the contents of a “forge wagon” (used when the unit deployed away from a permanent smithy) as: a pair of bellows, an anvil, two pairs tongs, a slice, a ladle, two vices, three hammers, two chisels, two punches, a screwdriver, and four types of rasps, all in addition to the raw materials.  While these were considered the minimum necessary tools, a forge such as the one on San Juan Island had the luxury of accumulating a wider range of implements.

Forges of this era worked quite differently from modern ones.  For instance, the forge was likely fired with charcoal rather than coal.  Coal did not come into common use until about the 1870s, and at any rate, charcoal was considered the superior fuel.  The tewel or tuyere pipe, which is how the air from the bellows blows into the fire to heat it, was placed to the side of charcoal rather than under it (as in a modern forge).  The placement of the tewel was just another reason that charcoal-fired forges were easier to construct than their coal-fired counterparts.  Other reasons were that they were made of rock (for the walls and foundation) and sand (for the hearth) as opposed to brick and cast iron.

The marine assigned to blacksmith duty was one of the busier men in the camp, and even got extra pay for his skill and labor.  Smithing was a marketable skill, so the extra pay was important.  In 1870, Congress received a petition from US Army officers to increase the pay of blacksmiths.  The officers wrote that pay was “not sufficient to secure the service on the frontier of competent persons to fill the position.  The demand for mechanics is so great that good blacksmiths will not re-enlist, while many are tempted to desert before the expiration of their term of service.”  In a fully-manned British unit, there could even have been two separate smiths: a “jobbing” smith and a “shoeing” smith, also called a farrier.  On San Juan Island, however, the roles were almost certainly combined due to the size of the garrison.

In the end, a heavily used building showed its wear and tear: the structure was considered officially worthless by 1st Lt. Haughey when valuing the buildings at the island’s turnover.  While it seems that the building itself was still intact when Haughey completed his valuation, by about 1915 photographs show that the only parts remaining were the masonry wall and forge bed.