For almost 200 years a blacksmith’s forge stood at the corner of the High Road and Lordship Lane in Wood Green, where the Hollywood Cinema is today. Whether, like Longfellow's smithy it stood under a spreading chestnut tree is quite another matter!
The bare bones of the Wood Green Smithy story have been known for quite some time. However little more has been written about this celebrated establishment other than its existence, the name of the founder, a founding date and a rough date of closure.
It occurred to me recently to see if I could add to this sketchy outline.
I’m glad to say that I have been able to put a little more flesh on the bones. But, as so often with any history, you get more bones than flesh and some details remain elusive.
The Forge Story as Told
A watercolour painted in 1924 presented a romantic version of the forge, emphasising a long-lost pastoral charm. This picture has come to be the go-to visual reference of the forge.
The sign that stood above the main door of the forge tells us that that the family claim to have started the business in 1770. Local histories have it that a George Chesser was the founder and that the business ran until the 1920s.
FLESH ON THE BONES
The Chesser Name
As I started looking, repeated mentions of the Chesser name came up in the north of England and in Edinburgh. A little digging around enabled me to confirm that the name is most likely from Cheshire and is in fact a contraction of the county name.
Chessers in Wood Green
During the second half of the Eighteenth Century, records pick up a branch of the Chessers in Wood Green. It may be that they had been in the area for many years or it might be that they were newly arrived from a branch of the family that is documented in East London. Further research wold be required to properly establish this.
The first recorded Wood Green Chesser I’ve been able to track down is Ephraim. Born in 1743, Ephraim lived to the venerable old age of 85. The public notice of his death in 1828 described him as ‘wheelwright and smith’.
Although it has come to be accepted that it was a George Chesser who set up the Blacksmith’s business in Wood Green, in this moderately well documented family, I can find no mention in the records of a George until the next generation. However, it is possible to trace a line from Ephraim through to the demise of the forge in the Twentieth Century. So, I wonder if it was in fact was Ephraim rather than the elusive George who founded the business. He would have been 27 in 1770 when the family claim to have set up the forge. So that could work.
Wood Green in 1770
The population of Britain grew rapidly during the eighteenth century, from around five million people in 1700 to nearly nine million by 1801. Wood Green’s population also doubled during the same period. But it was still a village. By 1801 the population was only 100.
The image above is an extract from the Newtons’ Map of Tottenham of 1818. It shows just how few houses there were. Nonetheless, Chesser’s forge at the junction of Lordship Lane and Green Lanes was perfectly sited to take advantage of the boom in London’s growth and the increase in road traffic that came with it.
The Founding Chessers
One might have expected Ephraim to have started a family in his twenties, through the 1760s. But the earliest of the next generation offered by the records is a George born in 1788. He was joined by a sibling every two years until 1798. All were children of a Ephraim and Mary Chesser. Ephraim would have been 45 at George’s birth, and by the time of the last birth in 1798, he would have been 55.
While it’s perfectly feasible for Ephraim to have been fathering children at such an age, if Mary was Ephraim’s contemporary, it seems unlikely that she would have been giving birth into her fifties. So, perhaps Ephraim married twice, or married late, in either case perhaps choosing a younger bride.
So, at the moment gaps in the evidence remain. Whilst one or two of these may be filled by an interrogation of the early poor rate books, as things stand, I’m inclined to feel comfortable making the assumption that the forge line starts with Ephraim.
As the oldest son, one might expected that George would have gone into his father’s business. Apparently, he didn’t. His will described him as a ‘Chandler and Beer Shop Keeper’. The 1841 Census shows him as a ‘Chandler‘ on Lordship Lane. And an 1844 newspaper advert for a cottage to let gives the contact as a Mrs Chesser at the Jolly Anglers. So this might have been the beer house of which George was the keeper. I wonder what story lies behind George branching out and away from the blacksmith business? A falling out of some sort?
Records show that it was George’s younger brother Daniel who took up the reins at the forge. Born in 1796, he married Mary Julian in 1823. Three years later his father, Ephraim died, aged 85. Announcing his death, the Law Advertiser described Ephraim as ‘Smith and Wheelwright’.
The census of 1841 records Daniel as a ‘Blacksmith’. In 1851 he’s a ‘Smith and Farrier’ and by 1861, he’s just described as a ‘Farrier’. Living with him are his wife and son Henry. By the time of the 1841 census at the age of 17, Henry is working alongside his father as a blacksmith. It’s interesting to see that in the last of those three censuses, George’s wife, Susana who was widowed in 1850, is living next door with her son and daughter-in-law. She is described as a ‘Retired Beer Shop Keeper’.
The Third Generation
Henry (who I'll refer to as Henry Snr from here) married Eleanor Somes in 1862. The marriage records describe him as a veterinary surgeon. One might conclude that to describe himself as a vet, a blacksmith’s son was merely posing as something rather grand. But, in fact Henry Snr appeared in the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Register of Veterinary surgeons from December 1861 until his death. Twenty years after he qualified, the Veterinary Surgeon's Act, granted qualified vets such as he the exclusive right to the title “veterinary surgeon”. So clearly some of his contemporaries were posing as vets. Henry Snr, it seems, was properly qualified.
Henry Snr’s father, Daniel, died in January 1866. In the census five years later, Henry Snr and Eleanor have three children - Henry Daniel, aged 6, Sidney Herbert 4 and Helena just 6 months old. A fourth child, Arthur, was born in in 1875. Henry Snr’s mother Mary, now in her seventies, is living with them.
By 1871, Henry Snr is described as ‘Veterinary Surgeon and Smith’. So, evidently, he’s not only practising as a vet, he’s keeping the forge business going. But, by 1891, he is described simply as a ‘Veterinary Surgeon’. Perhaps he’s got back to focussing on his profession and leaving the forge business to Henry Daniel and Sidney who are still at home and working as smiths.
1898 proved to be a bit of an annus horribilis for the Chessers. Tragedy struck first in August, when Alfred Chesser took his own life by consuming rat poison. I can’t pin down Alfred’s relationship to the main smithing family with certainty, but I believe that he was Henry Daniel’s cousin. Both Henry Daniel’s Brother Sidney and Alfred lived a 2 Brabant Road, Wood Green. So it’s perhaps safe to appropriate to accept this as evidence that they are related.
Then in November 1898 Henry Snr died as a result of an accident. The following article appeared in the press on 3 December:
Death of Mr Chesser from an Accident in Green Lanes
Mr Chesser - whose serious injuries are reported in our last issue - died on Thursday last week and his death formed the subject of an inquest held by Mr Alfred Hodgkinson, coroner for East Middlesex, at the Town Hall, Wood Green, on Saturday evening.
Henry D Chesser said that deceased was his father. He was 76 years of age, and was a veterinary surgeon. Witnesses saw deceased about 10 o’clock on Tuesday morning, when he left home in a trap. He was in his usual health. Some time afterwards witnesses heard that his father had met with an accident in the Green-lanes. Witness went to the spot, and found deceased lying in the channel. It was said that the horse slipped and threw deceased out of the trap. He was conscious, but all he said was, “Take me home.” Deceased was riding in company with his housekeeper, Miss Blackwell. By the doctor’s advice he was conveyed to the Great Northern Hospital, but he was taken home again the same day, and was attended by Dr Foote until he died on Thursday.
Elizabeth Blackwell, of Station Road, Wood Green, said that she was the housekeeper to deceased. On Tuesday witness went with him for a ride along the Green-lanes. When passing other vehicles the horse slipped, and the wheel coming in contact with the curb she and the deceased were thrown out of the trap. She was injured on the face and hands. Deceased struck the left side of his head on the road, causing a wound which bled profusely. The accident appeared to be the result of the horse stumbling.
Mrs Mary Willis daughter of the deceased, said that he was a very sober man, and had been accustomed to drive all his life. After he got to the hospital he begged to be taken home saying to her, “Polly do take me home!” The hospital authorities gave permission and he was removed.
P.c. Hewitt, 444 Y, said deceased bled profusely as a result of the fall. He appeared to be in a state of collapse. Dr Maddison was called, and he advised that deceased to be taken to the hospital, where witness and other constables conveyed him on the ambulance. The house surgeon said that he must remain there for a few hours before being removed home. Deceased was not able to make any statement about the accident.
Dr Foote said that he attended deceased after he was brought from the hospital. He had sustained injuries to the face and shoulder. The immediate cause of death was syncope.
A verdict of accidental death was returned.
The mortal remains of Mr Henry Chesser were interred on Tuesday in the great Northern Cemetery at New Southgate. The deceased was followed to the grave by members of his family, his workpeople, and several of his neighbours. Many flower emblems were placed upon the coffin. The deceased was one of the oldest tradesmen in Wood Green, and was much respected and widely known throughout the Northern suburbs.
The Last Farrier Generation
The 1901 census shows that Henry Daniel took up the reins of the business. Living with him are his wife, Sarah, and their two-year old daughter, Kathleen. Also living with them are Mary Willis and her 7-year old son, Arthur Frederick. Mary was Henry Daniel's sister, the widow of Thomas Willis.
In the census year, the part of Green Lanes south of Lordship Lane is referred to for the first time as 'High Street' and the forge is given a numbered address for the first time – 182 High Street.
The Chesser carnival float outside Chesser's forge. The float was used on 27th June, 1900 in the Harringay, Hornsey & Wood Green Carnival in aid of the widows and orphans of the Boer War. It is shown as "Village Smithy' in the 'order of procession' and came just before a float with someone dressed as Lord Kitchener in Egyptian uniform, followed by an escort of 17th Lancers. Photo: Chris Ransom.
By 1911, Arthur Frederick was 17 and he joined his uncle working at the forge. A photo from around this time shows the premises on the far right. It was taken at the junction of the High Road and Lordship Lane looking south-east.
In 1915 we find Arthur Frederick enlisted in the Army where he’s serving as a soldier-farrier.
Nine years later Henry Daniel was trying to modernise the business a little to cope with changing times. Hoping to serve motorised transport as he and his family had served horse transport for so many years, he arranged to install a petrol pump outside the forge.
An article in the national picture press recorded the moment.
The text beneath was:
A farrier’s shop which was founded 300 years ago* is still plying its trade in the High Road, Wood Green, among the trams and ‘buses. The present smith, Mr Chesser, is having a petrol pump installed to cope with the decreasing horse trade and the ever-increasing motor trade.
(*the 300 years is newspaperman’s licence!)
Sadly, Henry Daniel, the last farrier of the family died in April 1926.
His death seems to have spelled the end for the forge. But business did carry on in family hands at 182 High Road. The premises were left in the hands of Arthur Frederick and his wife Phoebe. By this time, they had a 8-year-old son Frederick Richard.
Arthur and his son were both described in contemporary electoral registers as ‘Nurseryman and seedsman’. They ran Willis and Sons seed merchants from the old forge premises, whilst Phoebe based a florist business there.
Before long, the family moved to 21 Ewart Grove, Wood Green. This was to be their home for the rest of their lives.
Phoebe died there in 1970 and Arthur in 1978. Frederick lived next door, at number 23, until he died in 1993.
The seed business seems to have run until Phoebe’s death. The last trace I can find of it is in the 1969 London phone directory.
Still, that was 199 years in the hands of the same family. Not a bad run!
All the above is sourced from original research, mainly using primary documentation.
Thanks Hugh for such a detailed account of the Chessers.
I am at the last chilled by the idea of the smithy installing petrol pumps....
Yes Hugh, great work again. So very interesting and such detail. And to think I would have passed that site so many times without the faintest idea of it's history. My Mother used to relay tales to me of when she would walk down Green Lanes from Chase Road as a young girl doing errands for her mother. She said much of Green Lanes at that time was indeed green. I could never imagine it being so. My recollections of the area only span from early 50's !
Love this site thanks Hugh..........and other contributors.
So much my local 'playground'. I lived all my childhood in Redvers Road (No.4 as was) and had a good friend who lived on Spouters Corner - John Collier by name. Back then (early fifties) I had no knowledge of Willis's being a forge. Saturdays on Spouters Corner were for occasional entertainment, often with a man chained and locked into a trunk from which he would escape. Sundays saw the Salvation Army brass band playing Hymns. Sunday School was attended in the Congregational Church. All now buried under the monster of progress.
John Collier ??? Surely not he who made mens suits !
How did that ad go, something like....."John Collier, John Collier the window to watch !"
aka the "Ten bob tailors" ??
No, far from it John! But yes, That was the 'jingle' for the tailor's.
Keevan's is where my school uniforms came from, and they had an X-ray machine for shoe fittings where you stood on it (like a weighing machine), put your feet - in shoes- into a hole in the bottom and through a viewing piece (one for you and one for the assistant) could see your foot and toe bones, the outline of the shoe and the nails!
The pub next door was always known as 'The Alec', and the Eastern National bus garage was always referred to by my parents as the 'City bus garage'. Some of the Cream Coaches used to be shedded there too.
The Trolleybuses on route 643 would terminate in Lordship Lane outside Harry Boult's at the Alighting stop, then proceed to the lights and turn left, past the stops on Spouters Crn where the conductor would hop off the platform to pull the handle on the traction pole to change the 'frog' on the overhead wires enabling the Trolley to turn left again into Buller Rd. He'd hop back on after the booms had cleared the frog, and off along Bullers at speed - left into Redvers and pull up on the offside outside the Church Hall. Crew (time permitting) would then break in the Eastern National canteen.
There was always an Inspector on duty in Redvers, and he would be in communication with the Depot, Spouters Corner office, and maybe elsewhere by weather protected LT telephone mounted on a traction pole. I'll have to dig some photos out.
Wonderful recollection there, enjoyable read.
Thanks to a surviving relative of the family, we now have a photo of Henry Senior. Looks more the vet than the blacksmith in that photo.
Further new image added - of Chesser carnival float c1900.
And two final images added of the WIllis flower stand.