• A 17th century English fireback in Wicklow

    A number of years ago I was shown a 17th century fireback in a house in Ashford, Co. Wicklow. The fireback in question is made from cast-iron and measures 70cm wide and 53cm high. It is rectangular in shape with a domed top, and features a coat of arms and the date 1650.

    Firebacks in the 17th century were manufactured at blast furnaces and cast in open sand moulds. There is growing evidence that firebacks were produced in Ireland during the 17th century, but the numbers appear to have been relatively small. The origins of the Ashford fireback remained a mystery until recently when my colleague Con Manning showed me a book by Jeremy Hodgkinson that provides a catalogue of firebacks from Britain.

    In his book, Jeremy illustrates an example at the Anne Cleves House Museum in Sussex that is practically identical to the Ashford fireback. The fireback in question is also dated 1650 and only differs very slightly in terms of decoration. It is also very slightly larger, measuring 76.6cm wide and 58cm high. The arms on this fireback are identical to those on the Ashford fireback, and we can now positively identify them as belonging to the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths of London, who were granted these arms in 1610. They consist of a shield with three hammers crowned with open crowns, divided by a chevron. Above the helmet is a phoenix rising from flames.

    So the mystery of the crest is solved. However, it turns out that there is more to the fireback than first meets the eye. At the base of the fireback at the Anne Cleves House Museum are the initials I and M. Until I saw the photo of this fireback I hadn’t noticed that the same initials, though very faint, are also present on the Ashford fireback. In his book Jeremy Hodgkinson has found a small number of firebacks with the initials I M, and he suggest that these represent the initials of the man who manufactured them. Furthermore, he argues that they were produced in the Wealdon area of the southeast of England, i.e. the areas where the counties of Sussex, Kent and Surrey meet, which was the primary area of fireback production in 17th century England.

    And so, much of the mystery of the Ashford fireback has been solved. We now know much more than its date (1650); we can now say that it was manufactured in the southeast of England by a man with the initials I M, and most likely for a member of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths of London. However, part of the mystery remains unresolved. How on earth did a 17th century English fireback end up in a house in Ashford, Co. Wicklow. At this point I should say that the house where it was found does not date to the 17th century. Despite this, the question remains, could the fireback have come from another house in the area? Could it have been in the area since the 17th century (we still know relatively little about the English settlement of Wicklow in the 17th century). Or did it come to Ashford much more recently, perhaps bought at an auction in England and brought over to Wicklow in the last 20 or 30 years?

    Any suggests would be very welcome.

    For further reading see;

    Jeremy Hodgkinson, British cast-iron firebacks of the 16th to mid 18th centuries (2010, Crawley).

    2 Comments

    • 1. Nov 25 2016 6:22PM by Greg Smith

      I recently move into a new (17th Century) cottage in Berkshire and found the same fireback hidden in the back of one of the fireplaces.Can't see any initials. I have a photo if you're interested. Greg

    • 2. Apr 30 2018 7:29PM by Clare

      I also have a fireback exactly the same but mine is 76 x 56cms x 2cm. A wealthly american couple owned by 16th century cottage near Bath so I believed it to possible be an original rather than a reproduction. I know it's not original to the cottage though as it was renovated by developers in 1970.

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