I first heard about Patterson’s many years ago whilst I was still working for the National Trust as a forester. It was an unusual property for the Trust to take on because it was relatively modern industrial heritage.

On Tuesday I finally got to visit. I was in Northern Ireland partly to work on the forthcoming National Occupational Standards for Craft and partly to meet traditional craftspeople there to find out if they are facing similar issues to those this side of the water and to see if the HCA can be of benefit to them. Tuesday morning was my only free time and I was very disappointed when I discovered it was the only day of the week that Patterson’s was closed. Tom Mahon opened up specially for us though and gave Joe Kelly, director of Craft Northern Ireland, and myself the VIP tour.

The current guide book introduces the property by saying in the mill “are represented elements which are intrinsic to the culture and heritage of this part of the world..The craft was carried out by the fifth generation of a family, the last remnant of an industry, which was once widespread. The industry produced a product that was pervasive in Irish culture, an essential part of agricultural life, illustrating the diversity of countryside and custom, and enshrined in the vitality of language and phrase, in song and in literature.”

Perhaps what is most special about Patterson’s is that it is not just a static museum the Trust have continued spade production. Not at a commercial level perhaps but at least at a level that means that the skills must be preserved and passed on and the machinery maintained.

I had no idea that a spade would be forged from a single smal block of steel 3″x4″ as seen on the right here.

The shoulders are forged first then a spike is pressed down into the near white hot metal to open the slot where eventually the handle will go. This hole is then filled with ash and closed up whilst the spades blade is forged out. Before finally being reopend at the end.

The place is full of big boys toys (sorry tools) like this big hammer.

For me though the highlight of a visit there must be the tilt hammer. I have worked in the forges at Abbeydale industrial hamlet in Sheffield where they have 2 old inoperative tilt hammers but I have never seen one working. A tilt hammer is simply a huge hammer fixed on a pivot near the end of the giant handle, a cam on the driveshaft from the waterwheel hits the end of the handle downwards which flicks the hammer up in the air and it then falls under it’s own weight. I had always imagined it would be enormously noisy, clattery and difficult to control but actually it was somehow quite soft gentle and controllable whilst still having a lot of power. I can imagine how much a skilled man could produce in a day working on such a tool. Tom told us that during full production in the past the mill would produce an average of one spade per man per hour.

Handles are cut from locally sourced ash and rounded in this huge pecil sharpener like machine.

This copy lathe makes the handle tops.

When the handle is fitted it gets rolled in this roller which presses the metal flanges into the wooden handle so they are smooth to the touch.

Tom could talk about spades all day, today most spades are pressed out of a single thickness of plate but a forged spade can be thick where it needs extra strength and thin and light where it doesn’t. The “spring” is important, I know a clogmaker who uses exactly the same term to mean just the same thing. It is the bend in the blade, that means that when you have cut the spade into the ground you can use leverage to lift the soil, it is particularly important in clay soils where you need to break the suction of the clay.

Tom said they have recorded over 150 different types of spade all slight regional variations to suit the local soil conditions.

So how much does a quality forged spade cost? About £65 which has to be a bargain for the amount of work involved. On this trip I couldn’t bring one home with me but I will be back.

Author Robin Wood

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