‘The Rural World of Oliver Higgins’ was an article written in 1980 by Nick Large and it is reproduced here with Nick’s kind permission. He looks back on one of Thornbury’s best known citizens of the early years of this century, finding that his lifestyle reflects a community far removed from the town as it is today.
At the beginning of the century there were three blacksmiths’ shops in Thornbury, one of them that of Oliver Higgins in Crispin Lane. Mr Higgins industry and skill as a smith were legendary, and much of it rubbed off on his assistant, Fred Pearce who was later to take over the business.
Much of the smithy’s work involved shoeing horses, not least the massive animals that drew the timber wagons for Cullimore’s sawmill near by. Then there were the horses and ponies of the local tradesmen, on a harsh winter’s day they would form a pre-dawn queue outside the smithy door, waiting to be fitted with nails to counter the icy conditions.
The job of fitting an iron band to a wooden wheel rim was one that required speed and teamwork. The metal tyre was heated in the forge, and then carried outside with tongs to where the wheel had been positioned in the lane. The tyre was slipped on quickly, after which the hot malleable metal was hammered against the wood. Finally it was douched with water, so that it shrank to give a tight fit, and the red hot iron, the earnest and rhythmical movements of the smiths and the hissing and steam clouds must have been a dramatic spectacle.
The smithy was a fascinating place for schoolboys: one Thornbury resident, Ivor Mills, recalls that you were always allowed to go inside and watch as long as you stood well clear. If the smiths had time, and you asked nicely, they might even make you a hoop.
Higgins’ craft as a smith was given full scope in his wrought ironwork. It made him famous beyond Thornbury and led to his being demand for demonstrations at the major shows. His daughter, Joan, remembers that he regarded his outings to shows at places like Malvern and Harrogate as his holidays.
The fuel supply for his forge was assured, for he ran a coal delivery business, which operated from a depot at Thornbury station, using carts drawn by horses and a pair of mules. The mules – World war One Veterans – must have found life on the coal cart tame after hauling a gun carriage, yet their performance was praiseworthy. One mule was a regular sight walking unaccompanied down Thornbury Hill. The unknowing might have assumed that it was demonstrating the breed’s traditional perversity, having tired of its work, escaped and set off for home. Not true, it was on its way to meet the next cart out of the yard, so that it could be hitched to it and provide extra drawing power for the gradient.
Higgins had a further source of income. From his home, his wife and daughter operated a shop selling commodities like soap, candles, paraffin and buckets. Later the family acquired a flock of hens and eggs went on offer, too. As a smith it was appropriate that Higgins should have been a member of the town fire brigade. The part time firemen were splendidly uniformed and equipped and took their duties very seriously. Joan Higgins recalls nights when there would be a knocking on their front door by the brigade’s call boy or the local policeman, and her father would leap from his bed, grope for his fire clothes, and run off down the street while still fastening his braces. Meanwhile other men would be hurriedly turning hordes out of the stables and hitching them to the fire tender.
The outfit would then clatter away to some house or rick fire, and the mad gallop to a neighbouring village along narrow, unlit lanes must have proved as exciting as the blaze itself. Most times the action was nearer home though, and there is one ironic entry in the fire brigade records “12.8.1907 – Fire at O. Higgins’s smithy”.
Higgins was a fireman for a number of years, and became brigade captain in 1927, before resigning abruptly eighteen months later, probably as the result of internal difference of opinion.
Higgins was no stranger to controversy, having been involved in the celebrated return of the town pump in 1924. This and its associated railings had been a loved focal point of the most important road junction in Thornbury, the meeting of The Plain, High Street and Castle Street, and local residents were incensed when the council removed it, arguing that it was redundant and presented a serious obstacle to the town’s growing traffic. The move was seen as an official act of vandalism, carried out without seeking the opinions of the rate-payers, and a group which included Higgins located the pump remains, loaded them into a cart, paraded them through the town defiantly, and re-assembled them! They then mounted a night guard in an attempt to ensure that the pump was not taken away again, but it was a lost cause. The council won the day with legal confirmation that the pump should never have been put into the street in the first place………
In politics Higgins was a Liberal and he had strongly held, if somewhat unorthodox religious beliefs. In spite of his many commitments he always found time to help others and was a regular visitor at the Thornbury Workhouse ….