We were promised that Roger Dorking would regale us with tales from the smithy. He explained that he had started giving talks by accident rather than choice. BBC Essex had been preparing a programme on the Essex accent and someone recommended they speak to him. (Having heard him speak, I can confirm that he has an Essex accent and not the Estuary accent that has come to be associated with the county.) He received a telephone call from a BBC researcher and, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to take part. After the live broadcast one of the BBC staff said she had taken a number of telephone calls from people asking whether he gave talks. He phoned them all back and told them he did not. However, a few months later he did accept an invitation from a friend to speak at a WI meeting, which went so well he found himself giving more talks.
His father, known to everyone from the youngest to the oldest simply as “Henry”, was Witham’s blacksmith for nearly sixty years, starting work in the forge at the age of 14 and retiring when he was 70. The original owner retired when Henry was 56 and sold him the business. For the first time in his life Henry had to open a bank account and take out a loan. Even though he was now the owner it was his proud boast that he never earned enough to pay income tax. One of his sayings was “Hard up and happy – Money and misery.”
Henry shod horses for some 20 miles around and acted as farrier at the Essex Show and at the local point-to-point. The horses that came to him he would hot-shoe in his forge. For the other horses he would make the shoes in his forge and take them out to be cold-shoed. He knew the sizes needed by the horses he shoed regularly. For the Essex Show and the point-to-point he would take shoes of a variety of sizes with him and adjust them to fit on site using a portable anvil, a hammer and a pair of pliers.
Because he spent much of the day in the hot forge, Henry liked to be cool at home and would sleep with the window open in all sorts of weather, even though it was north-facing. Roger Dorking told us that one winter’s morning he was woken up by his father yelling “Roger, come in here, boy!” from the next room. He went in to find over an inch of snow on top of his parents’ eiderdown!
Henry would sometimes take the young Roger with him when he visited local farms, so Roger got to know them quite well. At 15 he left school to start working on one of the farms, much to his mother’s disappointment as he had done well at school and she had wanted him to go on to something grander (brain surgery?). Most of the tales he told about his own life were based on his four years working on the farm, so it was obviously a very happy time for him.
A few months after Roger started working on the farm he was asked to work with the horses as one of the horsemen had fallen ill. He worked in particular with two horses, Boxer, who was amenable, and Jack, who was fairly stubborn. He enjoyed ploughing with them. Although most farmers used tractors and other modern equipment, the farmer for whom Roger worked liked seeing the horses working on his farm and could watch them from the farmhouse.
Roger worked with an older horseman, Bert. On one occasion when the harvesting mangels, Roger asked Bert if it would be OK to take half a dozen home for his father to make wine out of them. Bert said “Yes” and Roger put six aside in a bag and cycled the three miles home with it on the front of his bike. When he got home he found that his bag contained nothing but bricks and dirt! Bert had played a trick on him, although he did find the six mangels in a corner when he returned to the farm.
Nothing was said about it. A few months later Bert put some wood aside to take to his cottage across the road from the farm to burn on his fire. Roger opened the bag Bert had put them in and hid two iron ploughshares in it. This time Bert said nothing until several weeks later when he commented that “I found a couple of ploughshares that I put on the fire. They burned beautifully.”
After four years Roger left the farm for higher wages and worked in a number of non-farming jobs, including one he had at Marconi’s for twenty years. He married and started his own family, not having taken his father’s advice “Remain single and bring up your children to do the same.”
Space prevents me repeating all the stories Roger Dorking told us. He proved to be a real character, so it is no wonder people were so taken by his original broadcast. If you ever get the opportunity to hear him speak, do take it.