THIS week, reader John Ker brings us the history of a Peebles blacksmith...

This photograph is one of James Ker with his blacksmiths in the early 1860s at his forge in Ker Place Northgate Peebles.

He was a blacksmith and veterinary surgeon who ran the family business in partnership with his brother Charles Tod Ker also a blacksmith who specialised in the engineering work they undertook.

The family’s very long-established premises were originally at sites where the Eastgate Theatre now stands and one now occupied by a land agent in the Northgate, neighbouring the Cleikum. This must have been a favoured site well-placed beside a coaching inn on the main road North.

The 1860s saw the further development of the railways begun five years previously.

Before this Peebles lived up to its reputation of being, “As quiet as the grave or as Peebles”. With the railways came industry and people and money.

Commercial Peebles began to develop and the Northgate was no exception. Up until then the Northgate was little more than the road out of town with several pastoral tofts strung out along it. Laird Girdwood, was a larger-than-life character and also one of the prominent proprietors. He was also a member of the Peeblesshire Rifle Volunteers.

Then as now, such organisations accommodate a little social networking.

It is not surprising then that Charles Ker, also a Volunteer and his sister acquired one of these tofts from a comrade. Meanwhile James Ker lived with his wife at Red Lion House in Biggiesknowe. Their toft was more than half an acre in size with a barn whose gable end faced the street and a single-storey cottage attached. Parts of the barn were rebuilt

into a new dwelling house.

The barn itself is not without interest being the one scene of Laird Girdwood’s Venison Feast to which all the residents of the Northgate were invited everyone, however, to bring his own beverage.

It was a resounding success—“Never before did the rafters ring with such glee.” was the reported account of the event.

A traditional forge and a modern purpose-built engineering workshop were built as well as a ‘spec’ tenement of four dwellings.

Wrought iron work was much in evidence, with a large garden behind and a rustic rockery at the front of the property. It was then given the name ‘Ker Place’ after the fashion of the time for such businessmen of which there are several examples in Peebles.

The cottage (pre 1823), which is still in place, became part of the enterprise and judging by the size of the lathe bed and fire-scorched rafters some serious work went on there.

It also incorporated James Ker’s dispensary for his veterinary work. James had been a student of William Dick at his Edinburgh Veterinary College which he had established at his father’s forge in Clyde Street in Edinburgh where the bus station now stands.

He obtained his diploma to practice as a veterinary surgeon and was also made a Fellow of the Edinburgh Medical Veterinary Society for his “valuable” contribution to veterinary science. This may have been in connection with a product he sold commercially as ‘Ker’s Alterative Sheep Pill’.

It must have been effective since it was still being sold in the 1930s by his son, John Ker. He, also a blacksmith, had qualified as a veterinary surgeon nearly forty years after his father at what was by then called the Royal “Dick” Veterinary College.

James and his wife died at a young age and his brother and sister, Charles and Elizabeth, carried on the business successfully as well as raising James’s family of two boys.

John Ker, as said, served his apprenticeship as a blacksmith and also qualified as a veterinary surgeon. About 1916 the smiddy closed when the farriers went to war.

John Ker served as a captain with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and on his return practiced locally as a veterinary surgeon until he died after a short illness towards the end of 1938. The smiddy, itself, “did its bit” during hostilities, by billeting troops.

It did not reopen after the war and operate at its former level of business as blacksmiths and engineers. It did, however, remain in general use and is currently a joiner’s workshop.

John Ker was also the last “Boxmaster” (minute secretary) of the Peebles Incorporation of Hammermen—the blacksmiths’ once exclusive and powerful guild.

It fell to him to record in the minutes, rather regretfully, “There was no meeting and no dinner held in 1927”—fitting, his forebear had been one of the founding signatories we believe. Times had changed, the calling had lost its prosperous and confident ambience, and that was a fact.

These events resonate with the story of Black Beauty’s life over a hundred years ago in Victorian England.

Some of his memories were happy and some were very sad, none less so than those when he meets his old friend Ginger . . .