The photograph could have been taken anywhere
they forged the Royal Navy’s anchor chains –
Dudley, Newcastle, Ponypridd or here
in Saltney, Chester, reclaimed marshland
near the river. Wherever the Sea Lords chose
to give the contract the chain makers
and their families moved – like funfair folk
or circus people – if they were able.
There are thirteen men in the picture – a shift
about to go on judging by the spotless
faces, arms and hands. They are not burly men
though their biceps were developed hauling,
rolling, beating, linking the molten iron.
There is no fat on them – despite the buckets
of draught beer the employer provided
to hydrate them in the purging foundry.
They are pale, working in the dark except
for the furnace glare. They have been posed –
by some Edwardian photographer
keen to record the locality –
in their full length leather aprons, some with caps,
some bare headed, three with mufflers to wipe
the sweat from their eyes, four with waistcoats.
They are sons of blacksmiths, grandsons, village lads,
from the coast, from the hills, from the valleys.
The ones in front are on one knee, with sledge hammers
and tongs, a length of chain at their feet. Unused
to cameras, some look at the lens – like two
kneeling – or away like the one at the back
with his tash and his thumbs in his waistcoat.
He was Simeon Harris – my wife’s grandad.
After the Great War the contract moved. He stayed –
married by then to his best friend’s widow,
responsible for two sets of children –
and never worked again, living on the dole,
the rare rabbit snared on the Duke’s estates,
the very occasional shared salmon
lifted without licence from the river,
his wife’s pittance for cleaning the chapel,
soup from the workhouse for breaking stones.
The day before he died – his wife scolding him
for idling – he sat, on the back step,
smoking a roll-up, his muffler hiding
the cancerous lump on his neck. My wife,
then nine years old, sat close. He whispered to her,
‘I feel bad today, love’.
Note: first published 2016.