When Nigel Tyas landed a pit blacksmith’s apprenticeship at the age of 16, he thought his life was mapped out.
Like most men in Bolton on Dearne, he expected to toil in the local coal industry, making underground railway junctions, cage equipment and chains, for the rest of his working days.
Then came the miners’ strike. “We were all out; I was in my 30s, married with a house to pay for; hard times,” remembers Nigel, now 60.
The pit closures brought the bitter taste of redundancy. But Nigel showed his mettle, landing a job running YTS schemes with Barnsley Youth Training Services - only to be made redundant again.
Security returned with Wakefield company ServoPlas; he travelled Europe installing industrial machinery for plastic bag manufacturers for 13 years.
“Then I got made redundant for the third time. I was 46 and it was a very hard blow. I got to a very low ebb,” he says. “I felt I was on the scrapheap.”
Second wife Elizabeth Stocker, who he had met through Wath Morris Dancing Team - she was one of the musicians, he one of the dancers - hauled him up by the boot-strings and suggested he turned his hobby into a business.
“In my spare time I had been using the blacksmithing skills I learnt as a lad to make things for our house. We lived in an Edwardian terraced in Oxspring and when we couldn’t find things of the period, I made them.
“In 2000 we set up Nigel Tyas Ironworks and started to make and sell hand-crafted candlesticks and curtain poles - anything to make some money. There was demand, people clearly appreciated traditional skills again - and I’d gone full circle in my working life.
“I realised redundancy had been the best thing that ever happened to me. You have to use it as a springboard and be open to the new ideas and directions available to you.”
Soon realising local trade wasn’t going to be enough to keep the business going, Tyas expanded the range to include lighting, window and door furniture and launched a website with Elizabeth at the helm. “There are very few people doing what we do. They key, though, was making sure people could find us. Orders came in from as far away as Australia and Japan. Most were ex-pats, wanting the traditional British heritage style they couldn’t find abroad.
“Then we got our first big order - for a castle in Denmark. Part of it was being converted into a brewery business centre and they wanted iron chandeliers that would be in keeping with the architecture. I was making everything from our garage at the time.”
The marriage of modern global communication networks and the time-old skills Nigel had learned in an NCB workshop paid off; Tyas items now grace homes and heritage buildings all over the world.
One of their giant chandeliers hangs in the Tower Of London; wall lights and fireside irons have had a cameo role on TV soap Emmerdale. Tyas curtain poles are ow appearing on the Sky Television fantasy drama Game of Thrones. They went to the cinema especially to see their period door fittings adding authenticity to the Elstree-made movie The Other Boleyn Girl.
Leeds Castle in Kent, medieval manor houses across Europe, numerous churches and hotels and the Tower of London now have the Tyas touch and products also grace the homes of TV personalities and filmstars; Jeremy Paxman has a Tyas fireguard, Helena Bonham Carter has their curtain poles and window fittings.
Recent orders include chandeliers for a Covent Garden restaurant, a top Scottish hotel and churches in Oxford and Monyash in Derbyshire and curtain poles and light fittings for a luxury log cabin holiday park near Inverness.
Products have just gone out to Australia, Switzerland, France, Sweden and the Falklands.
“It’s amazing where our products end up. Our biggest markets are people restoring old properties, self-build projects and churches, but we never know what order is going to come in next,” says Nigel. “Getting a call from architects redesigning an entrance lobby at the Tower of London last winter was the biggest surprise of all, though.”
Help and advice on how to increase exports while also upping its marketing in the UK has come from the business support programme Enterprising Barnsley, which is run by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council,
Nigel has recently diversified to capture new markets, designing a range of lighting with a simplistic, modern touch which is appealing to architects and the hotel trade.
“We are traditional in the way we make things here,” said Nigel. “But we also have to keep up to date with products. After all those years in industry, I’ve found my creative side.”
At the company’s base at Bullhouse Mill industrial estate on the edge of picturesque Millhouse Green, a large showroom bursts with stunning examples of Nigel’s lovingly hand-crafted workmanship.
But the very heart of the business is the forge, where glowing furnaces blast out heat and red-hot metal is pounded into shape in exactly the same way it would have been by a village blacksmith 300 years ago.
The firm employs nine and Nigel has enjoyed trained up his three blacksmiths in the old skills. “I’m sure people thought one day there wouldn’t be a place for blacksmithing. Here we are, turning over half a million a year at our peak and making things that will be enjoyed for generations of people around the globe.”
And in an era when virtually everything can be mass-produced cheaply on the other side of the world, Nigel Tyas is proving there is another way. He employs the technical expertise of local companies; Synergetics in Chesterfield provide small parts, Meadowhall’s Charles Day do their laser cutting and Deepcar’s Trojan Engineering are also suppliers. Steel, though, has to come from a stockholder in Bradford - it’s impossible to buy small amounts direct from Sheffield producers.
“We get approaches every day from China and India offering to manufacture for us. If we were different people and making money was the sole goal, we would have done that a long time ago. “But we take great pride in the fact that everything we do is British-made - and that’s the way we want it to stay.
“We’re struggling to find skilled people to sub-contractor door and window fittings to at the moment; anyone out there, please get in touch.”