AS A lad, Francis Gray and his school chums would cheekily pop into the blacksmith’s shop at West Pinchbeck to fan the flames in the forge.
They invariably got into trouble with the blacksmith for doing it, but Francis says they loved to see flickering flames emerge from the heap of ashes.
Little did Francis know that the smithy, known as Alleluia Blacksmith because he was also a local preacher in the Primitive Methodist Church, would in return fan some flames that have lasted Francis a life-time.
Francis, of Pennygate, Spalding, has been a local preacher with the Methodist church for over 70 years, apart from a couple of years when he was an evangelist for the Wesleyan Reform Union. He is 95 next month but is still on the rota of preachers who conduct services at Methodist churches in the district.
Francis recalls that when he was growing up most villages had a blacksmith that farmers relied upon for sharpening tines on the furrows, shoeing horses or repairing a cartwheel.
“I had to walk about a mile to school and we used to pass the blacksmith’s shop,” said Francis. “Often, when we came home from school we would have a peep in and there was a horse being shod.
“As we got older we would go into the shop and see what looked like a dead heap of ashes. We would blow and eventually see a little flame flicker. Of course, we used to get told off, but we often did it.”
The blacksmith was actually called Lewis Mabbot, one of half a dozen local preachers in the church at Pinchbeck West at that time. The church has been converted into a house, but Francis, who started going out with Lewis when he went to preach, recalls the days when there would be more than 100 children in Sunday School.
Francis left school at 14 and followed his father into work as a farm labourer, but knew within six months it wasn’t for him and joined Willis Hardy in one of its two shoe shops in Spalding, running around picking out shoes. He then went to local barber “Slasher Moore” in Winsover Road and offered himself as an assistant, something he did until the war.
He served in the Navy, minesweeping at first before training for the medical corps, and eventually transferring to the medical branch of the Fleet Air Arm and spent a year in charge of a medical depot in Australia.
Returning to the district after the war, Francis went back to his job at the barber’s shop – employers were obliged to offer jobs to returning servicemen – before deciding it was time he had his own business.
He started hairdressing at Donington, eventually marrying Ruby, who sadly died about eight years ago, who had a drapery shop in the town, and the couple went on to have two sons, Barry and Ian. As both shops were opposite the Methodist Church, Francis says there was no excuse for not going to church. In fact, he was in charge of the Sunday School at Donington.
Francis was acknowledged as a fully fledged local preacher in July 1939, so 73 years ago. People frequently ask him how long it takes to write a sermon and he jokes: “About a week and 50 or 60 years.”
He admits he never thought he would still be preaching in his 90s, but says: “You improve as time goes on. I keep saying, I don’t know how much longer he wants me to carry on, because I am getting very frail and shaky, but I still enoy it and it’s a message that needs to be told.”