Chain Makers - the White Slaves of England by Nigel Brown

Map of the chainmaking towns of the Black Country from "Chainmaking in the Black Country" (1995) by Ron Moss.

Cradley achieved prominence in the nineteenth century as a centre of iron chain making.

The chains were of many dimensions depending on the end uses, which were various. One of the many specialities of the area was anchor cables for ships, and the anchors were often made at the same works.

At the end of the nineteenth century 90% of all the chain workshops in England and Wales were in the five chain making towns of Cradley, Cradley Heath, Old Hill, Quarry Bank and Netherton (see map).

In fact, the Black Country chainmaking townships had a virtual monopoly of iron chain making in the whole world. It was the foundation of prosperity in the area, but the workers who nade the chain, the chain makers, were famously described as the white slaves of England.

The White Slaves of England

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, Cradley had a number of chain making companies and workshops. The major ones were The Cradley Chain and Manufacturing Company in Bridge Street; Jones & Lloyd Co. Ltd. in High Town, Reece's alongside the alleyway between Colley Lane and Maple Tree Lane, and Willetts & Sons, also of High Town.

However, a large proportion of chain making was carried on in the home, usually on a hearth in the "brewus" (brew house and wash house), the outbuilding in the back yard, most often by women who worked there during the day and into the night, for pitiful wages.

The chain makers were highly skilled but not so highly paid, and their living and working working conditions were poor. Robert H. Sherard, a prolific writer of novels, biographies and social commentaries, wrote his book The White Slaves of England (1898), the final chapter of which is a graphic description of the lives of the chain makers.

The Chain Makers chapter (and the Prefaces to the book and some Appendices, for the context they give) of Sherard's book is available for download from here (image left). You will need "pdf reader" software to read the Diary once downloaded. If one is not already installed on your computer, there are many to choose from, mostly free to download and use, for example, PDF-XChange Viewer.

The Anvil Yard, Cradley [Painting by Glen Billingham]

The amount of chain produced and the number of workmen employed were not a measure of prosperity or well-being for the chain makers, and nowhere more so than in the Anvil Yard in Cradley.

The Anvil Yard was a collection of 17 houses and workshops ranged around a a central yard, where the making of chains was barely discernible from everyday living. It was described in 1888, after an outbreak of typhoid, as "squalor and dirt far surpassing anything I have yet seen. ... little domestic workshops, built on to the houses, so that the occupants can step at once from kitchen to anvil." The Yard was demolished in 1931.

Memorial Park, Colley Lane, Cradley: the view today, formerly the Anvil Yard [Photograph by Nigel Brown, 2002]

My great great great uncle David Raybould and his family lived there, and my great grandma Louisa Pearce (née Partridge) was born there.

Christine Farmer displays a beautiful and perceptive photo gallery of Cradley and "a few quick sketches of the Anvil Yard commemorative garden", as it is now, on her Farmer family tree web page. Her 3 x great grandfather, Tidal Parsons (c. 1806-1882), was a bayonet-striker who also lived there.

The 1910 Strike

Mary Mcarthur: addressing strikers and supporters in Cradley Heath 1910 [Photograph by Edwin Beech Imperial Studio].

In 1910 there were 3,500 chain makers working in small shops in the Cradley and Cradley Heath district. Two thirds of them were women. Tired of working day and night for starvation wages, the women chainmakers downed their hammers and stood up for their right to earn a living wage.

After 1000 women chain makers refused to work until they all received a minimum rate of 2½d an hour, a 9 week strike was won. Read more...

The Book of the Strike
Margaret Bradley, author and co-author of many books on the History of Cradley, has published a new book The Cradley Heath Women Chain-makers' Strike of 1910, price £3.50. For further details e-mail to: Cradley Bookshop for details of postal charges and for overseas postage.

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