Annette Bradney has been on a remarkable journey over the past three years, ever since she accompanied her husband Mick to the Mushroom Green chain shop to watch him demonstrate how to make chain.
But with a family ancestry that includes chainmakers it was, perhaps, inevitable that she should take a shine to this ancient craft, and with a temperament handed down by her forebears that positively encourages the notion of giving everything a go, she wasn’t going to let anything stand in her way.
She had to learn the right way to wield an ’ommer; burn the breeze at the correct temperature; know how long to leave the metal in the fire to heat up, but not too long in case it melted in the embers of the hearth; and learn a few tricks of the trade, which would normally take a lifetime to master.
Throughout this learning curve Mick was on hand to show her the rudiments of chainmaking, but a singular ambition to succeed and her dexterous nature soon had Annette producing chain of high quality.
Researching the history of chainmaking then drew her attention and Annette developed a great interest in the Cradley Heath Women Chainmakers’ strike of 1910 and their fight, with help from the charismatic Mary Macarthur, for a living wage and to improve the awful conditions that chainmakers had to work in. She learned about the demanding workplace of a chainmaker and its effects on family life, especially for young children, who had to grow up surrounded by dirt, squalor and all sorts of dangers in the backyard chain shops.
Annette’s interest in all aspects of chain become a passion and since those early days of learning by trial and error, here in the Black Country, she is now regarded as an authority on one of the region’s foremost traditional occupations.
The Bugle first came into contact with Annette in 2010, when she approached us, beating a drum, in support of the centenary of the women chainmakers’ strike, and I quickly fell under her enthusiastic spell.
When she was able to arrange chainmaking demonstrations at Mushroom Green, the Black Country Living Museum, or at Temple Meadow School in Old Hill, I did my utmost to attend.
They were unique experiences, watching the sparks fly and being able to imagine what the scene would have been like from perhaps 100 years before, demonstrated in an authentic fashion by Annette wearing a typical woman chainmaker’s costume and displaying her usual enthusiastic spirit.
But romanticising the life of a woman chainmaker in the late 19th and early 20th century, is definitely not on Annette’s agenda, and she constantly reminds those who watch her working at the chainmaker’s block of the hardships faced by those poor, wretched souls of a century or more ago.
Since those early days Annette has been engaged in helping to turn the Temple Meadow School chainshop into a worthwhile traditional cottage industry experience, first and foremost for the children of the school, assisting their understanding of an occupation many of their ancestors would probably have been involved with, but also for the adults who have benefited from the experience at various open days.
In June 2011 Annette was asked to take part in a series of programmes that were screened on BBC2 in the spring of 2012, entitled The Great British Story.
Filming was carried out at the Temple Meadow School chain shop and with help from husband Mick and daughter Suranne, Annette put on a fine performance of a traditional Black Country industry that could be enjoyed by millions of viewers all over the country.
The film crew arrived early, with no clue who the main presenter might be, but to Annette’s delight it turned out be Michael Wood, the renowned historian famed for his brilliant documentaries.
Further filming took place, again at Temple Meadow School, on a bitterly cold morning in November 2012, when a film crew led by local student Rhiannon Kirby, who was studying for a degree in television and broadcasting at Birmingham University, asked Annette to demonstrate how she almost single handedly has kept alive an ancient craft in the modern era. Once again the Bugle was there to record the event on what must have been one of the most bone chilling mornings in recent years.
Annette’s knowledge on the subject of chainmaking, both in a practical sense, and also from what she has learnt about its place in Black Country social and industrial history, has moved her away from the block and the ’ommer and into the classroom.
In 2012 she visited several schools in the Cradley Heath area giving talks and showing the chainmaker’s tools to a young and inquisitive audience.
Then, when Jill Guest from the Cradley Then & Now History Group asked Annette to give a talk to members of the Society, she approached the event with trepidation, but on the night performed with confidence, enthusiasm, and plenty of humour. Her presentation concentrated on the chainshop at Temple Meadow School and how difficult it has been for her to convince those in authority of its potential. How this particular story will unfold is unclear, but with Annette’s deeply rooted enthusiasm, it is certainly not the end of the road in terms of its possible development.
When you are under the spotlight and in the news, there are occasions when you can be mistaken for someone else. Annette told the Then & Now audience, “I had to go to the hospital in Dudley and realised the taxi driver was doin’ a bit of starin’.
Eventually he piped up, ‘I know who yo am, I’ve seen yo in the Bugle. Yo’m that wench called Mary Macarthur!’”
Do you know of anyone who, like Annette, does sterling work keeping alive the traditions of the old Black Country? Have you a story to tell and pictures to share? Contact jworkman@black countrybugle.co.uk or write to Bugle House, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL