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Chainmaking female vulcans who were the white slaves of England

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: April 28, 2014

By Dan Shaw

  • Harold Piffard's drawing of Cradley Heath chainmakers

  • Robert Harborough Sherard 1861-1943

  • A woman plying her trade in a cell-like shed, silent, absorbed, and alone

  • A Cradley Heath female vulcan of the 1890s

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IT is widely known that conditions for the poorest workers in the 19th century were abominable but it is still shocking to read a first-hand account of just how bad they were.

In 1897 crusading journalist Robert Harborough Sherard published The White Slaves of England, a collection of articles originally featured in Pearson's Magazine in which he visited some of the most deprived areas of the country and spoke to workers and their families in some of the toughest trades. Naturally, he came to the Black Country and wrote about the chainmakers of Cradley Heath.

Sherard was born in Putney in 1861. He was the great-grandson of the poet William Wordsworth and his full name was Robert Harborough Sherard Kennedy but he dropped the name Kennedy when he was disinherited by his father. He moved to Paris in 1882 and embarked on a literary career. He was a friend of Oscar Wilde and wrote several biographies about him as well as novels and collections of journalism. He wrote extensively on the working poor and followed The White Slaves of England with The Cry of the Poor (1901), The Closed Door (1902) and The Child Slaves of Britain (1905).

Sherard was married three times, first to Marthe Lipska in 1887, the daughter of the Baron de Stern, then American novelist Irene Osgood in 1908, and finally Alice Muriel Fiddian in 1928. He died in 1943.

The White Slaves of England was illustrated by Harold Piffard (1867-1938) and we reprint some extracts from the chapter on the chainmakers of Cradley Heath that focus on the miserable lives of the female chainmakers.

"If the condition of the iron-workers in Cradley Heath is even worse than that of the nailmakers of Bromsgrove, it may at least be said of Cradley Heath, that it makes no pretence to the rustic beauty with which Bromsgrove hides its cruelty as with a mask. It is frankly an industrial town, a town of the Black Country, where, in smoke and soot and mud, men and women earn their bread with the abundant sweat not of their brows alone; a terribly ugly and depressing town, in which, however, contrasts too painful are absent.

"One expects to find misery here, whereas in Bromsgrove one looked for smiles.

"The main industry of Cradley Heath is chain-making, and it may be remarked here that this industry has never been so prosperous, at least in respect of the amount of chain produced and the number of workmen employed. It appears that each week there are manufactured in the Cradley Heath district 1000 tons of chain. The chains are of every variety, from, the huge 4 in. mooring cables down to No. 16 on the wire gauge, and include rigging-chains, crane-cables, mining-cables, cart and plough traces, curbs, halters, cow-ties, dog-chains, and even handcuff-links.

"Chronic hunger is the experience of most of the women-workers in Cradley Heath, as anyone can learn who cares to converse with them.

"'We has to do with two quartern loaves a day,' said one of the woman-blacksmiths to me, 'though three such loaves wouldn't be too much for us.' This woman had six children to keep and her husband into the bargain, for he had been out of work since Christmas. She was good enough to detail to me her manner of living. A pennyworth of bits of bacon, twopennyworth of meat from the 'chep-butcher,' and a pennyworth of potatoes, all cooked together, made a dinner for the family of eight.

"But such a dinner was very rarely to be obtained; most often she had to beg dripping 'off them as belongs to me,' as a relish to the insufficient bread. It appeared that she had influential relations, who could spare a cupful of dripping now and again, and who sometimes passed on some 'bits' of cast-off clothing. She showed me that she was wearing a pair of men's high-low boots, which had come to her in this way.

"She 'never sees no milk,' and in the matter of milk, her children, even the youngest, had 'to do the same as we.' These children, like all other children in the Cradley Heath district, had been weaned on to 'sop.' Sop is a preparation of bread and hot water, flavoured with the drippings of the tea-pot. This plat is much esteemed by the children, and the woman said: 'If them's got a basin of sop, them's as proud as if them'd got a beefsteak.'

"In good weeks she could get a bit of margarine, and each week she bought a quarter of a pound of tea at one shilling the pound, and four pounds of sugar at a penny halfpenny. As to eggs, she said: 'By gum, I'd like one for my tea; I haven't had a egg for years.' For clothes for her children and herself, she depended entirely on charity. None of her family had more 'nor he stood up in,' and when her children's stockings wanted washing, she had to put them to bed, for none of them 'had more than one bit to his feet.' The washing was usually done on Saturday evenings, when she had finished her work.

"This work consisted in making heavy chain at 5s. 4d. the cwt. By working incessantly for about twelve hours a day, she could make about one cwt. and a half in a week. Her hands were badly blistered, and she was burnt in different parts of the body by the flying sparks. In spite of things, she was a well-set, jovial woman, not without a rude beauty.

"One may come across sheds with five or six women, each working at her anvil; they are all talking above the din of their hammers and the clanking of their chains, or they may be singing a discordant chorus; and at first, the sight of this sociability makes one overlook the misery, which, however, is only too visible, be it in the foul rags and preposterous boots that the women wear, or in their haggard faces and the faces of the wizened infants hanging to their mothers' breasts, as these ply the hammer, or sprawling in the mire on the floor, amidst the showers of fiery sparks.

"Here and there in Cradley, it is true, one may come across such scenes as sadden in Bromsgrove : some woman plying her task in a cell-like shed, silent, absorbed, alone. One such a sight I particularly remember.

"In a shed, fitted with forge and anvil, there was a woman at work. From a pole which ran across the room there dangled a tiny swing chair for the baby, so that whilst working her hammers, the mother could rock the child. She was working very hard at spike-making, and she told us that the previous week, her husband and herself had converted into spikes a ton of iron. These they had then packed and conveyed to the warehouse. For this ton of spikes they had received 20s., the remuneration of a week's work by the two of them, and out of these 20s. there had to be deducted 3s. 8d. for 'breeze' (fuel). The rent of the house and shop was 3s. 8d., and damage to the extent of 1s. had been done to the tools. There was consequently left for the housekeeping about 11s.

"This woman had five children, and she told me that she had been laughed at by her neighbours, because, in spite of her blacksmith work, she had brought each child safely into the world. The work is such that, in Cradley, Lucina is not to these female Vulcans a kindly goddess. One woman, also a blacksmith, had been seven times abandoned by her in her hour of need. It may be remarked that so pressing are the wants of the women, that they will work up to within an hour or two of their confinement.

"The impediment of children, to mothers to whom motherhood is here a curse, is nowhere more clearly defined. The wretched woman, forging link by link the heavy chain, of which she must make 1 cwt. before her weekly rent is paid, is at each moment harassed by her sons and daughters. There is one child at the breast, who hampers the swing of the arm; there is another seated on the forge, who must be watched lest the too comfortable blaze at which it warms its little naked feet, prove dangerous, whilst the swarm that cling to her tattered skirt break the instinctive movement of her weary feet.

"She cannot absent herself, for as a woman told me, whose child was burned to death in her shed: 'the Crowner came down something awful on me for leaving the forge for two minutes to see to summat in the saucepan.'"

Have you a historic account of life in the Black Country? Contact dshaw@blackcountry bugle.co.uk or write to our editorial address.

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