History will record that during the first few weeks of 2006 the Eliza Tinsley iron works site at Reddal Hill, midway between Cradley Heath and Old Hill, was cleared in preparation for a new housing development. And although one side of this story provides a further indictment to the regrettable loss of original Black Country industrial buildings and sites over the past few decades, the other side allows us to recall from local history an individual whose strong will and strength of purpose created a business which is still synonymous with our region's industrial values.
A large proportion of Eliza Tinsley's life was spent during the Victorian era, when men and machines began to forge a new world for the British people in an ever expanding Empire. The iron masters and engineers who kept the cogs of industry in motion during this momentous epoch were virtually all men, establishing their own industrial dynasties, marrying women who in turn knew their place as house keeper and mother to the children who would run the factories and work shops in the future. At the more humble end of the scale no members of a family above a certain age were exempt from work. Men, women and children had to graft in appalling conditions to eke out the most basic existence, circum- stances in which children, often numbering more than ten (many of whom died at an early age, succumbing to disease and malnutrition) would be sent out to work as soon as they were old enough, thus foregoing any semblance of a decent education.
But there were exceptions to the rule in the upper echelons of the male dominated industrial world of the 19th century, and Eliza Tinsley (nee Butler), born in 1813 at Wolverhampton into a working class background, is a prime example. She was born into a well respected local family whose various occupations within that family circle suggest a higher than average level of education, the only daughter of Benjamin Butler, a malster and inn keeper of the Golden Fleece. On 1st January 1839, and at the age of 25, Eliza married Thomas Tinsley, the son of Theophilus Tinsley and five years her senior. Not only was she entering into married life, she was also beginning her long association with Black Country industry with which her name is still synonymous today. Thomas was already an established self-employed nail monger, supplying wrought-iron nails in the local area from their home at New House in Dudley Road, Sedgley. Eliza in the meantime turned her attention to other matters and became a mother, giving birth to three daughters and three sons over the following twelve years : Elizabeth; Lucy Jane; Katherine Sarah; George William; Thomas and Charles. As if looking after six children and a husband wasn't enough, Eliza always found time to follow Thomas's business dealings and aspirations from very close quarters. These moments with her husband that might otherwise have been spent doing chores in the house, would keep her in good stead sooner than she could ever have imagined.
In 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition in London and great expectations for the country as a whole, a double tragedy struck the Tinsley family. Elizabeth, Eliza's eldest daughter died in the May, followed just four weeks later by her beloved husband Thomas. It's easy to imagine a woman would have buckled under the strain of having not only a double bereavement, but also the task of looking after five children under the age of eleven, who themselves had lost a sister and father. But the business that Thomas had so successfully built up over the years needed a strong hand to guide it into the future, and Eliza refused to look any further for a successor to her husband than herself. She stamped her authority on the business straight away by changing the company name to her own, and shrugged off the inevitable accusation that running a business was no place for a widow.
Within months her astute business know-how and resilience in the face of adversity had made the business more successful than ever. White's Directory of Staffordshire already had a listing for Mrs Eliza Tinsley when it published its 1851 edition, showing the firm as an ironfounders and manufacturers of chain etc. at Tipety Green in the borough of Rowley Regis. The main centre of the business was still located in Sedgley, but it had already begun to expand with warehouses established as far afield as Bromsgrove and Kingswinford. Then in 1853 Eliza famously moved the business to its place in history and a plot of land in Cradley Heath that had previously been the site of a farm belonging to the Earl of Dudley. For the next 19 years she ran the company, expanding its business opportunities all over the world. A staggering statistic from the 1871 census suggests that for a few years at least, Eliza Tinsley was the most important employer in the area. She employed around 4,000 people who produced wrought iron nails, rivets, chains, chain cables and anchors, making it the biggest business of its kind in the whole of Staffordshire with seven warehouses.
However, the reason the factory at the Cradley Heath site didn't burst at the seams was because many of the company's employees were out-workers, living in the chain-maker's cottages and working from home. Eliza finally retired in 1872 at the age of 58 and the business was taken over by four partners including G. Harry Green, a former sales representative of the company. After ten years of well earned retirement, the final few years spent at the home Eliza had built on land belonging to her late father-in-law in Sedgley, this remarkable woman, nicknamed "The Widow " locally in Cradley Heath, died at the age of 68. How sad she would have been to witness the demolition of her works in Cradley Heath, but how proud also to know that her hard work and remarkable spirit had provided the basis for Eliza Tinsley & Co. Ltd. to span three centuries.
During the latter days of 2005, the buildings on the Eliza Tinsley factory site lay dormant and empty, awaiting their inevitable destruction as local and commuter traffic travelling along Reddal Hill Road sped past the forlorn buildings. In the back streets, the terraced houses of Mace Street and Sidaway Street had always had the factory buildings in view, part of a back yard panorama that the residents could never have imagined would change. But then almost overnight, machines stretched their hydraulic necks and brought the buildings crashing down, the dust of over 150 years lying thick over a huge mound of bricks. It was the end of another chapter in the industrial heritage of the Black Country.
One of Eliza Tinsley's greatest claims to fame was the manufacture of chain, and production in both quantity and size was always kept in step with the main industrial giants of the day. In the early years of the 20th century automation in manufacturing greatly influenced the product range as did the prominence of motor vehicles, which greatly diminished the demand for horse hoof nails. Production eventually concentrated on the making of chain with orders from industries such as ship building and mining creating the age of the giant link. The company's chain production grew with these heavy industries and at one stage the company manufactured a mine chain 11/16" in diameter, 3720 yards long and over 23 tonnes in weight, which was thought at the time to be the longest and heaviest chain ever despatched in one length out of the Black Country.
The proofing of chain was always of vital importance and it must have taken quite a while to test a length as great as 3,720 yards. Michael Reuter of Stourbridge has kindly sent us some items of Eliza Tinsley paper-work that date from the Second World War, an invoice and a chain testing certificate, both of which