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Sorrow and hunger and grime: a chainmaker's lot in the 1890s

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 06, 2014

By Dan Shaw

  • A particular and pitiful sight was that of a sweet little lass dancing on a pair of bellows for threepence a day

  • A young apprentice to the art and trade of chainmaking

  • Her work lasted 12 hours a day, during which she had to turn the bellows of four forges

  • The girl receives three farthings apiece, working ten hours a day

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IT is well known that life for the poorest workers at the end of the 19th century was harsh and unforgiving but still, for us living in the comfortable 21st century, their squalor can be hard to imagine.

A vivid account of the conditions of chainmakers in Cradley and its environs was published in Pearson's Magazine in 1896. Written by campaigning journalist R.H. Sherard (1861-1943), it told a sorry tale of hard labour, low wages and starvation in pitiful working conditions. The following extract illustrates how women and children were often exploited:

"The women work on the smaller chains, and consequently use smaller rods of iron. For these less heat is necessary than for the iron worked by the men, who make the huge cables. Consequently for the women's forges the bellows which they work themselves suffices. For the men 'blast,' supplied by mechanical power, is necessary. This power is supplied either by steam or by hand labour. In either case it is paid for by the men, and these complain bitterly of the rapacity of the masters in extorting for 'blast' sums the aggregate of which exceeds its cost. I know of one master in Cradley who employs men at sixty forges. Each forge brings him 3s. a week for blast. The total is £9. His 'blast' is supplied by a steam-engine, the fuel for which costs him 30s. a week. He has also to pay 24s. a week to his engineer. His outlay each week is accordingly £2 14s., as against £9 which he receives from his men.

"In the smaller factories manual labour is employed to work the machines by which the forges are supplied with blast, and here also the master extorts an unjustifiable profit. I remember seeing a woman thus supplying 'blast' to four forges. She was a pitiful being, chlorotic, with hair almost white, and a stamp of imbecility too easily comprehended on her ravaged and anaemic face. Her work lasted twelve hours a day, and during the whole of this time she had to turn the handle of a wheel which actuated the bellows of four forges. Each worker paid 3s. a week to the master for blast, whilst the anaemic Albino received for her squirrel slavery, 'when things were good,' the wages of 6s. a week.

"Elsewhere I saw single bellows worked at 3d. a day to the worker, and 6d. to the employer by very old men and women or by little boys and girls. A particular and pitiful sight was that of a sweet little lass – such as Sir John Millais would have liked to paint – dancing on a pair of bellows for 3d. a day to supply 'blast' to the chainmaker at the forge, and to put 3d. a day into the pocket of her employer. As she danced her golden hair flew out, and the fiery sparks which showered upon her head reminded me of fire-flies seen at night near Florence, dancing over a field of ripe wheat. Indeed this misuser of children is the most reprehensible thing that offends in the Cradley district.

"There are here factories where meagre little girls and boys (to whom the youngest Ginx could give points) are put to tasks, during their apprenticeship, against which a man would revolt. I have before me an object and a vision. The object is an indenture of apprenticeship; the vision is a thing seen at Cradley, in the very factory to which the indenture refers. The indenture has been before my lords in commission assembled, and traces of Norman fingers may be recognised in the grime which besmirches this wicked document.

"It refers to a girl of fourteen, who is apprenticed by 'these present' to the art and trade of chain-making, at a wage of 2s 6d. a week. The girl undertakes during her apprenticeship neither to haunt taverns nor playhouses, nor to squander what remains of her wages, after paying for 'sufficient meat, drink, medicine, clothing, lodging, and all other necessaries,' in 'playing at cards or dice tables, or any other unlawful games.'

"The vision is of such a girl at work in this very factory. She was fourteen by the Factory Act, by paternity she was ten. I never saw such little arms, and her hands were made to cradle dolls. She was making links for chain-harrows, and as she worked the heavy Oliver she sang a song. And I also saw her owner approach with a clenched fist, and heard him say: 'I'll give you some golden hair was hanging down her back! Why don't you get on with your work?'

"Next to her was a female wisp who was forging dog-chains, for which, with swivel and ring complete, she received ¾d. (three farthings) apiece. It was the chain which sells currently for eighteenpence. She worked ten hours a day, and could 'manage six chains in the day.' And from the conversation which I had with her, I do not think that she was at all the girl who would haunt playhouses and taverns, or squander her earnings at dice-tables, cards or any such unlawful games.

"The fogger flourishes in Cradley, no less than in Bromsgrove; with this difference, that in Cradley it is most often a woman who assumes the functions of the sweater. Mr James Smith [Secretary of the Chainmakers' Union] introduced me to an elderly lady, who keeps a shed in the neighbourhood of a very foul slum, and employs seven girls. She 'has never forged a link of chain in her life, and gets a good living' out of the wretched women whom I saw at the forges on her premises.

"Her system is a simple one. For every hundredweight of chain produced she receives 5s. 4d. For every hundredweight she pays 2s. 10d. The Union would admit 4s., for the Union allows 25 per cent, to the fogger. Anything over 25 per cent, is considered sweating. Two of the girls working in this shed were suckling babes and could work but slowly. Those who could work at their best, being unencumbered, could make a hundredweight of chain in two days and a half. Their owner walked serene and grey-haired amongst them, checking conversation, and, at times, abusive. She was but one of a numerous class of human leeches fast to a gangrened sore.

"Of Anvil Yard, with its open sewers and filth and shame, one would rather not write, nor of the haggard tatterdermalions who there groaned and jumped. In fact I hardly saw them. The name 'Anvil Yard' had set me thinking of some lines of Goethe, in which he deplores the condition of the people – 'zwischen dem Ambos und Hammer' – between the anvil and the hammer.

"And as these lines went through my head, whilst before my spiritual eyes there passed the pale procession of the White Slaves of England, I could see nothing but sorrow and hunger and grime, rags, foul food, open sores and movements incessant, instinctive yet laborious – an anvil and a hammer ever descending – all vague, and in a mist as yet untinged with red, a spectacle so hideous that I gladly shut it out, wondering, for my part, what in these things is right."

The Anvil Yard, as known as Purser's Yard, referred to was an area of slums in Cradley, roughly on the corner opposite the junction of Colley Lane, High Town and Intended Street. It had grown around an old building known as the Manor House, believed to date from the 1670s. Each house had its own hearth where the inhabitants worked as chainmakers, nailers and the like.

The Anvil Yard slums were cleared in 1931, not because they were insanitary but because they blocked traffic. The County Express recorded the demolition on August 22, 1931:

"The ugly and dangerous corner formed at High Town by a portion of the Anvil Yard is being removed and travellers by motor vehicles will appreciate the improvement, for there have been many narrow escapes from collisions at the end of Colley Lane where it joins High Street. The work of demolishing 'the yard' is being carried out for Halesowen UDC by Mr J.M. Tate, and the space which will be available will in part be utilised as a site for a free library.

"Many families who have risen in the public and social scale of Cradley have been associated with the Anvil Yard in which is situated the Manor House, an old but large substantial building near to the Blue Ball Inn. The house is reputed to be over 200 years old. There were 17 houses in the Anvil Yard and most of these had their chain shops and hearths, but these fell into disuse many years ago. It is said that at one time swords and bayonets were made here.

"There died in the yard a few years ago a Mrs Watters who was born in the house in which she continued to live after she was married, she was nearly 80 years old when she died. A Mr Watters was the last occupier of a part of the Manor House, he was also the last resident in the yard. He died several months ago, and it was out of consideration for his great age (he was 86) and a desire not to disturb his tenancy, that the work of clearing the yard was not begun before.

"The improvement effected will be a boon. In addition to improving the outlook of the residents on the east side of the road, it will enable a very necessary widening of the present narrow highway to be carried out."

The demolition and road-widening left a rough triangle of land which was then turfed and lined with lime trees to make a small park. The planned library was built further up Colley Lane in 1936.

Have you a historic account of life in the Black Country to share with readers? Please contact dshaw@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write in to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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