Black Country Muse


The Nail Makers.

 It's a strange thing, but most of the progress in this trade, came from outside the area, not within it. Some time around 1636, Richard Foley erected a Slitting Mill, on the banks of the River Stour. For one reason or another, he chose Kinver, and this Mill had a profound effect on the Black Country, and the still cottage industry, of Nail Making. Another area, sadly missing from the records, was the litle village of Wombourne, where Nails had been worked since Roman times. Demand however exceeded production, as there simply were not enough people. There was however, plenty of cheap and willing labour in the Towns, uneducated and exploitable as they were. Having long workable nail rods, greatly increased the production levels, although it still remained largely a part-time occupation. More Mills followed, so by 1665, there were reported to be almost 20,000 smiths, working within a 10 mile radius of Dudley. With the advance, in producing Iron by using Coal as the fuel, the output rose dramatically. In 1811, the population rose to 129,000, and by 1831, it had reached over 430,000. Not all of them were producing nails, but certain areas began to be associated solely with this production. Halesowen, Old Hill, Sedgley, and Rowley Regis, to name just a few. As with all trades, there are Workers, Employers, and Buyers. It was the workers of course, who always came off worse. I use the word 'Employers', but they described themselves as "Factors",  and they never really employed anyone, paying out only to buy the nails, and then sell them on. They had Wharehouse's, where they sold the nailers the iron rods, using one set of scales, and buying nails using another set of scales. The two measurements were never the same. In order to make more money, they used what was called the " Truck " system, paying out in goods, which were both inferior and higher priced than the normal shops. It was their custom, to pay out in Public houses, which were inevitably owned by themselves or relatives.These places were known as " Tommy Shops " , and so bad did they become, that in 1831, a bill was passed through Parliament, outlawing the practice. It made little difference, and the plight of the poor nailer actually got worse. A Commission, in 1871 failed to improve the situation, and again in 1882, when it was reported that the system of Trucking was on the increase.It wasn't until 1887, when an effective Anti-Trucking Act was passed, that the system dropped out of use. A mere 50 years later. Some of the Nail Factors, in the meanwhile, had grown rich on the backs, and sweat, of the nailers.

 The exploitation of the nailers, by these " Factors or Foggers, " is well known, and even today, in some area's, their names can give rise to few choice words. One of worst area's in Halesowen, was in Islington, where John Henry Green, Philip Hadley Bloomer, and Charles Homes, all had nail Wharehouses. Between them, they owned two public houses, one the Wagon and Horses, and a couple of shops. Needless to say, some of the most appalling poverty levels in the district could be encountered here. George Hackett and Henry Parish also operated in the area, Parish claiming to "employ", 50 men. Strangely, he never mentioned the women and children, who made most of the nails he purchased. Things were no better outside of Halesowen either, as just down the road, at Gorsty Hill, the firm of Cartwright and Parkes were up to the same tricks. Cartwrights wife Elizabeth, was the licencee of the "Dun Cow", a public house very near to her husbands wharehouse, and where the nail purchase's were made. To give some idea of the numbers involved in nail making, Halesowen Town itself, had no less than 6 "foggers". John Siviter, John Coley, Epriam Ball, Thomas Cradock, and Guest and Company, as well as those in Islington. The situation around the rest of the area was as bad, as price fixing was the way these individuals controlled the trade. Thomas Harcourt, Charles Williams, Daniel Whitehouse, Meschach Hackett, William Jukes, and Joseph Johnson, operated in Blackheath. Rowley Village, was carved up between Richard Bate, Alfred Woodhouse, James Slim, Joseph Taylor, and Joseph Darby. All of these men, who had been nailers themselves, saw no reason to treat their fellow men, women, and children, with any compassion at all. Now there's something missing from this list of exploitators, the absense, of any women "foggers". There were some, many of them worse than the men, not only in the nail trade, but with rivet and chain making as well. One in particular, was singled out for mention, in a report in the 1870s, but not named. Now I wonder which one that was? Surely not the one who had a large wharehouse in Old Hill, and, thanks to a bit of what we would call, "polictical spin," maintained a good reputation. Not round the grimy, run down, and delapidated nail and chainshops of the Black Country she didn't. 

The nailers situation was made worse, by the constant, and fluctuating price of Iron. They of course, had no control of this, or of the price paid by the Nail masters, for the finished products. For many years, even prior to 1800, the Iron masters had met at the Fowley Arms Public House. ( well known today, as the Stewpony ) A pleasent place, set in the countryside, outside Stourbridge, on the Kidderminster to Wolverhampton Road, it was here, that after an enjoyable lunch, they set the price of their Iron. As most of the production was controlled by just a few wealthy men, the price was always upwards. The Nailmasters, taking this as an example, also set up meetings, theirs were weekly, and through these meetings, they could control both the price paid, and to an even greater extent, the wages that could be earned. The fluctuations in prices, had a conciderable effect on the nailers, and poverty was wide spread, all across the Black Country. The price of a ton of Iron in 1800, £21, was in sharp contrast to the 1830s, when due to a slump in trade, overproduction reduced the price to £4-17-6d. The nailers wages, in 1837, 1838, and 1842, were cut back by the Nail masters, which resulted, not surprisingly, in a strike. Hardship was everywhere, families starved, the Magistrates called for military assistance, and some of the ring leaders were severely punished. Non of the Nail masters suffered of course, they continued to make money, largely due to the system mentioned before, the " Tommy " shop. To give some idea of what went on, the prices of goods in the shop were almost double that of a normal shop, and the poor nailer had no choice but to take his weeks work to such a shop and exchange it for food. The Nail masters and " Foggers ", very rarely actually paid in cash, knowing that the only place the nailer could sell his product, was their shop. Even when prices were good, it was a rare nailer, and his family, who earned more than 14 shillings a week. Complaints were very seldom made, no one wanted to lose his job. Machine made nails began to appear in the 1860s, in large quantities, which put even more pressure on the nailer, and produced yet more strikes. The number of nailers fell drastically, from 50,000 in 1830, to less than 20,000 in 1870. The last major strike was in 1878, although local disputes were always brewing. The area of nail making that lasted longest, and was the best paid, was the production of Horse shoe nails. These could not be made by machine, and required more skill than simply Brad or Clinch nails. The pay for this type of nail, averaged between 22 and 25 shillings a week, but the work was still hard, and required long hours. A great many nailers switched over to Chainmaking, but if they expected conditions to improve, they were sadly mistaken. The same people they had been so exploited by before, simply changed as well, taking the " Tommy shop " system with them.

Going back to " The great Depression ", that came between 1874, and 1890, our ancesters daily routine, would have consisted of poverty and starvation. No matter it seemed, how hard they worked, the price paid for their efforts continued to fall. Parishes issued what became known as " Meal Tickets ", which, backed by a small relief fund, entitled the holder to a Loaf of Bread, and a quart of Soup. These would have meant the difference, between life or death for some of the population, especially the young children. Today, people " play ", at trying to live on such meagre fare, just to prove a point, no need really, it was a way of life back then, and their ancesters survived it all. This era also bought many strikes, which added to the already desperate plight of the nailers and Colliers. Mobs roamed the Black Country and in Tipton, they looted several shops, resulting in the Militia being called out. Many were arrested. A short time later, in Oldbury, a mob demolished the Jailhouse, and those incarcerated, rejoined the strike. Their next port of call was Old Hill, and the mob, now swelled in number, were again attacked by Military force. Thus began what came to be known as " The Battle of Old Hill Cross ". Stones and bricks were thrown, and the Magistrate's ordered the troops to charge. With sabres drawn, they hurtled into the crowd, and both men and horses were seriously injured. This charge did not, however, deter the mob, who merely retreated to the slagheaps near Darby End, and taking up lumps of shale and cinders, set about the troopers again. After inflicting several more serious casualties, the mob then quickly dispersed. These sort of disturbances were fairly common, and although it may have made the men feel they had made a point, their womenfolk still had the task of putting food into the ever hungry mouths of their families. During the good years of the nail trade, it was possible to earn 10s, for a bundle of " spikes ". This was the term used for the iron rods that the nails were made from. In 1887, the amount was just 8d a bundle. So, where before, working 10 bundles a week bought in £3 to £4, it now required 14 bundles to be worked for just 9 shillings. A man with a large family was always going to struggle, as saving money in the Black Country, was an unheard of luxury. A Typical weekly supply list, would include 2 quarts of Tea....1 shilling, 4lbs of Sugar.....8 pence, Bread.....3 shillings, Bacon.....1 shilling and 6 pence, Meat....2 shillings. This did not include the coal or breeze, 6 pence a bag,  used for the furnace, nor the rent for the hovel, typically 2 shillings a week, in which they exsisted, and which was shared by another family. You can see from the groceries bought, just what they lived on, mainly dry bread and tea. If you were a young man at the time, and you were looking for a wife, your choice would not have been only on her looks, but very firmly fixed on how good she was at making nails. 

There were many attempts to change the poor working conditions of the nailers. By the 1880s, reports began to appear in the National Press, and interest began to pick up. In 1890, there was a yet another strike, and " The Sunday Chronicle " sent an "Ace " reporter to the region, who finished up in Wagon Street, Old Hill. The paper was going to help agitate for better wages, and to help it along. they drafted in a man known for his actions, and hatred of blackleg strikebreakers, Richard Juggins. Just for good measure, they also included James Smith, who was secretary of the Chainmakers society. They had come to Waggon Street, as it would appear many of the people were still hammering away. When a meeting was called, several of those still working, not wanting to be recognised, legged it over the walls. Not many supported the demand for a measly increase of just 10%, and preferred to work, rather than starve. A meeting was arranged in Halesowen, which was attended by at least 2,000 people, most of them Chainmakers, as they were by now concentrated in the locality. The Nailers, reduced in numbers due to competition from Birmingham and Wolverhampton machine made products, were far more scattered, and only a few hundred attended. To combat this latest demand, the crafty foggers closed their Wharehouse in one area, effectively locking out the nailers, but opened one some distance away. Telling one group, that the others had accepted a lower offer, put pressure on those locked out, to do the same. Except that they hadn't, but because there was no communication, the nailers didn't know this. It became clear, that women, who made up 80% of the nailers, were only earning 4s 2d per week, a truly disgraceful state of affairs, and under severe pressure, some of the Nail Masters caved in, and agreed a raise of 10%, but only on the 4s 2d. This failed, and following yet another meeting, together with the chainmakers, a vote agreed to continue the strike, this time for an increase of 50%. They got the increase, and although the chainmakers conditions improved, the poor nailers lost out, cheaper machine made nails put most of them out of business. Much later on, the same thing happened to the chainmakers. Progress is relentless. Just out of interest, the " Ace " reporter made a trip out through Stourbridge, where he noted the " distressed " state of the poor Nail Masters dwellings. The fact that they seemed to be unable to keep up with the cost of horse's for the huge stables, or the maintenance of their stately home and gardens, must have bought tears to his eyes. To gain a further insight into the trade in the Black Country, you will find more in the " Black Country Nailmaking" topic in the Forum, or a series of excellent reports on Rowley Village, Rowley Regis, which can accessed via the Links page on the site.