Black Country Bugle
Hellish hard life for the nail maker and his family
UNTIL around 1900 Halesowen was a town of nailers. Popular legend tells of Richard Foley, who made two journeys to Sweden, posing as a fiddler, to master their method of slitting rods of iron and returned to Kinver and set up the first slitting mill in the country. His persistence and final comprehension of the Swedish secrets were the basis of subsequent widespread development of the nail trade.
Before the coming of the slitting mills, iron rods had to be got red-hot by the nailer before he could cut them into the required short lengths. Foley’s exploits provided the local nailers with a source of ready cut material for the manufacture of nails.
By the 19th century the nail trade dominated the industrial life of Halesowen. Nearly every cottage possessed a one storied nailshop in the backyard. A more utilitarian building it would be difficult to image. A typical nailshop was rectangular in plan, lit by a little square iron-barred window and a five-foot high door. The tiled roof was surmounted by a low four brick high chimney positioned above the hearth. The equipment and tools of the trade were basically simple. A hearth and leather bellows were centrally placed while on the earth floor was a treadle which when released raised up the spring pole and hammer head. A stamp on the treadle whipped down the spring pole and the hammer end forged the red hot rods into the required shapes.
The nail trade produced a community of ill-used, heavy drinking roughmannered men and toil-worn women. There were desperate and fairly frequent strikes and these cast a dark shadow over the whole industry, but we must always remember that independence and loud demands for better conditions from the working classes were regarded by the upper classes as practically criminal in the days before trade unions. There was of course more irregularity of work among the women than among the men, for the reason that the former had in most cases domestic duties to discharge.
Poverty shadowed every day of their lives, the women were slaves, the cooked and cleaned, popping efficiently between cottage and workshop, never daring to complain. From old family accounts we see that the earnings of the family for a week was as follows. The grandfather earned 40½p, the grandmother 21½p, the daughter 17½p, and the granddaughter 16p, in all 95½p. To the income already given there has to be added 75p earned by the father, and 22½p for any young lads in the family.
Not only did fellow human beings exploit the nailers, but the insanitary conditions under which they existed fostered the dread scourge of typhoid, cholera and smallpox. Due to the unsatisfactory nature of the water supply, often derived from local wells or springs, these feared diseases were virtually endemic but they struck at the weakest and those least able to offer resistance. It was no wonder that the infant mortality rate among the nailers’ children reached such staggering proportions. The writing on the vault of the Hodgetts family, who once farmed Hasbury Farm, bears terrible witness, for here they buried in 1869 five of their children. Henry, Frank, William, Alice and Jane, their ages ranging from three to 14 years, all died of smallpox within one month of each other. On many of the older gravestones in Halesowen churchyard we read that, 80 years ago, the death of several young children within each family was, however, lamented, the normal occurrence. Putting everything else to one side, the most disagreeable sid of the whole industry was the nail-foggers, or tommymasters, and the truck system whereby they kept provision shops or pubs, or both, as a sideline to the business of nailing, and paid in part for the nailers’ work by vouchers honoured only at their pub or shop. What was even worse, higher prices for goods were charged. By 1860 there was not really enough work to occupy many local nailers, an industrious nailer and his family could barely earn enough to live on. Yet from out of this pittance had to be reckoned the cost of fuel, rent of the smithy, wear and tear of tools, and
Nail makers were heavy drinking, rough mannered men and toil worn women
the carting of iron from the nail factory. The nailer knew that the scales his nails were weighed on were often inaccurate, but if he queried at all he was sent off toi find another master, and became black-listed in no time. Every transaction between fogger and nailer was when the masters handed out the half-hundredweight allocations of iron to allow for two or four pounds possible wastage. This was some compensation for the skilled and careful nailer who wasted very little, and also in a way, for the less-skilled and improvident who sold the extra allowance and hoped for the best. At Christmas, when the time of reckoning came, the tommymaster would pay the nailer at the rate of £6 a ton for the iron which the nailer had saved and for which the nailer had originally paid £10 a ton.
When a load of nails was finished, the children were sent off with a hand waggon to the nail warehouse, a dingy building with rows and rows of sacks of finished work and a large pair of scales, on which so many things depended. The children dreaded lest there be a dispute over weighing. As it was, the nailers had to make 1,200 nails per nominal 1,000 to allow for faulty nails and sometimes a sample of nails would be weighed for additional testing – any excuse for demanding more and more nails. The fogger accepted work when trade was slow, giving low value checks for payment, and kept the nails until business picked up, then made a large and dishonourable profit.
It was a usual practice, if nails were taken up the Manor Lane to Bissel’s warehouse by the canal bridge, for the child to take the hand cart and such money that had been made, to the nearby pit, spend the money on coal and wheel it home in place of the
Nails made in the Black country
From the Middle Ages, until the coming of the canals and railways, good were carried by packhorses or mules along bridle paths which linked the towns and villages. One such track led from Halesowen over Bundle Hill, down Huntingtree Lane, through Lutley, and on to Stourport, where the ironwork was loaded into boats and continued its journey by water along the River Severn. In the year 1846 there were 96 nailshops in Hasbury alone. Out of a total of 123 cottages, there were only 27 without nailshops, this gives some idea of the scope of the local nail trade.
From time to time, the nailers could endure the truck and low pay no longer, it was then a matter of honour for all to strike. For weeks the shops were still and anvils silent. There was no money for food or vitality and their large families were well and truly hungry. Those haggard, hungry nailers walked in silent groups through the streets of the town, to the church where, of all places, the rich would not let them sit near to them. Faced with such a congregation, curate Kempson, wept. 20 years later, though the truck system had been abolished by law, conditions were still unbearable and strikes followed one after another. In 1881 Archdeacon Hone, who had great respect and
sympathy for the nailers, began his New Year’s pastoral address to the parishioners with, “Through all the years that I have spent among you, none have passed in such sorrow or pressed so heavily upon this parish as the year which ended yesterday.” He wrote too of the children who were starving and the people kept from their church through having no fit clothing.
Many other problems faced the long suffering nailers as the domestic nail trade steadily declined. There were several reasons for this decline. In the first place the large American and Australian markets were lost to foreign competition with cheap Belgian imports. There was also a growing tendency for large contracts to be placed for the standard sized machine made nails. In this field Ewbank’s patent nails were capturing the nail market, particularly the large dock contracts.
In the early years of decline the nail trade was protected to some extent by the fact that the manufacture of horse and mule shoe nails, a local speciality, could not be applied to machinery.
Thus the domestic nail trade hung on a thread. By 1900 it had largely become a factory system. As the 19th century came to a close it was quite evident that the pattern of industry was changing. There were many nail factories but the total number of workers employed was steadily declining as new industries became established and then flourished as they responded to changing demand. The small backyard nailshops have now all disappeared. Like many other youngsters on our way to school, I have watched local nailers making many of the old types of nails. Around the mid 1950s there were still Shilvock’s at the top of Islington, James in New Street, Heague at Margaret’s Hill, Jones in Richmond Street, Sydney Tether in Chapel Street, Lea’s in Mount Street and Hagley Road, William Shepard at Wassel Road, and Rudge’s in Blackberry Lane. Of all the other horrors which haunted the existence of nailers during the 19th century, the workhouse was by far the most terrifying. For those grim institutions represented
the ultimate degradation, the last port of call before a pauper’s grave. It was enigmatic that a system which was born out of a commendable awareness of the plight of the poor, should have become such a “Frankenstein” to the class it was intended to sustain. Each parish was responsible for its own poor – and rates were levied for this purpose, often bitterly resented by the wealthier people, who usually had a hand in administering relief. In such a situation it is easy to understand why parish relief was doled out only after a most rigorous and degrading “means test”, still one of the most evocative phrases in the working class vocabulary.
In some country parishes, there is no doubt that the system was administered in a humane fashion but the teeming back streets of the towns and areas of heavy population such as the Black Country, often meant that the slender resources of the poor rate rarely matched the demands made upon it and application for parish relief was often met with an invitation to enter the local workhouse. This institution was intended to house all those in the community who had no prospect of supporting themselves, the orphans, the aged, the sick and infirm, all passed through its grim portals. Whole families were taken in but, once inside, were callously segregated
and forbidden to even speak to each other. A man would see his wife and children, herded into separate dormitories and pass from his protection into the doubtful mercies of the workhouse master’s domain. Little wonder that the workhouse was seen as a place where a person lost all human rights and dignity.
The workhouse represented the ultimate degradation, the last port of call before a pauper’s grave