Updated February 2006
Please take the time to read this report of life in Cradley and surrounding areas as portrayed in Pearsons over 100 years ago , It sounds pretty hard then and this was reported over 100 years ago. Our ancesters were pretty strong survivers, how would we manage today?? Not very well I fear. This is our heritage after reading this we can be very proud of our forefathers and the Black Country that helped to make Britain " Great Britain". Good luck to you and your famlies and I hope you prosper, if when you feel that things are hard, read the report below and remember these were your ancesters that gave you life in a much better time without their courage and hard Graft you would not be here today to reap the rewards.
Colin Billingham 2001
Robert Sherand, Pearson's Magazine, 1896:
If the condition of the iron-workers in Cradley Heath is even worse than that of the nail-makers of Bromsgrove, it may at least be said of Cradley Heath that it makes no pretence of 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 1,000 tons of chain. The chains are of every variety, from the huge 4 inch mooring cables down to No. 16 on the wire gauge, and including rigging-chains, crane-cables, mining-cables, cart and plough traces, curbs, halters, cow-ties, dog-chains, and even hand cuff-links.
If chains for slaves are not made here also it is doubtless because there are no slaves in England; or it may be because hunger can bind tighter than any iron links. And 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 women 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 describe to me her manner of living. A penny-worth of bits of bacon, two penny-worth 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 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 then, 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 see 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 "sop." Sop is a preparation of bread and hot water, flavoured with the drippings of the tea-pot. This plat is much esteemed by 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: "My gum, I'd like one for my tea; I haven't had an 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 has more that "one bit to his feet." The washing was actually done on Saturday evenings when she had finished her work.
This work consisted in making heavy chains and 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, which she explained thus: "It's not what I gets to eat. It's me having a contented mind and not letting nothing trouble me." And she asked me to compare her with a woman who sat next to her, and who was lamentable thin and worn.
Look at my sister," she said, "who worrits herself." Some money was given to this woman and she departed joyfully to pay some little debts. "If there's anything over," she said, "I'll get a booster tonight." I learnt that a "booster" was a quartern loaf.
This conversation took place in the "Manchester Arms", which is a house of call of the chain-makers, both male and female. Beer plays a great part in the lives of the men, and even amongst the women a prediliction for drink may be observed. The number of quarts of "threepenny", or even "twopenny" consumed by the men in the chain factories is very great. A master told me that some of his men must have a sponge beneath their belts, as they often consume three shillingsworth of beer a day at threepence the quart. The beer chiefly drunk in Cradley is a variety known as Burton Returns, that is to say beer which has been returned to the brewers as undrinkable by customers more fastidious than the chain-makers. A boy is attached to each factory, whose exclusive service is to run out and fetch pints for the men.
The heat of the furnaces is terrible and the work most exhausting. Men have to wring their clothes when they go home. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that they should drink such quantities; and as to their preference for alcoholic beverages, a man said to me: "What strength is there behind six or seven quarts of water?" Some men, he admitted, seemed to manage on "seconds", or milk which has been "hanging about the dairy for some days."
It was somewhat of a surprise to hear that the men could afford to spend three shillings a day on drink when at work, because it is generally understood that chainmaking is of all industries, perhaps, the worst paid, as it is certainly the most exhausting. The master, however, stated that some of his men could make as much as 10 shillings in one day. And this investigation proved to be the case. A skilled worker can make 10 shillings in one day - less the usual charges - but the work is so exhausting that, having worked the number of links needful to earn that sum, he would be so fatigued that he would have "to play" for the next two or three days. Indeed, a man who told me that he could never earn more than 20 shillings in a week, on which he had to keep his wife and six children, added that often when he had completed a week's labour he was so knocked up that he was forced to mess about for three or four days.
The work is unhealthy and dangerous. One sees few old men in Cradley. Lung disease carries the men off at an early age. "The work affects you all over," said a worker to me. "When you've done a good turn, you feel like buried. You gets so cold that you shivers so you can't hold your food. The furnaces burn the insides right out of you, and a man what's got no inside is soon settled off."
The man had burns all over his body. "It's easier," he explained, "to catch a flea than a piece of red hot iron, and the bits of red hot iron are always flying about. Sometimes a bit gets into your boot and puts you 'on the box' for a week." But the risk of catching cold is most dreaded, for a cold may kill a man. This worker told me of a friend of his who had walked over to Clent Hill one day, got wet, and was dead the next evening. the doctor had said "his inside had gone from starvation." This was a "middle-handed" chainmaker (a man of middling skill), but he was too weak to work.
Work in Cradley is done for the most part in factories, or at least in sheds where several work together. One does not see many solitary workers here as in Bromsgrove, and perhaps on this account the wretchedness of the chainmakers is not so immediately apparent.
One may come across sheds with five or six women, each working at her anvil; thet 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 frightened infants hanging to their mothers' breasts, as these ply the hanmmer, 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 conveted into spikes a ton iron. These they had then packed and conveyed to the warehouse. For this ton of spikes they had received 20 shillings, the remuneration of a weeks' work by the two of them, and out of these 20 shillings there had to be deducted 3shillings and 8pence 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 11 shillings.
The woman had five shildren 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.
A woman whom I met at the Manchester Arms was good enough to give me some particulars of the birth of "our little Johnny". It appears that this young gentleman was born on November 9th of last year. "I worked up till five that day," said his mother, "and then I give over because I had my cleaning to do. Our little Johnny was born at a quarter past seven." This woman made chain-harrows, and could earn 5 shillings a week at it, for twelve hours a day; as to which work Mr. James Smith, the Secretary of the Chainmaker's Union said: "It's not women's work at all."
Indeed, no part of this work is work for women, and his manhood is ashamed who sees these poor female beings swinging their heavy hammers or working the treadles of the Oliver. Oliver is here so heavy - sometimes the weight of the hammer exceeds 36 lb. that the rebellious treadle jerks its frail mistress upwards, and a fresh ungainly effort must be hers before she can force it to its work and bring it down. As to Oliver, the name given here also to the heavy hammer which can be worked by a treadle alone, the philologist, remembering the dismantled castle of Dudley, hard by, the Roundhead triumphs of the neighbouring Edge Hill, and many another spot in this land, will trace its origin to Cromwell, the heavy hammer-man; Oliver Martel, who crushed kings and castles, princes and prejudice; Oliver the Democreat, whose name, by exquisite irony of things, is now attached to an implement used by slaves most degraded, by starved mothers fighting in sweat and anguish and rags for the sop of the weazened bairns, who in the shower of fiery sparks grovel in the mire of these shameful sweatshops.
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 harrassed 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 in which it warms its little naked feet prove dangerous; whilst the swarm that clink 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.".
The employing of a nurse to attend to the children seems impossible, according to numerous statements made to me. One woman told me that a nurse cost each week 2 shillings "to do the mother", and 3d for her pocket "to encourage her, like." She added that this expense was not to be borne. She exemplifies her statement by giving me an account of her earnings of the previous three days and the expenditure incurred. She had forged 728 heavy links in the three days, and for this had received 2/2d. She had paid 7½d for firing and 1/- for the nurse. Her net earnings for the 36 hours were 6½d. Her eyes reminded me of Leah, and she said: "We'm working worse nor slaves - and getting nothing to eat into the bargain."
Another woman who was with her told me a halfpennyworth of oatmeal often served as a meal for her whole family. This woman's husband was in a lunatic asylum. "Heat, worry, and drink knocked my old'un," she said. He had left her with five children and to feed these (Mr. James Smith assured me of the truth of this statement) she used often to work from three in the morning till eleven at night, and begin again at three again in the morning next day.
The work of chain-making consists in heating the iron rods (a process which involves a number of pulls on the bellows for each link), bending the red-hot piece, cutting in on the hardy, twisting the link, inserting it into the last link of the chin, and welding or closing it with repeated blows of the hand hammer and the Oliver worked by a treadle. To earn 3 shillings, a woman must "work in" forty-six rods of iron, each none feet long, and out of these 3 shillings she must pay for her gleeds or fuel. This woman had to make 1 cwt. of iron chain to earn 4 shillings.
The women work on the smaller cables 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 themselevs 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 about the rapacity of the masters in extorting the "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 3 shillings a week for blast. The total is £9. His "blast" is supplied by a steam engine, the fuel of which cost him 30 shillings a week. He has also to pay 24 shillings a week to his engineer. His outlay each week is accordingly £2. 14. 0d, as against £9 which he receives from his men.
On the other hand, this steam engine drives the guillotine shears (which cut the thick iron bar into the requisite lengths for the tlinks), the brightening box, in which the chains are polished, and the testing machine, where the strength of the cables is, or more often is not, tested. (Quantities of cables are exported from Cradley with bogus certificates of strength. These cables give way under the strain which they are certified to resist; ships and lives are lost and the English chainmaking industry becomes discredited abroad. Custom falls off as a natural consequence, and the men have to suffer for the dishonesty of the masters).
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 lasts twelve hours a day, and during the whole of this time she had to turn the handle of a wheel which activated the bellows of four forges. Each worker paid 3 shillings a week to the master for blast, whilst the anaemic Albino received for her squirrel slavery, "when things were good", the wage of 6 shillings 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 girls and boys. 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 firey sparks which showered upon her head reminded me of fireflies seen at night near Florence, dancing over a field of ripe wheat. Indeed this misuse 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 Jinks 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 apprentised by "these presents" to the art and trade of chainmaking at a wage of 2/6d week. The girl undertakes during her apprenticeship neither to haunt taverns nor playhouses, not to squander what remains of her wages, after paying for "sufficient meat, drink, medecine, 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) a piece. 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 a sweater. Mr. James Smith introduced me to an elderly lady, who keeps a shed in the neighbourhood of the foul Anvil Yard, 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 5/4d. For every hundredweight she pays 2/10d. The Union would admit 4/- for the Union allows 25 per cent to the fogger. Anything over 25 per cent is considered sweating. Two of the girls working in the 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 and a half days. Their owner walked serene and grey-haired among them, checking conversation, and being, 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 - "zwishen den Amboss und Hammer" - between the anvil and the hammer.
And as these lines went through my head, whilst before my spiritual eyes there passed a 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 spectable so hideous that I gladly shut it out, wondering for my part, what in these things is right.