Quinton Nailers by Bryan Parkes

As a youngster my ideas about nail making were quite unrealistic. I considered nailing to be an attractive occupation but not one practised in Quinton because of its agricultural leaning and geographical location.

One cold winter’s day when I was about five years old, my father took me to visit a friend who had a forge alongside his house in Long Lane, Blackheath. First impressions were very favourable as it was lovely and warm inside the forge. I became fascinated as the bellows swooshed air into the furnace and lively flames danced around the iron rods inserted in the red hot coals. It was quite exciting to witness the rods being hammered into shape on the anvil, accompanied by a flurry of white hot sparks that lit up the forge. I thought to myself, what a lovely job to have when I grow up. Secretly, I felt a little sorry for my father, an accountant, just pushing a pen and shuffling pieces of paper.

As a teenager at school, I learnt about the Industrial Revolution and how it was centred in the West Midlands largely because of the ready availability of iron stone, coal and limestone but also because of good transport facilities such as canals and railways for moving heavy goods. In the 19th century, I believed Quinton to be predominantly a farming community and with notoriously poor and steep access roads it seemed highly unlikely to have had any connection with nail making. How wrong can one be?!

My introduction to some realism about nail making in Victorian Quinton started at a family gathering at my Grandparents’ new home in Ridgacre Lane, next door to Pax Hall. Some of my older relations were reminiscing about their previous home at the bottom of High Street which shared garden wall with the so call Nailers Cottage. I rather stupidly chipped in with some of my thoughts about nail making and suggested that the Nailers Cottage was so called because it was such an unusual pursuit in Quinton.

Several family mouths opened wide but my Grandfather almost became apoplectic. A pointed lecture followed which was embarrassing but very revealing. Grandfather said that, unquestionably, nail making was probably the worst occupation any one could have in Victorian times. He described it as back breaking, unhealthy, soul destroying, filthy and financially very poorly rewarding.

He added that he and his Parkes siblings, who were born in Spies Lane, Quinton, around 1870, considered themselves very lucky to have been the first for at least three generations to have escaped the degrading slavery of nail making. Chastened and feeling rather foolish, I inwardly resolved that one day I would try to find out much more about nail making. Learning that a number of my early family were nail makers was an added incentive to achieve a better understanding of the trade in earlier times.

It was a pleasant surprise to find that quite a wide range of useful information was available regarding nail making. Official sources included government reports, tithe data, acts of parliament, parish records and census reports.

In more recent times a number of interesting Quinton history books have been published which also refer to nail making. This includes learned treaties by local authors – viz M. Hall, B.Taylor, A.Rosser, J.Hunt etc. Last but not least, oral history provided thick icing on the cake of the written word. It was helpful that my large Quinton family included several octogenarians who could recall tales told to them by their forebears. It came as no surprise that it was the senior ladies in the family who excelled in providing oral history.

Nails were made in England well before the Romans invaded but their passion for weapons, armoury and agricultural implements boosted the development of iron products in general. Up to and including the Middle Ages, village blacksmiths made crude nails for horse shoes and construction. In the 1500-1700 period more sophisticated processing techniques were developed to make iron more malleable and improve nail quality. Nail making in this period was quite specialised and nailers were well rewarded for their work.

Towards the end of the 18th century and during the first half of the 19th century demand for nails increased significantly and the number of people participating in nail making increased dramatically especially in rural areas like Quinton which were near to conurbations. Finally, the demise of rural nail making began around 1850 when factory produced nails and screws started to take over. Additionally, growing metal and chemical industries in nearby parishes were attracting new employees with more secure and better paid jobs.M

y great, great Grandparents, Joseph and Mary Parkes, were nailers in Spies Lane during the early Victorian period. They had 12 children, 10 of whom reached adulthood. Census records show that at least 7 of the children worked in the cottage nail shop, probably starting with less arduous tasks at the tender age of 6 or 7. Their eldest son, William, my great grandfather, was probably helping in the nail shop by the time Quinton National school started up in the early 1840s. It is believed that he never had any formal education.

My 2 G Grandparents’ cottage was later occupied by Albert Porter, village milkman, in the 1930s. Examination of the deeds of a neighbouring cottage suggests that it was built around 1800. It was demolished near the end of the 20th century, prior to the development of the present day Spies Close.

The build up to significant nailing in Spies Lane – and also in the rest of Quinton, Ridgacre, Woodgate etc – was promoted by a number of developments. First, conversion of a Halesowen corn mill, into a slitting mill, around 1760/1770 led to the wider availability of iron rods which were suitable starting stock for nail making. These malleable iron rods were a few feet in length and about a quarter of an inch in diameter. Bundles of a few rods could be fairly readily transported by pack horses. The Halesowen slitting mill was sited near the bottom of Mucklow Hill. Water power for the mill was stored in two ponds. One associated with the river Stour, the other near Leasowes. The next important development was the opening of the Dudley number 2 canal in 1797, which connected the bottom of Mucklow Hill Halesowen, to Selly Oak via the long Lapel Tunnel. Shortly after the canal opened the enterprising Webb family of Webb’s Green Farm, built a wharf and nail warehouse adjacent to the crossing of the canal with Manor Lane. This meant that, after delivering by canal barge, bundles of iron rod could be fairly easily carried up Manor Lane to the nailers in Spies Lane and elsewhere.

The less demanding slope of Manor Lane, circumvented the notoriously difficult Mucklow Hill to Quinton. The tithes of 1844 note the presence of a further wharf with stables, further along the canal near to the entrance to Lapel tunnel. This may have been a stage point for iron bar delivery to Woodgate which had more than 50 nailers by 1851

Another factor promoting rural nail making around Quinton was the free availability of both horses and labour especially following the pause in farming activity after the harvest peak. Farmers participation as middle men occurred almost naturally as they arranged distribution of the iron rods and collection of finished nails with their horses.

The work of men folk changed from nail making to farm labouring in the summer and early autumn. This left the women and children slaving away in the nail shops during the hot summer months. Perhaps there was an element of voyeurism from a traveller through local nailing areas, who reported seeing scantily clothed females swinging a hammer with all the grace of their sex.

All that was required by the rural community to participate in nail making was a hearth, an anvil, a hammer and unlimited elbow grease. In the early part of the 19th century, this led to the annexation of small nail houses on the end of many cottages. One of my great great Grandfathers – John Grovenor – was a brick layer living in Manor Lane and apparently he did quite well for himself in this period, adding small nail houses to cottages in Quinton, Ridgacre and Woodgate.

At the peak of West Midland nail making in the middle of the 19th century there were thousands of rural workers dependent upon iron rod supplies from nail master wholesalers and their distribution network of middle men (or foggers). A few of these suppliers were benevolently disposed towards the rural workforce but many had a bullying and adverse attitude taking advantage of the weak position of the nailers. Workers were often cheated of their legitimate rewards for their hard work, either by false weighing of their products or unwarranted criticism of nail quality.

Additionally, pressure was applied to accept payment by tokens or goods instead of hard cash. The prominent Bissell family were also food retailers in Halesowen and it is possible that they were influential in offloading out dated truck food, sometimes referred to as in “Tommy” or “Tommy rot”. Relations between rural nail workers and foggers sometimes became so difficult that physical reprisals occurred. Perhaps it was understandable that foggers could sometimes be referred to as bloodsuckers.

The working conditions within small cottage workshops must have been quite deplorable and it is particularly heart rending to consider the effect it must have had on young children. With up to a dozen people living in small 2 bedroom cottage, as in my early family, sleeping after nail work must have been cramped and difficult to say the least. Oral history sources indicated that the children’s mode of sleeping ranged from very deep due to exhaustion to fleeting because of pangs of hunger. New clothes for the children were out of the question; their apparel was always second hand, probably cast offs from more affluent areas like Edgbaston. When older children outgrew their deteriorating garments they were passed down to younger siblings. Eventually the ragged remains were torn into strips and used instead of shoes for binding toddlers’ feet. No matter how conscientious parents were in trying to safeguard their working children, it must have been unavoidable in the confines of the nail shop for accidents not to occur.

Inevitably swinging hammers and hot iron sometimes led to cuts, bruises and burns and these afflictions, of course, were additional to the longer term pulmonary hazards of inhaling sooty and sulphurous fumes.

Just what a modern day health and safety inspector would have reported having witnessed these early working conditions can only be imagined.

In attempts to make ends meet, working hours occupied as much daylight as possible resulting in some 80-100 nail making hours per week. The rewards for a family of 4 or 5 working nailers amounted to little more than 20 shillings per week. It is little wonder that poverty prevailed with a pay rate of equivalent to little more than 1 farthing per worker hour.

The 1851 census for Spies Lane lists my 2 G Grandparents, Joseph and Mary Parkes and their 3 young boys, as nailers. 11 cottages are listed and to my surprise, 9 of these housed one or more nailers. The enumerators list included 41 individuals; 24 of these are described as nailers and almost half of them were children. Of the two dwellings with no nailers, one was occupied by an agricultural worker, the other by Samuel Dingley, a farmer and middleman or fogger.

The concentration of nailers recorded in Spies Lane was much higher than in the adjoining Quinton/Ridgacre area, levels being around 60% and 25% respectively.

Perhaps the closer proximity of Spies Lane to the arterial feeder canal off Manor Lane was a factor in this significant difference.

My great Grandfather, William Parkes, must have been desperate to escape mail making and by the time of the 1861 census, it seems he had achieved his aim. He was then described as a German silver smith worker and was employed in Ladywood, Birmingham by precious metal specialists, Evans and Hoskin. William’s new better paid job set the scene for his marriage to another local nailer, his sweetheart Emily Grovenor on Boxing day 1864, at St Johns Church, Halesowen. William and Emily also took up residence in Spies Lane and eventually had ten children. They must have been both pleased and relieved that not a single one their children was ever involved in nail making.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that William, who had spent more than a decade of his youth in an unhealthy nail shop environment, had a life span of only 54 years. This contrasted with his son John Henry who had completely avoided nail making and lived to the ripe old age of 87. Both John Henry and his son Jess followed William’s footsteps and worked as silver smiths at Henry Wiggins, who took over from Evans and Hoskins in 1870. The upshot was that of my family line at Quinton, occupations covering more than a century, changed from three successive generations of nailers to three successive generations of silver smiths.

My great grandfather William’s job change typified the movement of many locals away from nail making in the second half of the 19th century. Census records for Spies Lane show that from 1851 to 1881 the percentage of inhabitants working as nailers fell from about 60% to 15%. By the turn of the centre nail making in Quinton had all but disappeared.

In my younger days I noted that there was quite a significant number of locals in Quinton with the Parkes surname. Some were described by elderly members of my family as distant relatives. However, it seemed strange that there was no empathy or friendship extended for these people. Indeed there seemed to be some sort of social barrier. A possible explanation was provided by a great aunt who revelled in oral history. Her Parkes story harkens back to early Victorian times when two closely related nailer families were near neighbours in Spies Lane. The whole of one family was suddenly taken ill with acute sickness and as a consequence, no nails were made for over a week. Again a distressing lack of food resulted in the recovering children crying with hunger. A possible explanation for the sickness was considered to be stale food acquired as truck or ‘Tommy Rot’. However, no other Spies Lane nailers receiving truck food were affected. It then somehow transpired that the real cause of sickness was caused by naughty children from the other Parkes family emptying decaying rubbish down the well in their garden, the water then becoming badly contaminated. This revelation lead to a terrible argument and a serious dispute over access to well water. The dispute evolved into a feud, the families stopped speaking to each other and one eventually move away to live elsewhere in Quinton.

Researching ones ancestors and building a family tree can be fascinating preoccupation. My aim has been not to just investigating single maternal and paternal lines, but to follow all branches back as far as possible (still trying!). My task has been helped by the fact that each family branch back for three or four generations has been close to Quinton or neighbouring parishes, viz Halesowen, Ridgeacre, Lapel, Rowley Regis and West Bromwich. I was intrigued to find that as many as six out of eight branches back from my great grandparents had some connection with the making of nails, rivets, chains etc. It would seem that iron runs in my blood, over and above that incorporated in my haemoglobin!

My resolve to become better informed about local nail making has obviously completely changed my earlier ideas. It has also shown that the resilient spirit of Quintonians can prevail against the stresses and strains of difficult living conditions in times past.

Ed’s comment- Many thanks to Bryan for a fascinating insight into his family and nail-making in Quinton.

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