Nailed to the Poverty Line

by Geraldine Sheridan

“From morn till night, from early light, we toil for little pay," was the first line of a well-known nail-making song. It was a line that summed up conditions in a trade where poverty was a way of life. Nail making became a competitive industry in the 17th century and for decades the Black Country revelled in its new found wealth. But the profits made from nail making hid behind them an exploitation of workers that had never been so severe before. As the nail-masters rejoiced in their enormous wealth, workers toiled for hours in hot, cramped conditions. Nailing shops were usually about ten feet square, ventilated through the door and lighted by one or two unglazed windows. Unlike the chain-making shops the fire was usually in the centre and often three or four families would crowd around the forge.

People worked together and in many cases lived together, with a few families sharing a tiny two-roomed house. An excerpt from the Illustrated Midland News told of a reporter's visit to a typical nail-maker's house:

"Parson's house consists of two rooms, one up and one downstairs, with a shop adjoining. In the lower room sat Parson's wife sewing. Their daughter, who appeared to be about 15, was sitting by the grate, huddled up in a shawl; nothing else.
The youngest child about four years - old was playing about the room. “Look here Sir!' said Parsons, whipping the child up in his arms and half crying, “look at her, poor dear, with hardly a bit of shoe leather to her feet.”
To detail everything in the room were a light task, one round table with a small basin on it, some poor tattered clothes, hung up to dry, a pannikin on the hob, a teapot and one or two cups, a rough wooden couch, destitute of covering. That was all. The mortar showed through the bare walls. The only neat looking article in the room was the polished grate.
The bedroom is about fifteen feet by nine. It contains a rough four-poster bedstead with bare poles, battered sacking, one miserable sheet and a bolster of the most attenuation.
There is a ‘shakedown’ - a flock mattress, with no sheets, blankets or bed covering whatever, if you except a dirty sheet about the size of a man's pocket handkerchief, and so tattered and torn as to be useless for the purpose of covering”. There is an empty grate, that is all. "In this wretched 15 x 9, five persons sleep nightly - the father, the mother, and three children aged respectively 20 (the son), 15 and nearly 4."

The houses were a reflection of the extreme poverty that most nailers had to live with. Many of them couldn't even afford to buy food. The excerpt went on: "Parsons assured me that he did not know the taste of meat; they mostly had cup of tea and some bread for breakfast, and dinner little else.

"But they bear their starvation bravely. You may walk through Bakers -fold a dozen times in a day if the sight does not sicken you, and never be asked for a halfpenny in charity!”

Hunger and poverty increased when machinery started to take over the industry after about 1830. The backyard nailers began to sink lower and lower down the earnings' scale but there wasn't very much they could do about it. They were too widespread to form a competent union even though the history of nail making is laced with strikes. Verses from a poem by Samuel Salt read:

"The nailers are now again on strike,
through being served with such tricks they don't like.
Nailers have been on strike for many weeks:
this is caused through the masters' shameful tricks.
"But if the strike lasts long I do dread,
many poor children will cry out for bread.
Oh! How hard when children are took to bed,
for them to say, 'Oh! mother we want bread’".

One of the most spirited of all the revolts was in the spring of 1842. Nailers actually seized several nail masters and marched them from Old Hill to Dudley where the Riot Act was read. The militia from Birmingham were called out and the nailers made special nails called 'Tis as it is as it was’, to slow down the horses. The tiswas nails were made by putting three nails together so that whichever way it was thrown a sharp point would always be sticking up.But the tiswas nails didn't stop the militia. The masters were eventually released and the mob of nail makers driven from the town.The nail makers never benefited very much from the strikes because they were up against such tough opposition. And the only result was often an increase in poverty, illness and death. Deaths like Parson's ten-month-old baby who died because of the strike in 1869.

Infant mortality was always high among the nailers and it is said that in Lye the situation was so bad that the babies were actually fed to the pigs. A piece written by Walter B. Woodgate in 1865 read:

"The Lye Waste boasted that Coroner's inquests on infanticide were unknown in its area. There's some truth in the taunt, despite the notorious immorality of the district, but the solution was simple. Most Lye Wasters kept pigs; if there chanced to be a superfluous baby the family pig was kept on short commons for a day or so. Then the infant (somehow) fell into the sty, and in half an hour no coroner could have found, any remains to 'sit upon’".

The children who did survive grew up to take over in their parents' footsteps. Many of them would start making hobs or shoe bills at the, age of about seven with the promise,

“I will give you a penny for the first red hot nail you make."

It wasn't very often that the children escaped the nail-making shops until the age of 11 when they left school officially. Parents couldn't afford to let their children go to school. When they stopped going the school inspector would call once and then cross them off the register. Life a pre-determined pattern and women left their feminity behind to go into the nail-making shops.

“Some only got 7/- a week”.

The remarkable difference between rich and poor was never so marked as in the nail-making industry. The real profit from the trade went to nail-masters and the nailers themselves worked long hours every day for a poverty wage. The masters kept a warehouse and distributed the iron to workers who would take it to their small backyard shops and come back with the finished result. They were never paid more than a few shillings every week. An extract from the Illustrated Midland News on September 18, 1869 reads:

"The men have to work very hard to get as much as 10/- every week. Out of that 10/- it will cost a man for carriage of iron, firing and materials, I/- per week. At 16/-' in the pound, I take up 8/- at my house, a close place I have got a wife and three children, others have seven or eight. And where I get 10/- there are many as can't get 6/- and their families are the same as mine. I know a man that has seven children. He cannot earn more than 7/- every week and he shall work his hardest twelve hours a day. Our rent is on average for shop and house 2/- per week."

But the real exploitation was carried out by a middle-man, called ‘the fogger’, who usually owned a pub or tommy shop. The foggers preyed on the nailers by supplying them with iron on credit and then buying back the nails with cheques, which had to be spent in their, ‘truck shops’. An extract from "Walks in the Black Country and It's Green Borderland” by Elihu Buritt reads:

"Numerous workmen prefer to sell their nails at the ‘truck shop’ every day, and in many instances at every meal. "It is a well known fact that at present more than one - half of the hand made nails are paid for "in truck" but such nails are of very inferior quality, thereby injuring the prestige of the English hand - made nail in foreign markets."

© QLHS – Geraldine Sheridan 2003

Ed’s Comment – The above was taken from a newspaper article written over 40 years ago by Geraldine Sheridan. I would like to thank Geraldine for this most interesting article and trust that she would not mind me taking the liberty of reproducing it for our members to read.

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