Nailed it

Here’s another great article from The Graphic, spotted in the archives by Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler, to which he alluded in the comments on a recent article. I can see this one being a little bit controversial, but it’s very entertaining. It explores the possibility that the working class men of the day were perhaps a little more indolent than we would expect, and the ladies a tad more resourceful.

This also expands on the recent preoccupation with nailers, who were and early industrial feature of Walsall Wood.

Nailmaking is a hard, skilled craft – now accomplished by machine, but still tough to get right; back then, the manufacture of horseshoe nails in particular would have been a very, very black art. There is much subtle detail in such items, their odd, very specific profile causing them to bend on insertion at just the right point.

The nailers may have been commoners, but their skill was not commonly mastered.


A nail making shop, faithfully reconstructed at the Black Country Museum. Image courtesy of Tony Parsons/AJP Photography. Click on the image to visit his site.

From ‘The Graphic’,  Saturday, 2nd October 1880:

Women at Work

In ‘Greater Britain’ it is stated that the Pacific Indians will not force their wives to work, for that they hold to be ‘the ultimate form of degradation in a race.’ It would be well if the same view were held in some parts of England, for whilst one of the problems of the day is the need of work for women, one of the features of certain localities is that women are still employed at unsuitable work. It is about two score years since the Bill passed which prohibited the employment of females in coal mines, but although public opinion has gone beyond that legislative enactment, and discourages the employment of females about mines, as well as in them, there are yet in Great Britain many thousands employed. Out of 91,000 persons employed above ground in mining labour in Great Britain there are nearly 5,000 females, and a tenth part of these are of tender ages. Staffordshire is one of the coalmining districts where there is this employment of women and girls in an unfeminine em ployment, and in the county and on its borders there is to an even greater degree an employment of female labour in an industry as un suitable and almost as laborious, if less dangerous. That employment is in the nail and drain manufactures, the seat of which is on tire borders of Staffordshire and the adjacent localities. Within a few miles of Birmingham—one of the proudest of our provincial towns, we have a phase of life which is unique, and which cannot be called in any sense very creditable.

Although the nailmaking trade is located in several parts of the kingdom, its chief scat is in the almost contiguous villages that stud the country between Birmingham and Dudley. It took early root there, and though the Introduction of machinery has changed and is changing the trade, yet Halesowen, Cradley, Lye Waste, Rowley, and other villages in and on the borders of the South Staffordshire and Worcestershire coalfield, may be still called the centres of the trade. These villages are fall of little nail factories, and it is in them that whilst Vulcan is absent, often on bibulous thoughts intent, Venus presides at the forge. These little nailshops, attached to the small cottages, or approached through them, or in them, are the homes and the workshops of hundreds and even thousands of females working daily long hours. In early youth they are taught with their brothers to blow the bellows; when they can wield the hammer or move the heavier ‘ Oliver ‘ machine they are put to it, and up to very late in life maid, wife, or widow may be seen stooping over the anvil, heating the iron, and beating it into the desired shape in many, indeed most, of the branches of the trade. That the statement is not exaggerated, it may be said that at the time of the last census there were 12,367 male nailmakers in Great Britain, and 10,864 female nailmakers; whilst of chain makers, 4,163 were males and 910 were females. These, of course, were located in various parts of the country ; but as has been said, the chief centre is that of South’Staffordshire and its neighbour, hood; and it has been roughly conjectured that in that locality alone over 25,000 persons are now employed in the two industries. One branch of the trade—that of the manufacture of horsenails— is, it is believed, free from female labour, and it is more than a coincidence, perhaps, that in that branch the wages are best; but in all the other many blanches of the trade the employment of females is common, and in some branches it seems to exceed that of the sex to which the employment might be considered most suitable.


Farrier’s nails are amazingly complex items – much more so than one would imagine. They are shaped to curve on insertion. Image from

The work is long and laborious, and poorly paid. Generally the nailmaker obtains iron from a ‘ fogger,’ a warehouseman, that is, who supplies a given weight of iron, and an order to make it into nails or a given kind—’clout,’ ‘hurdle,’ ‘clasp,’ ‘rose,’ or other of the many classes. To his or her little shop the nailer takes this iron, where perhaps a ‘hearth,’ or ‘stall’ is only rented. ‘The fuel is found by the nailer, and this and the few tools being procured, there is soon kept up that metallic clang which may be heard from early morn till night in the nailmaking villages. With brawny arms bared, and with possibly a kerchief over the head, these women work—old women, whose hair is grey, young women, not long wives, perhaps girls growing into womanhood, and often those of tender age. And what is the pay ? For labour often of twelve hours a day, the week will show a result of six to nine shillings for women, and from this the sixpence for the hearth, the cost of ‘breeze’ or coal, and possibly pay for a young caretaker for the young children of the nailer have to be deducted. The poverty of the nailer, and the custom of the trade, make them to a large extent entirely dependent upon the prices offered by the ‘fogger,’ or the warehouseman who supplies the raw material, and buys its finished product. It is partly owing to this low wage, and to the constant growth of the competition with machine made nails that there is partly traceable the employment of children, for their wages are comparatively important, and with the father and mother working as nailers there are often three or four of the boys and girls.

By night that fitful glow which overspreads most of the great ironmaking districts is in the vicinity of Stourbridge added toby scores of fires in the little forges. Through the open door or window, or through chinks in the shutters, there may be seen the glowing hearth, and in the light of the fire, the form of the nailer stooping over the anvil, and the ‘ hard and sinewy hands ‘ of men and women keep up a chorus by the hammer and the anvil that the writer of the ‘ Village Blacksmith ‘ dreamt not of. Whether the links of the chain are turning from rosy red to black as they are forged, or whether one of the two thousand kinds of nails or rivets is being rapidly shaped, it matters not—there the female nailer predominates. For the worst of this employment of labour of women is that it has too often been ‘the ultimate form of degradation ‘ in the race of the man allied to her. When you see the women working, too often the men are at the taproom, or congregating at coursing or sporting matches, or with the pigeons in their little boxes, carrying them out into the green lanes. The men are too often loungers at the racecourse, or loiterers at the publichouse corner, whilst womanly hands wield the hammer, and womanly feet impel the treadle of the ‘ Oliver.’

It is one of the saddest features of life in the Midlands, and its effects extend beyond those hinted. These little nailing villages, shabby, unkempt, and irregular, show traces of them; and those who are officially brought into contact with the people know the dark shades of character where ‘women must weep ‘ at times as well as work. One of the Inspectors of Factories drew attention in a recent report to some of these features of a saddening character to the gradual hardening to coarseness and grossness of the women, tn the physical evils, and to the unmanliness of the men, in words too strong to be placed here. Suffice it that his opinion was that ‘ day by day I am convinced that this women’s labour is the bane of the place,’ for whilst the ‘ought to be breadwinner is luxuriating in some public house at his ease, training his whippet, for some future running, on beefsteaks and the best of good fare,’ the wife, and possibly the children, are at work ‘for any price any crafty knave of a master chooses to offer.’ The middlemen are ‘ a curse to the trade,’ the ‘sanitary condition of the shops is bad,’ and that of the villages far from perfect, whilst the state of education may be gathered from the fact that one of the largest of these villages was discussing how it could stave off a School Board order only a month or two ago—years after the bulk of the country has been brought under the Education Act. Machine made nails seem slowly taking the place of handmade; and though in the change there must be suffering for a class, it would he well if the change were hastened to free women from this unsexing work.                                                J W. S.

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10 Responses to Nailed it

  1. Edwina says:

    How very interesting, my great great great grandfather was a nailer or something like and I couldn’t understand what was a nail maker doing in Pelsall? Now I am beginning to understand re the mines etc., just what he was doing, perhaps. Got the old grey matter going now… Thanks Bob …

  2. kevinjones21 says:

    Interesting to see that even in days gone by that even nail makers were doing things to avoid import duty – nothing changes! A lovely article – thanks.

  3. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    a big thank you to Pedro for finding this rich article. This, Sedgleymanor’s images of the workshops, and especially a worthwhile visit to the Black Country Museum all help to give us a deeper insight into the grim world of Vulcan and Venus….
    kind regards

  4. anereen says:

    Just to possibly update the article a little, it is a great sadness to me that I never thought of having a camera, but as late as 1959, I was collecting chain for export from a small Cradeley Heath chain works, where I stood and watched women forge welding chain by hand, as I have loaded firebricks in Brierley Hill, wheeled out of the kilns 5cwt to the barrow and loaded on to road and rail trucks.

    Barry Lycett

  5. Barry Carpenter says:

    Great article and one I’d read before, a hard life for sure. In the early 1960’s I remember our first home in the village of Bournheath north of Bromsgrove. Most of the cottages where built south facing to get the light and extra warmth from the sun. Many have no windows on the north side. Attached to the one side would be the nail shop, a single story extension with chimney for the heath.
    Our cottage had such a nail shop, which at that time still retained some of the nail shop fixtures. A solid work bench along the one wall, the corner held the breeze bunker, wood planks formed a square trough about 4 foot square and 2 foot deep. Wooden shutters and no glass in the window and a split stable type door, both painted with faded red lead paint. In the roof joists hung various chunks of iron work and chains, which would have supported the bellows and Oliver Ash poles. Simple and practical return springs. The photo of the nail shop above shows one of these poles.

  6. Pedro says:

    Quite a difference between this article and the one concerning the miners of Norton Canes. Both are from the 1880s and by contemporary writers.

    The miners of Norton Canes, reconciled to their trouble and torture, never complaining and having the patience of Job. The Collier’s wife being extremely clean despite the large families.

    Here we have a contrast! The Nailer’s shabby, unkempt villages. The grossness of the women and the unmanliness of the men.

    • You don’t think there was actual journalism at work here, do you?

      Journal of the Plague Year is a great book for anyone interested in the genesis of this stuff.

      I had that Daily Mail geezer in the back of my cab once…


      • Pedro says:

        After the first article, and the comments, I did a quick check of the Petty Sessions around 1860 to 1900, and recorded in the Lichfield Mercury.

        Norton Canes seemed no better or worse than other nearby villages, and had a variety of offences.

  7. Dave Webb says:

    There was an article about nailmaking on p217 of the Meccano magazine, May 1954.
    The cover also featured an image of Albert Crane, one of the last nailmakers.
    Also, The Bromsgrove Society regularly feature nailmaking in their publications and lectures.
    And Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove are in process of restoring a nailmakers cottage to it’s original state.
    Thought this might be of interest.

  8. Pingback: Nail Art | Lichfield Lore

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