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The Black Country Nail Trade

The information in this article has been taken from "The Black Country Nail Trade" by Arthur Willets.

Dilapidated nail shop The beginning of the nail trade in the Black Country and other parts of the surrounding areas are lost in antiquity. Reference to nails being made go back as far as the 12th century. The trade was always domestic in character, the nails being made in small workshops either attached to, or close to, the nailer's house. In the early times, that is up to about the 17th century, the nail trade would have been mainly a part-time occupation along with agriculture, with nails being made in times of bad weather and in winter.

The improvement of slitting the iron into bars early in the 17th century helped stimulate the nail trade. Godfrey Box is reputed to have erected the first slitting mill in England at Dartford, Kent, In 1590. The slitting Mill had been used on the continent for some time, the method was to flatten and slit iron into bars using water power. Before its arrival in England all iron used in nailmaking had to be split by hand, a very laborious task, Nail rods were also inputted from the continent and both the bars of iron expensive.

Richard Foley erected the first local slitting mill on the river Stour at The Hyde near Kinver. He was better-known as "Fiddler Foley", the son of a nailer, according to Dudley parish records, he was baptised on 28th March 1580. The story is that he made his way to Sweden pretending to be an idiot and playing the fiddle. He worked his way into the Swedish ironworks where he became friendly with the workmen, found out how the slitting mill operated and returned to England to set up his own mill. He had problems with the cutters having missed certain details on how to keep them cool and so returned to Sweden and made drawings. This time when he returned to England his slitting mill was successful. The River Stour became important with more mills for its length than any other river in Britain. The Tame was also an important river for this purpose.

Improvements in the blast furnaces and the change from charcoal to coal made the nail trade competitive. Richard Reynolds wrote in a letter about 1760 and said that, "The nail trade would have been lost to this country had it not been found practical to make nails of iron made with pit-coal". Trade with Sweden ceased in 1717 because of Britain's improvement in the northern war and the stopping of the most important centre of ironmaking in Europe was a great help to the Black Country iron industry.

During most of the 18th century the nail trade was prosperous partly due to the amount sent to the American colonies which were not allowed to compete with the mother country. At the time of the war of independence the loss of trade hit nailmaking very hard although trade increased later. Around 1810 there was another decline in the American trade owing to the political situation, William Whitehouse giving evidence before a House of Commons Select Committee in 1812 said "Any person who knew the quantity of nails required in America would be surprised unless he saw the immense number of houses built of wood in that country".

Nails Around this time machinery for nailmaking was being developed, first the cast nail in 1780, and in 1811 cut nails began to be manufactured in Birmingham. By 1830 they were being produced in large numbers, Hand-made nails were also being imported in increasing amounts from Belgium adding to the distress of the nailers. During the "Hungry Forties" the people in the nail trade suffered terribly and by 1842 many of them were dying of starvation. The Worcestershire Guardian of 16th April 1842 stated that the nail trade in Bromsgrove and Stourbridge is so deplorable that at the petty sessions, held on Tuesday at the former place, the magistrates urged the surveyor to employ as many of the nailers upon the roads as he possibly could, remarking that they could not be permitted to starve and that it was not relief for one day that they required but every day till the trade turned, though when that may be we know not. The nailmasters replied by reducing the already low wages another 20% and just over a week later the nailers rioted. Several thousand from all the nailing districts proceeded to march on Dudley where there was to be a meeting of the nailmasters. On the way the nailers visited a number of warehouses and forced the masters to go with them as prisoners. They also slashed the bellows of any nailers found working. On arrival at Dudley the nailers were forced to hold a conference with delegates of the nailers but the nailers had been tricked. Help had been sent for and while the conference was being held a troop of cavalry arrived with sabres drawn. The rioters were dispersed and several were arrested and sent to Worcester to await trial. Over the next few days the cavalry was reinforced by troops bought into the area from other counties, Even pieces of artillery were bought into Dudley. From time to time there were clashes between the troops and the nailers who used their hammers as clubs. They used what was known locally as a "tiswas", this consisted of three nails welded together in such a way that when thrown upon the ground one point would always stick up. These were thrown under the horses of the charging cavalry crippling the horses and throwing their riders off. Gradually the riots were brought under control and the authorities distributed loaves of bread and other food to the people. The prisoners were taken to Worcester and given reasonably light sentences after the court had heard their plea of Starvation.

In 1852, during a strike against the truck system and low wages, a protest march was led by Sam Salt from Halesowen to Bromsgrove to raise funds for the strike. The coal was provided by Thomas Attwood who had been the first Member of Parliament for Birmingham.

For most of the 19th century the nail trade was dogged by strikes many of them instigated by the masters. When their warehouses became over-stocked with nails, or certain types of nails. They would encourage the district, making that type of nail, to strike and then when they had run out, play one district against another to reduce wages even further.

After the early 18th century improvements in the smelting and slitting of the iron began to appear in the trade. Those who had the finance, opened warehouses in the nailing districts. They were able to carry large stocks of nails and had the ability to market them and became known as "nailmasters"or "nail ironmongers" They bought the rod from the slitting mills, distributed it to the nailers (either by delivering it or the nailer fetching it himself) and received the finished nails back for payment, The larger nailmasters had branch warehouses in outlying districts for receiving the nails made there, employing agents to run them. The nailmasters controlled and regulated the wages of the workers at quarterly meetings which until 1875 were held in Dudley and after that in Birmingham. At these meetings the masters agreed on the prices they would pay the workers for the various types of nails according to the market. These prices were supposed to remain in force until they were again considered but once away from the meetings many masters reduced the agreed rates and paid their workers less, to try and undercut each other. The masters employed their workers on the out-work principle and many of them owned the houses and workshops of their employees and received rent for them.

A few of the larger nailmasters did employ a few nailmakers on their own premises making nails for special orders. In1830 there were about fifty nailmasters employing an estimated 50.000 men women and children in nailmaking. By 1880 there were over 60 masters listed in the minutes of the meetings but the number employed had dropped considerably.


The "Fogger" was a type of middleman bought about by the great amount of surplus labour in the trade in the 19th century. The Fogger prayed upon the poverty of the nailers supplying them with iron on credit, much as the nailmaster did, but buying the nails back at well below list prices or by truck, ( this was the practise of payment in goods not money, which although illegal persisted in the Black Country until the 20th century ). The Fogger was usually the owner of a public house or "tommy shop". When a nailer's supply of iron was stopped by the regular nailmaster for any reason such as high stocks of nails, fraud by the nailer or bad work, the nailer was forced to go to the Fogger or starve. He would then be paid by check which had to be spent in the Fogger's shop or public house on goods which were usually inferior or adulterated, this was known locally as "tommy trucking". The Fogger generally kept three sets of scales to cheat the nailers even further. One set giving short weight to weigh the iron rod, one to weigh the nails when bought in and a set which was correct for the benefit of the inspector. A witness, quoted in the Midland Mining Commission report of 1843, said "I will show you a man in Gornal tomorrow who will offer to do the work for me for nothing. He will pay himself out of the profits of his shop, he is an agent for the nailmaster, a middleman of the worst description, he takes all the trouble off the nailmaster's hands by taking the iron and giving it out to the nailers and collecting the nails when made. For this trouble he repays himself by coercing those he employs to buy his goods. He sells beer and all sorts of articles, clothing, bread, butter, flour meal etc". A witness before the Truck Commission gave evidence that government contracts were often given to works in the Black Country but generally to those that dealt in truck because they were cheaper. The majority of Foggers began as clerks or warehousemen, and knowing where orders came from they would solicit for orders and then recruit workmen by promising to pay the current price. This they did for a week or two then they began reducing the price but by then the nailer was hooked. At the beginning of the 19th century Foggers were blamed for keeping the price of nails down but as the century progressed more and more masters worked hand and glove with them.

Benjamin Bache proved that on the 26th March 1842 he took some nails to Smith's warehouse, they were weighed and came to 10s. He was told to go into the house and his (Smith's ) wife would pay him, he asked for money and was told he could not have any but must take goods. He then agreed to goods to the amount of 4s 10d and sent his wife for them. Smith kept a beer house, a witness said that he went one day and sat drinking there from one o clock till ten at night. He went several days during which he drank beer to the amount of the balance of what was due to him for the nails. That was 5s, all this was drunk in beer at Smith's house, he had no money, he could not get any although he asked for it. If the men wanted money they were obliged to sell the goods they took off the master and that at a great loss. Dinah Bache, the wife of the last witness, was sent to Smith's by her husband for some goods, She was to have goods to the amount of 4s 10d, She received:-

one peck of flour 2s-9d

one half pound of sugar 4½d

one and a half pound of bacon 1s-1½d

one half pound of butter 7d

total 4s-10d

She said "I asked for some money but was told I could not have any and was obliged to sell part of the above goods at less than they cost so that I might pay nursing and rent. My husband was drinking at Smith's beerhouse while I and my children were starving at home". Several objections were made by Mr Shaw as to the liability of the defendant, all of which were over-ruled by the magistrates who convicted him in a penalty of £5 and costs, ( Benjamin Bache was later convicted for his involvement in the nailers riots of 25th April 1842 and sentenced to four months hard labour ).


A typical nail shop was usually about ten or twelve feet square with one door and one or two unglazed windows. The nail shop had a central hearth or fire ( this differed from a chain shop which had the hearths around the walls ) so that all the family could work independently of each other but using just one fire thus saving on fuel. There could be as many as six working round one fire. Nailers usually either rented or owned their own shop but a nailer who for some reason had no shop of his own, could rent a "standing" from a fellow nailer and share the fire to carry on making nails. Nailers provided their own tools, These were not numerous or expensive. The bellows, a small block or anvil, sharpening tools and for nailers making large nails, "the Oliver". The Midland Mining Commission report of 1843 includes this description:- "The best forges are little brick shops of about 15 feet by 12 feet in which seven or eight individuals constantly work together with no ventilation except the door and two slits, a loop-hole in the wall. The majority of these workplaces are very much smaller and filthy dirty and on looking in upon one of them when the fire is not lighted presents the appearance of a dilapidated coal-hole. In the dirty den there are commonly at work, a man and his wife and daughter, with a boy or girl hired by the year. Sometimes the wife carries on the forge with the aid of the children. The filthiness of the ground, the half-ragged, half-naked, unwashed persons at work, and the hot smoke, ashes, water and clouds of dust are really dreadful".


The nailer placed three or four rods into the fire, when a rod was sufficiently heated the nailer began forging the end into a point on the small nailer's block. The pointed end was then cut off to the required length ( measured by a gauge ) by being placed upon a fixed chisel called a hardy. It was then inserted into the bore, point down. The bore was made to fit the thicker part of the nail and was countersunk to form a mould for the nail head. A few blows with the hammer formed the head and a spring called a "whimsey" was touched with the hammer to release the finished nail. A girl could make over four nails a minute or over 250 an hour. Time also had to be allowed for fetching and carrying the iron and taking the finished nails to the warehouse.


Nail Oliver The Oliver was a spring tilt-hammer operated by the foot of the worker, one end of the hammer was fitted to a wooden treadle by a crank. After the hammer had delivered its blow it was bought back to the vertical by a spring pole fixed to the beams of the nail shop. The weight of the hammer varied from just a few pounds to 30 pounds. When thick iron was being cut as many as three people would operate the Oliver by jumping in turn upon the treadle. The work was very hard, for it has to be remembered that besides working the Oliver the hand hammer was being used and also the bellows had to be blown.


The payment for nails was a very complicated system and led to many disputes. The slit rods were given out to the nailers in 60lb bundles with 8 quarters to a bundle, sub-divided into 6 parts of 1 ¼ lb each. In working these bundles the yield of nails varied according to the size and type of nail, large nails yielding as much as 52lb with 8lb waste while small nails could be as low as 42lb. The yield also depended upon the skill of the nailer. Payment for large nails was by the bundle or hundredweight, for the small nails by the "tale" or price per thousand but here was another strange system for the nailer had to make 1,200 nails to be paid for 1,000 but the nailmaster in selling used a count of 750 to 960 per thousand depending upon the type of nail.


Women had always worked in the nail trade but from about1850 it was dominated by them. Boys and girls had to start making nails very young and it was common to see a child seven or eight years old making nails in order to get every penny they could into the household. It was left to women to earn enough to feed and clothe the family and pay the rent. In many cases what the husband earned was spent upon his own pleasure or he was forced by the Fogger to spend it on drink at his pub or alehouse. It was common practise in the Black Country for colliers and ironworkers to marry a nailing wench who was also expected to bring up the children while they followed more manly pursuits. A medical officer reported in 1883 that the high death rate, chiefly infants under five years of age, "was due in great measure to the habit of mothers leaving their children unattended while they were engaged in the nail shop". Not all nailers were like this however, many turned to religion and became strong Methodists. The union tried to introduce restrictions on female labour but this was opposed by the nail masters who looked upon them as cheap labour. Male chain and nailmakers objected to women making the heavier types of chain and nails but the main motive of the agitation was to prevent the lowering of the man's wages as a result of competition from the women.
Girl making nails It states Elisa Tinsley had a number of warehouse's throughout the Black Country, she was the most respected nailmaster, and was known as "The Black Widow". She was the widow of Thomas Tinsley who died in 1851 at the age of 37. She then took over the business, rather than selling it and with the aid of John Henry (Harry ) Green, who became her work's manager, Eliza built her late husband's nail-making firm into a highly successful business with offices and warehouses, not only at Old Hill (which remained the firm's headquarters)but also in Bromsgrove, Catshill, Dudley, Sedgley, Wombourne and Oldswinford. When she finally retired in 1872 at the age of 58 she sold the concern to Harry Green and his family associates. Just before her death in 1882 the firm employed over 4000 people.

Notice from the book is as follows, ( Haycitch is not spelt that way now. )



A GENERAL MEETING of the above Society was held at Old Hill, February 8th 1875, when a Deputation from Bromsgrove attended, and the following Districts were well represented;- Old Hill, Gorstey Hill, Black Heath, Haycitch, Long Lane, Halesowen and Woodgate, when the following Resolution was unanimously passed:-


Sirs, Taking into consideration the fact that Ten Weeks ago we gave you notice through the press for a Ten per Cent advance of Wages on our Branch of the Trade, also the fact that the Bromsgrove Masters are paying the Ten per Cent, advance for all kinds of Forged Nails, likewise from evidence which has come to hand that you were receiving the Ten per Cent, advance in the Market, WE HEREBY GIVE YOU NOTICE that if you do not pay the reasonable and just advance we require, namely the Ten per Cent, on our present List, on the TWENTIETH DAY OF FEBRUARY, 1875, we shall be compelled to adopt other means to obtain the same,

Signed on behalf of the above Society,







President- MR BALL

Vice-President- MR SCROXTON

Treasurer-MR RUSSELL

Referee-W.BASSANO,ESQ., J.P.




January 5th 1880




Dec. 1st, 1882.

Fellow working men,

Being desirous that every member of the trade should be acquainted with the proceedings we adopted to secure an advance of 3d. per 1,000. We have decided to lay the same before you, so that you may judge not only our own actions but of those who we have to contend with, and we feel sure that after a careful perusal of this circular you will recognise the necessity of being united and determined to assert your right to have a fairer remuneration for your labour.

At the outset it has been our constant desire to improve your condition by means of conciliation, but every attempt we have made to establish a Board has been met by the remark "impossible" and "who broke up the last". Still we are hopeful that our employers may yet see their interests will be better served by meeting us on the platform or "right" and not "might"

Hitherto it has been machinery that has always been adduced as a reason for preventing our being granted an advance, but this bugbear is now removed, and the employers are forced to admit ours is the cheaper and better article.

Our General Secretary obtained samples and prices, through the kindness of a large firm of iron merchants and shoeing smiths, who, for one company alone, have close on 200 horses to shoe, and who buy large quantities, and found the price to be-

H.P. machine nails, No. 10, 4s-9d, per 1,000

Hand-made nails No. 10, 4s-4d, per 1,000

We are told we go the wrong way if we endeavour what profit our employers got, but when we find on the prices given above they obtain 50 per cent, or 6d to every 1s you earn and when we ask for a bare3d per 1,000 advance and informed they would sooner have a strike then arbitration, our duty is then to show you the true position of affairs.

We solicited the following firms to meet a joint deputation at the Midland Hotel, last Thursday:- Messrs Tinsley & Co, Nash & Sons, Lewis & Co, Guest & Co, Homes & Co, J Hickton, Swindell & Co, Swilks and Walker & Sons. The first three firms only attended, whether it was preconcerted or not is immaterial, but we were anxious to put the following figures before them:-

Hand-made (10) our No.14, 4s-4d, per 1,000.


Workmen's price 10lbs (of 14) or 5/7th of 3s-2½d.equals 2s-3½d. Add 12lbs. of iron to make 10lbs. of nails 1s-0½d. net. Cost of making 3s-4d. leaving 1s. profit, or nearly one half of what you get for making the nails to pay working expenses, and we well know ? 1-5d. per pound is a low price for horse nails.

Now this how our employers reckon:-

COST SELLING Price per 1,000

48lbs of No.14 3s-3½d £0-11s-3½d 48lbs of No.14 sent out as 12, 8s-3d £1-13s-0d

Iron £0-6s-0d Less 45% £0-14s-2d

Carriage £0-0s-8d £0-18s-10d

So that they get on a bundle of 14, according to this statement is 10½d. When we ask to abide by the decision of an independent person, the answer is dead against arbitration. Why? Whose figures are nearer the mark?

We disclaim any intention of working antagonisticly to our employers but if they will not hark to reason, if, as the old way, they will continue to question individual members as to our intentions, to first cajole, then threaten, the responsibility will rest with them.

For ourselves, we desire to live at peace but whilst we are entrusted by you to advocate your interests, while it is our duty to be respectful, we shall be true to our objectives, firm in our endeavours to get justice and never shrink form pointing out the path that should be pressed in trying to remove that stigma that has so long and so painfully been associated with the name of "nailmakers".

We look forward to the improvements that are being attempted with a view of bringing out a ready pointed hand-made nail with confidence and have every reason to believe that a short time will witness a marked alteration in the trade, as also a material increase in your wages, and this alone causes us to advocate a cautious line.

These and other reasons, which it would be imprudent on our part to disclose at present, induce us to advise you to be content with the present list, assuring you that the result of application but warms us to renewed exertions, Yours in unity,


CHAS WILLIAMS, General Secretary


We particularly wish to warn members against being subject to the queries made both by employers and their weighers, because in playing into their hands you but injure yourselves. In doing so we refer members to the 40th General Rule, affording them protection and the payment of their wages if they lose employment under such circumstances.

Union Notice comparing the price of machine and hand-made nails, 1882.

Nailmaker's Strike poem (circa 1842)

Oh, you nailmakers all that day remember well,
The last strike of which this tale I tell,
How cold and hungry we that heavy day,
To Bromsgrove Town did take our toilsome way,
And these nail forgers, miserable souls,
Will not forget the givers of the cause,
Nailmasters are hard-hearted viles,
And the way we took was 13 miles.

Oh, the slaves abroad in the sugar cane,
Find plenty to help and pity their pain,
But the slaves at home in the mine or fire,
Have plenty to pity but none to admire,
Now, I wish I could see all nail dealers,
Draw such a load as did we poor nailers,
And see such punishment and such smarts,
That it might soften their hard stoney hearts.

Oh, you nailmakers all that day remember well,
The last strike of which this tale I tell,
How cold and hungry we that heavy day,
To Bromsgrove Town did take our toilsome way,


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