Anvil Yard, Purser's Square - by Jill Guest
Cradley was well-known, indeed famous, for its main trade, that of hand-made iron chain. The great majority of the chain shops were very small, many of them were to be found in the back yards of the workers houses and they were also brewhouses (in Black Country dialect, "brewus") for making beer. Sometimes a 'yard' or group of houses would have a larger shop with several hearths, such as Purser's Yard, also known as the Anvil Yard, in what was High Street, now Colley Lane, Cradley.
The White Slaves of England
Living and working conditions in the Anvil Yard were well known for being particularly poor.
In the 1881 Census this Yard comprised 17 dwellings occupied by 92 persons, and most of them over the age of 10 years were working as chain makers. It was described by a Government Board of Trade Report of 1888, after an outbreak of typhoid, as "squalor and dirt far surpassing anything I have yet seen. ... little domestic workshops, built on to the houses, so that the occupants can step at once from kitchen to anvil."
The Anvil Yard is also described in an article in Pearson's Magazine in 1896:
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 spectacle so hideous that I gladly shut it out, wondering for my part, what in these things is right.
The picture is from Peter Barnsley's first book, Cradley, Impressions from Old Photographs. Peter's accompanying text says: "The photograph, despite its poor quality, is of considerable interest because it shows on the left the dark and forbidding wall of the Anvil Yard - an unhealthy and uncomfortrable settlement of squalid homes, each home having its own hearth where chain was made. The photograph was taken by someone standing just below the junction of Intended Street and the old High Street, looking downhill towards St. Peter's Church. The photographer was presumably attracted by the spectacle of the two buses caught in a tight squeeze in the narrow road. The date of the photograph is probably the late 1920's, shortly before the Anvil Yard was demolished - because it was a danger to public health, not because it was an inconvenience to public transport."
The Yard was demolished in August 1931 by J M Tate. The record of the event by the County Express (22nd August 1931, page 12 col. 6) had this to say:
The ugly and dangerous corner formed at High Town by a portion of the Anvil Yard is being removed and travellers by motor vehicles will appreciate the improvement, for there have been many narrow escapes from collisions at the end of Colley Lane where it joins High Street. The work of demolishing "the yard" is being carried out for Halesowen UDC by Mr J.M. Tate, and the space which will be available will in part be utilised as a site for a free library. [The Library was built in 1936 further up Colley Lane on the other side of the road, on what were previously allotments. - CL]
Many families who have risen in the public and social scale of Cradley have been associated with the Anvil Yard in which is situated the Manor House, an old but large substantial building near to the Blue Ball Inn. The house is reputed to be over 200 years old. There were 17 houses in the Anvil Yard and most of these had their chain shops and hearths, but these fell into disuse many years ago. It is said that at one time swords and bayonets were made here.
There died in the yard a few years ago A Mrs Watters who was born in the house in which she continued to live after she was married, she was nearly 80 years old when she died. A Mr Watters was the last occupier of a part of the Manor House, he was also the last resident in the yard. He died several months ago, and it was out of consideration for his great age (he was 86) and a desire not to disturb his tenancy, that the work of clearing the yard was not begun before.
The improvement effected will be a boon. In addition to improving the outlook of the residents on the east side of the road, it will enable a very necessary widening of the present narrow highway to be carried out.
Four weeks later, after the demolition contract had been completed, the County Express (19th September 1931, page 16 col. 5) returned to the Anvil Yard and reported as follows:
The demolition of the old houses which for generations had been known as the Anvil Yard has now been completed, and the removal of the masonry has let in a very great amount of daylight to the adjacent buildings in High Street and High Town. When the boundary walls have also been dealt with the widened area will make a very desirable traffic improvement.
On Monday morning our representative narrowly missed being concerned in a mishap at the corner. The old Manor House is now being stripped and the solidarity of the building is apparent as the work proceeds. The excellent tiles and channels are testimony to the high quality of materials of long ago. Some very fine oak staircases have been secured by a local architect. These it is believed date from the time the house was erected, a stone on the front bearing the date 1687. It is proposed to preserve this stone.
Nothing of outstanding interest has been discovered during the demolition, the only find one hears of being a penny dated 1806.
Following the demolition, a memorial park was created in its place.
The first picture (black and white, above right) is from Peter Barnsley's first book, Cradley, Impressions from Old Photographs. Peter's accompanying text says: "The old 'Old Crown Inn', with its distinctive brick steps leading to its front door, faces the camera from the junction of High Street, Intended Street, Maple Tree Lane and Colley Lane. In the foreground is the the roof of the Baptist Chapel, and beyond that the grassy triangle with its fringe of lime trees that marks the site of the old Anvil Yard." The second picture (above right), taken in 2002 from close to the position of the old 'Old Crown Inn' that Peter describes, shows the now well-established boundary of lime trees.
When it was knocked down to make the park, all the foundations were left, it was only covered over with soil. The level of the Anvil Yard was about six feet lower than the ground is now. A doorway to one of the houses and also the ruins of an old chain hearth were found during a small archaeological dig.
How did the Anvil Yard or Purser's Square come into being, and who was Purser?
The first mention of the Anvil Yard or Purser's Square is in volume 1 of the Reverend James Hesselgrave "Tommy Two-sticks" Thompson's Vicar's Notebooks of 1857, with 13 separate entries, for families or single people. The name Purser's Square or Anvil Yard is not mentioned in the 1841 or 1851 census, but the Parsons and Bloomer families living in Purser Square in 1857, in 1851 were listed as living in High Street; they were living in the same place it was not called Pursers Square. By 1863 in the 2nd notebook of J H Thompson, Tidal Parsons and his family and Benjamin Bloomer and his family are still in the Anvil Yard, which J H Thompson says belongs to Mr Purser.
Most of the families in the Anvil Yard seem to be related to each other, Tidal (Biblical name) Parsons' son Benjamin also lived there with his wife and children, as did his daughter, Sarah and her husband Benjamin Boxley, and another son Joseph with wife Hannah and children. Next door to the Parsons family is Joseph Robinson and his wife Mary Ann and children, his brother John, wife Zipporah and children also live in the Anvil Yard. Benjamin Bloomer lives next door with his wife Deborah and seven children, all except one baptised by Rev. Thompson, and a married daughter Mary and husband John Price. Benjamin is the son of Lucy Cox from High Town and the brother of Joseph Bloomer transported to Australia in 1838.
Other families there include Benjamin and Sarah Gill and children, Edward and Hannah Dallow living with her aged parents, Noah and Sarah Heath. Francis and Maria Homer with 2 children. Joseph Gregory who is listed as working at the mill, with wife Maria and daughter Mira. And Septimus and Hannah Bills with a young daughter Fanny. Most of the occupations in the Anvil Yard were either nailers, chainmakers or anvil makers, although Tidal Parsons made bayonets and Francis Homer boilers. Emmanuel and Fanny Forrest with five children lived next door to Joseph Gregory. Very few attended church, Joseph Robinson and Benjamin Bloomer had no suitable clothes. The Gills and Dallows were Wesleyans, and the Gregorys Baptist.
In the 1871 Census it is referred to as Pursers Yard, and it is named as the Anvil Yard on the ordinance survey map of 1883.
By the 1901 Census it is called The Anvil Yard, Mr and Mrs Watters (from the County Express reports above) are living there with their three children, Mr Watters is a carpenter, only he and his neighbour Hannah Dunn who works as a brick moulder have jobs not connected with the iron trade. All the other inhabitants are iron chain makers, harrow and shackle makers, one is an iron nail maker and one a ship's tackle maker. Tidal Parsons' son Joseph is still living there with his wife Hannah, son James T. and grandson Tidal. Cornelius Robinson son of Joseph and Mary Ann is also still living there; an iron chain maker with his wife Myra and six children.
Other families living there in 1901 included, Dunn, Kirton, Southall, Homer, Harris, Gill, Priest, Harbach, and Morgan.
So who was Mr Purser? Purser is not a local Cradley name, there are no Pursers listed as living in Cradley in either the 1841 or 1851 census. We think the clue may lie elsewhere in Cradley, in Lydefield Colliery.
Also known as Lyde Green Colliery, Lydefield was operated from 1835 by Joseph Purser. And in the 1870 Mineral Statistics report, it was worked by Mr Purser, although in 1860 it was worked by Edward Foley and is mentioned as Mr Foley's colliery in a letter dated January 17th 1863 (see A History of Coal Mining around Halesowen by N A Chapman). The Colliery was near Cradley Forge, in Lyde Green with shafts near the River Stour. It was mentioned in Minutes of Stourbridge Railway Company when the line was put through from Stourbridge to Cradley Forge in 1863. The section to Birmingham was opened in 1867.
Joseph Purser is listed in the 1851 census as living in Reddal Hill, Cradley Heath, a widower aged 54, and is described as a Coal, Iron, Mines Proprietor and Magistrate. Could he be the owner of Lydefield Colliery and Purser's Square or Yard?
By 1861 he had moved to Hanley Castle, Malvern Wells, with a wife and two sons, the eldest being born in Rowley Regis. He was still a magistrate. Lydefield Colliery was offered for sale in 1874, the land was still owned by Joseph Purser. Did Mr Purser sell the Anvil Yard at the same time that he sold Lydefield Colliery? It appears to have changed its name to the Anvil Yard after the 1871 census which would have been about the same time that he sold the mine. Joseph Purser died in 1877, aged 81 years.
Cradley Women Chain Makers
An insight into the lives and working conditions of the Cradley chain makers, and women chain makers in particular, is given in the Birmingham Weekly Post, Saturday June 4th 1904:
Chains made by Black Country women might be found on hundreds of ships flying the flags of all nations, and ploughing every important waterway of the world. Practically all the chains of less than 5/8in. in thickness turned out by district are made by women, less than fifty men being employed on these small sizes. But the energies of the lady chainmakers are by no means restricted to these small chains. Here and there a woman of exceptional physique may be found turning out chain links 13/32in. in thickness. The bar from which this is made is about the thickness of an ordinary poker and requires heavy hammers wielded by strong arms for its manipulation. The woman who is equal to this task is treated with marked respect by her weaker sisters and is naturally proud of her prowess, while her earnings are probably equal to those of her husband or sweetheart.
A curious example of the physical strength of one of these specially gifted ladies is cited. Her husband is by comparison rather diminutive, but inclined to be troublesome in his cups. On such occasions his better half has a remedy equally simple and effective. Taking him up in her arms as one would a peevish four-year-old, she quietly carries him up to bed, and by force of sheer physical superiority compels him there to remain until he is once more sober and reasonable.
It is hardly to be wondered at that home comforts are not a distinguishing feature of life in Cradley and neighbourhood, and that infantile mortality prevails to a painful extent. This, however is partly attributed to the insanitary conditions of many of the houses. Sanitation is somewhat at a discount. The tenant in search of a dwelling is more concerned that his future residence shall have attached to it the money-earning smithy than that it shall be adequately provided with the comforts and conveniences of life.
That the earnings should be small is inevitable from the keen competition that exists among the workers themselves, while the amount of work done for the small pittance obtained is almost incredible. The iron is supplied by the contractor to the chainmaker, and if the requisite number of links are not forthcoming the maker must forfeit a deduction. For a hundredweight of chain slightly over ⅜in. in thickness, 9s 6d is paid. A hundredweight of iron contains about 600 feet of chain rod, and each foot will yield 16 links. So that for 9s 6d the worker must cut shape weld and finish 9600 links of chain. Each link must be twice heated, once for cutting and shaping and once for welding and finishing, the worker must blow the bellows with her left hand while she manipulates the three rods in the fire with her right. This means constant toil and the labour is exhausting.
A True Anvil Yarder
Even more specific to our look at the Anvil Yard, in Ned Williams' Black Country Folk at Werk is an interview with Ted Green who was born on 13th June 1911, who in later life always referred to himself as a "True Anvil Yarder". He recorded his memories for April Garrett to whom we are grateful for the transcript. He died on 24th March 1989 still loving the Black Country and the Anvil Yard where he lived until it was pulled down.
The folk of the Anvil Yard made chain, the men went out to the larger chain factories, many of them worked at Jones and Lloyds. The women also made chain but didn't leave the yard they worked at their own domestic chain shops. These chain shops had two or three hearths with a woman working at each one. The men worked 10 hour days six days a week. The women did outwork for a firm called Moles & Beddowes which was about a quarter of a mile away. The firm gave the rods to the women, the women made the rods into chain, then the firm would pay the women a few shillings when they bought back the chain, when the women had used all their rods they would wrap the chain round their necks and walk up to the firm. The gaffer gave them a few shillings and the women would carry the iron rods back on their shoulders, the bundles weighed about a hundredweight.
I remember walking past Moles and Beddowes just after the war, they had all this chain in their yard gone rusty, they couldn't sell it like that so they were putting coke over the top and setting fire to it to heal it blue. I told him about it, I said "You had it med for nothing!" He didn't like it but it was true, it was a disgrace how much they paid the women for their labour, they sold the chain for much higher prices. I spent hours watching them; whenever they stopped for lunch or tea I would try and make chain myself. I could form the links great but I could never "shut" a link. Yet the women would go "bish bash bosh" and it was shut. When they bought the rods in they were about 10 feet long, I would cut them in half, to do this you had to "bally" the rod on your finger. When balanced you marked it, then you could cut it. It had to be dead centre or the women gave you a right "pailin" because if you cut it short you got extra scrap and the women didn't get paid for that. I have sat with them many hours; they would wrap up their babies put them by the hearth and stick their dummies in. They would sing as they worked.
I remember on day the new Baptist Minister wanted to see how these people lived, so we took him to see Maria, she was going away at it singing. "Won yo' want?" she said, I told her he was the new minister who wanted to see how chain was made. She didn't seem to mind so I told him to stand round the front. Maria pulled a link from the fire, it was white hot and ready for welding. She put her hand in the bosh, scooped some water out and threw it on the bikon. I knew what would happen and got down out the way. As she bought the hammer down on the hot iron it went off like a gun. It frightened the minister to death and he was off. The women didn't like being watched, this was one of their dodges to clear folks off.
The women worked very long hard hours, there was a real skill needed to make the chain, I never mastered it. I don't think anyone who didn't work in or around chain making could appreciate how bad conditions were, I am glad they have gone although I have a lot of fond memories.
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