Cradley achieved prominence in the nineteenth century as a centre of iron chain making. The chain was made on a hearth by hammering cut lengths of red-hot wrought iron rod into oval links, one link passing through the next to form a cable.
The chains were of many dimensions depending on the end uses, which were various. One of the many specialities of the area was anchor cables for ships, and the anchors were often made at the same works.
Chain making was not the first or only iron trade carried on in Cradley and the neighbouring towns. For hundreds of years nails had been made in the Black Country, and many thousands of men and women were employed in the trade. It was the staple industry until the mid-1800s. Nail making by hand went into decline after the introduction of machine made nails in about 1830 and many nail makers adapted their smiths and forges, and redirected their skills to making chain.
At the end of the nineteenth century 90% of all the chain workshops in England and Wales were in the five chain making towns of Cradley, Cradley Heath, Old Hill, Quarry Bank and Netherton (see map).
Declan Kenny wrote to Cradley Links in April 2004, thus: "I recently purchased an old anvil in Northern Ireland with a view to trying my hand at some blacksmithing. The name stamped on the anvil is \'Mountford, Homer and Mountford\' - a company name that gets a listing in Owen\'s 1880 Directory [...] the anvil itself is in reasonable condition, although it has seen much use [...] there are also the numerals 75 printed below the manufacturer\'s name, which we can\'t work out. Perhaps you know what these signify? [...] this little (albeit heavy!) piece of Black Country history is now sitting proudly in my shed in County Kildare in Ireland."
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 Pursers' Yard, also known as the Anvil Yard, in what is now Colley Lane, Cradley.
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.
The Yard was demolished in about 1930 and is now a Memorial Garden dedicated to the memory of the people who toiled there.
Joseph and William Rock established the largest chain works in Cradley in 1837 and from 1867 it traded as Jones & Lloyd Co. Ltd. Cables and anchors, small chains of various types, wrought iron nails, etc. were manufactured in the Lower Shop in the High Street near Lyde Green and in the Top Shop or Scotia Works at High Town, near Intended Street.
The firm ceased trading in about 1970 and the Top Shop was dismantled brick by brick and rebuilt at the Avoncroft Open Air Museum near Bromsgrove, where it is open to the public.
The largest and most famous ships' anchors and cable chain company in the Black Country started in Cradley. In the early 1800s Noah Hingley set up a forge and small chain factory on the banks of the River Stour in Cradley. One history of the Hingley firm says, "The key to their early success lay in developing a colony of skilled Cradley men and women on which the enterprise was based." However, by 1845 the Cradley workshops were too small and a new works was opened in 1852 at Netherton on the banks of the Birmingham Canal. Many of the Cradley chain makers and strikers went to work at Netherton, and a contingent from Cradley continued until the firm ceased trading in 1986. This firm has entered into the folklore of the Black Country, especially for its manufacture of the anchors and anchor cables of the ill-fated Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. The local wry sense of humour has it that the anchor was the only part of the ship that worked properly.
The decline of hand made chain started in about 1903, when electrically welded chain started to be made, but the trade continued until the 1970s.
Only a very few of these small chain workshops survive and, tragically, one of them is being dismantled in Butchers Lane, Cradley at the time that these words are being written (July 2001).
This workshop is, or rather was, complete with hearths and bellows, almost exactly as it was on the day it closed.
We understand that it will be taken away to Old Hill and re-erected, but a plea to keep it in Cradley and re-build it just a few hundred yards away in the grounds of Colley Lane School was ignored. This would have kept it local for the people of Cradley, and especially for the children to learn from, and would have been done at no cost to the owner.
We wish to thank Ron Moss for his assistance and his kind permission to reproduce images on this web site.
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