The Land of the Chain-Makers, an article published in 1893, describes the life of the chain making people of Cradley and the neighbouring chain towns of the day. The writer mentions Sweet Turf, Mouse Sweet (not Sweet Mouse) and Primrose Hill which are all in Netherton, and the article is just as descriptive of these places as it is of Cradley.
THE LAND OF THE CHAIN-MAKERS.
In the old days, Cradley, in Worcestershire, must have been a pretty place. The country round it is a confusing mixture of abrupt hills with humpy summits and deep dells, connected with each other by brooks that are not pellucid. But for the most part the hills are now quite shorn of the woods which clad them, and cramped villages - or rather little towns - of stunted red-brick houses are set about them: at their bases in the valleys, on their slopes, and even on their breezy tops. The landscape is such as you will hardly match anywhere in England.
Broad and generally very miry roads join the different villages, and the traffic on these roads is astonishing. Big drays laden with chain-gear, and little homely carts of the coster type, drawn by meagre panting horses, and also freighted with chains, at once indicate the local industry. It is a land of chains. The continuous hammering on all sides tells of their making; and the grimy faces and set expressions of the men and women, old and young, tell further of the hardships attendant upon their making. It is not an ideal kind of work, by any means. The phrase 'the poor chain-makers' has become quite stereotyped. If these poor chain-makers are half as wretched as the newspaper reviewers periodically prove them to be, it is a marvel that they continue in these valleys of their nativity. The bolder and more thrifty of them no doubt vanish to America and other countries of promise. But the majority exist as best they may. Early in life they give considerable hostage to fortune in the shape of large families, so that it is not easy for them to shake off their inherited fetters or turn to 'new pastures.' Yet even for them existence is not wholly painful. They have an infinite number of low-browed public-houses; they fly pigeons; indulge in social intercourse on the high-road on Sundays and Mondays; and make periodical raids into the neighbouring rural districts, attended by discreet mongrels - a cross between a greyhound and a fox-terrier - who are said to be "death on rabbits.' The gamekeepers for miles around know these liver and white lurchers, and would them and their owners to be exterminated.
Nothing is easier than to get a glimpse of the chain-makers of the district. You may see them in the large manufactories, where they are simply paid employees addicted to strikes, or may see them in their own domestic workshops. There is more picturesqueness about the latter ; and you therefore be advised to peer through the windows of the first little red-brick outhouse - some fifteen feet by ten - the hammering in which excites your curiousity as you pass it. Five or six individuals are within, each with a little pocket forge to himself or herself ; and there is no doubt about their zeal. The litter of bright new links on the floor tells of their labours ; and while you watch them, they finish new links and add these to the rest. It is a warm place, as may imagine, for each forge has its bellows, and the glow is constant. The hand-hammers are two or three pounds in weight ; but the driver-hammer, which is also used - by pedal action - weighs five to ten times as much. All things considered, and assuming that women must do this kind of work in default of other employment, one cannot wonder that they are so bare about the shoulders and breast. They do not earn more than four to six shillings a week on the average, and there is much immorality in the district.
Often, however, in justice to the chain-maker, it must be said the the five or six operatives in the shed are the sons and daughters of the master. Happy is the chain-maker who has his quiverful of healthy and unambitious children ! He may put by much money (comparitively) during the years which intervene between the time when they first take up the hammer and their marriage, with subsequent larger aspirations which sadly which sadly unfit them for the paternal workshop. But as a rule it is a hand-to-mouth business. The poor chain-maker rises early, and the sound of his hammer may be heard for about twelve hours out of the twenty-four. He does not grumble inordinately about his fate. From time immemorial he has been a steadfast believer in the comforts of religion, and he gets much solace for his week-day toils in the ugly red-brick Bethel or local New Connection or Sion which he frequents on the Sunday. Hardly anywhere in England is the Old Testament more esteemed than here, by the more respectable workers. It is the source whence the chain-maker gets names for his sons and daughters. A man is Noah, or Cain, Abel, Adam, Seth, Job, Jabez, Ezra, Jacob, Judah, Eli, Hezekiah, or Nehemiah. For females the choice is less extensive; but you will find Delilahs and Zillahs here, as well as Eves, Hannahs, and innumerable Mary Janes. It is also the source of his immortal hopes. He is not a very shrewd theologian or logician; but once he takes an opinion or a notion into his mind, he cherishes it hard into a prejudice or a superstition. There are men here with a surprising gift of rude eloquence, and when excited to reprove an erring fellow-creature, their denunciations, after the manner of the Biblical prophets, are not to be listened to unmoved. I talked the other day with one such man as he rested his hammer on the forge. He soon turned the conversation into a Scriptural channel. 'I wur thinking,' he said, 'only this morning as I lay in my bed about them words o' the Bible which says Our Lord He sweated drops o' blood. That's an awful thing, master, to think on. How he must ha' suffered!' He glanced carelessly at his muscular arms, moist with perspiration from his own work, and I marked the beads of perspiration on his brow.
The younger chain-makers do not seem to be of this type. They have been born in a different season. They do not show the difference so much when they are at their forges, except in their evil habit of swearing. But on off-days and the Sabbath there is no mistaking them. At such times they crush into the public-houses or sit on the walls of slag by the roadside, discussing either the winner of the Derby, the relative merits of two or three pigeons, or the eccentric appearance of the passer-by. In good sooth, they themselves are eccentric enough in their slovenly black, with their caps drawn to their eyes, and short clay pipes in their mouths; and the faithful dogs at their feet are as odd to see as they are.
I wish it were possible to say that the women of the district have some strong distinctive attraction for the stranger. But how should they have? Their freshness passes long ere they have passed their teens. Association in such work as theirs with such men as these, soon wears off their bloom. They marry, and have children, before they ought; and at forty look as if they bore or had borne the cares of a universe. As one sees them in the streets or at their house-doors, they are a slatternly, hard-featured race; and their children are quite as slatternly, and even more dirty than they are. Their speech, too, savours of the impolite, not to say the blasphemous. It is an affair of association. If they lived in a village of bishops, doubtless they would use episcopal adjectives. As it is, they live among overworked and discontented chain-makers, who do not pick and choose their words from the dictionary. The novelist with an itch to create a winsome heroine in this locality must have a good store of fancy, and deal mercifully with her inevitable surroundings; or else he must hedge her round closely with old-fashioned relatives of the kind I have already hinted at.
Yet there is a lingering suggestion of romance in this much-despoiled manufacturing district. You come to a forlorn little triangular space of ground studded with clothes-lines and refuse-heaps, and hedged on two sides by wretched tenements of the usual kind, and perceive that the spot is called 'Sweet Turf.' No name could befit it less; yet there it is. 'Sweet Mouse' is the designation of another spot somewhat like this. Again, there is 'Primrose Hill,' a thoroughfare echoing with the riot of hammers, and the houses in the vicinity of which stand as far from the perpendicular as they can.
It is really quite pathetic to see the state of some of these dwellings in the hollows. They have been propped, but all in vain. A sudden 'crowning in,' as it is called, has jeopardised the lives of the inmates, and at length made the houses uninhabitable. They are at all angles up to half a right angle. If you enter them, you feel as you feel in ascending the Leaning Tower of Pisa. With some the ruin is complete. A wall has fallen outwards and the roof inwards. This dilapidation and the inebriate attitudes of the other houses remind one of a place wrecked by earthquake. Casamicciola1, in Ischia, is, on a larger scale, much like some of these suburbs of the chain-makers' metropolis. One house of a specially mournful appearance may be seen. Anciently, it was an attractive villa, white, with five windows in front, an assuming portal, and with fruit-trees and a lawn. Now it leans heavily forwards, and has three beams supporting it. Nor is this all. The property is surrounded by a wall, which on its part has ten or twelve props to keep it from yielding to its inclination to fall inwardly towards the house. This house is to let.
Another common red-brick tenement deserves to be mentioned. It illustrates the sense of religiosity which strives with fair success against the loose tendencies of the younger generation of chain-makers. It is in the heart of Cradley, and no way noticeable except for its name - 'Provide against your enemies.' The date 1875 is quite against an assumption that it hails from the time of Cromwell.
Notes by Cradley Links
1 On July 28 1883 an earthquake devastated the thermal resort of Casamicciola on the Italian island of Ischia (near Naples), killing some 2000 residents and destroying 572 of the village's 672 buildings.