In this essay, Peter Barnsley movingly records the memories of Cradley chainmaker Sam Bate at the end of his life.
It is almost twelve years since I saw Sam Bate. It was only a few months before he died. He stood in the porch of his little cottage in Barrack Lane, Cradley, and looked out on a sultry and oppressive July evening. The sky was as black as a bruise. A storm threatened, and even Sam's apple trees seemed tense - as if they were nerving themselves for an impending blow. It was an atmosphere conducive to a mood of gloomy foreboding, but Sam slipped easily into nostalgic reminiscence.
Bespectacled and cloth-capped, Sam talked of his early days in the chain trade. As old men do when they look back, he thrust his hands into his trouser pockets, rocked forward slightly on the balls of his feet and gazed out over time rather than space, looking back across sixty-six years to the day when he had started work in 1892: an unimaginable time when Victoria was Queen and even the Boer War was still in the future.
"I was eleven years owd and 'ad just got me Labourer's Certificate to say I'd reached a certain standard at school and could start work . . . I used to blow bellows 'alf time, I blew either from seven till one or from two till seven. I blew till I was fourteen - at Alan Beasley's up Toys Lane on the left, just afore Chapel Street . . . I got about two bob a wik. We were paid so much a hundredweight. If we dey mek the weight we dey get the money."
Sam moved indoors and sat down alongside his old-fashioned range. He kept his cap on; it would have been odd if he had taken it off, for it seemed as much a part of him as his facial features or his long, strong fingers.
"Me father was a chainmekker - at B. and T. Coley's - and when I was fourteen I left Beasley's and went with me father. I dollied and struck ... I was second 'ommer. 'I learned the job on 5/8in. chain when the other folks w'n out. Eventually I got a job on a vacant block and worked up from 5/8in. to ¾in. and then to 7/8in. chain. But trade got slack; we were doing work for outside firms and I was mostly on that. Pay was about thirty-four bob a wik - workin' 'ard.
"About 1908 I went to Bannisters. We 'ad to mek we own tools theer - in our own time without gettin' paid for it. It took us all our time to get £2 or £2 5s. a wik."
In 1912 Sam moved to Reece's in Colley Lane and worked there throughout the 1914-18 War, making mostly 1in. chain. Later, during the depression of the early twenties, Sam -like so many others - spent months 'on the labour'. He eventually found work on the testing beds of Kendrick and Mole, later returning to Reece's where he stayed until his retirement in 1939. Towards the end of his working life he developed cataracts - the occupational hazard of the chainmaker - in each eye: the result of continual exposure to the heat and glare of the furnace alongside which he made his chain. Both eyes were operated on; the operation preserved his sight but left it much weaker.
Sam felt that the modern chainmaker had a comparatively easy life. He remarked, but without boastfulness: " We med as much in a day as they mek in a wik now. We'd start at six and work till nine. Then we'd 'ave 'alf 'our for breakfast; or if we w'n strong enough we carried on till 'alf past eleven. Then we'd let the fire settle and see if there was any bits of cinder or anythin' to be got out. Then we'd work till one, 'ave 'our for dinner and then work on till five." He paused and remarked, almost unnecessarily, "The unions wor like they bin today." As time went on and the unions grew more powerful, the hours improved. "At Reece's we'd start at seven, finish at four. Later on we only worked till dinner."
An evident pride in his hardworking life had not left Sam with any illusions about his trade. "Yo'd got to pull off your jacket, waistcoat, shirt an' all. What I think about chainmekkin' is this: it's a skilled, 'ard, 'borious, slovenly job." By "slovenly" he meant "dirty"; chainmaking was a craft which did not permit slovenliness. Although he thought the job was hard, Sam was sorry to see the industry in decline. "There ain't the Navy to use it now - but there'll always be couplings and cage chains." He recalled a sight which was common in the days when almost every house in Cradley had its backyard chainshop. "I'd stand on the top of High Town and look over Intended Street and th' Anvil Yard, and the sparks 'd be flyin' twenty feet in th' air till 'alf past eight at night, and all for little or nothin'. They used to mek 'ommer chain, very small stuff, only needed one 'ommer."
Sam had talked eloquently, and talking - like chainmaking - is thirsty work. A bottle of beer was fetched from the Crown Inn just over the road, and Sam produced from a drawer a bottle opener whose worn appearance bespoke a busy career. He flicked off the cap and put the bottle to his lips; the beer flowed down his throat as smoothly as a river in its bed. The brass buckle of his leather belt gleamed and as he tilted his head back, his face caught and reflected the pallid light which yet shone in through his window - just as in the past it had caught and reflected the hot glow from numberless chainshop fires.
He put down the bottle and sat in thought for a short time, as if waiting for the ale to permeate his tissue and suffuse him with fresh energy. He was reconsidering those years between 1892 and 1939 when work was long and hard, and life had little ease or luxury.
"I've 'ad 'ard go, mate," he said at last, "I've 'ad 'ard go." He said it without bitterness or regret, in the manner of a man whose race is almost run and who, with a detached, impartial air, looks back and passes judgment on its course.
Later in that same summer, Sam Bate suffered a stroke. He died a few weeks afterwards. Shortly after his death, his apple trees, his porch and his gaslit parlour ("Me wife dey trust electricity") had to make way for a road widening scheme.
And now Cradley is losing the very craft itself. The firm of Jones and Lloyd - the last one in Cradley to continue to manufacture chain by the manual skill of its workmen - is closing down. A way of life and a type of man will disappear. There will be no more cataracts on chainmakers' eyes; but a very special skill, and the pride consequent upon the exercise of that skill, will be lost for ever to their descendants.
This essay is © Copyright Peter Barnsley, who has generously granted permission to Cradley Links to reproduce it on this web site.