The nail industry in this district began about the same time as iron smelting and forging. When Hampton Court was built by Wolsey, many of the nails used were supplied by Lord Dudley, and there is no doubt that his forge at Cradley produced some of the iron for making these "cloubyled nayles at 11/-for 8,000".
In the year 1599 there is an indictment in the Quarter Sessions records against "Thos. Nevill and Joan, his wife, and Wm. Wall, of Cradeley, nailer,for ejecting John Wall from his free tenement - a water mill in the said Cradeley".
At this time nailmaking was well established here, and probably one-third of the adult population, about 70 persons, were nailers. At one period they consumed more iron than could be made locally and much was brought from the Forest of Dean by the Severn to Bewdley and from thatriver port by packhorse. The local ironmasters tried to stop this "foreign forest iron", and caused the nailers to be prejudiced against it.
A little later, when the great land enclosures, with the rapid expansion of sheep farming, began to take effect, many destitute farm workers came here attracted by the various jobs connected with iron manufacture. Those who were not whipped and sent away as "rogues and vagabonds" for theft or begging, were absorbed and became woodcutters, barkers, charcoal burners, foundry men, iron slitters and general labourers. They squatted on the common land, building themselves mud and stone cottages, and although barred at first from nail-making (the nailers tried the apprentice system), many adopted that occupation later.
This industry has a sordid history and there were strike threats as far back as 1655, consequently the more thrifty cultivated a patch of land as a stand-by. With a population growing faster than the ability of the industry to absorb it, the care of the poor and destitute was a problem to the authorities.
In 1613 an appeal was made to the Quarter sessions as follows:-
"Petition of the inhabitants of Cradley to the Justices of the Peace, Worcester, praying that as the poor amongst them have greatly increased, the townspeople of Warley and Lutley may be ordered to contribute with them towards the support of the poor."
The hearth tax, followed by the window tax much later, were introduced to meet these needs. Both taxes were side-stepped, however. Poverty was so rife that strangers were not admitted into the township unless they could give a bond to ensure they would not become a local burden; neither could anyone leave without a reference from the constable or a churchwarden.
At first, nail rod making was a slow and laborious process. The iron was forged into flat bars of different thicknesses and these were slit by hand and wedge into rods suitable for the size of nail required. At one period we began to import nails and nail rods from Sweden, where they were made much cheaper.
Richard Foley, whose son founded the Oldswinford Hospital School, went to Sweden disguised as a wandering fiddler to discover their secret. With his fiddle he ingratiated himself with the iron workers of Upsala and, after having had to memorise the slitting machinery, he returned. Before success came, however, he had to make another journey, being careful to note and make drawings of the cause of his failure.
Success finally came to his efforts and soon he amassed a fortune from his slitting mill, which he worked secretly for a time in a wood on the Stour at Kinver. This claim is disputed by modern historians, who say that Foley copied a patent from Dartford, Kent, and only avoided a law suit by some technical detail.
Soon afterwards, rolling mills were introduced from Belgium. At first these were used for making the bars more even for the slitting process; later they drew out the rods to the thicknesses required.
There were no ironmongers' shops in those early days, so the nails were bagged and sent by packhorse to the fairs and markets. Bromsgrove eventually became the collecting and distributing centre. Many were exported and were taken via Bewdley and Worcester to Bristol for shipment to North America.
In 1625 (James |) our constable presented at the Quarter Sessions that “Humphrey Hill of Cradeley, nailer, and driver into the country with nails, and a man of sufficient substance, sells ale in Cradeley without licence to the hurt of those persons which are licenced to sell.”
He was no doubt a forerunner of the nail fogger who came more than a century later, having found it better to sell nails and ale than make the former. The nail shops were similar to those of the domiciliary chain maker, except that in some cases the nailer's hearth was arranged to accommodate as many as six and even seven men and women working in a circle and making different sizes.
Tempers became frayed and oaths were sworn if two or more of the many irons in the fire touched and welded together to upset the rhythm of the team. With a party hearth there were two rockers and each worker took a turn at blowing. The nailer worked with two nail rods, to be used alternately. When the first one was the right heat, it was withdrawn, pointed and cut off on the anvil chisel (the hardy) a little longer than the required length. It was then dropped into a bore or hole in the anvil and 'clouted' on the head. At each blow it was loosened, and finally ejected by a gadget worked by the left-hand thumb or the hammer. With the larger nails a "tommy" was used.
Although the nailers were mainly self-employed, they became increasingly at the mercy of the nail foggers. These men supplied the iron on credit and paid for the finished nails in "truck". This was food, beer and other household goods which had to be obtained from the fogger's house, and this was usually a general store with a licence to sell ale. To get better conditions, strikes were frequent and in 1842 the whole area was organised. To prevent disturbances, detachments of the Inniskillen Dragoons were stationed at Stourbridge, Halesowen and Dudley for some weeks.
As a gesture of authority, the Stourbridge detachment often made a "show ride" through Lye to Colley Gate. On these occasions the ingenious nailers of Lye strewed their High Street and Cradley Park with "T'is-as-he-wases" or caltrops.
These unpleasant obstacles were made with two 272" spike shanks pointed at each end and welded in the middle to form a cross. The ends were then bent in such a way that, no matter how they were thrown, there was always one point facing upwards to cripple any horse which happened to tread on it.
Conditions were so bad that children worked at the hearth as soon as they could handle a hammer, some at the age ofsix or seven. This unfortunate state of affairs only perished with the industry itself when nails began to be made by machine.
Sir Frank Short, the artist, made etchings of some of Cradley's nail shops, and on one appears the following appropriate inscription:-
"By the sweatoftheir brow they exist, Simple and sturdy hearts; men and women that make a nation, Where is your reward? Great God! that there be nail shops in hell for otherfolk to try."
Norman Bird (August 1952)