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The women chainmakers of Cradley Heath

Street in Cradley Heath

During the 19th century the Black Country, in particular the Cradley Heath area, became the centre for chain making in Britain. Heavy to medium chains were produced by men in factories, however the smaller chains (often known as 'hand-hammered' or 'country-work' chains) were often hand-worked by women or children in small cramped forges in outbuildings next to the home. The work was hot, physically demanding and poorly paid.

At the start of the 20th century the campaign to end the exploitation of 'sweated' labour gained increasing popular support. In 1909 the Liberal government passed the Trade Boards Act to set up regulatory boards to establish and enforce minimum rates of pay for workers in four of the most exploited industries - including chain-making. In the Spring of 1910, the newly established Chain Trade Board announced a minimum wage for hand-hammered chain-workers of two and a half pence an hour - for many women this was nearly double the existing rate. At the end of the Trade Board's consultation period in August 1910, many employers refused to pay the increase. In response, the women's union, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), called a strike.

The strike lasted 10 weeks and attracted immense popular support from all sections of society - nearly £4,000 of donations were received by the end of the dispute from individual workers, trade unions, politicians, members of the aristocracy, business community and the clergy. The founder of the NFWW, Mary Macarthur, used mass meetings and the media - including the new medium of cinema - to bring the situation of the striking women to a wider audience and the strike became an international cause célèbre. Within a month 60% of employers had signed the 'White List' and agreed to pay the minimum rate, the dispute finally ended on 22 October when the last employer signed the list.

The series of trade board papers in the Trades Union Congress archive includes five files of documents relating to the Chain Trade Board. As part of the Modern Records Centre's 'Sweated trades' digitisation project, we have made a selection of these documents available online, including the items highlighted below. Some additional items can be found through our digital collection.

Illustration: chainmakers' workshops in Cradley Heath, photograph included in 'Sweated Industries', handbook of the Daily News exhibition, 1906.

Working conditions and pay

Sweated industries: being a handbook of the "Daily News" exhibition, 1906

The book includes an article by George Shann on conditions in Cradley Heath, illustrated with several photographs of women chainmakers.

Notes on visit to Cradley Heath, 1910

Private notes of the trade union leader Charles H. Sitch, about the state of trade and prospects of a trade board.

Country chain: output and pay rates of individual workers, 1910

Brief notes about named Cradley Heath workers, including information about their output, wages and how the proposed new rate would affect their earnings.

Minimum rates in the hand-hammered chain, May 1910

Poster or notice of the Trade Board's proposed minimum rates.

General minimum piece-rates for making hand-hammered chain, June 1910

Poster or notice of the Trade Board's proposed minimum rates.

Recommendations of the Committee relating to apprentices, May 1910

Circular sent by the Office of Trade Boards to Mary Macarthur, summarising the trade board's proposals regarding chainmaking apprentices.

"The greatest mistake we could possibly make", June 1910

Letter from Thomas Sitch, Secretary of the Chain Makers' and Strikers' Association, to Mary Macarthur, expressing concern about employers' proposals regarding the apprenticeship of children.

Summary of evidence about the work and pay of apprentice chainmakers, July 1910

Descriptions of three anonymised cases (Miss A., Miss B. and Mrs C. of Cradley Heath) sent to Mary Macarthur by the Office of Trade Boards.

Objection to the minimum rates in the hand-hammered chain trade, June 1910

Objection by Arthur Powell, proprietor of Endurance Chain Works, Cradley Heath, to women receiving higher rates of pay.

Objection to the minimum rates in the hand-hammered chain trade, July 1910

Objection from the Withymoor firm Samuel Lewis & Co., Ltd., to the trade board's proposed wage rates, with an outline of the company's alternative plan.

Objection to the minimum rates in the hand-hammered chain trade, August 1910

Objection by 14 named chainmakers (13 women and 1 man) to the trade board's proposed wage rates, including case studies.

Agreement to pay unemployment benefit, September 1910

Copy of an agreement made between the Executive Committee of the Chain Manufacturers' Association and Mary Macarthur and Charles Sitch of the National Federation of Women Workers. It sets the rate of benefit for unemployed chainmakers at 4 shillings a week.

Minimum rates for making dollied or tommied chain, October 1910

Annotated poster or notice of the Trade Board's proposed minimum rates.

Enquiry about an apprenticeship, November 1910

Copy of a letter sent to the Office of Trade Boards by Josiah Billingham. Billingham is asking about the case of Joseph Robinson's son, who is thinking of switching trades from bricklaying to chainmaking. The reply is also included in the digital collection.

General minimum piece rates for making hand-hammered chain, November 1910

Poster or notice of the Trade Board's proposed minimum rates.

Copies of apprenticeship agreements submitted to the Trade Board, December 1910

The information circulated by the Trade Board also includes brief information about the 10 children who had been granted learners' certificates.

The working of the Trade Boards Act, 1912

Article by Constance Smith, published in the magazine 'The Crusade'. It includes information about the work of the Chain Trade Board.

Sixth annual report of the Executive Committee of the National Anti-Sweating League, 1912

The report includes a brief review of the work of the Chain Trade Board in Cradley Heath.

Points raised by the discussion of the proposed variation of the minimum rates for hand hammered chain, 1912

The anonymous author of the notes states that the current rates do not represent a living wage, and includes information about changes in the cost of living between 1910 and 1912.

Summary of report of enquiries in the Cradley Heath district, July 1912

The internal Trade Board report looks at working and living conditions for Cradley Heath chainmakers, and examines whether they receive a living wage.

Summary of applications for learners' certificates, June 1917

Information about apprenticeships agreed by the Chain Trade Board.

Report from the committee appointed to consider and report on the question of a variation of the learnership provisions, June 1917

Trade Board report on the small number of new learners coming into the chainmaking trade.

Correspondence between Charles Sitch and J.J. Mallon on minimum rates of pay, July-August 1918

The two trade unionists discuss the possibility of increasing the minimum wage from 4d an hour.

Report of an enquiry into the system of distribution of coke and breeze to homeworkers in the chain trade and into the costs and prices of the fuel, [1920?]

Trade Board report which looks at the costs and sources of fuel purchased by homeworkers.

Proposed welfare regulations for chainmaking factories and workshops, 1920

Proposals submitted by the workers' representatives, including suggestions that a cloakroom, messroom and supply of drinking water should be available.

The 1910 strike

To all female workers engaged in the hammered branch of the chain trade, April 1910

Leaflet advertising a National Federation of Women Workers meeting in Cradley Heath about the proposals of the trade board.

Concern from the hammered chain-making trade female employees, April 1910

Copy of a letter written by Mary Macarthur, National Federation of Women Workers, to George Williams, Secretary of the Manufacturers Association, protesting against the employers' stockpiling of goods, before the findings of the trade board were finalised.

'Rouse, ye women', 1910

Words of a strike song (against the 'sweaters' and for the trade boards) issued as a leaflet.

Letters of support for the strikers from an employer, August 1910

Correspondence between Okell & Owen, exporters of British chains to India, and the trade union leader Mary Macarthur. The representative of the Liverpool firm states their support for "fair wages", donates £5 towards the strike fund, and dismisses concerns expressed by some manufacturers that higher wages might reduce exports.

Employers' confirmations that they will pay the trade board rates, August-September 1910

Letters forwarded to Mary Macarthur by the export company Okell & Owen. The letters were sent by the Cradley Heath firms Joseph Williams & Sons, William Bannister & Co., and W. Mills & Co., after Okell & Owen had asked the manufacturers to confirm that they would pay the minimum wage.

Letter from the proprietors of the Roe Works, Halesowen, agreeing to pay outworkers the trade board rates, September 1910

The letter was sent to Thomas Sitch of the Chain Makers' and Strikers' Association.

Fleet Street telegram, August 1910

Request for information about the latest strike developments sent from the Daily News newspaper to J.J. Mallon, Secretary of the Anti-Sweating League.

'Women slaves of the forge', September 1910

Press cutting from the Daily Express. It focuses on the case of chainmaker Patience Round, aged 79.

Summary account of money paid to unionists and non-unionists, 1910

Note of strike pay distributed by the Cradley Heath branch of National Federation of Women Workers on 27 August and 3 September 1910.

Account of the Cradley Heath strike fund on 17 September 1910

The account lists money received from various organisations and individuals, including Birmingham Wesleyan Synod, the chocolate manufacturer George Cadbury, Liverpool Clarion Club, the Dean of Worcester, "Mrs E. Attlee and family" (perhaps Ellen Attlee, mother of the future Prime Minister Clement Attlee?) and several trade unions.

Letter of thanks to a supportive employer, September 1910

Copy of a letter sent by trade union leader Mary Macarthur to W. Lashford Griffin, thanking him for helping her behind the scenes with technical information during the dispute. Griffin's letters to Macarthur of 5 September, 8 September, 15 September and 30 September are also included in the digital collection - two of the letters have been cut into pieces - removing the heading and signature to hide the name of the author (and protect the employer).

'White list', 1910

Names and addresses of employers who had agreed to pay the Trade Board rates.

Resolution passed at employers' meeting, October 1910

Copy of an agreement made at a general meeting of employers to only deal with shopmen or middlemen who have been included on the 'White list'.