“Slums” of the Black Country: Anvil Yard, Cradley Heath

Anvil Yard (left), Cradley. Picture courtesy of Peter Barnsley, from Cradley, Impressions From Old Photographs (via Cradley Links)

Not far from the Lye Waste lies the ancient manor of Cradley. At the first talk I gave at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in the summer, somebody mentioned to me that I ought to check out Anvil Yard. It turns out, the history of this little yard has already been comprehensively written on the excellent Cradley Links site, so I don’t intend to add much to that, just to draw out a couple of the points Jill has made.

Anvil Yard as featured on the 1884 Ordnance Survey 1st series. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1884)

As the map above shows, Anvil Yard is a somewhat fortress-like settlement, bounded on its three sides by lines of dwellings. It’s site is now marked by a small park opposite the junction of Colley Lane, Intended Street and Mapletree Lane. There were 17 cottages – as squalid as any we have come across so far, “with its open sewers and filth and shame” – and most had a chain-making hearth. Cradley is world-famous for its role in the chain-making industry (again, Cradley Links provides an excellent summary), and particularly as the home of the 1910 women chainmakers’ strike led by Mary Macarthur. Anvil Yard was a particularly intense example of a chainmaking tradition across several villages in the Stour Valley.

Many descriptions of working-class social history will focus on the gendering of labour and space that occurs when the head of the household, or boys of sufficient age go out to work, and the women stay at home to mind the bairns, prepare dinner etc. In Bill Bramwell’s excellent chapter on the social life of Birmingham courts, the matriarchal figure is a recurring trope, jealously guarding their territory. In the Black Country however, this took on a different spatial form.

Anvil Yard, from a summary at the St Peter’s Church website (with audio commentary)

If you can catch a demonstration of chainmaking at the Black Country Museum (as I did at the weekend), the sheer physical strength required for this industry is impressive. The demonstrator will state – and it’s backed up by contemporary reports – that most often the men of the house would tramp down the road to a nearby chainworks. In the case of the men of Anvil Yard, this was often a 60 hour week in one of the various works of Jones and Lloyd, including the Scotia Works on Intended Street, just opposite Anvil Yard. This is a rare example where you can actually walk into this history – the factory closed in 1969 was relocated to the Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove. In fact, you can even take a blacksmithing course in the old chainshop.

The Scotia Works on Jones and Lloyd in its new setting at Avoncroft Museum.

For the women however, as well as all the domestic duties they were expected to complete, most of the homes in Anvil Yard had chain-hearths in the brew’us (the outbuilding for laundry etc.). Most would be engaged in chainmaking out-work, constructing small-link chains out of 10ft rods up to the thickness of a poker. The men at the works would be paid around £2 a week; the females a few shillings; not only were they paid less, but the women were also required to carry their completed chains to the gaffer (Ned Williams’ article suggests Moles & Beddowes would be a common employer) a quarter-mile away, and carry a hundredweight of new rods back home. Children were cared for, at great risk, in the workshop; proper meals, clothes or health were hard to come by because everybody in the household was at work, so hunger and disease were an imminent danger.

Nevertheless, the territoriality of the home space remained. Williams’ interview with Ted Green, born in Anvil Yard in 1911, includes this wonderful story:

I remember one day the new Baptist Minister wanted to see how these people lived, so we took him to see Maria, she was going away at it singing. “Won yo’ want?” she said, I told her he was the new minister who wanted to see how chain was made. She didn’t seem to mind so I told him to stand round the front. Maria pulled a link from the fire, it was white hot and ready for welding. She put her hand in the bosh, scooped some water out and threw it on the bikon. I knew what would happen and got down out the way. As she bought the hammer down on the hot iron it went off like a gun. It frightened the minister to death and he was off. The women didn’t like being watched, this was one of their dodges to clear folks off.

There’s a strong sense of privacy here, and a blurring of the line between workplace and home that (as we’ve often encountered) harks back to a pre-industrial division of labour. I’m aware that, when I study at home, I have to treat it like a job or I get sidetracked; I wonder what the experience was like for the lady chainmakers of Cradley Heath?

A backyard Cradley chainshop typical of the village – note the children and babies around the hearth. From Cradley Links.

The restriction of a woman’s lot, although differing locally, were summed up by a lack of spatial diversity. The route from home to the gaffers was the key spatial element of a woman chainmaker’s lot; even from home to chainshed was governed by the economic and sometimes personal authority of the “Crowner” or “flogger”, as this 1896 article in Pearsons demonstrates.  The women were governed (“owned”, even) by another, more elderly woman:

Their owner walked serene and grey-haired among them, checking conversation, and being, at times, abusive. She was but one of a numerous class of human leeches fast to a gangrened sore.

Gender history is a key part of any history curriculum and I think space is another element that can be fed into this. The man’s short commute stands as a spatial expression of the much greater liberty, social standing, and economic power enjoyed by men of any class at the time. Male spatial freedom meant that the men could go to the pub, or have boys bring them beer during the day; though their work was hard it was rewarded much more liberally. The independence that comes with the freedom to go where one chooses is priceless; the chains, metaphorical and literal, of a home workplace like this, are very real.

10 thoughts on ““Slums” of the Black Country: Anvil Yard, Cradley Heath

  1. “Chainmaker” was still being used as a disparaging term (meaning something like “uncouth”) by the “respectable working class” when I was at school in Cradley in the 80s.


  2. Hi. I’ve written a novel about chain making in the Black Country in the early 1900s and am looking for cover material. I love the photo of Anvil Yard. Is it copyrighted? If so, do you know who I would have to contact for permission to use it?


    1. Sorry, I’ve only just seen this. It’s a fabulous image. I don’t believe it is copyrighted, but I found it on the Warwick University Modern Records site, and enquired of them. They asked if I would credit them with the image as a courtesy.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I have been writing about my family roots (Timmngton) from 1783 and have now reached 1930 where I am starting with an introduction re Cradley. My family originated from Netherton all nailers and moving on chainmakers at Cradley Heath. Cousin David now the only chaimaking business in the UK. My other cousin is a descendant of the Kendricks of Mushroom Green.
      My mothe’rs family were Cox and Willetts all chain makers in Cradley. I was born in Colley Lane no 56 opposite the Liberal Club. As a child I had many experiences with the chainmakers (particularly) Reeces of Collley Lane/ Mapletree Lane. I often visited my Willetts relations in Blue Bell Lane, backing on the the Anvil Yard.
      I feel that it would be useful to share our interest ? Are you from Cradley? I lived there for 30 years now in Southport.
      Look forward to hearing from you.
      Geoffrey Timmington

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s