Slavery and the Black Country: collars and chains

Leg irons found at Chubb’s Horseley Fields works, when the company moved there in 1838 [Chubb Archives]

Last week I looked at money: finance that filtered from Africa to Jamaica to Britain through the holdings of wealthy landlords such as the Earls of Dudley. This week I want to look at things: the industrial links that the Black Country had with enslavement and unfree labour. These are not easy to trace, just as most business transactions are hard to trace during the peak period of the African slave trade in the mid-18th century. All those records that businessmen moan about having to keep now just weren’t looked after. Nevertheless there are glimpses from all over the Black Country that production for the slave trade was a notable part of what the region was making at that time.

Collars and cuffs

Take Henry Waldram, of Brick-kiln Lane, Wolverhampton. He lived (probably) somewhere between the White Hart on Worcester Street, and the big Sainsbury’s – what’s now Pitt Street, Peel Street and Great Brickkiln Street. In the nineteenth century this was one of the town’s most unsanitary and overcrowded areas; before that, it was full of locksmiths and metalworkers, just like the rest of Wolverhampton. In 1770, Waldram was content to advertise his services in Sketchley’s Directory as a “Negro Collar and Handcuff Maker.” Not long after this, the abolition movement began to gain momentum, and it would maybe not be too politic to advertise your involvement in this industry – it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, of course, but it might help explain why such entries are few and far between.

Industrial organisation

Women chainmakers in Cradley Heath

Metalwork in the region was rarely organised into large factories, as were beginning to be found elsewhere in the country. Well into the next century, the most common way to produce chains, locks, nails, fastenings etc. was to outsource to individual smiths in small forges, plugging away often barely making enough to survive. Those workers were free, in principle; but their liberty was utterly curtailed by their poverty and the backbreaking work they had to do just to survive. It’s virtually certain that the backyard chainmakers of Cradley Heath and the locksmiths of Willenhall made goods that were used to chain African men and women and lock them into place for their Atlantic crossing; and to hold them captive in Jamaica, Barbados, or the Southern US.

Wednesbury Forge [source]

We can be justly proud of the hard work of our forebears. They made the things that built ships and steam engines, that framed and glazed the Great Exhibition, that made the new industrial world run smoothly. They accomplished great social good too – I’m thinking of the women chainmakers’ strike. But for the most part, and particular the early industrial workers of the 18th century, they would have had zero choice in their lifestyle and probably zero awareness of the end use of their goods. The system of middle-men, foggers, chained them in place and obscured the paper trail. Occasional glimpses are possible though: the excellent research that went into Walsall’s bicentenary of abolition exhibition revealed chains made in Cradley Heath and locks made in Walsall, that had been used for slavery in South Africa. They even unearthed testimony of an elderly chainmaker from interwar Cradley Heath who made slave chains in his youth – presumably for American slaves, who were unfree until 1865. Edward Elwell – one of the Black Country’s best known toolmakers at Wednesbury Forge, and later to become part of the Spear & Jackson conglomerate that probably made your garden trowel – employed 300 men. What did they make? Hoes, bill hooks, machetes, iron hoops: expressly for the Caribbean market.


John Shaw (1782-1858)

Birmingham and the Black Country were perhaps the centre of the universe for metalwork in the late 18th century. Everything that could be made from metal, was made there, and most importantly, bought and sold there. One of those buying and selling was John Shaw – born in Penn in 1782 and by 1800, trading in metal goods between Wolverhampton and Liverpool – the great slave port of the British Empire. His are some of the few such records which survive, and show a trade in “African chains” and “bright negro collars” in 1805 – two years before the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. Shaw was a signatory for Wolverhampton’s incorporation in 1848 and a major public figure in the town via Queen Street Chapel, the library he helped found, and Tettenhall College. He died aged 73 at his Oxley House in Bushbury – nice digs. The business continued to thrive, taking over the recently-demolished Clyno Works in Merridale in the 1920s.


One of the Black Country’s most important roles has not been the showy end products but the bits that go into making them. This was true sixty years ago, when Black Country components were found in nearly every car that came off a Birmingham or Coventry production line. But it was true two centuries before that as well, and this is a key example to help understand the importance of slavery to the emerging Black Country industrial economy. I have W.A. Richards’ excellent article from the Blackcountryman in 1975 to thank for much of this.

Before the Wednesbury Forge turned out hoes and hooks for Jamaica, it made another item for the slaving industry: guns. In fact, this was one of Wednesbury’s (and Darlaston’s) chief industries in the eighteenth century, when Black Country components – barrels, flintlocks – were essential to the supply chain for the Birmingham and Smethwick gun trade. From the end of the 17th century onwards, the Midlands produced thousands of cheap, often poorly-made guns for the African market. These were trade items rather than the sophisticated weapons of war required by the British army for its own wars; painted red and with a tendency to explode. Up to 150,000 per year left British ports for West Africa, there to be exchanged (in highly manipulative ways, alongside Lancashire cottons and liquor distilled in several British ports) for enslaved Africans, and the vast majority of these were made of Black Country parts, assembled locally. By 1780, it was estimated by a Smethwick manufacturer that the gun trade employed 4-5,000 Black Country metal workers.

Flintlock [source]

The best example of the trade is the Galton family featured in Richards’ article. Samuel Galton senior and junior were gun manufacturers based at Steelhouse Lane, Snow Hill. Around 200 slaving ships left British ports a year, each demanding a load of guns – the “Castleton” required 1,400, the Swan”450 – and Galton agents were stationed at Liverpool, London, Bristol and Lancaster to meet the traders and take orders. Another ship, the “African,” owned by the Liverpool-based slaver Joseph Manesty made several journeys in 1752 and 1753 carrying Galton guns – these are notable for being captained by one John Newton, later to undergo a dramatic conversion and become the author of “Amazing Grace.” They even supplied a specialist trade in Angola muskets to the Portuguese slave trade based in Lisbon. To meet demand, the Galtons had to scour the Black Country for parts and outbid other manufacturers: a price war occurred in 1754 when another manufacturer, Willets, offered 2 1/2d more per musket lock than Galtons had. The Galtons ended up comfortably ensconced in the business networks of the trade as well, pointing the slaver John Dawson towards Boulton and Watt’s Soho Manufactory to explore the potential of a steam engine at his sugar works in Trinidad.

Samuel Galton Jr (1753-1832) [Wikimedia Commons]

Making weapons for war and slavery eventually earned Galton junior the censure of the Quakers, of which he – as with many other Birmingham businessmen – was an active member. His defence (see here) was on strict capitalist lines – he argued that those who consumed sugar, tobacco etc. that came via the Caribbean were the ones encouraging the trade; it wasn’t his fault that this evil trade demanded his guns.

The Galtons got out of the gun business in 1804, just before abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807. It wasn’t until 1834 that slavery in the Caribbean was finally abolished, and not until 1865 in the USA. But abolition and the end of the Napoleonic wars put an end to the thriving Black Country gun trade. Expertise can always find a home though; the gun barrel-makers of Wednesbury were swift to adapt moving into making tubes of all kinds, for which Wednesbury would become world-renowned in the 19th and 20th centuries. But next time you change at Smethwick Galton Bridge, or drive through Guns Village in West Bromwich, cast your mind back to the hundreds of small forges making barrels and flintlocks there, 250 years ago. Without this work and this money, this part of the Black Country would never have boomed, not gained the expertise for later industry. The skilled craftsmen that we are proud of would have been destitute. The canals might not even have been built. The legacy of slavery runs deep in the Black Country.

11 thoughts on “Slavery and the Black Country: collars and chains

  1. …”Without this work and this money, this part of the Black Country would never have boomed, not gained the expertise for later industry. The skilled craftsmen that we are proud of would have been destitute. The canals might not even have been built. The legacy of slavery runs deep in the Black Country.”

    Wow that seems a giant leap of faith!


  2. interesting that Galton (Quaker) makes the point, on strict capitalist lines, that the consumer of sugar encouraged the trade.

    Cadbury bought their cocoa from the world market, and around 1900 the main producers were São Tomé and Príncipe, the Portuguese Colony. Cadbury (Quaker) would certainly be aware, many years after it had been abolished, that the labour on the islands was slave labour, and yet it they dallied for many years before the Gold Coast became viable.


    1. Business and ethics can be pretty uncomfortable bedfellows I suspect! Spending money does funny things to you. The number of times I’ve agonised over spending twice as much on fair trade sugar when I’m struggling for funds gives me a little sympathy… I think you’re right though – the idea that any of these businessmen were unaware of the conditions of the supply chain is probably untenable, but they carried on regardless. I suspect the same is true today – events like the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh throw a light on the supply chain that perhaps many sellers in this country would rather not have shone.


  3. Handcuffs and Leg Irons.

    It is likely enough true that prior to the abolition of slavery shackles and chains were made here for use in the horrible traflic; but it was then a legal trade and possibly the articles were classed as “heavy steel toys” like the handcuffs and leg irons made by several firms now. A very heavy Australian order for these last named was executed here in 1853 and there is always a small demand for them now.

    Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham, 1888.


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