Exploring the rich and fascinating past of the historic counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. We uncover the history of the people, ideas and events that shaped the West Midlands and the world beyond.
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Cruel world of the nailmakers

So wrote the Black Country novelist Francis Brett Young and history shows that he did not exaggerate the perpetually harsh life that these men, women and children lived.

Once described as the “most immoral” men and women in England, by the mid-19th century about 50,000 nailmakers were living precariously despite their skills and the long hours of incessant toil. Such were the pressures on women nailmakers, who had to work or starve, that pregnancy was a curse and child mortality was high due to neglect.  Indeed, according to one contemporary report many babies were “let die.”

In the second half of the 19th century the price paid to the “sweated” nailmakers fell as machine-made nails became increasingly available. Consequently social unrest grew and attacks on property increased.  The authorities responded with force and pitched battles were fought in the streets of Black Country towns between nailmakers and the mounted yeomanry brought in to keep order.

Eventually, the handmade nail industry was swept aside by the mass produced, low-cost machine-made nails.

This programme traces the story of the nailmakers through contemporary government reports and newspapers as well as the novels of Francis Brett Young.

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Cruel world of the nailmakers