Anyone working with nails in the Black Country today would more likely be a beautician than a metalworker (there are at least 40 nail salons in the area, employing perhaps dozens of people). But the character of the area still owes something to the time when nail creation referred to an activity which underpinned the whole local economy. Perhaps 150 years ago there were not a few dozen but tens of thousands of Black Country families earning a living making iron nails by hand.
A hand-forged iron nail is the second item in the exhibition The Black Country in Ten Objects (the first was the subject of our last post).
But if they were such a big part of our past, why aren’t there more clues left in the landscape? Well, it’s hard enough to find factories which are still around from that time, but the survival of the remnants of nail-making has suffered even more because it took place in the back yards of workers’ housing. Almost all of this was cleared as part of the planned renewal (otherwise known as slum clearance) in the 20th century, and the nail makers’ workshops went with it.
Home-working or outworking still takes place today of course, but the location of nailmaking in ordinary homes has to be found in census records and historic maps. One such place is Islington, Halesowen. Today the street is lined with post-war flats (see photo), but on the same spot in 1900 stood terraced houses with outbuildings behind them, many of which would have been nailshops (see map). Census records can verify this too, with many families and children (several under ten) on Islington recording their occupation as ‘nailor’.
See the handmade nail and the other 9 objects in Wolverhampton during October and November at The Black Country in Ten Objects;
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The location of Islington in Google maps;
Historic Maps of Dudley