Chainmakers – Breaking Their Chains

The first Saturday in June has become an annual celebration in recognition of the Cradley Heath Women Chainmakers strike. This event is probably the largest celebration of women’s industrial history in Britain.

The festival celebrates the achievements of 800 women Chainmakers who fought to establish a minimum wage for their labour in 1910 by striking for ten weeks. They were the first workers ever to establish a minimum wage.

The Black Country and Cradley Heath area became the centre for chain making – a ‘sweated’ trade – in Britain in the 19th century. Men in factories produced heavy to medium chains. The smaller hand hammered chains were made by women and children in small dark forges in outbuildings next to the home.

Poverty wages were the norm. After a campaign by the anti-sweating league, the Liberal government passed the Trade Boards Act in 1909 to set up regulatory boards to establish and enforce minimum rates of pay for workers in four sweated trades.

In the spring of 1910, the Chain Trade Board announced a minimum wage for hand-hammered chain-workers of two and a half pence an hour which for many women 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 attracted immense popular support from all sections of society. Within a month 60% of employers had agreed to pay the minimum rate and by the 22nd October the last employer signed the list.

This was a huge victory – one that fed the mood for an escalation of strikes before the First World War, known as the Great Unrest. By the time those years of struggle were over, the size of Britain’s trade union movement had doubled from two million members to four million.

The Chainmakers festival has been running for 10 years now and it is important to recognise the importance of the dispute and role the women played in shaping industrial struggle. It is vital that this festival receives increased national support and recognition from trade union leadership in the future. Many of the lessons learned in running the dispute successfully just over 100 years ago are still relevant today.

Further reading: Tony Barnsley: Breaking Their Chains


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