Identities can be a complicated thing. Each of us have several – I don’t mean like Norman Bates, I mean that each of us are different things in different ways, at different times. When I’m talking about the Irish in the Black Country, for instance, I’m talking about a nebulous group really: some had been there many years, some were fresh off the boat; some were from Dublin city, some from the wilds of Mayo; some spoke Irish, some did not; some were Catholic, some were Protestant. It’s true of anyone – identity might, at times, be based on nationality, religion, language (or accent). I might identify with the town I come from or the region. Identities are perhaps at their strongest when we identify with a wider social grouping such as a football club. It’s most certainly true that identities are expressed most strongly when they are against something: I might be English, not European; I live in the Black Country, not Birmingham (the very thought). They can be unpleasant too: do I identify as white? What would that mean?
I have the feeling that the Black Country identity is a fairly modern one. Certainly the array of local authorities made their stand as individual towns rather than a Black Country still to be defined on a map – if anything, they promoted themselves “despite” their location. Today, areas are keen to claim Black Country identity through the flag, the Day, and so on; 150 years ago, towns like Walsall were keen not to be seen as Black Country.
One form of identity that keeps cropping up, especially in the 20th century, is identifying with a firm. In the 1950s you could be proud to work for GKN, for Rubery Owen, for the Birmid, for Dudley Dowell. Why? Because that was a job for life. A somewhat paternalistic employer looked after you, provided for your leisure, social and healthcare needs as well as your financial ones. Stretch back to the 19th century though, and that’s a rarity. While many of these firms existed then, on the whole there was less of an interest for employers to provide so well when there was a mass of cheap casual labour itching for every job. I want to look at one example of a well-known firm whose workers did identify with them because their very reason for being in the Black Country was entirely bound up with that firm.
I have Peter “Pedro” Cutler to thank for this post – I know that he’s a great help to many local historians, and is full of useful hints. He flagged up Noah Hingley’s obituary in the County Express (3rd Nov 1877) for me – and you can hardly find a better known company than this in the 19th century.
Noah Hingley was born in the late 18th century in Cradley Heath – then still an untamed heath to the North of the metalworking hamlets of Cradley proper. He attended Reddal Hill Endowed School and soon turned to making nails. His entrepreneurial spirit shone through and he swiftly became a nailmaster rather than just a sweated nailer, moving into chains and trading. Around 1820 he opened a warehouse in the maritime capital of the world, Liverpool, selling Black Country chains and nails. His success met with hostility and he moved his works back to Cradley, making the chains, anchors and cables that his firm would become famous for. By 1861 he had acquired several collieries and ironworks, and moved his base to Washington Street, Netherton, where he set up possibly the largest chain, cable and anchor works in the world on the banks of the Dudley No.2 Canal. In 1912 the firm became famous for one particular anchor, as the pictures below show.
The Black Country of the mid-nineteenth century was yet to become the centre of expertise that firms such as the aforementioned were able to build up. The chain, nail and related trades were very much ‘sweated’, with desperately poor families all given over to long hours of toil in chain factories and backyard hearths all along the Stour valley. Their conditions were so bad that they were subject to an infamous exposé in Robert Sherard‘s The White Slaves Of England in 1898. The women chainmakers were part of an even more famous, and successful, strike in 1911, a major event in national trade union history. But when it came to expertise in, for example, anchor-making – skills needed to be imported. The centre of the trade up to this point was, much more logically than land-locked Staffordshire, Liverpool – that’s why Hingley’s business initially faced so much competition. Noah’s response was to combine the availability of raw material and fuel, so abundant in the Black Country, with expertise imported directly from Liverpool.
It’s difficult to find too many references to Liverpool’s anchormaking trade, but John Bartholomew noted its importance in 1887 – Liverpool had an established metalworking trade as well as ready access to the West Lancs coalfield for fuel. Anchors seem a logical trade for such a port, and there was an anchor smithy set up by Thomas Steers not long after the town’s first dock was constructed. Steers’ wide-ranging civil engineering exploits might have something to do with the connection of Irish workers to the trade. He engineered the Newry Canal in Tyrone, as well as the Mersey & Irwell Navigation, and I’m sure that this will have brought him into contact with Irish navigators and labourers. Liverpool, being the chief port of the North-West of England, also saw the lion’s share of immigration from Ireland as poverty struck and occasional famines hit.
By the mid-19th century, Liverpool had by far the largest Irish population of any town in England. It was the first stop for emigrants from the most famine-struck parts of Ireland in the 1840s, and not being able to afford the onward passage to America, many stopped there. The County Express believe that Noah Hingley saw kindred spirits in the “impulsive temperament” of the Irish – an uncommonly polite way for a contemporary newspaper to describe the immigrants. Either way, he considered the Irish anchormakers of Liverpool to be an important workforce, skilled and hardworking, and managed to convince a gang of Irishmen to follow him to the Black Country to man his anchor forge.
If we scan the 1861 census (the first after Hingley’s move to Netherton), we do notice some evidence of this in Netherton. The large majority of the village’s residents are very local – those that weren’t born in Netherton itself were born in Dudley, Rowley, Cradley or other nearby Black Country villages.
However, on Northfield Road we find Andrew Maguire – born in Ireland, he is a forge labourer, with two children born in Liverpool (aged 17 and 15) and the rest born in Dudley. This suggests to me a move from Ireland by 1844 (thus before the Great Famine) and to Dudley after 1846. At 79 Cradley Road lived Malachi Norton with his wife and six children, a labourer. His younger children had been born in Birmingham and Netherton, suggesting emigration c.1852. Possibly this was an Irish family encouraged to Netherton by Hingley, but there’s no evident Liverpool to corroborate that.
James Hawkins is more promising – living at 101 Cradley Road, Hawkins is an anchorsmith who’s moved around a fair bit. His children were born in Flintshire and Scotland. Even better are John Gilmore, a young man with wife and kids at 134 Cradley Road, an anchorsmith with children born at Liverpool then Netherton; Michael Johnson at 150; and James Healey at 155, with very similar stories.
Elsewhere, the Irish-born in Netherton are scattered, mostly boarders, and with a mixture of occupations: three coal miners, a chainmaker, a labourer, a marine store dealer, and 85-female year-old “former Nailer” at Darby Hand; and that’s all. I think there’s good reason to associate the Maguire, Hawkins, Gilmore, Johnson and Healey families with Hingley. For a start, all but the Maguires live on Cradley Road – although older OS maps aren’t so good for house numbers (and by the 1950s maps that do number the houses, massive environmental changes render them less than helpful), I’d place them in the vicinity of the canal bridge over the Dudley No.2 Canal. That’s about what you’d expect; Hingley’s Netherton Works are just yards away, adjacent to that very canal.
If we dig a little deeper, we find some corroboration. John Gilmore is found in the 1851 census at 77 Prince William Street, Toxteth – Liverpool. He’s a tailor by trade, common for Irishmen familiar with working cottons and linens. This is a street of infamous Liverpool courts and cellar dwellings, exactly where you’d expect to find the swelled immigrant Irish population in 1851.
There is a James Healey in Liverpool in 1851 as well. He’s a resident in James Emms’ licensed lodging house at 62 Porter Street, in the Vauxhall area. Like Toxteth, it’s close to the docks and consists of rows of tiny houses arranged in courts. In this one (which was knocked through from two former houses), 29 people live. James is there, albeit with no wife or children, listed as an “Emigrant” rather than as an occupation, suggesting a very recent arrival. Jane, his wife, could be the General Servant at a house in Toxteth – not sure though.
Michael Johnson, on the other hand, is already in the Black Country in 1851. He is a blacksmith living at Brick Kiln Street, Quarry Bank, with his wife Rose, and Irish-born sons Stephen and John (they will be joined by a Netherton-born daughter Rose c.1856). Brick Kiln Street is still there, although the terraces won’t be the same ones – the current ones are early Edwardian. So perhaps this rules the Johnsons out of Hingley’s work placement scheme. Dubliner Andrew Maguire was in a similar position, lodging with his family in Bilston Road, Tipton in 1851. Perhaps he and Johnson were early arrivals, still waiting to get on the housing ladder, such as it was.
The life of an Irish emigrant was a highly transient one, especially in these early years after the horror of the Famine. Families came over bit by bit, and had to make their living and their living space any way they could. Lodging Houses were a frequent first port of call; those who were better established managed to rent their own accommodation – although with an insecure weekly tenancy – in foul little houses where they could get by.
As in the courts of Wolverhampton or Birmingham, diseases like cholera and typhus were rife, human waste flowed down central gulleys, and poor families lived in tremendously overcrowded close quarters. These were casual labourers though – dockers, costermongers, bricklayers’ mates, and so on. If you were lucky you would learn a semi-skilled trade such as anchormaking, which paid just enough more to enable you to move out of the worst squalor.
Noah Hingley’s offer was not a philanthropic venture, rescuing Liverpool’s destitute Irish. Those who wished to work at Netherton were not the poorest and still had to be financially induced, and persuaded away from Liverpool. They were not coddled either – his obituary mentions that “at first they walked all the way from Liverpool, arriving ragged and footsore.” This was a commercial decision based on financial knowledge and trade expertise. But it worked: further Irish workers arrived and they kept on coming. Hingley was no ogre either – he’s reported to have added to the remittances sent back to Ireland by postal order.
The prevailing historiography of mid-19th-century Irish immigration is, with local variations, a sad one of extreme poverty. There are always exceptions of course (the Orangemen of Glasgow, for example). The Hingley anchorsmiths appear to be an example of Irish emigrées developing into a skilled labouring community, so much that they were the subject of competitive hiring approaches. Whether they found the hilly, sooty, land-locked Netherton preferable to the cramped courts of Liverpool is impossible to say, but it’s likely that descendents of these skilled anchorsmiths went on to produce maybe the most famous single item ever produced in the Black Country – the vast anchor for an unsinkable new liner that was to set off on its maiden voyage in 1912. Michael Johnson’s eldest certainly followed his father’s trade – Stephen has married a Dudley wench, Elizabeth, by 1871 and is an anchorsmith living in Chapel Street, Netherton (the street runs off Cradley Road, parallel to Washington Street where the Hingley works were). I’d place a bet that Stephen works for Hingley, like his pa.
It’s an interesting twist on the identity question. The Irish were often scorned both for their lazy and feckless nature, and for their willingness to do the hard graft and thereby undercut English workers. Engels hated on them for just this reason, as did political commentators from across the spectrum. It’s little wonder that when the Irish emigrées did organise, they did so around the nationalist cause and their Catholic faith, reminders of their homeland and their difference from their hosts. But here we have an example of labourers who seem to have chosen to identify with a firm and a trade. It’s an early example of mutual respect between employer and employee in a way that’s difficult to find elsewhere.