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IN THE BLACK COUNTRY.
THE pedestrian explorer of odd places in and about Staffordshire would, in the event of his approaching either Netherton, Rowley, Lye Waste, or Bromsgrove on a Saturday afternoon, encounter a spectacle that might rather puzzle him: a straggling procession of men and women and children, the majority of the former sober, but a few of them drunk, and one and all so scantily and shabbily dressed that their povertystricken state of existence is at once made known. Each of them is carrying a number of iron wands like a bundle of withies for weaving, but secured in the grip of a twist of iron wire, instead of by a green osier twig
-rods of various lengths, from four feet to ten, and of different sizes, from that of a man's little finger to the thin end of a tobacco-pipe. The lighter loads are in the custody of children, chiefly boys, but some of them girls, and varying in age from seven upwards, each one shouldering its property, and trudging along at a sedate pace, with a countenance expressive of the practice of mental arithmetic under difficulties, the key to which was to be found in iron rods past and iron rods present; little old men and women, looking rather like adults growing down than children growing up; grizzled old handicraftsmen and women in pinafores ; children used to fire and forge, hair-singed and smutty, and with their dimples showing like wrinkles with the grime of smithy smoke that traced them; youngsters whose boots showed their upper leathers singed and scarred with falling chips of red-hot metal, and with hands that, according to nature, should not have advanced beyond the round and chubby stage, corned and bumped at the knuckles, and with the nails worn down like those of a file-grinder.
The puzzled explorer would naturally be curious to ascertain of what kind of mothers such children could be born. There they are—the women who come toiling down the road, sometimes with a load of rods on one arm, and on the other a baby drawing nourishment from a breast so smutty and rusty-looking as to give rise to the idea that it must be gritty with iron filings. Women well able to carry such a double load, however. The size of their arms is prodigious. Here comes along one laden with baby and iron, a wizen-faced woman, lank as a plank and about as symmetrical, but whose bared right arm and the fist terminating it might belong to a prize-fighter-a brown fist with a broad thumb, and an arm with sinews standing out like tanned cord; and a muscle--for the woman, like the majority, wears her gown-sleeve “tucked up" as a male mechanic wears his shirt-sleeve-that bulges to the size of a penny-roll.
Let the puzzled explorer bottle up his curiosity, and come this way again—say, to Lye Waste, on Monday, for an explanation. Let his visit be deferred until dusk of evening or later, and this is the picture that Lye Waste will show him. First, though, as to sound. Lye Waste is a village of considerable dimensions, stowed away and hidden from the main road ; but before it is reached, dark though it may be, you are made aware that it is not far off. The very air seems to tingle with a tinkling, not a loud banging and ringing of lusty fullgrown hammers and anvils, but a kind of infantine clamour of the sort, as though this was the nursery of hammers and anvils, and rare play was going on amongst the youngsters. Tink, tink, tink, thousands of hammers, thousands of anvils,' and no more real noise than six Woolwich farriers might any day in the week be backed to make if they would but give their shoulders to it. Tink, tink, tink, louder still, and now you come within sight of Lye Waste Village and its thousand fires, and its cruelly hard-worked and badly paid colony of nail-makers.
One of the quaintest sights that can be conceived, and well worth the contemplation of those who delight in discussing the “rights of women," and whose tender sensibilities are shocked that the gentle sex should engage in such masculine employments as setting up printing types or fixing together the tiny wheels of a watch. These are the tender-hearted souls who are scandalized by the knowledge that in France and other barbarous countries women frequently perform the drudgery here assigned to the commonest of labourers -street sweeping, brick and mortar carrying, &c. Did they never hear of the female blacksmiths of Staffordshire? There are not a hundredth part of them here at Lye Waste, which may boast of a thousand at least. You may count them any night, for there is no shyness or delicacy in the matter. Here in the village are rows and whole streets of smithy hovels, and the fronts are wide open, and there you may observe them. If you like to “stand” a can of beer, you may enter the smithy and have a chat with them—but idle only on your part. Time is too precious when a women, stripped like a man from wrist to shoulder, must face the forge for fourteen hours a day before a shilling may be earned.
I cannot help repeating that, coming on it for the first time, it is one of the strangest sights in the world. The streets of Lye Waste are narrow and not unclean; and, as before stated, by the side of every house is a smithy, and each one contains from two to five “stalls” or "hearths,” as each fire is called ; and at night-time the light is so great that street-lamps are rendered a superfluity. By the ruddy glow that streams out from the numerous hearths, it would be quite easy to find a pin dropped in the middle of the street. Whole families work in these smithies. It is nothing uncommon to find a mother and her three lusty daughters, fully of marriageable age, stripped to their stays, and, with a kerchief over their shoulders, wielding the hammers and tugging at the bellows, and working away with a will, amongst the banging and roaring and spark-flying, and singing as merrily as larks, if not as melodiously. Children, too—the youngsters that the puzzled explorer met last Saturday. The rods they and their parents carried were nail-rods; and here they are, the small Vulcans, sweating over an anvil, set up according to their stature, making brads. Pale little wretches, most of them, the firelight betraying with cruel fidelity their haggard, unchildish faces, each one wistful and anxious with the consciousness that bread to eat must first be earned. It appeared odd enough to see the women standing in the smithy ashes with a big hammer in their fist; but it was infinitely more painful to watch these tiny brad makers, with a wisp of rag round their heads to keep the baby growth of hair out of their eyes, straightening their small backs and spitting on their palms before they grasped the hammer to make the most of the last “ heat.”
The hearths or stalls are not the property of the nailmakers ; they are rented at the rate of fourpence a
week each, the landlord finding the fireplace and bellows. I saw some “treadle hammers,” connected with anvils, that struck me as being very ingenious, although the working of them must be cruelly hard work for a woman. As with other blacksmithing, there must be two hammers used on a piece of red-hot iron, a small one to polish and a big one to beat. In the instances I allude to, the big hammer was hung at a convenient height above the anvil, and connected with a treadle such as is attached to a knife-grinder's wheel on the ground. I saw an old woman making nails in this single-handed fashion in a manner that would have been diverting were it not for the knowledge of how severely her old limbs must be taxed. She would bring a “heat” from the fire, clap it on the anvil, and with her left hand manæuvring the nail about, her right hand striking it with the small hammer, she thrust out a foot and vigorously worked the treadle; and as the big hammer worked up and down, clump-clump, her aged head kept time with it, till it seemed that the whole machinery was convulsed with the throes of dissolution, and must presently fly all to pieces.
Part of the purpose of my visit to the Black Country was that I might accomplish that tremendous feat-as essayed with more or less success every day of their lives by about 350,000 of my fellow-creatures—descending into a coal-mine. The one I selected I had some previous knowledge of. Two years and a half before I had tramped to Locks Lane to behold a miracle. The Locks Lane pit--the deepest and most important in those parts—had suddenly “flooded,” shutting in thirteen poor fellows, whose chances of rescue were scarcely worth a moment's consideration. This being Wednesday morning, so formidable was the body of water below