I was born in Cradley, a town in the Black Country where most trades were wrought from the blacksmith’s forge. I can still recall the distant thud of stamping hammers that seemed to echo its beating heart as the blood of industry pumped through the river Stour, commonly known as ‘the brook,’ which ran along its border.
The river ran adjacent to a vast swathe of common ground that was ruggedly beautiful. A lunar landscape of craggy rocks and iron remnants from long abandoned industry, overgrown with trees, shrubs and grasses – ‘over the brook’ was where we grew up.
It’s said those born in the area were ‘strong in the arm and wek in the yed’ and ‘if yoe dey work, the babby wor fed.’ I lay no claim to being either strong in one capacity or weak in the other, though I can say there were many times when an extra bite of ‘fittle’ would not have gone amiss.
With little knowledge of the notoriety associated with what is a small, seemingly inconsequential town that lies between Colley Gate and Cradley Heath, I and my fellow schoolmates nonetheless felt a sense of history existed about the place, having been taught the ancient manor of Cradley was mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Not least among the many points of social interest was Anvil Yard, an enclosed area once occupied by the poor labouring classes from the early 1800s.
Anvil Yard ran parallel with Cradley High Street, its grim buildings encroaching onto the road long before a pavement existed. When the buildings were finally demolished in 1931, ending over a hundred years of its existence, it was bequeathed as a memorial to the ‘tatterdemalions;’ the ragged, dirty, hardworking inhabitants, who lived in what was a squalid slum.
Growing up, the memorial park was a triangular area of grass, elevated above walled ornate brickwork, with Lime trees around the perimeter. As children, little did I and my fellow teammates know, as we played football ’til after dark, that 80 to 100 years earlier, this had been one of the most deprived places in the Black Country and beyond.
The term ‘cottage industry’ conjures up visions of home and trade coexisting in harmony. In this case, the ‘anvil and the hammer’ were situated at the rear of dwellings, in domestic workshops, or ‘hearths’, so enabling the occupants to step from the kitchen to the anvil, producing handmade chain.
These ‘White Slaves of England,’ as they were termed, worked without respite, save a visit to the ‘brewus’ for a quantity of ale, brewed in one of the brewhouses on site. Most of the work, which also included nail making, was done by women and children, while the men worked in the local steelworks which proliferated in a region renowned for the quality of its chain.
Accidents were commonplace; the white-hot metal taking boot and flesh as easily as a warm knife cuts through butter.
When walking to school in the mid to late 1950s, my route took me up the steps at the top of our street and through the gulley, towards a chorus of hammers ringing out from a chain making shop.
The welcome heat through the open-barred windows offered comfort on cold misty mornings; the acrid smoke and smell of gases from the coke-fired hearths getting ever more pungent as we got closer. As we approached, men in vests and long leather aprons could be seen through the windows. We watched, fascinated by the constant movement of bodies operating treadles, overhead hoists, swinging hammers, and beating on anvils, all located within easy reach so that one man could carry out each operation in sequence until the length of chain had been forged.
The explosion of fire and fury as hammers beat white-hot metal with rhythmic precision caused us to step back to avoid the shower of sparks. Then the dull thud and hiss as the metal was quenched in a water bosh – a drink of cold ‘tay’ from a screwtop pop bottle serving as a flask – and the next piece of cold-rolled bar would be grabbed by long metal tongs to begin the process again. The clamour concluded only when we entered school a five-minute walk away and closed the doors, until we could be mesmerised again on our journey home.
Years later I would pass the deserted building on my way to work as an apprentice with a local engineering firm.
The German writer Goethe, writing of man’s relationship with his environment, described his condition as being between the ‘anvil and the hammer’, stating:
You must rise, or you must fall.
You must rule and win, or serve and lose.
You must triumph, or you must suffer.
You must be an anvil or a hammer.
Image: Bloomers, Ladysmith Road, Courtesy of local historian Margaret Bradley
Trevor Homer left school aged 15, having attended Homer Hill Secondary School in Cradley, the town where he was born and raised. He began work as an apprentice and became a skilled tradesman. In his forties he became a skills assessor, college lecture and finally a senior manager at Stourbridge College. Trevor retired in 2012 and now pursues a love of writing, specifically poetry. He is a member of a local writing group and performs poetry at various events – specifically Permission To Speak in Stourbridge, which is where he has lived since the early 1980s.