At the time of the Women Chainmakers’ dispute of 1910, slavery in the UK and Europe had been abolished for over 70 years after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Following the Act, slaves in the colonies gained freedom after a period of forced apprenticeship. Slavery continued in America until 1865.
Despite abolition, many British people in 1910 would have been aware of the horrors and brutality of slavery and the slave trade, not least due to the insurgence of African American abolitionists (many of whom were former slaves) and civil rights activists who came to Britain to talk about their experiences.
In this context, this resource acknowledges how the British press and middle class campaigners appropriated the language of slavery, ie the ‘White Slaves of England’, to describe the Women Chainmakers. The Women Chainmakers were not slaves despite working in appalling and inhumane conditions. They were not owned by another human being or forced to work for another person as Black people were in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This does not detract from the inhumane conditions they worked in for starvation wages, nor minimise the fact that they did not own or control their means of production.
Today, it is well established that the British Industrial sector made huge profits from the slave trade, including the metalwork trades that existed in Birmingham and the Black Country. It is evident that some of the chains, cuffs, shackles or locks used in the abhorrent slave trade were made in Birmingham and the Black Country. Given their working, living and social conditions and lack of education, it is unlikely that the Women Chainmakers would have known what the chain they were making was for.
As a local resident told us: “It is a devastating realisation that our ancestors may have produced shackles and chains that enslaved the ancestors of our friends and colleagues.”