The women chainmakers’ work was a prime example of ‘sweated labour’ or ‘the sweated trades’ – long hours of toil for poverty wages carried out in unsanitary, often dangerous conditions. Sweated labour was widespread in factories, offices, shops and laundries, on farms, at sea and in the building of roads, railways and canals.
Several investigations towards the end of the 19th century revealed the horrors of sweated labour. Robert H. Sherard published ‘The White Slaves of England’ in 1898. Please see page 10 for further information about the context and use of the term ‘White Slaves. This graphic account of the poverty, squalor and cruel working conditions endured by men and women in sweated trades throughout the country added impetus to the campaign against sweating.
Of Cradley Heath he wrote:
“One may come across sheds with five or six women, each working at her anvil; that are all talking above the din of their hammers and the clanking of their chains, or they may be singing a discordant chorus; and at first, the sight of this sociability makes one overlook the misery which, however, is only too visible, be it in the foul rags and preposterous boots that the women wear, or in their haggard faces and the faces of the frightened infants hanging to their mothers’ breasts, as these ply the hammer, or sprawling in the mire on the floor, amidst the showers of fiery sparks.”