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Women Chainmakers Centenary Festival

Slaves of the Forge - Women Chainmakers of Cradley Heath

Hand-hammered chainmaking, one of the four "sweated" trades, was mostly performed by women in small forges in their backyards. Women and children would work for over 50 hours each week, earning barely enough to live a hand-to-mouth existence.

Trade unionist Mary Macarthur, Secretary of the National Federation of Women Workers, said of these domestic chainmakers "women are unorganised because they are badly paid, and poorly paid because they are unorganised". To counter this, the NFWW began recruiting hundreds of domestic chainmakers.

New government legislation, bought in to guarantee a fair minimum wage, was ignored by the employers. The NFWW demanded that workers be paid what they were legally entitled to, but instead, some of the smaller factories decided to lock out the workers. This was the trigger for the workers to fight back.

A mass meeting took place in Cradley Heath (the centre of the Black Country chainmaking industry) and the strike began. So that strikers weren't starved back to work (as the employers expected), they were given strike pay from donations raised by Macarthur's publicity of the plight of the women workers through the media.

By autumn 1910, as employers finally agreed with the union that they could no longer avoid paying the legal minimum wage, the bitter 3 month strike came to an end.

A century later, the festival was held in celebration of the fight to right the wrong of "sweated" labour. Taking place at the Black Country Living Museum, the story was re-told through period street theatre, a re-enactment of the march and musical performance.

The leftovers of the strike fund paid for construction of a Workers' Institute, a lasting memory of the sacrifices made by the striking women chainmakers, which survives at the museum after being moved there brick by brick.
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Tony Benn, Women Chainmakers Centenary Festival
Tony Benn, Women Chainmakers Centenary Festival
Tony Benn, Women Chainmakers Centenary Festival
Tony Benn, Women Chainmakers Centenary Festival
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