Firstly, I’m happy to announce that my latest novel, The Chainmaker’s Wife, is available to pre-order at http://mybook.to/ChainmakersWife
Book One, The Chainmakers’ Daughter, is also available at http://mybook.to/ChainmakersDaughter
It’s been an interesting book to write given the present happenings around the globe – so much in it resonates with today’s problems – truly, nothing really changes.
Rosie is the daughter of chainmakers. Her story begins in 1901 – she’s ten years old and has just left school to work full time with her mother, learning how to make chain. She and her parents work long hours – fifty-four or more hours a week. Her father is paid around twenty shillings a week, that’s a pound in modern money, while her mother earns around four shillings a week for the same hours and has to pay for fuel for her forge out of that at 3d a bucket. Rosie, learning and helping, earns nothing of her own. Given that a loaf of bread at that time cost 3d in summer and 4d in winter, four shillings would therefore buy sixteen loaves in summer and twelve loaves in winter. Can you imagine working fifty-four hours or more for twelve loaves of bread? That the chainmakers’ families lived in abject poverty is no exaggeration.
Why the difference between a man’s wage and a woman’s? Women made the small chain – dog chains, cow chains, horse traces – which was slow fiddly work, while men made the larger pit chains and anchor chains wielding huge hammers or operating heavy treadle-powered machinery. They were both paid by the weight of chain produced in a week. It could take a woman a week to make a hundredweight of chain while also looking after her home and children, which a man, unencumbered, might make in less than half than a day.
Women were actively stopped from making larger chain, and at one point it was actually illegal to pay a woman the same rate as a man. I found this shocking. It was partly men wanting to protect their own jobs and partly that women’s labour wasn’t valued, also while men organised into trade unions, women didn’t. They had no power to fight for improvements and equality.
The women’s plight as ‘second-class’ citizens resonates with the feelings of ethnic minorities today. Woman had to fight for equality – for equal pay, for the right to vote, and not to be a man’s property and have to obey. Back before the slave trade was abolished, it was the women chainmakers of the Black Country who made their slave chains, hence the book’s subtitle – the White Slaves of England, because that’s what Rosie and her family were.
When Mary Macarthur took up the fight to end of sweated trades – lace making, the cotton industry, shoe making, and chain making among them, she set herself against the employers and lobbied parliament for change. She formed the Anti-Sweating League and the Federation of Women Workers to organise women to stand together to fight for change. Mary Macarthur used a ‘bundle of sticks’ analogy to describe the strength of unions. Where one stick might be easily broken a bundle was strong.
It was a lengthy process, but in Rosie’s story, it culminated in a lockout and a two-month strike against the chain masters. The feelings of the women locked out of their workshops, faced with possible starvation and not knowing if they would ever work again, must have been as strange and fearful to them as the present lockdown, furloughing, and social distancing around Coronavirus is to us. I found myself drawing on our own anxieties to describe theirs. The silence of unwielded hammers in an area where everyone was a chainmaker must have been deafening, as was the silence of our roads and airports.
Mary Macarthur and her supporters paved the way for a national minimum wage and pay equality for women. Given that the average wage in the UK in January 2020 can buy 11,222 loaves of bread a year at the present price of bread, compared to Rosie’s yearly average of 728, puts the wage difference and the strikers’ achievement in stark relief.
In The Chainmaker’s Wife, Rosie and Jack find themselves on the other side of the fence, running the factory for Marion, the chain master’s widow. Marion draws Rosie into the struggle for votes for women. And what struggle it was. I can’t help feeling overawed by the sheer persistence of women during this time.
Exploitation, poverty, and discrimination still exists. The fight for equality, respect, and freedom for all goes on. Nothing has really changed.
Want to read more about Rosie and the women chainmakers’ struggle for a minimum wage? Want to know the truth behind the sanitised historical accounts of the suffragettes? Read this series. mybook.to/ChainmakersDaughter and http://mybook.to/ChainmakersWife