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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Derby

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Nailers' cross
A nailers' cross uncovered in St John's Churchyard in 1920

© Belper Historical Society
Working hard and playing harder - Belper's "uncivilised" nailers

Norman origins

In 1850, the poet Thomas Crofts wrote of Belper:

“It has nailshops past my counting, where men and women toil, making Roundheads, Forties, Clinkers, for the tillers of the soil”

By this time Belper had been associated with nailmaking for at least 600 years - in fact, the origins of nailmaking in the town probably date back to the Norman Conquest, when the iron-working De Ferrers family were granted manors in Duffield Frith by William of Normandy.

Local deposits of ironstone, found conveniently near the earth’s surface, were used to supply horse nails to the huntsmen who came from Nottingham, Heanor and elsewhere to hunt in Chase Woods, and Belper soon became a renowned centre for nailmaking. By the 14th Century, the trade was well established, and as early as 1700, Belper nails were being exported to America.

Working lives

A Belper nail
A Belper nailer could make 1,000 nails a week!
© Belper Historical Society
At first there was little organisation to the industry – nailers would have worked independently, and transported the nails around the country themselves. However, from about 1800, a few more enterprising nailers – perhaps inspired by the example of Jedediah Strutt’s cotton mill, recently constructed nearby - saw an opportunity to make more money by becoming “nailmasters”, “putting out” iron for other men to make into nails, which they could then trade around the country.

Every Saturday, the nailer would fetch bundles of iron rods from his nailmaster. By the end of the week, the nailer had to have made 45lbs of nails from each bundle of rods weighing 56lbs – any less and he would be fined, as there was a strict weighing-in and out of iron.

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