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18 June 2014
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Working hard and playing harder - Belper's "uncivilised" nailers

One of the nailers' cottages looking a little worse for wear!
© Tricia Tillin
The nailers’ workshops were extremely simple. Often attached to the cottage, or built at the end of the garden, they contained only an anvil, hearth and bellows – the plain tools of the nailers’ trade. In fact nailers regularly made their own equipment - the box used to hold the anvil, for example, was often just made of rough wood, filled with sods, stones or shavings.

Yet even with these crude tools, a Belper nailer could make as many as 1,000 nails in a single day. This required approximately 42,000 blows of the hammer - nailmaking was extremely hard, physical work. The nailers worked in cramped conditions and because of the intense heat were normally stripped to the waist. Writing about nailers in the Black Country in the 19th Century, Rev Harold Rylett described their work as “exhausting”, especially in warmer weather.

In the 19th Century at least, most nailers in Belper tended to be men, as women found ready employment in the cotton mills. However, nailing was still essentially a home industry, and the whole family would help out in the workshop. Children might help to carry the coal while the nailer’s wife would work the bellows. One Belper local remembered helping his nailer grandfather at the age of eight, by fetching the iron from the nailmaster, while his six-year-old sister worked the bellows.

An unruly bunch

The Belper nailers were a notoriously unruly bunch. Though by no means idle workers, they gained a reputation for hard-drinking, trouble-making, and rebelliousness, which this local anecdote - one of the few surviving relics of this centuries-old industry - reveals.

An innocent stranger puts his head inside the window opening of a nailer’s shop and asks “What’s the time?” The nailer pauses from his work, and brings his hammer down hard on the stranger’s head, answering gleefully, “It’s just struck one!”

The Belper nailers had a reputation for violence, even murder
© Belper Historical Society
The nailers were well known for fighting, gaming and other disorderly behaviour. In his ‘History of Derbyshire’, Reverend D P Davies said that before the arrival of the cotton industry, Belper was the “insignificant residence of uncivilised nailers”, and Reverend B Gregory described it as the “rudest place” he ever knew bar one. The nailers often found themselves on the wrong side of the law: court records and newspaper reports show them being fined and imprisoned on a regular basis, for everything from poaching to assault, from breaking contract to theft and even murder.

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