His young life was not so hedged round with the advantages that young people have today. This description by the Rev. J. Heale was used at Alfred Westwood's funeral in 1935, and it is true that Alf was not dealt the best cards in life; but those he had, he put to good use.
Alfred Westwood was born on May 2nd 1866 to Samuel and Mary Ann Westwood. His father's forebears were living in Lomey Town, Cradley Heath, and his mother's family (named Cox) were natives of Cradley.
In 1866 Alf lived in Hightown, Cradley with his parents and his grandmother Keziah Cox. His father Samuel was a miner who worked at Homer Hill Colliery, and his grandmother was a nailor.
He was born into a Cradley that had changed little since medieval times. Land was owned by the Lord of the Manor (Lord Lyttleton) who leased out his land to the coal and ironmasters. Local affairs and administration of justice were conducted by means of a court leet system. The unemployed, sick or widows had to rely on friends and relatives or face the realities of the Poor Law and the horrors of the workhouse.
| ||Evers Homer Hill Colliery|| |
When Alf was five years old, his father Samuel died as a result of a tragic pit accident at Evers Homer Hill Colliery. The shaft for Homer Hill was first sunk in 1860, and the coal was mined using the pillar and stall system. As a means of mining coal it was the most dangerous and yet the most used in the thick coal seams of the Black Country. The seam near the surface was low in sulphur and very suitable for iron and brick making. The whole of a 30ft seam of coal was mined in one operation, and in order to do this a pillar of 8-10 yards square was left in the coal face to support the roof while a 10 yard area was worked. Coal was undermined from below and then piked from above, and so coal literally fell to the floor of the mine. The miners needed good hearing and quick reflexes to get out of the way in time. The highly bituminous coal was subject to gas (pockets of methane gas or fire damp) which caused death by poisoning or explosions set off by the slightest spark or naked flame.
There was a fatal accident at Homer Hill Colliery on Feb 1st 1871 due to a fall of coal. According to the County Express one man (S. Cartwright) died, and 3 other miners were injured, one seriously. H. M. Inspector Mines report 1871 was only required to record deaths in the mines, and those who were injured and died later were not officially recorded. Alf's father's death certificate records his death as caused by phthisis (a lung disease), but within the family it was always said he died as a result of a pit accident.
| ||The death of his father, the main breadwinner, must have devastated the Westwood family. There was no insurance or welfare, and the spectre of the infamous Dudley Workhouse would have loomed large in his household. However, his mother remarried an iron forge worker, Andrew Hartland, who lived nearby. Alf's mother died when he was in his early teens. He continued to live with his stepfather until he was 26, leaving to marry Ellen Newby in 1892.|
As a young boy at the end of the nineteeth century, Alf remembered that the only water supply for Cradley came from two hand pumps situated at the top of Cradley High Street, opposite the Baptist Chapel. He recalled that regular fights took place amongst the women and children over who got their water first.
In 1860 the population of Cradley was about 4,000. The main industries were coal and ironstone mining, employing mainly men and boys. The other main industries, hand hammered chain and nail production, employed mainly women.
In 1896 the women chainmakers of Cradley were dubbed "The White Slaves of England" by Robert Sherrard. Alf himself remembered John Burns, later to become a Labour M.P., and Cunninghame-Graham, a Liberal MP and founder of Scottish Nationalist Party, coming to Cradley in 1890 to investigate the conditions of women chainmakers as part of a Government Enquiry into Sweating. Alf recalled that this was the first time he heard the term "sweated industry" used, and that people were working from "early morning until late a night for a mere pittance."
Alf clearly recalled the miner's strikes of 1874 and 1878. Born into a mining family and living in a mining area, he was obviously aware of the struggles of the miners.
The 1874 strike was caused by the coalmasters proposing to cut wages by 1 shilling per day. This was a cut of 20 to 25%, the lowest wages had been since 1869. It was the first time that the coalowners had met organised opposition in the form of two Miners Unions who were prepared to strike for the principle of negotiation.
After much bitterness and hardship, the dispute was finally settled following arbitration by Joseph Chamberlain senior, Liberal M.P. for Birmingham. The strike lasted 18 weeks, the men going back to work in July 1874 on a lower day rate than when the strike started. The only benefit the miners achieved was the setting up of a Wages Board and a sliding scale of wages. However, in spite of this protection, miners' wages continued to fall until 1890.
In 1876, during The Great Depression of 1873 to 1896, and in spite of widespread unemployment affecting coal mining and the iron and steel trades, Alf found work at 10 years of age as a chainboy at Noah Hingley's in Netherton. With no public transport, it was at least a five-mile hike to work from High Town to Netherton. He would work a long day (not eight hours plus meal breaks), and end with the long walk home at night.
He remembered how Cradley, although an industrial village, was still surrounded by fields growing root and wheat crops. It was, however, not a very law abiding place, and he described how it was dangerous to travel at night between Lye and Halesowen along the Turnpike Road, due to footpads that frequented the road from Hayes to Colley Gate and from Belle Vale to Halesowen. Street fighting was also common, and he recalled how the Saturday night amusement for the local youths was to gather outside Colley Lane police station to watch the local trouble makers locked up.
| ||Corn fields overlooking Homer Hill Colliery|| |
At Noah Hingley's Alf had joined a large modern industrial undertaking, which as early as 1844 employed about 3000. The most modern technology was installed, producing wrought iron and the best ships anchors and cables in the world.
As a young chainboy Alf will have fetched beer and operated the bellows for the chainmaker. He will have seen and been very impressed maybe even frightened by the huge Nasmyth Steam Hammer. This was the largest mechanical forge in Britain at the time, first used at Hingley's in 1850. Rumer Godden (great granddaughter of Noah Hingley) in "A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep", writes :
With a friend, John Nasmyth, he [Hingley] had invented the Nasmyth Hammer which can come down with such force as to crush a ton of ore, or so delicately that it will hardly break an egg; it made the Hingley fortune. I am proud to think that Noah was perhaps the first Ironmaster to provide washrooms and a canteen for his men. Although it was a large company, Hingley's still used the old domestic system of payment. The chainmaker was paid a price for the job and out of that would pay the wages of his gang of three strikers and a chainboy. This method of payment continued throughout Alf's working life. Much later, as a large diameter side weld chainmaker during and after the first World War, he paid his strikers in the same way.
| ||James Nasmyth's 1871 painting of a steam hammer celebrates industrial production on a grand scale. In a scene resembling grand opera, slave-like humans labour to satisfy the machine's demands, man-handling a massive iron bar between the hammer's jaws. Engineer as well as artist, Nasmyth was famous as a builder of steam hammers.|| |
By the time he was 14, Alf was officially listed on the Census returns as a chainmaker. It is more than likely that at 14 he would have been a striker. By the time he retired from Hingley's due to ill heath at 63 he had been making chain for most of his working life.
The Chainmakers and Strikers Association (The Chester Union) was formed on July 6th 1889, with 360 members. Alf Westwood was one of the founder members. He was actively involved with the Association for 40 years and was President from 1920 to 1926, reverting to Vice President from 1927 to 1929.
Tom Sitch, another founder member, later became General Secretary of the Association. He and Alf were lifelong friends, who spent many hours together discussing politics and trade unionism.
Following Tom Sitch's death in 1922, Alf Westwood's address to the Biennial Conference of the Union was as follows :
Let us not forget, when we met last year, we had one amongst us that has passed away, much to our sorrow as chainmakers. He was a man of sterling character. There was no question about that. Even those that were reckoned his enemies had to admit that. By the way that they paid their respect when we laid him to rest shows to us that he was no mean man, but a gentleman and friend to us all. I take our late secretary as a meaning of the word which is sometimes said in the good old book: "Ye are the salt of the earth." Mr. Sitch's past life amongst us has sweetened the earth. Another of Alf's life passions was the governance of Cradley, and in 1894 a Parish Council was formed. He was first elected to it in 1898, but lost his seat in 1899 and was not re-elected until 1904. He continued to serve until the Council was absorbed into the Urban District Council of Halesowen in 1925, when he represented Cradley for two years on Halesowen Council until 1927.
|The County Express obituary refers to Alf as "a well known Cradley man with a long record of Public service sitting on many committees over a period of 14 years". He was Vice Chairman of the Parish Council from 1913 to 1915 and Chairman from 1915 to 1918, reverting to Vice Chairman for a further two more years. He was also chairman of the committee responsible for the peace celebrations in 1919.|
As chairman of the Parish Council, Alf fought strongly to retain the independence of Cradley, petitioning Worcester County Council for UDC status in 1899.† In 1919, along with other councillors, he proposed joining with Lye and Wollescote rather than Halesowen.
Alf was a Liberal for much of his life. He was, however, probably elected as an Independent to the Cradley Parish Council, and from his voting record he continued to be independently minded throughout his political life.
| ||Electioneering at Colley Lane Schools - probably 1920s|| |
The photograph below was taken at the funeral of Sgt. Joe Tyler in Cradley on 31 Aug 1916. Joseph Tyler died from trench fever contracted whilst on active service at the Western Front during the first World War. At the subsequent Council meeting the Clerk of the Council reported that the funeral expenses for Sgt. Tyler were 18 shillings. It was unanimously resolved that the Clerk collect the amount from members at the meeting. The Chairman Alf Westwood informed the Council that he would make up the difference. The collection raised 10 shillings. (Have politicians changed?)
| ||Members of the Parish Council : from the right H. J. Cox, Alf Westwood (Chairman), Ben Hodgetts (Vice Chairman), G. Davis, A. Hickman, G. Bird, H. Reece, J. Bloomer, E. Dunn, E. Bird and W. Simons.|| |
Although Alf had little or no formal education, he remained steadfast and loyal to the advancement of the working people, and was most insistent that the best provision be made for the education of the next generation, fighting Halesowen and Worcestershire C.C. for resources for Netherend and Colley Lane Schools. In 1914 he was appointed a Manager of Colley Lane School and sat on the Board of Management of all the district schools. He became Worcestershire County Magistrate in 1918.
| ||Executive Committee of the Liberal Club Colley Lane, Alf Westwood middle row 2nd from right|| |
Following the 1914-1918 war his friend Tom Sitch left the Liberal Party and joined the Labour Party. It is probable that Alf moved with him, although the relationship between the Chainmakers Union and the Liberal Party over Free Trade also influenced him.
Following the death of solicitor Thomas Homer in 1927 his house 'The Limes' on the corner of Toys Lane and Colley Gate, had come up for auction at The Talbot Hotel, Alf bought the house in a personal capacity as he stated "it was knocked down to me for £700". He later sold the house to the Labour Party. As he was treasurer of the Cradley Labour Party at the time, this was clearly a ruse devised to ensure that their bitterest enemies (the Liberals) did not try to stop this acquisition. Alf himself stated at the opening ceremony, "You should have seen the Liberals, it was like a clap of thunder to the party in every form and fashion."
| ||The Limes Labour Club, 1968|| |
Interestingly, Alf expresses his regret that as a Liberal he fought strong and hard against that noble woman, Mary MacArthur. He went on to say that if he ever regretted anything in his life, it was this. It was very much in keeping with his strong mindedness that he should publicly admit to an error of judgement. In 1910 Mary MacArthur spent some time in Cradley helping women members of the Hammered Chain Union when they were locked out for refusing to sign away their rights to belong to a Union. Mary helped settle the dispute in favour of the women, and the end result was that they were included in the Trades Boards, and a minimum wage was fixed. The Chainmakers and Strikers Association were opposed to regulation of wages of women, arguing that far from increasing the level of wages it would instead bring about a reduction in wages for the industry as a whole.
| ||Mary MacArthur addressing the women chainmakers of Cradley (1910)|| |
As a leader of the Association, Alf Westwood strongly expressed his opposition to Mary MacArthur's campaign.† However, exactly the opposite happened: chainmaking reached it's zenith from 1912-1918, and as a result wages in all sections of the industry increased, and Alf together with the members of the Chainmakers and Strikers Association were forced to change their opinion.
Alf's membership of the Labour Party was, however, not destined to last, and he returned to his roots in the Liberal Party. This was probably due to the fall of the second Labour Government and the forming of a National Government with the Tories.
Alf Westwood's Radical beliefs came from his family experiences in Hightown, his working life as a chainmaker from the age of 10, his commitment to the Chainmakers Union, his friendship with Tom Sitch and last but not least the religious influence of Methodism. He attended the Ragged School and then became a member of the Providence Methodist Church Windmill Hill, where his wife's family were founders.
| ||Stone laying at the Methodist Church, Windmill Hill (1925)|| |
It must be said that regardless of his Radicalism, Alf Westwood was a typical Victorian. He was prudent, and the money he saved as a chainmaker he invested in property. His first purchases were 56 to 60 Windmill Hill, and he moved to 56 after his marriage to Ellen Newby in 1892. It was here that his three children Ellen, Samuel and Aaron (who died in infancy) were born. Next door at 58 Windmill Terrace lived Samuel and Selina Newby, Ellen Westwood's parents.
Samuel Newby, Alf's father in law, was a builder who with Joseph Tate built the second Methodist Sunday School in Windmill Hill in 1886. He also installed the stone from which John Wesley preached in Cradley High Street in 1770 on a retaining wall at 58 Windmill Hill.
Later Alf Westwood purchased numbers 58 and 60 Furlong Lane on the corner of Spring Street, where his son Samuel lived when he was first married.
Towards the end of the first World War, Alf bought 'The Poplars' in Two Gates Lane, a rambling Georgian house which may once have been a pub. He lived there with his wife Ellen and her sister Harriet Newby for the rest of his life. In 1927 Alf purchased 52 and 54 Windmill Hill, where his daughter Nellie Clift lived with her family until 1951.
Finally, in what can only be explained as a sentimental purchase, Alf bought a row of old miners' cottages in Hightown, Cradley, one of which was his old home in which he lived in 1866. It was hardly a sound investment, as the properties had been condemned as unfit for human habitation and were demolished by the Council under Slum Clearance order around 1932.
Alfred Westwood died of heart failure aged 69 at his home 'The Poplars' in Two Gates Lane on October 13th 1935. His long commitment to local public service and political activity did not go unnoticed; his funeral was attended by many local dignitaries and friends, and as a sign of respect the flags of Colley Lane Schools and the Liberal Club were flown at half-mast.
As a footnote to this story of Alf Westwood - and all the other chainmakers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - we include the following quote from a paper presented to the Stourbridge Rotary by Mr. Henry Woodhouse (President of the Chain and Anchor Manufacturers Association) in 1936.
I scarcely need tell you that chainsmiths are a class to themselves, especially the men we call the "Big Chainmakers" whose dress or undress is quite picturesque. Big hefty men and their scorn for buttons is only equalled by their courage. Everything is anchored to the belt, worn at a perilously low altitude but they know no fear. They are equally outspoken, there is no difficulty in calling a spade a spade, but while their speech is plain it is of a kind, it might even be said to be colourful.
These men are just as free in other ways, ordinary factory discipline does not apply. They have their own code of hours accepted by their employers. They start when they like and they stop when they like. I must say they could hardly do otherwise, it is terribly hard work. One would have a heart of stone who was not moved by compassion in seeing these men especially in the heat of summer soaked in sweat to their very boots. In speaking of times past I must say that conditions were deplorable. The prices paid at certain periods were outrageous, and when one remembers that our district† had a monopoly of the chain cable trade with the whole world for its market. It is a sad reflection on the merchants and manufacturers of the time.
This essay is © Copyright 2002 Alf Clift and Susan Westwood.
Cradley Links thanks Alf and Susan for their generous
permission to reproduce it on this web site.