Sedgley's Nail Trade

In Sedgley during the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, coal mining and nailmaking provided employment for thousands of people. At the turn of the 18th century some Sedgley nailmakers emerged as nailmasters, the major ones being Elwell, Newton, Parkes, and Wilkes. These families had been in the Sedgley area for centuries, their names appearing regularly in Sedgley manorial records.

Between the 16th and the late 18th century records provide evidence of Wilkeses living in Sedgley manor. In November 1558 church registers recorded the christening of Thomas Wilkes. Throughout the 17th century the name appears on rent rolls, and hearth taxes for assessment. The first evidence of a Wilkes engaged in nailmaking is recorded in 1713, when Stephen Wilkes was a "principal person" of the nail trade. It is unlikely he was a nailmaster but this period did witness their emergence. Another Stephen Wilkes is listed in the Sedgley Tradesman of 1818 partnering Jordon as a nail and ironmonger.

The founder of the warehouse was probably Stephen Wilkes born in 1802. His father (the partner of Jordon) nearing the end of his working life was the likely provider of sufficient capital to finance the building, supply stocks and market successfully. Having introduced his son into the trade at an early age the enthusiasm of young Stephen Wilkes and his father's experience provided the right ingredients to expand the family business.Capital and trade experience were important prerequisites and the Wilkes family were already established in the trade.Erected about 1830 the warehouse was built to provide larger premises supplying nails for export and the domestic market.

Little evidence is available concerning the managerial and administrative affairs of the warehouse. However documents recently discovered dated 1824-1844 disclose the activities of Eliwell and Willetts nailmasters of Sedgley.

Being in the same trade it is reasonable to assume that Wilkes's administrative and managerial activities were similar and therefore parallels can be drawn between the two independent warehouses.

Iron rod was purchased in different gauges according to nail sizes. One iron supplier amongst many was Chillington Coal and Iron Works in Wolverhampton. Rod was supplied by the hundredweight often up to as much as one ton and delivered by local carters in one cwt. bundles to the warehouse. Two known local carters used were L. Collings and Pickford and Co., the latter actively involved in arranging shipments of nails by canal and river to ports including Liverpool, Hull and Gloucester. The rod was distributed to, or collected by, the nailmakers and returned as finished nails to the master's warehouse where they were quantified either by weight or number. Smaller nails such as hobs and tacks were counted by the thousand, and the larger nails such as spikes and strakes were weighed.

Several districts in the Black Country made different types of nails. Those found at Brick Street Warehouse included spikes, gate., rose, clasps, scupper, rail and brattice nails. Together with nails identified from the documents of Elwell and Willetts this clearly shows that Sedgley nailmasters held stocks of nails from several districts of the Black Country. Early 19th century stock sheets record at least seventeen different classes of nails, but with different sizes of class the total range was as high as forty-six. The same stock sheets show that on 'separate occasions there were over five tons of nails nearly all in bags.

Superior quality hessian bags supplied from Scotland were used for exporting nails to America and Commonwealth countries. Delivery routes from Sedgley to those countries were by canal barge out of Wombourne along the Staffs-Worcs Canal to the Stourport Basin. There the nails would be loaded onto Severn trows for the Gloucester port to await sea-going vessels.

Nails for the domestic market were sold to ironmongers or appointed agents located in various parts of the country. Nails were ordered by the hundred weight or thousand depending on the type of nail. The agents collected orders from independent warehouses and ironmongers in their region of the country arranging for supplies to be forwarded usually to a central collection point for redistribution to customers.

It was normal practice for customers to have credit accounts with the nailmasters. Payment of some accounts seems to have lacked regularity and promptness and nailmasters often added interest to outstanding debts. Discounts ranging from 5% to 10% were given on sales-, probably to customers regularly ordering large quantities. Agents collected accounts from their customers forwarding the money by sending bank bills or bank notes to the nailmaster less any agency expenses. Apart from invoices and statements, credit bills (or credit notes) were issued against defective nails or short deliveries. It was far easier to adjust customer accounts in this way rather than return nails from various parts of the country. Correspondence found clearly shows this happened and indicates that trust and honesty was important between client and nailmaster. Evidence also suggests that the administrative and managerial controls were well organised and reflected a high level of commercial professionalism.

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