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Women Chainmakers Festival - slavery statement

Published date

During the planning of this event, the issue of Birmingham and the Black Country’s relationship with the transatlantic slave trade was raised. 

This statement is not to take away from the hard working Black Country women of the time, the trades diminished the lives of the Black Country nascent working class as well as the commodified lives of those transported from Africa, in the most horrific manner. 

Recent world events have highlighted what many of us have recognised and campaigned for for many years, the need for honest reflection about our history. The version of history that we are taught and is often portrayed is one that under-represents, the African, African Caribbean and Asian community, women, disabled people, LGBT+ people and the working class. It also hides the truth of the wealth accumulated by Britain and the sheer scale and brutality of the slave trade.

The question of the Birmingham and Black Country’s metalworks relationship with transatlantic slave trade is one that has been raised before and the truth is - we do not have a complete answer, however there is research out there that highlights how the British industrial sector made huge profits from the slave trade. 

We have consulted people who have researched the women chainmakers’ story and they are unable to give a conclusive answer about slave chain.  

At the time of the Women Chainmakers’ dispute in 1910, slavery in the UK and Europe had been abolished for over 70 years, slaves in the colonies becoming free after a period of forced apprenticeship following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Slavery in America continued until 1865.  

It is a devastating realisation that our ancestors may have produced shackles and chain that enslaved the ancestors of our friends and colleagues.  

We acknowledge that chains, cuffs, shackles or locks used in the abhorrent slave trade were made in the Black Country, there is evidence of this in the Slavery Museum in Liverpool.  

It would be wrong and short-sighted to blame one industry alone for a history which connected so many Birmingham and Black Country trades. A more collective acknowledgement and learning about this aspect of British past would be a worthier response to injustices perpetuated by their role within the development of a bloodstained empire.  

The women we commemorate made small gauge chain from metal rods to the specification of middle men. It is doubtful they knew what that chain was for. 

They were uneducated, oppressed women with no rights who, once organised by Mary Macarthur and the National Federation of Women Workers, went on strike for a living wage.  

We celebrate the success of those working-class women winning a living wage in 1910, 18 years before all women won the right to vote 

The women chainmakers of Cradley Heath lived and worked in horrific conditions. One social commentator described Cradley Heath as 'hell'. Whilst the Chain Masters would have profited from any historical links to the slave trade, the chainmakers of Cradley Heath did not. With no power or control over their daily lives, we commemorate the women chainmakers' success in organising and standing up to their oppressors who profited from their exploitation. 

Through organising in trade unions, we challenge exploitation in the workplace - and as trade unionists we stand with all those that face oppression and subjugation in whatever form. 
Unity of all oppressed people is what empowers us and is the key to overcoming the most divisive aspects of oppression that so many face today. 

This is an ongoing project, nevertheless a statement of this sort was warranted. This subject is complex and at times unsavoury; but should enable people to have open and transparent discussions and debate.  

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