Walsall trade goods for Africa

Early Walsall Trades

Owing to the local availability of lime, surface coalmines and iron ore, Walsall’s principal industry since the 15th century had been metalworking, making metal bits for saddlery, buckles, locks, nails and chains. Within the present-day Walsall borough boundaries were workshops producing flintlocks and barrels for the gun trade, as well as tool making in Darlaston and nearby areas. These early trades flourished because of the growing African market supplying the slave trade. In later years, Walsall continued to grow thanks to the leather trade and exports, and some companies specialised in supplying goods to the expanding colonial markets.

Chain Making

Most chain making was carried out by women in the Black Country regions, especially Cradley Heath, where a warehouse could contain 80 - 100 tons of chains awaiting shipment. A man was interviewed in Cradley Heath in 1934, who recalled making slave chains, as his father and neighbours had done before him. Evidence was recently found by associates of The Black Country Museum and Willenhall Lock Museum, who identified slave chains held in a collection in the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, South Africa, as having been made in Cradley Heath, while the locking mechanism had been made in the lock factories of Walsall.

Chain making for slavery continued long after the British Slavery Abolition Acts of 1807 and 1834, in order to supply slave plantations in different parts of the world.

Female Chainmakers at Cradley Heath

Female chainmakers were strong, fast workers. Cradley Heath was world famous for its chainmaking, and a majority of the chains used to enslave Africans were manufactured in the Black Country. This image was taken in 1912 at the time of the chainmakers’ strike.

Image courtesy of Dudley Archives & Local History Service blackcountryhistory.org


The Gun Trade

The manufacture of guns was largely responsible for the early growth of Birmingham. The gun trade was a ‘boom and bust’ trade, as it was reliant on wars to increase demand until the first orders were made for what became known as African guns, in 1698. With that, Birmingham became part of the slave trade.

The African guns were of the cheapest type, garishly painted red and poorly made. If they were proofed at all, it was with water, so they tended to explode when first fired.

African guns were used as trade. The Europeans, by introducing guns to Africans, were able to encourage African communities to raid and capture other Africans. The Africans who had guns were able to defend themselves and, by capturing others, could avoid being captured as slaves themselves. The slavers sold inferior guns to Africans, in order to maintain their position of power with their own superior weapons.

The demand for African guns was so great that the industry could barely cope with the orders for between 100,000 and 150,000 per year. The guns were assembled in the gun quarter of Birmingham, with component parts being made in the Black Country. Flintlocks were made in Darlaston and gun barrels were forged in Wednesbury.

Most of the guns were women’s guns, which could be traded for female slaves. Male slaves could be bought with a better quality weapon, such as an old British Army rifle. The price varied over the years. In 1721, a man could be bought on the West African coast for eight guns, two cases of distilled liquor and 28 cotton sheets.


A flintlock.


The Wednesbury Forge

On the very border of the current Walsall borough, there existed a forge that, in 1597, principally forged gun barrels. This forge was leased in 1817 by Edward Elwell, who employed 300 men to make plantation tools for use in the West Indies, such as hoes, hatchets, bill hooks, machetes, bar iron, and iron hoops. Elwell also opened two other forges, including one in Hill Top, West Bromwich.

Edward Elwell is said to have been worried that the abolition of slavery would have an adverse effect on his trade. His nephew, Thomas Newton, is quoted as saying he was “Plum against the abolition of slavery, until he became intimate with the Quaker Pease, who in 1833 came up to London as an M.P. and changed him altogether.”

Joseph Pease was from a prominent Quaker family. He was an abolitionist, and a president of the Peace Society during the 19th century.

Elwell need not have worried about his businesses, The American civil war (1861 – 1865) gave Wednesbury Forge a boost when they supplied the Southern states of America, but business tailed off after the North won.

In later years, Elwell’s company merged with British and Midland Forgings Ltd to become the famous tool company, Spear and Jackson.



Wednesbury Forge