The Chainmakers’ Daughter
By Rebecca Bryn
“Some make chains. Some wear them.”
Rosie Wallace survives on three slices of bread a day. Scarred by flame and metal, she makes her life as her ancestors have: making chains for their rich chain master. There is no hope for a better future. No hope even for a green vegetable on the table. Her life will be making chains, marrying her sweetheart, Jack, and babies every year.
When an assault threatens the very fabric of her tenuous existence, Rosie finds the courage and the reason to fight for her life and the lives of her family and neighbours.
Set in the first decade of the 20th century, The Chainmakers’ Daughter is a haunting portrayal of abject poverty, ever-present death, and modern-day slavery.
Praise for The Chainmakers’ Daughter
‘Rebecca Bryn’s The Chainmakers’ Daughter is not only the most vivid and haunting portrayal of the 20th century struggle for workers and women’s rights but it is also timely and a mirror to our own modern struggles. Bryn’s novel is to be lauded for its attention to historical detail and its sharp depiction of true and crippling poverty but it is first and foremost a love story. Rosie Wallace is a woman both out of time and very much in time. Bryn has managed to produce a heroine that is recognizable as a feminist to modern readers and yet not a unicorn to the early 1900s. The Chainmakers’ Daughter is quite simply one of the most compelling and haunting works I have read in years. Characters, vices, and even steel comes alive under Bryn’s fingers and the chain of love she creates is nothing short of miraculous.’
Rachael Wright author of Captain Savva series.
‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.’ – Franklin Leonard
Hawley Heath, England 1901:
Rosie Wallace threw aside childhood as lightly as she threw aside her thin blanket. She sat up eager to begin, for once she’d done the chores, she would work alongside her mother in her chain workshop. She pressed her fingers against her stomach to stop the rumbling; her hunger to help Mom earn a better wage by forging more chain was only exceeded by the emptiness in her belly.
The ever-present crash of iron on iron sounded again, slowly at first, as if the arm that wielded the hammer was too tired for the task. It fell into a regular, familiar, determined rhythm soon taken up by other hands in the chain-shop brew houses across the cinder yard, and together they composed a discordant melody.
She peered into the half-light; the iron-framed bed where her parents slept was empty, and a rosy light crept beneath the urden, the hessian sack that served for a curtain. Not the cool fingers of an early dawn but the fiery glow of the forges spilling through the open doors of the workshops.
Half rolling from her bed on the floor, so she didn’t disturb her sisters, she lifted the urden sacking and peered out. It was still half-dark, the hipped roofs of the cluster of hovels silhouetted black against a pre-dawn sky, but already, three hearths were glowing. Smoke from their chimneys, and the chimneys of the blast furnaces beyond, devoured the paling stars.
The clock downstairs chimed three; she was proud of the timepiece, few families had one, but it was relentless in its daily insistence for her to get out of bed. It was past time she was up and out. Mom had let her sleep in on her first morning after leaving school and had gone alone to light the hearth and begin the day’s work.
She lit the oil lamp by the side of her parents’ bed and threw on her clothes: small clothes that were a dingy grey no matter how often she washed them, and over those, a long dress that was tattered at the cuffs and hem and peppered with burn holes. She tied on her urden apron with a length of twine and pulling on a pair of stockings and boots contemplated the day ahead.
First, washing and hanging out what spare clothes they possessed, then a little bread and tea for breakfast, get her younger sisters up, fetch a basket of glede, the small coke needed to fuel the forge, and help Mom in the workshop while keeping an eye on the babies of the family.
At ten years old, she’d already learned enough about chores and hammering chain to make a difference to Mom’s working day. She’d loved school and Miss Croft, her teacher, but now she’d left, she could do her bit to help Mom feed the family.
Her little sisters dreamt on as she padded down the stairs and into the wash-house where the day’s laundry awaited her. She sang to herself as she drew water from the well, laid the fire for the copper, and lit it. She sorted the clothes: whites – if you could call them white – first and then the darker work-stained garments.
It being summer, and light early, Dad had already left for the factory where he forged the larger chain; the ‘olivers’, the massive hammers required to fire weld the links made from thicker iron rods, were too heavy for the women to use. Her two older brothers, Tom and Joe, were apprentices there and had gone with him. It would be too hot later for such hard work, so going in early while it was cooler made sense.
While the water heated in the copper, she collected the children’s stockings and undergarments. If she was quick, she could get them washed and dried before they wanted to wear them. Aggie’s stockings needed mending again – what the child did with them, she had no idea, but Aggie always made holes in them. She shrugged as she pushed the stockings and small clothes beneath the scalding water with a copper stick – carefully, for fear they fell apart. Her own clothes and boots had holes in them, too: burn marks from sparks from the forge despite wearing her urden apron.
It was almost time to get the girls up by the time she’d hung the last of the washing onto the line strung between the iron hook in the house wall and the wooden post by the open chain-shop door. More hearths had been lit in the cinder yard, and the sound of the hammers was deafening. The light from their hearth silhouetted her mother’s wiry form bent over her anvil, her face taut with concentration, and her hammer rising and falling as she forged the iron rod into links.
She shoved the fork of the wooden clothes prop under the line, pushed the washing higher so it didn’t drag in the dirt, hoped the wind would blow the smoke away from the clean clothes, and trotted back to the house to make breakfast. The quartern loaf was half gone already; that left two pounds of bread to feed five for breakfast and lunch. She sang as she sliced noggins and spread them with bacon fat while the kettle accompanied her on the hearth and the hammers rang out their rhythm of life in the chain workshops.
The tea brewed and black, she took a cup and plate out to her mother. ‘Mom, stop a while and eat this.’
Her mother laid down her hammer and tongs and wiped her hands on her apron. ‘You’re a good girl, Rosie. Thank you.’ Mom stepped outside; sweat beaded her brow and ran down her face, and her cheeks were red from the heat of the forge. She took a long swallow of tea and looked up at the sky. ‘I see you’ve done the washing. Let’s hope it doesn’t rain. Have you had breakfast?’
‘Not yet, Mom.’ A warm breeze fluttered the stockings, which were almost dry already, and if it rained, Aggie would go to school barefoot.
‘Have you been reading instead of eating, Rosie?’
Her fingers itched to open the precious book, A Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, lent to her by Miss Croft, and breathe in the musty smell of twenty years. ‘No, Mom. When have I had time to read?’
Mom smiled. ‘I don’t begrudge you reading time, Rosie, as long as the chores are done, and it doesn’t fill your head with ideas above your station, but you have to eat. We all do.’
She smiled back at the gentle rebuke, acutely aware neither of them were earning while they stood talking. ‘I’ll be over to help you in a while.’
In her book, Isabel Archer was facing her future with courage and determination, and she would do no less even if she didn’t possess a fortune, like Isabel. Miss Croft, her schoolmistress, who came from nearby Stourbridge and had travelled to exotic sounding places like Edinburgh, London, and Bristol, had always encouraged her to read. ‘You’ve a good head on you, Rosie Wallace. Don’t waste it making chain.’
The chance would be a fine thing. Making chain was in her blood, and what other opportunities were there for a girl in Hawley Heath? Isabel might have fine clothes and vast green lawns, but the Wallace family had little more than the clothes they stood up in and the cinder yard. She couldn’t imagine what a person would do with more, anyway. ‘I’ve made breakfast for the girls. I’ll get them up.’
Mom selected a twelve-foot length of iron bar from a bundle leaning up the chain-shop wall. ‘Thank you, love. I’ll have my breakfast while I work. Don’t forget to have yours.’
‘I won’t, Mom.’ She skipped back across the cinder yard to the sound of her mother’s strong voice singing in time with her hammer strokes, a song taken up by other women in the chain shops across the yard. Mom would stop to eat, wouldn’t she?
Daisy and Maggie washed and standing in the kitchen bare-legged and bare-bottomed, she fetched their clean stockings and knickers from the line and dressed them. It was a warm day, and the air would soon suck any damp from the clothes.
‘Aggie?’ Where was the girl?
‘It’s time you were at school.’ She scooted Aggie out of the door, the child still clutching her bread and bacon fat in her hand. Next year, Daisy would start school, and she’d have two of them to get ready. ‘Daisy, Maggie, find your shoes. We’ve glede to fetch for Mom.’
The wicker basket for carrying the glede stood by the back door; she tucked it under one arm, took hold of Maggie’s hand, and led her into the road. Daisy trailed behind, dragging a rag doll Mom had made her from scraps from clothes too worn to pass down yet again.
A cart pulled by two bay horses rumbled towards them, and they stepped aside to let it pass. Rows of brick chain shops, the bricks blackened and their doors at knee height to help loading and unloading the metal rods and finished chain, lined one side of the road. A public house stood opposite, hung with black flags to mark the passing of the queen, and a woman knelt on her doorstep in a grey-streaked black dress, a bucket at her side and a scrubbing brush in hand.
Behind the pub and terraced houses, tall chimneys of furnaces belched smoke that the wind failed to dispel, and a pithead raised its skeleton above a vast slagheap. The rumble of the rolling mills, the falling of hammers on metal, the creaking of pithead winding chains, and the nearby wheeze of bellows almost drowned the approaching chuff of a slow goods train on the embankment.
‘Come on, Daisy. Mom will be waiting for the glede.’
Daisy ran to catch up and skipped ahead. ‘Catch me if you can, Maggie.’ Maggie wriggled her hand free and trotted after her older sister.
She hurried after them, peering between the houses for a glimpse of the small patch of grey-green field where sheep grazed. Sometimes, she imagined that blighted turf was her fine lawn like Isabel Archer enjoyed, and she went down there when she could to feel grass beneath her feet and pick the brave yellow dandelions. There wouldn’t be time for that now she didn’t pass the field on her way to school.
Down by the canal, piles of washed small coke from the gaswork’s ovens heaped beside the tanks of murky water used for washing the ash and grit from the precious fuel.
‘Daisy! Keep hold of Maggie.’
The canal wasn’t deep, but it was deep enough to drown a two year old, and Percy Kibble had fallen in drunk and been crushed against the bank by a barge butty loaded with coal. She proffered her basket to the man in charge of selling the glede. He filled a dirty white enamel bucket with the fuel and tipped it into her basket. ‘That’s thruppence, young Rosie.’
The glede in her basket didn’t look much like a bucketful. She frowned, but the man’s bucket was empty, so she handed over three pennies. It would take her friend Jack, who was thirteen and very handsome despite his freckles, a whole day to earn so much, and he worked bellows for four hearths in the chain shop down the road. Tom and Joe, who were younger than Jack, only earned two shillings a week, and they worked at Joshua and Son’s factory.
She gripped her basket. ‘Thank you, Mr Harbottle.’
He smiled a gappy grin. ‘See you tomorrow then, lass.’
‘I shall, Mr Harbottle.’ The shallow basket was heavy and needed both her hands even with one edge tucked against her hip. ‘Come on, Daisy. Hold Maggie’s hand. Quick now.’
Pick up your copy of
The Chainmakers’ Daughter
Add The Chainmaker’s Daughter to your ‘to-read’ list on
Rebecca Bryn lives in West Wales with her husband and rescue dog, where she paints the fabulous coastal scenery in watercolour and writes mystery, historical, and post-apocalyptic tales with a twist.
Connect with Rebecca: