Dance artists from Ghana, Grenada and the West Midlands in the UK, have come together to tell the story of the Black Country’s chain making industry, its links to slavery, and how its workers were at the forefront of workers’ rights. Marcia Edwards, director of ME Dance Company, explains how this history inspired an international dance project:
The Black Country in the West Midlands was given its name in the nineteenth century, when thousands of foundries and forges belched black smoke into the atmosphere, and the land was pitted with shallow coal seams, being mined to provide power.
Chain making was one of the area’s main industries. Giant chains were made for ships’ anchors and mooring cables, for cranes and mining work, smaller chains were made for use in factories and for everyday use such as dog chains.
Chains were also made for the transatlantic slave trade. They chained African men and women while they were transported to America and then held captive, their lives and labour stolen in the Southern States of the USA and the Caribbean.
“These things happened how many years ago but here we are today, trying to pick the pieces and see where they fit. We are bringing our experience, our humanity, our culture, our world view.”
Nii-Tete Yartey – NOYAM African Dance Institute, Artistic Director
The chains were often made by women and children. They worked in horrific conditions, what we would now call sweat shops, for poverty level wages. This exploitation saw workers toil for 12-13 hours a day to earn 5 shillings a week, heating metal in furnaces, then standing at anvils working with the hot metal to beat out 5,000 links, or 1,000 tons of chain a week.
The workers’ conditions broke the factory laws of the time, and their starvation wages left hard-working women and their families below the poverty line, with families suffering chronic hunger. Workers often had to brave horrific burns and blisters, but had to continue to work to afford any food for their families. Pregnant women would work throughout pregnancy, with babies and children cared for in the sheds and small workshops that housed the furnaces and anvils.
While businessmen exploited the workers, there were those who were concerned about the poor conditions of workers in the UK, including those in the chain industry. Sympathy and anger led many to speak out on the workers’ behalf, calling society’s attention to the plight of those working in what were called the sweated trades - industries with long working hours, poor working conditions and low pay, often exploiting women in particular. As the nascent trade union movement grow, the chain makers started to organise themselves. They fought their exploitative employers, utilizing strikes and demonstrations.
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Members of the growing suffragette movement, who fought for women’s rights, spoke out for the chain makers – who were to become known as the ‘white slaves of England’. They found their leader in Mary McArthur, a suffragette who founded the National Federation of Women Workers. Mary led the chain makers in their fight for better pay. They were victorious in 1910, when women chain makers won the right to a fair wage, after a 10-week strike. Their victory increased the pay of thousands of workers who had been earning starvation wages. The dispute finally ended on 22 October 1910, when the last of the employers gave up their fight against fairness and agreed to pay the minimum wage.
Our dance project, Chain Stories, connected three dance companies from across the world. NOYAM African Dance Institute from Ghana in West Africa and Conception Dance Theatre from Grenada in the Caribbean collaborated with ME Dance to create a brand new multi-disciplinary performance. The dance was inspired by the Black Country's chain-making history, its legacy and impact across Commonwealth countries.
The dance follows the journey of the chains from the Black Country, across the sea to Ghana, Grenada and back to the UK. It tells the story of those who encountered the chains made in the Black Country, creating links between the region and Commonwealth countries.
“We all experience colonialism differently. I’ve always really talked about it in terms of the Grenadian, Caribbean experience and I think this project has allowed me to think more broadly. It became emotional because it brought us back to a place that we don’t often like to go to where we lived, in that moment, what our ancestors went through."
Cecilia Griffith – Conception Dance Theatre, Artistic Director
Chain Stories explores the struggles of the people exploited in the push for cheap labour and profit, which was motivated by the UK's industrial revolution and its global expansion. The dance focuses on the real-life people who fought for equality – the fight for women’s rights, freedom from slavery and against racial oppression. It also looks at society's changing attitudes and slow progress towards racial, gender and economic equality, which people are still fighting for today.
The dance choreography is site-specific, meaning it was created to be performed at a specific location. In our case this was ‘Bumble Hole’, a wonderful nature reserve. The area was devoted to ironwork from mid-1400 to the 1970s. Today it is hard to imagine that once the site was crammed with factories, buzzing with the sounds of work in its boat yards, coal mines, iron works, timber yards and sawmills, the atmosphere quivering with the heat from its kilns and furnaces.
At Bumble Hole we brought together dance, live music, narration, including British Sign Language, and an outdoor exhibition of original artworks and historic photographs. Our dancers from Ghana, Grenada and the UK came together to guide the audience through the chains’ journey. They encountered different people, stepping out of history from the dark forges and along the canals, as the chains made their journey to Ghana, Grenada and back again. Each story shows how this journey was one of the links that helped create the UK’s multicultural society.
Bringing these three countries together has created a celebration of unity, artistry and shared history. Drawing inspiration from each other’s work, we brought something new to the Black Country’s community as part of the 2022 Commonwealth Games’ Birmingham Festival 2022 celebrations. It is a perfect example of how dance can illuminate history and create relationships between people across the world who share that history.