Nailing in Belper

From the Mary Smedley Papers donated to the society shortly before her death in 2020.

From its earliest history, nails were made in Belper, because we had ironstone close at hand.

All types of nails were made in Belper, but it was the Belper horse nails that were considered to be of a superior quality, due in part to the peculiar qualities of the Belper iron, and in part to the exceptional skill and speed at which the Belper nailers worked and would therefore find a ready market.

One third of the 20,000 tons of iron produced in Britain in 1700 was made into nails.

In the early 1700s nails, were being exported to America, where they were not allowed to compete with the mother country. The War of Independence hit the nail industry hard.

The end of this industry came with the arrival of Norwegian machine-made nails, which had the advantage of being ready for use. The handmade horse nail had to undergo the preliminary treatment of being hammered straight, stiffened and pointed by the smith, a process that took up a certain amount of time. From the mid 19th century, the handmade common nail was the first to suffer from competition with the machine nail, known as the “cut” nail, later including the universally used wire nail.

The number of nailers in Belper, according to Bagshaw’s directory of 1846, was 400 makers of common nails and 250 makers of horse nails. White’s directory of 1857, reported 500 common nailers, 300 horse nailers and 220 in the workhouse. At one time 1,400 men and women were engaged in nail making in Belper. By 1901, this had reduced to 37 men and one woman, Mrs Esther Lees.

Nailmaker at work in Belper
Belper nailer at work

Wages c.1800 were less than 12 shillings (60p) per week for ironstone getters & labourers.

In 1889 it was estimated that a strong and clever girl of 16 or 18 working to actual hours on a size known as no. 16 (so called because 1,000 nails weigh 16oz), would make 2,500 nails per day, ie. 250 per hour or four per minute. For men, a fair day’s work was making 1,000 nails ie. 42,000 blows of the hammer, per day.

About 5,500 large nails were expected to be made in a week by a man and women were expected to make the same quantity but they were smaller nails. Children, after three months learning the trade, were expected to make 100 nails a day.

A Horse-nail Makers Union was founded in1822, and printed (by S. Mason, Queen Street, Belper) that:

  • A man being a Nail Maker, his children are entitled to learn the trade
  • A man claiming to belong to the Trade, his father not being a Nail Maker, shall prove by his Indenture or good witness, that he has worked at the Trade for the term of seven years.
  • A man being a Nail Maker, married to a woman that has had children, they shall be entitled to learn the Trade.
  • Grandchildren, their Grandfather being a Nail Maker, if their father is dead, are entitled to learn the Trade if their mother is not married again to one of another Trade.
  • A man, a Nail Maker, having a daughter that has had a chance child; if she is not married, he will be entitled to learn the Trade.
  • A man being a Nail Maker, but through lameness or accident, he is unable to follow his trade, his children shall be entitled to learn the Trade.
  • No man shall be allowed to learn or take an apprentice, anyone but those that have one of the above claims by order of this general meeting.


Nailshop on Joseph Street Belper
An old Nailshop on Joseph Street, Belper

In 1860, there was a strike for 6d extra per 1,000 nails. One nail master promised 3d but did not keep his promise. The strike lasted six months.

On another occasion, 187 went on strike against the introduction of the ‘tommy hammer’ (steam hammer). A General meeting of the Horse Nail Makers was held at Belper on March 5th 1855 to discuss it.

Some names of nailers: Samuel Boot, William Flint, George Annable, Henry Sanders, Dick Smith, Sam Nightingale, Henry Blount, George Beresford, Henry Jackson, Sam Booth, Elijah Hall, Esther Lees, Joe Munslow, Thomas Salt, John Varney, Joe Webster, Sam Harrison, George Lichfield.                                                                                                                          

Nailer from Belper outside his shop
A Belper nailer outside his shop