News From the Archives: Nettlefold Strike!

Winterbourne was built in 1904 for John and Margaret Nettlefold and bequeathed to the University of Birmingham 40 years later by John Macdonald Nicolson. Follow our dedicated team of archivists as they explore Winterbourne’s past and share with you the special objects, photographs and documents contained within the Winterbourne Archives.

In the History Room at Winterbourne is the Nettlefolds price list for 1886. This document is significant in the history of Nettlefolds Ltd, as it was published after a major strike and march on the Head Offices in Broad Street, Birmingham. Also, at the tender age of 20, John Nettlefold had started working at the Broad Street offices and would have been told by the Police to stay off the streets until the mob of striking workers was under control.

Nettlefolds Price List (1886) in the History Room, The Archivist, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Nettlefolds Price List (1886) in the History Room

The company was in transition following the departure of Joseph and Arthur Chamberlain in 1871, and the death of Joseph Nettlefold in 1881. He was the engineer and driving force behind the successful years since Nettlefold and Chamberlain were formed in 1851, as he was responsible for all aspects of production.

Birmingham Daily Post 27 February 1886 - Strike intro, The Archivist, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Birmingham Daily Post 27 March 1886 (Image copyrght: THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED) Accessed vie British Newspaper Archive portal.

Coupled with the personnel changes was the loss of established markets, as countries began to appreciate the significance of metal manufacture and the need to establish and promote their own industries at the expense of foreign competition.

Since 1881, Germany had been one of the significant exponents of this activity. They had effectively ripped up the freight contracts with foreign importers, requiring them to renegotiate at inflated prices, whilst reduced rates applied to home producers which were also subsidised by the state. This enabled German firms to undercut Nettlefolds’ prices by 20 per cent.

Birmingham Daily Post 27 February 1886 - Workers Affected, The Archivist, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Birmingham Daily Post 27 March 1886 (Image copyrght: THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED) Accessed vie British Newspaper Archive portal.

Nettlefolds Ltd decided that in order to become competitive with the Germans they needed to reduce wages by 10 per cent and move their iron and steel works from Hadley in Shropshire to Rogerstone in Newport on the Welsh coast in order to reduce transport costs.

This decision was taken at a time when the employees’ working week had already been reduced by one day due to the build up of a stockpile of products which they could not sell.

For the workers, the 10 per cent wage reduction was the last straw.

The strike began at Smethwick and the group of strikers marched on the other factories to gather support. A large group exceeding 1,000 then marched on the Birmingham offices in Broad Street to further promote their cause. The Police were aware of this large body of strikers proceeding to Birmingham and ensured reinforcements were in place to deal with any incidents that arose.

Nettlefolds Ltd Head Office, Broad Street, Birmingham, The Archivist, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Nettlefolds Ltd, Head Office, Broad Street, Birmingham

The strike was handled by the Police and eventually the workers returned to their homes. Nettlefolds Ltd offered the workers their jobs back and within a week most of the disgruntled workers had returned to work. The workers at Nettlefolds Ltd were not members of a trade union and therefore did not receive strike pay and so the economic realities of needing to feed their family took precedence in the minds of most of them.

Nettlefolds Price List (1886) in the History Room, The Archivist, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Nettlefolds Price List (1886) in the History Room

Nettlefolds Ltd were now able to produce the price list that appears in the cabinet in the History Room. It was the same price list that existed when John Nettlefold took up his first managerial role with Nettlefolds Ltd in early 1887 as a Steelworks Manager at the new steelworks in Rogerstone, Newport.

This article was written by Archive Volunteer Tony Bucknall. Tony leads free tours of the house at 2pm most Tuesdays where you can learn more about the history of Winterbourne. Please ask at reception for details.

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