Jun 26, 2023

From the '˜tale' of the nail to revolutionary slitting mill...

The unit of trade in the handmade nail-making business was the ‘tale’. This was made up of 1,000 nails and counting was achieved with the aid of a simple equal-armed scale.

A standard quantity of nails was counted out by hand into one scale pan and this was then used as a master weight, against which the other nails could then be counted.



In contrast, small quantities of nails had to be counted out by hand.

This practice of using the ‘tale’ as the standard unit of trade brought into use further classifications, which were based on the weight per 1,000 nails.

For example, if a certain nail weighed 4lb per thousand, it would be known as a ‘four pound nail’.

Over the course of time the words became shortened into ‘four poundy’ and finally, through local dialect, to ‘four penny’.



The following prices highlight the cost of handmade nails circa 1860:

Three inch handmade sprigs – cost price 4s 10d per ‘tale’, retail price 6s per ‘tale’ or 8d per 100.

Two inch handmade sprigs – cost price 3s 3d per ‘tale’, retail price 4s per ‘tale’ or 7d per 100.

One and a quarter handmade sprigs – retail price 1s 6d per ‘tale’ or 3d per 100.



One inch best fine wrought sprigs – cost price 9.5d per ‘tale’, retail price 1s 4d per ‘tale’ or 2.5d per 100.

Three-quarter inch handmade sprigs – retail price 1s 1d per ‘tale’ or 2d per 100.

Five-eighths handmade sprigs – retail price 1s half d per ‘tale’ or 2d per 100.

Slitting mills

Up until the end of the 16th century, the iron rods used in the production of nails were hand cut from sheets of iron using a hammer and chisel.



This was a tedious and time consuming task, which had to be undertaken by relatively skilled workers.

However, the invention of the slitting mill revolutionised the nail-making process.

In these water-powered mills, a bloom of iron (a ball of iron removed from the furnace), was taken from the puddling furnace and hammered out into a flat strip.

It was then reheated and passed between rollers until the required thickness was achieved. This sheet of wrought iron could then be passed through the slitting machine.



Puddling was a process of the conversion of cast iron to wrought iron, which was invented by Henry Cort in 1784. The process became known as puddling because the iron was stirred with a long iron bar to promote the reaction of air and carbon.

The slitting machine, introduced to Britain circa 1628, cut the iron into narrow strips or rods suitable for the making of nails.

Richard ‘Fiddler’ Foley had travelled to Sweden during this time where he visited an iron works and investigated how the slitting machine worked.

On his return to England he established his own mill at Hyde House near Kinver, Staffordshire.



The spread of similar slitting mills across the country transformed the nailmaking industry.

The availability of wrought iron rods brought the price of nails down considerably, thus stimulating demand.

The distribution and marketing of nails was a relatively complex operation. Once the rolling and slitting mills had produced the iron rods, they were supplied to the nailmakers by the nailmasters, who also collected the finished nails for distribution.

It is probable that ironmongers also played their part in this system; ironmongers were originally sellers of iron in all its forms and could have sold the iron rods to nailmakers, as well as selling the finished product.



How this system worked in Wray is uncertain. At a distance of 37 miles, the nearest nail-making centre to Wray is the small town of Silsden in West Yorkshire.

The Silsden nailers’ iron came from Kirkstall Forge in Leeds and was transported by barge on the Leeds-Liverpool canal.

Kirkstall Forge also supplied most of the iron used by Lancashire's nailmakers.

In 1816 two slitting machines were working at the forge.

The Leeds-Liverpool canal is only 26 miles from Wray at its nearest point at Gargrave and it is possible that this acted as the supply route for Wray's nail iron.



Alternatively, one of the iron forges at Lancaster may have had a slitting mill, which could have supplied the iron rods to the nailmakers of Wray.

Henry Cort (1740-1800)

Henry Cort was an important figure in the industrial revolution due to his improvements in the manufacture of English iron.

Cort was born in Lancaster and there is a commemorative iron plaque by the south west door of the Priory Church which reads:

‘In memory of Henry Cort, born at Lancaster in 1740, to whom the world is indebted for the arts of refining iron by puddling with mineral coal, and of rolling in grooved rolls’

Hornby Castle Accounts



One of the earliest local records relating to the nail-making industry is in the accounts of Hornby Castle estate from Michaelmas 1581 to Michaelmas 1582 stating, ‘paid 6d for boards for the mill wheel and 3d for iron nails’.

The following extracts are taken from George Smith's diary, Hornby Estate Manager:

In 1793 and 1796 Hornby Castle paid William Ramsdin for nails.

In 1820 Hornby Castle paid William Thompson for nails at Tatham Colliery.



In 1823 Hornby Castle paid Thomas Blackburn for nails for Hornby Mill.