I am holding a very special letter in my hand right now.
Whether we realize it or not, chains play a very important part in our lives. Indeed, chains have, throughout history, helped to hold the very fabric of our changing civilization together. For example, I was astounded to learn that the metal chain was first used as early as 225 BCE. How the archeo-technologists were able to achieve the high temperatures needed for smelting iron and forging the links is a mystery to me. I know that the use of bellows in these primitive blast-furnaces helped to drive up the temperature to extraordinary degrees, but it remains a puzzle as to how it was all accomplished. In my daily reading of the Old and New Testament, I cannot recall a single reference to the use of a metal chain. Ropes, yes, but not a chain as we know it.
The manner in which we use chains is also something that we seem to have completely overlooked. There are chains in parks, gardens, ships, dog leashes and doors, but these are only about 1 percent of the total usage. I have included a special list of various chain uses later in this essay.
The first patent taken out for a chain cable was by Phillip White, a blacksmith from Northumbria, England. The “smithy” was the mainstay of chain making until new technology rendered it obsolete in the 1970’s. So, here we have an unbroken link of this very useful item from 225 BCE until the latter days of the 20th century. Chains of course are still manufactured, but giant amorphous machines and furnaces have left the old blacksmith to hand making decorative chains for sale in gift shops and craft fairs.
Another little known aspect of this very interesting industry is the role that women have played. In the Midlands of England, which was the industrial heart of the country, women were often the forgers of mid-weight chain cables. One such woman, a legend in her time, was Lucy Woodall. She apprenticed for the Samuel Woodhouse & Sons of Cradley Heath. She was 13 years old at the time and would work 12 hour shifts. After her retirement in the 1970’s, she went on to do “podging” on rugs for charity. Lucy died in 1979 after suffering years with arthritis. I will present here a partial list of the uses of chains:
Chainsaws, lifting chain-linked Lewis, chain drives, curb chain, door chain, key chain, lavatory chain, leg-iron chains (fetters), chain link fences anchor chains and even as musical percussion instruments heard in such works as Janacek’s From the House of the Dead.
Chains have made their way into our cultural world in other ways. The First Gulf War had a theme song…it was Unchained Melody. And, who among us will not feel our heart-break or a tear fall when Janis Joplin sings the blues in Ball and Chain?
Here are a few examples of the intricate and decorative designs found in some chains:
A single jack chain A double jack chain A particularly pretty Singapore chain
One afternoon in 1910, a woman chain maker by the name of Lydia Bare, sat on a bench to take a much-needed break. Her rest was necessary as she was only 15 years old and had not yet gotten used to the long hours of standing and pounding her hammer. She looked at the mound of coiled chains that represented her efforts of three days of labor. Her mind drifted to thoughts of her sister, Molly Reagan, who was living in New York City. She had not seen her beloved sister in several years…since Molly married Michael Reagan and them emigrated to America. Lydia and her sister, Molly were not natives of England. Neither was Michael. They were all Irish. The prospect of steady work forced them to leave Ireland and move to England. She saw the loops of iron, hundreds of them, all linked and seemingly endless and unbroken. She thought of writing a letter to Molly.
Lydia began to feel very sad about her life without her beloved sister. She looked around her and saw the grime and dust that was her workplace for 12 hours everyday. It disgusted her. She looked at her hands remembering how soft and lovely and white they were when she was a little girl. Now she was seeing calloused, scarred, burnt, red and puffed hands of a middle-aged woman. Who will ever marry me?, she wondered. Who will find me attractive? What man would want to kiss the roughness of these hands?
Just then, a group of factory managers began to crowd in the doorway of her shop. They were on their months tour of the various buildings of the vast mill grounds.
Lydia rose and returned to the anvil.
So, what have we here? One of the men pointed at the coil of chains that Lydia had been producing.
She stared at the pile of iron rings. A bad taste was filling her mouth.
These are the chains I forged here during my life, she answered. The men smiled and filed out. The last man glanced back from the doorway at Lydia and thought: so pretty, I wonder what her ankles look like.
The only known photograph of Lydia Bare (ca 1900)
A year later, Lydia mailed her sister a long letter. In it she described her life and her dreams. Would it be possible, she asked at the end of the five-page letter, to come to New York and stay with her and Michael for a short time until she could find a job and a small flat to live? Jokingly, she asked Molly if there were many Yanks who would like a nice a nice and obedient Irish lass for a wife? As she wrote that line, Lydia thought of how much lotion she would have to use to soften her ugly hands. At least I have an acceptable face, she thought.
Molly wrote a letter back to Lydia after holding the letter close to her heart for nearly a year. Yes, there are too many Yank menfolk, she said, and too few women of marrying age. Michael and I will think about this for a bit.
Michael and Molly held onto the letter for another year or so. They held onto it when Molly took ill. The letter went with Molly to the hospital on Blackwell’s Island when she was told by the doctors that she had contracted consumption. Lydia’s letter was kept in a special decorated teak wood box that stayed on a table beside whatever bed she was sleeping in. The box with the letter was in her hands when she died.
Michael took the box and a small trunk of things that were special to the life he had shared with his much-loved Molly. He gave the box to a distant cousin for safekeeping and then walked downtown. Thirty-five minutes later his dead body was found wedged against a pier below the Brooklyn Bridge.
Lydia waited for a reply for years. She never learned of the fate of her sister. She gave up hope of ever emigrating to America and finding a strapping Yank husband. She married an iron worker from the same mill company where she worked. He had a love for the bottle but not for poor Lydia. One evening he beat her to death with an iron rod. The kind of rod that would someday be turned into a chain.
The cousin, Barry, looked through the box and then tied it tightly in leather straps. He never read the letter from Lydia.
In 1930, Barry’s son, Paul takes possession of the box upon his father’s death. Paul loved old things and he began to read the letters that Molly had collected. He came upon Lydia’s letter and thought it was very special in the way it described a long ago life of two girls in Ireland. He put the letter into a new envelope and, with a note, mailed it to his fiancé, Mary, who lived on a farm in Pennsylvania. Mary read the letter and decided to stop delaying her marriage. She and Paul were united in Matrimony in 1936. They had four boys, the youngest being Colin. That’s me.
Upon the passing of my father, it was left to me to go through his papers. In an old teak wood box, still held together with leather straps, I found Lydia’s letter.
I saw it as a kind of chain letter. It had survived many changes of hands. No one broke the chain, not really.
That’s the letter I’m holding in my hand at this moment. Good luck delivered it to me.
The letter reads in part:
Dear Molly, This letter is like a chain, it may have a beginning, that is me, but where it will end is something not known to us. The links in this letter are like those of a chain, intertwined and forged close by my own hand in the furnace of heat mixed with drops of my very own sweat. How unladylike a thing to say. I believe that it would be unlucky if this letter were lost or destroyed. That would be like having a ship’s anchor chain break. The unfettered vessel would then drift away, into a storm, and eventually sink. It is my most dearest wish that anyone who holds or reads this letter to never, never sink…for sinking is death. Save, hide, recopy and cherish this letter and make sure it moves on through our family…so that all who are a part of the chain will live. This letter has the weight of iron but the freedom of winged flight. Hold on to these words of mine and you will fly.
I pondered over who to leave the letter to upon my own death. I have a grandson, so perhaps my daughter is the one to own it. But my son will likely be a father someday.
The choices lay coiled, like a long iron chain in a small shop in the Midlands of England.
Photograph added on September, 2022:
[Sources: Wikipedia and “Chains and Chainmaking” by Charles Fogg. 1981 Shire Publications Ltd.]