For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

I guarantee that when you started metal detecting you collected a load of ‘scrap’, including nails. We all did. After cursing you unceremoniously hoyed them into the hedgerow. But wait. Horseshoe nails are part of our social history. Would you like to know more? The importance of horseshoe nails is often overlooked. Here’s a taster.

Did you know that nails were originally made by hand, usually in the Dudley area of the Black Country. That was the name given to the industrial region located in the midlands of England.  At the time it was considered the “workshop of the world” as the industrial revolution gained full momentum. Its name is derived from the smoke of many thousands of ironworking foundries and forges, and the countryside which had been spoiled by the working of coal mines. 

The Black Country, 1870s | © Griffiths, Samuel, editor of “The London Iron Trade Exchange” / WikiCommons

You can find out what West Midlands life was really like in the 19th century by visiting the Black Country Living Museum. Visitors to the reconstructed open-air village can take part in a number of activities, including a silent cinema, underground mine exploration, traditional metal-making demonstrations or even hop on one of the historic Black Country trams. The Black Country Living Museum was even used as a set for the popular BBC drama Peaky Blinders.

Types of Handmade Horse Nails – borrowed from Willet’s book “The Black Country Nail Trade”

Many different types of horse shoe nails were made, because of the different breeds of horses or ponies, the work they dd, and also regional preferences.

The image on the left shows a nail maker making horseshoe nails at a block frame. Middle shows a derelict nail shop and a lady nailer [cottage worker]. After the introduction of machine-made nails in 1830 this cottage industry, which employed 50, 000, went into decline. WikiCommons and World History Archive.

Rob’s First Detecting Foray

Now that we don’t detect, Mrs John was able to let our friend Rob borrow her machine for his first foray in the ‘new-fangled’ hobby. He wasn’t able to get out much because of the difficulty of finding suitable land and not having the time. And that’s no different for those in work. Metal detecting’s main demographic is of a particular sector of the population – the retired person!

Nevertheless, without guidance, but showing eagerness and enthusiasm, Rob managed to go swinging. I kept asking how he was getting on. One day he came around to Winter Mansions to show what he had found. From a supermarket carrier bag and, with a flourish, he distributed his finds over the carpet and deposited rust-like confetti everywhere. Heather, our lovely Carer, had just finished vacuuming. Judging by the expression on her face, I guess she wasn’t amused.

I was able to – confidently – identify most of the crap, including the BOAT [bit off a tractor], but the artefact below head me flummoxed. Do you know what it is? I’d welcome an identification.

What is this artefact?

Below is an example of one of the nails Rob found. Donning my archaeologist’s fedora, I will say that is possibly a handmade nail, perhaps fabricated in the Black Country by Lisa Tinsley [known as the Black Widow]. Or it could be dated much earlier, like a fine Roman nail.

Horse Shoe Nail?

Horse shoe nail made by hand – probably

We all know that the Roman Empire was a powerful one, spanning over 600 years of history. Horses were important for battle; they were also needed for certain aspects of daily life such as transportation. During the time of the Roman Empire, horses were generally not used in farming, though there are reports to the contrary.

History varies on the origin of iron horseshoes and horseshoe nails. Most historians think they were introduced around 500 or 600 B.C. and came into common use around 1,000 A.D. Historians differ on who the originators were. Some think they were the Romans, others think they were the Mongolians.

I thank Rob for showing his finds and wish him well in his new hobby.

Bob Burton

Bob lives in the Black Country and often sends his finds for me to see. In one of his letters he said . . .

“My nephew and brother-in-law have recently moved into ‘Nailers’ Cottages’ and I have helped both of them with a bit of gardening. I have also supplied them with metalwork such as horseshoes, buckles, flagons and bottles for external decoration.”

“When I found an old nail whilst detecting it got me thinking just a little differently about nails and the life of the local nailer. The hand-made nail shown with square shank dates before 1800. I understand that nails with rectangular shanks are Victorian.”

The nail shop shown below can be seen at the Black Country Living Museum and is reproduced with permission. Originally there were four nailers, two to each hearth, but as trade declined two of the nailers were removed, and an anvil was put in so that general smithing could be done.

Making Nails


3 thoughts on “ANOTHER BLIDDY NAIL!

  1. Another great read John. I appreciate the support, literature and guidance you’ve given in relation to ‘detecting’ nails. I guess everything has a history,
    Some more interesting than others but nonetheless still a history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do not know why.. But now it works John.. Go figure.

    ‘Judging by the expression on her face, I guess she wasn’t amused.’.. I think the word you are looking for is underwhelmed John.. LOL

    Not certain if you know; horseshoe nails are also used by crafters.. especially people who do leaded glass pane work. When we had our feed store, we would sell a lot to those folks.

    Many thanks again my friend


    Liked by 1 person

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