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David Christie Murray

I hope I shall not be expelled from TATHS if I dare to say that sometimes, historical writing about Tools and Trades can be a little, well, let's say, dry.
Ok, there will be times when one wants to know the proper economic history of small tradesmen in Lancashire, or read about the fiscal effects of the wars with Napoleon or international coal and steel tariffs. But then, sometimes, it's nice to have a story which manages to illuminate trade conditions but also includes a chase or two some GBH by a mob in the street and even a clever courtroom drama. And that's why, for this issue's downloadable book, I turn to David Christie Murray and his short novel, A Capful o' Nails
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Murray was born in West Bromwich in 1847. There's a plaque to his memory in the public library there, and some ceramic roundels showing nail making, at the new bus station. I came across this book as a print publication from the Black Country Society, but I expect he is largely unknown. 
Murray had a colourful career. He worked as a printer with his father. He served as a soldier; he sold landscape paintings. But his greatest success was as a journalist, in London, in his native Black Country, and as a war correspondent reporting on the Russo-Turkish war. Out of the events he covered as a journalist and from his own experiences, he wrote over forty novels which sold quite well in his time. 
His writings show that he remained aware that he had achieved success from a lowly background and a prevalent theme is his respect for the working man. 
A Capful o' Nails tells the story of a family of nail makers in the Black Country. You won't find a detailed set of instructions on how to make a nail, but you do get a vivid impression of grinding poverty. The nail makers are cheated by the middlemen who sell them iron rods dear and buy their finished nails cheap. Getting out of that poverty trap is not easy, even with help from enlightened gentlemen and clergy. The story is told from the point of view of an eight year old boy who is learning fast about the ways of adults and will eventually make the break and better himself, as Murray did. "A Capfull" could literally be the quantity of nails that a poor nailer could make before he needed to sell them to buy rods for the next batch - a terrible, hand to mouth existence. 
The Nailmakers hearth at the Black Country Living Museum
The Nailmakers' hearth at the Black Country Living Museum 
The text is available from the University of Salamanca, in Spain, who have made it available as part of a collection of historic texts to show the development of English regional dialects. To a modern English reader, the Staffordshire dialogue is lively and intelligible, and gives a period flavour to the book without any need for footnotes. 
You can download a pdf or a Word document at 
Quite a lot of other works by Murray are available online, including novels set in the coal mining area of Cannock Chase and crime stories in the manner of Conan Doyle. For a full listing, use this link:
Andy Tuckwell 

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