Old photographs often offer glimpses of what life was like for our ancestors, and the world in which they lived and worked. One such photograph of the White Hill Chain Works in my own collection did just that. All I had to do was take the time to look.
During the 19th century the area around Trenton, New Jersey began to see an explosion in industry that positioned the region as one of the leaders in American industrialization. Iron, ceramics, rubber, chemicals and more all began to be mass produced in factories in communities up and down the Delaware River. This industrialization led to the saying “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.” Not surprisingly this industrial growth led to increased demand for inexpensive labor, both skilled and unskilled. The demand, in turn, led to an increase in immigration to the area of people capable of meeting that demand.
Two such men, Samuel Robinson and Walter Fosbrook, chain makers from the nail and chain making community of Cradley Heath in Staffordshire, England arrived in the the late 1880s and early 1890s. Staffordshire was located in the heart of English coal country and home to a number of metal working communities and industries. Many of Cradley Heath’s chain makers worked at small forges at their homes for piece work as opposed to working in more organized chain making manufacturing. It was also common in 19th century England for women to practice the trade as well, something more or less unheard of in the United States at the time.
Fosbrook had, upon his arrival in the United States, gone to work for a chain maker in Lebanon, Pennsylvania but did not stay there long. He saw the industrial development around Trenton and relocated to nearby Bordentown, New Jersey, where he met his future partner Robinson. Apparently tired of working for wages themselves, and with a continuing demand for chain brought on by burgeoning local industry, the two men determined to open their own chain making facility in the industrial area between Bordentown and Fieldsboro, New Jersey under the name Robinson & Fosbrook. What they needed though were skilled chain makers.
Another chain maker, this one named Samuel Billingham (my great-great-great grandfather), had immigrated with his family to Trenton, New Jersey in 1880. Samuel had practiced chain making in Dudley, Staffordshire, just a few miles north of Cradley Heath. There is no record of where Samuel was practicing his chain making skills while the family lived in Trenton, but its possible he may have been working at Trenton’s Woodhouse Chain Works. Samuel made sure that his only surviving son, George, was also trained in the trade. Both men are listed in the 1900 Trenton City Directory and the United States Census as chain makers. Around the same time, Robinson & Fosbrook decided to enlarge their chain making operation in Bordentown, something that would require them to bring on more skilled chain makers.
Robinson & Fosbrook’s original chain works occupied a building previously used by the railroad and was located at the very end of a string of industrial works along the Pennsylvania Railroad, Trenton Division tracks southwest of Bordentown. However, in order to keep up with increasing demand, the two men determined to build a larger chain works a few hundred yards nearer to the railroad’s freight depot, and other manufactories. They hired local builder Charles H. Fennimore to construct their new chain works and the new building was completed in December 1903.
The new chain works, now officially called the White Hill Chain Works, boasted fifteen forges, storage for coke and coal, and a 15 horsepower steam powered engine. The new works also sat next to a spur from the main railroad siding that made loading and unloading of material much easier then their previous location. The increase in demand for White Hill’s products allowed them to hire on additional chain makers, among them was George Billingham. George and his family relocated from their house in Trenton to the small community of Fielsdboro, just south east of the works. Many of the workers employed at White Hill, including its owners, made Fieldsboro their home.
George Billingham had married Ellen Murphy in 1895 and they, along with their two young children, moved into a house on Second Street in Fieldsboro. Just around the corner from the Billingham family was the chain works owner Walter Fosbrook and his family. During the first decade of the 1900s the White Hill Chain Works was producing a variety of work including chains for cranes, dredges, logs, rafting and safety. Walter Fosbrook travelled to England in 1907, perhaps in an effort to recruit more trusted Staffordshire chain makers. White Hill Chain Works, by the end of the decade, employed 14 skilled chain makers and all of them resided in Fieldsboro. Business was booming.
The White Hill Chain Works saw continued success during the first quarter of the twentieth century. The shop went from employing just a handful of workers in 1905 to over 25 workers by 1920. The men of White Hill turned out 2000 feet of chain a day at the height of their operation in the 1920s. Most, if not all, of the men who worked at the chain works resided in Fieldsboro. Fathers, sons, uncles and nephews all lived and worked side by side at the factory and in the small town. There was only one recorded labor “controversy”, in late January 1917, when the men of the shop were out for several days demanding an increase in their wages. Fosbrook, now a successful banker as well, acquiesced and the men returned to their forges.
A combination of the mechanization of the trade and the Great Depression took a toll on the White Hill Chain Works. The large crew of chain makers and chain makers helpers who had worked the forges in the 1910s and 1920s dwindled down to a handful once again. The always reliable George Billingham, who had been with the works since the beginning, continued to work the forge throughout the lean years of the 1930s and early 1940s. Walter Fosbrook, interviewed in 1939, lamented that “the machine has replaced human power and can turn out chains equal to, if not superior to, the hand-made type.”
While mechanization took hold elsewhere, the building and forges of the White Hill Chain Works continued to produce hand forged chain into the 1940s and 1950s, though no longer under that name. The older chain makers, including the owners and my great-great grandfather George Billingham, died and much of the skills necessary to hand forge chain died with them. The building would have several more tenants as the years passed but it, and its industrial neighbors, would eventually be swallowed up by the trees along the Delaware River or torn down.
My research into the White Hill Chain Works, its workers and their lives, is an ongoing project. If you have information you think would help, please comment below or email me. Thank you!
© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.
3 thoughts on “The White Hill Chain Works of Fieldsboro, New Jersey”
I am S. David Brettell (S stands for Samuel), son of Samuel Robinson Brettell, grandson of Joseph Richard Brettell (born 1872 in Cradley Heath, Staffordshire). Joseph Brettell was married to Mary Ann Robinson, daughter of Samuel Robinson, co-founder of the Chain Works. Walter Fosbrook was my great-uncle by marriage. He was son-in-law of Samuel Robinson, married to by grandmother’s sister, Margaret. I was told that Uncle Walter had something to do with the founding of the First National Bank which stood on Main Street, Bordentown.
I was born in 1941 and grew up just outside of Fieldsboro. I remember my grandfather taking me to the chain works as a little boy. The first picture you show matches my memory of the place with the anvils, the open furnaces and the sledges. It had to have been 1945 or 1946, because my grandfather died in the late 1940’s.
Thank you for your article. I remember well the Billingham name and my father speaking of that family.
My nephew, Greg Carter, my sisters son, has been doing research and forwarded to me the link to this article.
If you have any questions please be in contact with me.
Someone has posted an aerial view of the remaining framework of the shop.
Thank you so much your recollections of the chain works! I appreciate it very much!
According to oral tradition in the family, the Chain Works held the contract to supply nautical chain to the U.S. Navy during the the First World War. My understanding is that it was and exclusive contract, but I have no proof of that.