It was the first large factory to be built in Newport and became one of the biggest of its kind in the UK selling its wares across the world and was known for its fair treatment of staff. But as rumour of a Chartist uprising grew, its workers declared that they would not make arms at the factory. Back in 2016 Martin Wade looked back at the Dos Nails Factory and the proclamation of 1839.

THE proclamation was made at a time when the threat of insurrection stalked the land.

In Newport the threat would end in the very real carnage of the Chartist uprising in November 1839 when 22 people were shot down by soldiers.

But the story could have been different and perhaps much bloodier if workers at Newport's Dos Nails factory had not declared they would produce weapons.

The vow of the workers at the factory is hand-written, short and to the point:

“Whereas certain reports having been caused in the Borough of Newport and its vicinity that the workmen of J. J. Cordes and Co. factory made firearms or wepons [sic] for the destruction of life and likewise that we are assisting and abetting the party of Chartists to possess such wepons. We the undersigned being workmen at the above factory do deny the charge of making firearms or any other kind of wepons whatever and that we do denounce all such proclamations.”

Who were the people who made this proclamation and why did they do it?

Chartism was a political movement which demanded votes for every man over 21, a secret ballot and an end to the ban on standing as an MP if you did not have private wealth, among others.

By 1839 it had gathered enormous support among Britain's working-class. In June that year, a petition signed by 1.3 million people was presented to the House of Commons, but MPs voted not to hear their case. There were calls for a general strike and in South Wales especially, there were many who wanted to use force to push the claims of Chartism.


The authorities were concerned that arms were being made in factories around South Wales. This was heightened when a box of lead burst on the canal bank in Merthyr having been shipped by canal boat from Cardiff. It was believed this was being used in the making of musket shot.

The Dos works as a metal working factory would have been under suspicion.

Many believed weapons and ammunition were being manufactured in local blacksmiths throughout the valleys.

Founded in 1835, the strangely named Dos works was founded by James Jamieson Cordes in partnership with his brother-in-law.

Cordes was an American from a Spanish-speaking background and the 'Dos' simply meant 'two' in that language. The Newport factory was the second he had opened.

In 1832 James Cordes formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, Henry Ewbank. Together they developed a method for making nails which would ensure their success in markets across the world.

They took out a patent on a machine for making nails, which up to then had to be done by hand.

This machine replicated the stages in which metal, then made by hand, had to be drawn out. The new method used rollers to draw out the iron into lengths which could be cut up to become nails.

South Wales Argus: LARGE SCALE: The surviving Cordes House is the building at the bottom centre of the complex.

The surviving Cordes House is the building at the bottom centre of the complex.

Cheaper, more efficient and capable of producing higher quality product, its nails were often mistaken for the hand-made article.

The factory became a pioneer in the production of nails and was one of the largest works of its kind in the United Kingdom.

Newport nails from the Dos works were soon in demand around the world.

The work at the Dos factory was not simply bashing metal in a fume filled hell-hole.

Many of those who worked at the site were 'artisans' or skilled workers.

South Wales Argus: HISTORIC: Cordes House on Factory Road in Newport with its blue plaque

Cordes House on Factory Road in Newport with its blue plaque

Typical of these was Joseph Woodliffe. A foreman at the factory, he could read and write. He was a symbol of independence and a role model for fellow factory workers.

Artisans like Woodliffe would travel great distances to find work. Although born in Stroud in Gloucestershire, he had moved to London to find work before going to Newport.

The plant sat on the banks of the Usk in the Crindau area, its chimneys belching smoke over the town.

Although it looked dark and satanic, workers here were better looked-after than many at the time.

By 1839, the 37-year-old Woodliffe lived with his family at 6, New Factory Buildings. These houses were built by Cordes specifically for workers to live in.

South Wales Argus: INDUSTRIAL: A picture of the Usk during the 19th Century. The Dos nail works are in the far left beyond the castle.

A picture of the Usk during the 19th Century. The Dos nail works are in the far left beyond the castle.

The houses, now called Dos Cottages, still stand and are a reminder of what could be called a 'paternalistic' business - one where workers were not simply seen units of production.

Workers had an early form of contract of employment which, at the time, was very rare. Many employees would later receive long service awards for continuous employment with the company, a rare thing then.

Cordes was keen too to provide for his workers' educational and spiritual needs.

He built a school for its child workers and the children of workers and insisted they spent part of each day learning from the Bible.

By the standards of today, the idea of children working in such a place seems that intolerably cruel. Yet the comforts Cordes offered were highly unusual at this time.

South Wales Argus: BLOODY: The Chartist Uprising of 1839

The Chartist Uprising of 1839

William Cobbett, a leading historian of the time, summed up a reason for the failure of the Chartist's insurrections. 'I defy you to agitate a man with a full stomach" he said. There was some hunger at the time, but not enough. But not only were the stomachs of the Dos workers full, many more of their basic needs were met by the benevolent Cordes. These workers at least would resist agitation. They had much to lose were they to join an armed rebellion in Newport.

But there were other reasons.

Cordes, although well-connected, would not become a British citizen until 1853. He would have been keen to show his loyalty to his new home and against a backdrop of armed insurrection he wanted to show that his workforce posed no threat.

The Dos Works remained open until 1961, but reminders of it still stand. The workers cottages and the offices on Factory Road are all that stands of the Newport factory whose pioneering metal work was sold around the world.

A blue plaque there tells of the humane treatment of its workers which played a part in damping the revolutionary fervour that gripped Gwent in that fateful year.