|the local history of Stoke-on-Trent, England||
'When I Was a Child' - autobiography of Charles Shaw
a first hand account of life as a child worker in the North Staffordshire
Potteries in the 1840's
Chapter 1 - Education
next: work as a mould runner
My education, such as it was, was like that of thousands in my day. I went to old Betty W.'s school, and as I had "finished my education" when I was seven years old, I must have attended her school between three or four years.
The school was the only room on the ground floor of her little cottage. It was about four yards square, with a winding, narrow staircase leading to the one bedroom above. The furniture was very scant, consisting of a small table, two chairs, and two or three little forms about eight inches high for the children to sit upon. There were a few pictures on the walls of the usual garish sort, blazing with colour, and all the figures upon them in strikingly dramatic attitudes.
The course of education given by the old lady was very simple, and graded with almost scientific precision. There was an alphabet, with rude pictures, for beginners. There must have been something intensely vivid about these letters in the alphabet, for to this day when I see the letters Q and S as single capitals I see them rather as when I first saw them in old Betty's alphabet. I have often wondered whether other people carry the same weird impression of the capitals of their first alphabet. I have an impression, too, that the distinctness of that old alphabet had something to do with the success of old Betty's teachings, for though she never taught writing, her scholars were generally noted for their ability to read while very young. I know I could read my Bible with remarkable ease when I left her school, when seven years old.
Another honour of old Betty's was to allow a successful scholar to sit on the highest visible stair in the winding staircase leading to her bed-room. It was a rare joy to see and be seen by four fellow scholars from this vantage-point of honour. There was yet another distinction the old lady had to bestow. She taught both boys and girls who were successful in reading how to knit stockings. She was a remarkable knitter herself, and could carry on this occupation with the regularity almost of a machine, while her eyes were everywhere in her school. I knew boys who knitted stockings for their families. They thus learnt reading and knitting, instead of reseading and writing.
George Smith of Coalville who became famous in getting legislation carried to relieve the children employed on brickyards was one of old Betty's scholars at this time. If the old lady had only known that one of her boys would inspire and counsel lords and gentlemen in Parliament. Yet in her humble cottage began the movement of impulses which should move the policy of the Parliament of England.
George Smith, humble as his position, followed in the footsteps of Lord Shaftesbury, and followed with a dogged courage which no discouragement ever abated. His humble heroism, the incarnation of his solicitude for the children who suffered, is not the least shining light of the last century.
Old Betty had yet another resource for pleasing all her scholars. On fine days the little forms were taken outside her cottage, and placed under the windows. The children had their books, or their knitting, and the old lady, knitting herself incessantly, marched backwards and forwards, hearing lessons and watching work. The joy of the children was that they could see the passers-by, and their mothers, for old Betty's cottage was at "The Bottom," a favourite resort for the dwellers in the neighbouring cottages.
Poor old Betty! She was, perhaps, above the average of her class who taught the children of England in those days for a mere pittance, when our rulers were squandering the resources of the nation in less useful ways, and were blind to the wisdom of educating the children of the country.
But for these two social forces, helping to uplift men who have become "captains of industry" and "architects of their own fortunes," besides wider if less distinctive issues of good, England would have been lacking some of the national greatness of which we are now proud. In a nice estimate of effects of this matter, it would be difficult to say whether the statesmen of those days would not have to stand behind the old schoolmistresses and schoolmasters, who, in their cottage schools, for sparse pay, saved the children of England from the barbarism of absolute Ignorance.
But there was another kind of education going on concurrently with that given by old Betty. I was a Sunday scholar. I cannot tell when I became such a scholar, it lies so far back in the early mists. But I do know this: that old Betty's teaching me to read so early and so well, placed me in front of much bigger boys, and by the time I was six years of age I was in a Bible class.
The praise of my success I give to old Betty's method of teaching. But what shall I say of the benefit I got from the Sunday school ? To speak of the benefit it has been to this nation would be a joy, and all I could say would fail to tell the measure of its beneficence and inspiration, especially to the children of the poor in those days.
With this fragrance I always had the feeling of flowers about me. Though I had gone to my work between five and six o'clock every morning, and sometimes even earlier, and worked until eight or nine at night, I was always ready for school on Sunday morning at nine o'clock.
I never remember
playing truant but once—one bright summer's afternoon - being persuaded by some boys to go as far
as the Old Tunnel through which the Canal ran.
Sunday brought sweetness into my life, and lifted me out of the demoralising influences of the working days. I was emancipated from the past week, and when the scenes I had to witness, as on Monday and Tuesday, were fullest of evil I felt strongest, for the spell of the Sunday was then fresh in my soul.
My education then came from two sources— old Betty's school, and the Sunday school.
The former soon ceased to flow directly, but never indirectly, while the latter, Nile-like, has spread its fruitful waters over all my life.
next: work as a mould runner
Dame Schools and education in The Potteries
Education and Schools in The Potteries - part of Samuel Scriven's 1840 report to the House of Commons commission in to child employment.
George Smith of Coalville who became famous in getting legislation carried to relieve the children employed on brickyards - entry in 1911 Enyclopedia