the local history of Stoke-on-Trent, England

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'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 3 - First Knowledge of Disadvantage

next: my native town and its social condition
previous: work as a mould runner

I VERY well remember an incident which touched me to the quick about this time, and made me painfully conscious of the disadvantages under which I was suffering. I had been sent for some drinking water to a well near the works, situated in the midst of some gardens, called " Woodcock Gardens." It was a place for birds, as the name shows. It was a quiet, restful spot. The day was a Good Friday, and it was one of those days when the balminess of a May day comes before its time.

" Shirley " has told us that there is a day when you feel that that is the first spring day, even though it may come long after spring time has gone. This was such a day, full of sweet stillness and breathing an entrancing promise of better things to come. It was the herald of a coming time for which all nature seemed to long, and which the birds celebrated by a choral outburst of surprised joy. I felt the thrill of the sunshine. I heard the birds with a quiet rapture flooding my soul, and an indefinable gladness pervading my whole nature. There came the dawning sense of a relationship to other and higher things I had never before felt. 


Yet I had no repining, and never thought it a hardship to go back to mould-running and the stifling atmosphere of the hot stove. But while there, I saw a youth, walking among the garden paths reading a book. As it was Good Friday, and his father's grocer shop was shut up for the day, I suppose he had the leisure to do as he pleased. Now, I had acquired a strong passion for reading, and the sight of this youth reading at his own free will, forced upon my mind a sense of painful contrast between his position and mine. I felt a sudden, strange sense of wretchedness. There was a blighting consciousness that my lot was harsher than his and that of others. What birds and sunshine, in contrast with my work had failed to impress upon me, the sight of this reading youth accomplished with swift bitterness. 

I went back to my mould-running and hot stove with my first anguish in my heart. I can remember, though never describe, the acuteness of this first sorrow. I must have got over it, however, in time. It is rare for youths to nurse melancholy. God has been good in endowing them with such abundant resources of healing hopefulness. So, like other boys, with the coming of boyish reliefs, I got over this Good Friday trouble.

Mr Balfour has recently said of the last century it is only the " first third " that " engages his sympathies." That is very flattering to me, for I was born during that " third," and it is pleasant to feel that one's birth-period is canopied by the sympathy of such a brilliant man. But I imagine if Mr Balfour had been born under the grim facts of that " first third of the century," if his youth had been beaten down and impoverished by its war and Corn Law policies, and if he had had to work in a pot-works for twelve or fourteen hours a day, that part of the century would not carry such a philosophic, because a distant, halo. 

That first-third of the century was the grimmest - and crudest period for child workers in English history. The new greed for the rapid increase of wealth, developed by our advancing industry and commerce, was rampant and largely-unchecked in its industrial methods. Fortunes were piled up on the pitiless toilings of little children, and thousands of them never saw manhood or womanhood. Their young life was used as tillage for the quick growth of wealth. I don't suppose these facts entered into the purview of Mr Balfour, or I am sure a man so tender and cultured would have lessened some of his glowing admiration for the "first third of the century."But philosophic statesmen cannot be expected to look at the mean and sordid details which would interfere with brilliant generalisations. After all, facts are not always brilliant. As there are " Mean Streets " in great cities, so there are squalid facts which spot the glory of the nineteenth century, and especially its " first third."

The place at which I began to work was rather a noted one, on account of the character of its owner. He was what was called "a master potter." There were "masters" all over a pot bank in those days, for every man who had anyone working under him was a " master," and so this exalted distinction of " master potter" was reserved for the employer. 

This particular employer was as perfect a human bantam as ever strutted before his fellows. He was a bachelor, and so remained all his life. He was a small man, but always did his utmost to look his full height. He walked quickly, daintily, and mostly on his toes, with a conceited springiness in every step he took. He always wore a very tall beaver hat, with broad brim, so that while to others he looked a small piece of overshadowed humanity, to himself he seemed to look as tall as most other men. Besides this tall hat, he always wore a dress coat, with its tails unduly long. These coat tails were probably made to serve the illusion that he was taller than he really was. When moving at a leisurely pace, or when standing with anyone, his hands were placed under the said coat tails, and every now and then he would jerk these upward, and, with his bantam aspect, you seemed to expect him to crow just at that moment. He had withal a falsetto, squeaky voice, so that if he had crowed there would have been no shrill challenging note. 

And yet, he was always challenging, while his ordinary expression was something between screeching and raving. His eye, shadowed by the brim of his big beaver hat, was always sending forth menacing flashes. He esteemed few men as his equals, and only to these was there shown a forced blandness. For all others there was the fierce glitter of the eye, or the harsh, querulous voice. The least thing which disturbed him made him almost hysterical. He had an insufferable contempt for all beneath him, and his workpeople were to him as ninepins, to knock down in what¬ever fashion he pleased. In those days, in whispers and in loud oaths, he was called "a little tyrant," but such was his vanity, the word little would have stung him more than that of tyrant. In the time of which I am writing, cruel hardship and want prevailed in the town, but this man's name was never mentioned in connection with any effort of relief.


St. John the Baptist - the parish church of Burslem

St. John the Baptist - the parish church of Burslem


It is no libel to say he was a strong Tory in those days. There was nothing of which he was prouder, for his party was formed by the "gentlemen " of the country. For a Whig and a Chartist he had about an equal abhorrence. They stood to him in the relation of cause and effect. To him, if there had been no Lord John Russell with his Reform Bill, there would have been no Fergus O'Connor and Chartism.

Besides being a Tory he was an ardent Church¬man. These two things went together inseparably with him, and were as natural as the stars and the firmament. They were from the beginning, and would continue to the end. As may be easily imagined he was no historian, and no philosopher. He was made of clay, like the pot figure of a man, and just as the one was shaped by the plaster mould in which it was formed, so the other was rigidly shaped by the circumstances of his life.

As a Churchman he was most diligent and devout—every Sunday morning. Nothing would keep him from church on Sunday morning. In his hysterical manner he would recite prayers and creeds and collects, and sing psalms. In the same hysterical manner he would bespatter curses upon his fellows, if occasion served, as soon as he left the church. He went to church dressed in his very best—his way of making broad his phylactery. His bantam strut, and his jerking of his coat tails never performed such ostentatious manoeuvres as on his journey to church. 

He would stay at the communion most punctiliously ; but this was a matter of common knowledge—that he always went direct from the church to his works. The reason was that, usually on Sunday morning, an oven had to be drawn. The ware, having been fired, was taken out of the oven. If anything had gone wrong in the oven, or the men had the misfortune to displease him in any way, he would prance and curse and scream as if he had been an untutored Red Indian rather than a professed English gentleman and Christian. 

These ovenmen were forced by his greed often to draw ovens before they were properly cooled, the men sometimes as red as turkey cocks with the heat of the oven, from which they were taking the fired ware in saggers, shaped like earthenware bandboxes. Perspiration would flow down their faces and the bared upper part of their bodies. As they came out of the ovens in turns, they would be obliged to breathe the outer air through flannels. It was a Plutonian horror to be seen in England on a Christian Sunday. Still the sight of such endurance and labour never touched this man's proud and flinty heart. No grace remained upon him of his Saviour's name or service. He was a master potter now, and this only, and all other things in heaven and earth were forgotten.


next: my native town and its social condition
previous: work as a mould runner




Related Pages..

Account of firing a biscuit bottle oven at the Alma Works of Thomas Cone. 

Burslem Parish Church

also see... 

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