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 5 - My Native Town - Some other Social Aspects

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previous: My Native Town and its Social Conditions


We sometimes hear of "horse-play," but the thing itself is now very rare. 

When I was a boy, on Saturday and Monday nights, owing to the fact that work was seldom followed on those nights, horseplay was a common incident in the dark season of the year. There was no gas in the streets then. This dispeller of mischief and ghosts had not then come into the available "resources of civilisation." 


Horse-players and ghosts have nearly become extinct since gas spread its illumination in our streets. In the dark streets and alleys and entries of sixty years ago both were rife. A ghost was seen almost every night in some dark and lonely spot. Horse-players were felt and heard, but were more invisible than the ghosts. The ghosts frightened folks, but never touched anyone. The horse-players both touched and frightened. 

Poor old Betty, my ancient schoolmistress - how often there was a log of wood tied to her door handle, and then a gentle misleading tap given at her door, as if some friendly neighbour wanted to get in, and instead of this, when the knock was attended to, the rough log tumbled in with danger to her limbs. Sometimes the log would be tied to the door, and the door itself partially fastened, so that when old Betty came to it in response to a friendly inquiry, the log would tumble against the partially opened door, and the old lady, mistaking it for a drunken man, would lecture and scold the log for its bad manners, and threaten that unless it went home to its wife and children she would fetch the constable. This gave the brutal merriment sought by a number of brutal listeners. Woe to the man who interfered, unless he was a constable himself.

Woe to the man, too, who had a cottage whose chimney could be easily reached, especially if he lived alone. There was a schoolmaster lived near old Betty's, who had a living room apart from his schoolroom. He taught the bigger boys who could go during the day, but as these were few, his school was busiest in the evening. He was not an old man, but reputed to be very clever, a born gentleman, but a drunkard who had wasted his substance in riotous living. Many were the times when the poor fellow's chimney pots were stopped up by mischievous marauders, and he and his scholars choked by smoke, or forced to leave off their work. When they got outside they were assailed by the jeers of their tormentors, who fled into safety in the darkness of the surrounding streets.

These were forms of mischief which, however annoying and troublesome, never called for the intervention of the constable. Between law and order in these smaller matters there was a wide gulf. So long as there was no personal violence, and no destruction of property, there was left a wide margin for mischief and brutality. 

In the change which has taken place, perhaps it may be said that gas in our streets has helped to remove disorder of this kind, as well as promote civil and educational advancement. People talk of the rudeness in our streets nowadays, but they would be rather astonished if they got a taste of the brutal and annoying mischiefs of the days when gaslight did not cast its civilising illumination, and when popular education was a ghastly spectre
of what we see to-day. Hooliganism was then common.


Another proof of the low social condition of the time was found in the way idiotic and half-mad people were allowed to go abroad. 

We had several of these in our town, but "Soft Ben" and " Suck Thumb" I remember particularly well. Poor Ben was a young fellow eighteen to twenty years of age, and always wore a coarse blue pinafore. This gave him the outward semblance of a little boy, combined with the build of a man. This, along with a painfully idiotic face, made him look a human monstrosity, provocative of mirth and humour. The times he was most to be seen was when children were going to or coming from school, and the pot-works stopped for meal times. Whether his appearances there were prompted by an instinct for boys, I cannot say, but he was always about when the children were about. Their love of fun and mischief were used to goad "Soft Ben" to run after them. 

It cannot be supposed that he was particularly hurt by being called "Soft," but the call seemed to madden him. He dashed first in one direction and then in another. All this was regarded with mocking glee by the adult bystanders, but woe to the youngster whom Soft Ben caught. "What with fright and punishment his yells were hideous, and no one knew what that punishment would have been if the bystanders had not gone to the rescue. Ben never resisted adults, so the victim was dropped whenever they approached.

"Suck Thumb" or "Billy Suck," as he was sometimes called, was another idiotic wanderer. He would be from twenty-five to thirty years of age. His particular weakness was always gripping his coat collar near his chin, by which to hold his thumb in his mouth, as if it were the most delicious lollypop. If you seized his hand and pulled it from his coat, you would see a poor little shrivelled thumb, almost sucked away. The fun was partly to see this little thumb, and partly to irritate "Billy," for as soon as he felt the thumb out of his mouth he would make a violent dash at it with his mouth to get it back to its welcome receptacle. If it were taken out persistently Billy would get wild, and even dangerous, but just then the fun and fury of his tormentors rose to their height.

The allowance of such revolting sights, and the torture these poor creatures were put to, shows a strange grossness in the moral condition of the multitude sixty years ago. Yet England had thousands of clergymen and ministers. Its Government was supposed to be the noblest fabric of law and order and liberty. The great Reform Bill had been passed, and commerce and wealth were rapidly increasing. The schoolmaster was not yet abroad, and whether since he came, his "ruler" has ruled these things out of sight, is a question I must leave others to determine. These things may have had no more relation than the Tenterden church steeple and Goodwin Sands, but the coincidence, at the least, is suggestive. The churches and Parliament didn't work the change alone. Have the schools helped the merciful issue ?




 Tunstall Town Hall in the middle of Market Square

 Tunstall Town Hall in the middle of Market Square



I don't know whether the winters were always severe in a meteorological sense, but in my memory of what I saw and felt I should say they were. The lower half of our market-place stands out vividly in my mind in those wintry seasons. The lower and upper halves of the market-place were divided by what was called our Town Hall. This was a quaint little building, where the stipendiary magistrate, Bailie Rose ruled as the Jove of the Pottery district. He was certainly a terror to evil-doers, but only a terror. When he had committed a prisoner to gaol, the poor wretch was first taken to a damp, dark, foul den under the Town Hall. 

Anyone "taken up by the constable" was incarcerated in this black hole till he was taken before "his betters." The lower half of the market was considered the most important, and hence the busiest part of it. The Town Hall faced it, the hotel was on the north side and the Lamb on the east side. 

In front of the Town Hall, just at the bottom of its flight of steps, was placed "the stocks" for the tipsy fellows who had given trouble to the constable. Many poor fools have I seen sitting there for weary hours, sent there by the magistrates, and tormented by onlookers. If the magistrates had been sent there as often as they went tipsy from the Lamb, the stocks would have been kept busy. But every constable in those days was smitten with a judicious, if not with a judicial, blindness. He could never see a drunken magistrate.


All the great events of the town took place, as I have intimated, in this lower half of the marketplace. During the severity of winter I have seen one of its sides nearly filled with stacked coals. The other side was stacked with loaves of bread, and such bread. I feel the taste of it even yet, as if made of ground straw, and alum, and plaster of Paris.

These things were stacked there by the parish authorities to relieve the destitution of the poor. Destitution, for the many, was a chronic condition in those days, but when winter came with its stoppage of work, this destitution became acute, and special measures had to be taken to relieve it.

The crowd in the market-place on such a day formed a ghastly sight. Pinched faces of men, with a stern, cold silence of manner. Moaning women, with crying children in their arms, loudly proclaiming their sufferings and wrongs. Men and women with loaves or coals, rapidly departing on all sides to carry some relief to their wretched homes - homes, well, called such. 

Twenty people of any other time would have made more noise than this hungry crowd did. The silence froze your heart, as the despair and want suffered had frozen the hearts of those who formed this pale crowd. This relief, wretched as it was, just kept back the latent desperation in the hearts of these people. In contrast with the silent patience of the poor recipients was the noisy fussiness and brutal insolence of Bumbledom's officials. This crowd might have been ordained from all eternity to be pale, and pinched, and hungry, so that these pampered blusterers might display their fat paunches and their overblown importance.


It seems strange now that such a sight should have been authentically visible within the realm of England during the last sixty years, but there it was in all its ghastly and tragic awfulness—a spot, aching with the deepest of human pains, and yet treated by the powers that be as a matter of course, like a bitter frost or a destructive tempest. 

In Cobden's brain and heart lay then a policy which could easily change all this, and bring plenty and gladness in its place. "Tut, tut, tut," said the powers that be, " it cannot be done ! " It never would have been done if those powers had not been overpowered by the reason and conscience of the nation. When those poor people were pining in the market-place for bread, there were other lands where food was abundant, or soon could be, with Nature so prolific there. But these treasures were not allowed to come into our country, and fill the mouths of her starving children.

The Tories who inaugurated and sustained this policy were not, individually, hard-hearted. Perhaps none were kinder when they came in sight of actual need and suffering, but for all that they could support a cruel policy. This is the curse of a bad policy. Men can put their personal feelings behind it, and so support issues whose cruelty they would shrink from, if they were directly responsible. A party policy is very much like a limited liability company where the liability, morally, is intangible and impersonal. But so we keep blundering on through tragedies and sorrows for the weakest, and so it will be until the strong and the weak are just, and the bond of brotherhood unites both.


I have seen signs of plenty and gladness in that market for many years since that time. If the old scene could be reproduced for a moment, the present generation in our industrial hives would rush away affrighted. Instead of that sad old market-place there is now the covered market, with its loaded stalls of what were once luxuries to the poor, and joyous thronging crowds, with chink of money in their pockets, buying those luxuries, or carrying them off. 

We hear now of the "submerged tenth," and it is written of as if it were a monstrous, abnormal condition, sprung upon us in this generation. There may be terrible social conditions in the purlieus of our large towns and cities, brought about largely by a mad gregariousness, and all the corrupt evils of gin palaces, but in the time of which 1 am writing, there was no over-crowding, and facilities for drunkenness were much less than now. 

The towns were surrounded by fields and country lanes, and yet the social condition of industrial England was unspeakably worse than it is to-day. Many evils suffered now are self-inflicted; in those times they were largely inflicted by deliberate policy, as in making food dear and work scarce, and by keeping the people in designed ignorance.

The crime of keeping food out of the country was even less than keeping them in ignorance. I remember hearing a clergyman oppose educating the people on the grounds that they would write nasty things on the walls. They might write them on their lives. There have been dreadful things written on palace walls, but I never heard a clergyman propose they should be pulled down lest " Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin," should be written upon them.




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previous: My Native Town and its Social Conditions




Related Pages..

The 13 Town Halls of Stoke-on-Trent 

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