the local history of Stoke-on-Trent, England

| index page for 'focus on' | 

'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 8 - Paying Wages at Public-Houses

next: Special Incidents
previous: New Experiences in a New Situation


1851 map of Enoch Wood's potworks in Burslem - there are two public houses which are part of the works - very convenient for paying wages in
1851 map of Enoch Wood's potworks in Burslem - there are two public houses which are part of the works - very convenient for paying wages in


As I have mentioned wages, I must describe the paying of wages on a Saturday night. We usually left the works between five and six o'clock. The custom was to pay three or four men, with their helpers, in one lump sum, say a five-pound note, and some odd sovereigns. 

It would have been just as easy for the employers to get silver or half-sovereigns, so that each worker could get his or her pay direct. No such thoughtful providence, however, existed. The wages were fastened up in one lump until loosened at some public-house. 

Men and women and children had to go there for their wages. The publican took good care to be in no hurry in changing the money given him. Each one—man, woman and child—was expected to have a hot roll and cheese, to be paid for out of the wage to be received, however small the pittance. The roll and cheese were right enough, but the payment was arbitrary and unequal. 

Those rolls and cheese were devoured with rare gusto. Such shining crust, and such white flaky insides, were never seen in " cottage loaves." The eyes of the youngsters had a paradisaical vision before them, and the coy hesitation with which the crust was broken, the first dainty nibblings at the cheese, lest roll and cheese should get small too soon, were most amusing. It was something like the play of a cat with a mouse before she devours it. The boys would hold out the remainders of roll and cheese to show how much each one had left, and he was considered the hero of the hour who could seem to be eating all the time, and yet be the last to finish. The lad who finished, impelled by the strength of his hunger, was regarded with ironical compassion, and he regarded himself as a sort of victim, but couldn't tell who had victimised him.

The men, of course, soon ate their portion of food, and began the drinking, which, with short intervals, would not cease perhaps till the following Tuesday night. As the drinking went on they became talkative and effusive. Boys and women would be asked to drink and pressed to drink. In the case of the boys this sometimes meant semi-intoxication before the wages were received. 

Boys, I know, have been sent home drunk with the miserable pittance of two or three shillings in their pockets for working a week in the way I have described. Meantime the publican kept the change back. Apparently he was counting untold pound-piles of silver, and if asked for the change, replied he was getting on as fast as he could, and that other folks were before them. Not until he was assured of a fair return for his " change,'' or until he saw his adult customers were settled for a night's booze, did he bring out the change. This may be said for the publican's honesty, I never remember a dispute about the change being wrong. 

When all were paid, the women and boys were sent home, the night's booze properly set in, and towards ten o'clock, poor wretched women would appear and entreat their husbands to go home. When this failed, they pleaded for money, as they had not a penny with which to pay the week's bills or to provide for the morrow. In some cases they would meet with brutal resistance, followed by a look of despair in the face of many a poor woman. In others they met with boisterous fun and a ready yielding of a portion of money. 

Not all this wretched work could have been avoided, perhaps, if even the wages had been properly paid at the works, but much of it could, and all of it so far as the boys and women (who in many cases were mere girls) were concerned. 

Yet their employers in many cases were religious men, who next day would do their utmost to undo some of the evil callous obedience to custom had produced. Some of them were local preachers and class leaders. Religion was amazingly unethical in some things in those days. If silver had been got at the banks in sufficient quantity, all this peril and wretched¬ness, or most of it, could have been prevented. But the poor wretches were driven to the public-house for their change. 

If they sent for change to a shop for a sovereign, they did not get twenty shillings for it. It was put in the scales and weighed, and something nearly always deducted for short weight as alleged. I remember going to a shop of an old gentleman who was a class leader.I put down a sovereign, and he took it up and put it in the scales he had on the counter. After weighing it, with a beaming face he looked at me and said, " My boy, I can only allow you nineteen shillings and sixpence for this, as it is light." He was always a very amiable man, and of high reputation, but I have wondered if he only got nineteen shillings and sixpence for that sovereign from his banker. Advantage was taken of the ignorance of the people.

What would be said now if a man who earned a pound a week had two and a half per cent, deducted for being paid in silver. Such a sovereign paid forty times to a wage-earner would be fully redeemed. Did the Royal Mint ever get that sovereign presented to it for nothing after its fortieth change ? Yet even in those days, when the total product of labour and capital was so unequally divided, we heard of the rapacity of the working classes, though they were robbed by good men in details outside their labour, robbed, of course, within certain constitutional usages which took away the odium and dishonour of personal guilt. We heard of their reckless and wicked attempts to get more than they ought to have. 

If a strict record could be written of the transactions of those days on a parchment of veracity, were that possible, the working classes would not receive the heaviest condemnation. Wrongs, with trumpet tongues, would speak out against those who wronged them, and if the final restitution of all things could be anticipated, some very awkward readjustments would have to be made, causing many social and financial inconveniences to many people now living. But these things sleep yet. 

Nations sometimes have volcanic, political and social disturbances. Let us hope that in our old country the forces of wrong and discontent will pass away in happier and more equal adjustments between all classes, and that the sweetening and endearing influence of brotherhood will spread security and confidence throughout all their ranks.


Enoch Wood was not just concerned about the sale of alcohol on Sundays. He and the other pottery manufacturers also took steps to control the sale of beer to their workmen during working hours.
Enoch Wood was not just concerned about the sale of alcohol on Sundays. He and the other pottery manufacturers also took steps to control the sale of beer to their workmen during working hours.

Enoch Wood heads the list of manufacturers who issued the following notice in 1815. 
To reinforce their message they had two publicans convicted in 1816


I have referred to the holiday feeling prevailing on Monday, especially in the workshops. In winter-time the girls would make a mess of toffy, boiled on one of the stove pots. In summer, and right into the autumn, visits would be made to the market-place, and carrots, turnips (to be eaten raw) and fruits would be bought. As we were near Cheshire, cheap and good vegetables and fruit could be bought. We didn't call them " fruit banquets " in those days, as those sterner times were not given to such luscious phrases. 

These Monday indulgences, owing to paucity of means, generally meant the lessening of even the plain fare which came later in the week. With the boys the Monday's dinner generally consisted of slices of currant dumpling, which had been left from Sunday's dinner, and which frugal mothers had an eye to when the family dumpling was made on the Sunday. These slices of currant dumpling were considered delicious compared with thick bread and thin butter spread on it and half dried in.

Now was the time for Wonnox to display his marvellous faculties for winning portions of the currant dumpling. But who was Wonnox ? Well, he was a wedger of clay for the throwers. He was half-idiotic, with a broad back, sturdy limbs, a coarse face with two small holes in it in which rolled small, restless, ferrety eyes. His nose was a huge flat centre-piece, which might have been a ball of clay placed there and which someone had flattened. His mouth was a cavernous-looking place, with no feature about it but that of capaciousness. It was what Bismarck in a later day has described as a "carpet bag mouth." 

Now there was one thing about Wonnox which never failed him—he was always hungry. He worked hard, earned little, and had a powerful constitution. Woe to the man or boy who got a wild blow in his anger. He never gave one unless provoked to anger. 

Now on Monday, Wonnox was particularly hungry, especially about dinner-time, when the fragrance of slices of currant dumpling warming on the stoves spread through the room. Wonnox then would "smell a rat." This was a regular performance of his. He would throw himself on his stomach, and snuffle and smell and bark like a rat dog. He would pretend to follow a rat, to chase and capture it. 

The excitement and the tumult were heightened by his pretending to lose the rat, and then when recaptured, with the noise of worrying the imaginary rat, pieces of dumpling were thrown down to him and devoured as no rat-dog ever could have devoured them. This was our regular Monday comedy which led on to a week always ending in weariness and wretchedness.

Another Monday and Tuesday entertainment consisted in rough play when the men were drinking on the premises. One favourite form of this was to place a green ware vessel, sufficiently dried to hold water, over a door partially open, and send for someone as if the visit were eagerly desired. The 'cuter folks always gave the door a shove before they entered the shop, and down came the water on the floor. But those in a hurry, or the thoughtless, or the simple, went forward, and got the full contents of the vessel amid the uproarious jeers of those who were looking on.

In all these tricks and customs there were the fun and folly, the wild momentary abandonment which always attend recklessness. But this recklessness was born of overwork, abuse and degrading surroundings. No discipline ever interfered. Any revelry, any corruption and any cruelty might go on if no scandal arose, or if the week's full work were done.

Our employer was away in his country mansion, and while entertaining his guests, his workpeople, all unknown to him, were wallowing in drunkenness, or brutal enjoyments, or degrading indulgences for boys and girls to witness. But " the cash nexus " was the only " nexus " which connected him with his workpeople, and if this were right, what matter what else were wrong. 

Yet I remember what vile terms were used in relation to working men in those days, especially if they sought by a strike to better their condition, or expressed any desire for political enfranchisement. How like an unreal but ghastly comedy all this looks now.


next: Special Incidents
previous: New Experiences in a New Situation




Related Pages..

The Scriven Report on Child labour in the pottery industry

The Wedgwood Family and Enoch Wood - a history walk around Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent. The purpose of the walk is to look at the transformation of the town which occurred between 1714 when George I came to the throne and the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837.

also see... 

index page for 'focus on'