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 16 - The Sunday School and my Young Life

next: Joseph Capper of Tunstall
previous: Beginning of Life Again at Ten Years of Age


When I left the workhouse, one of my brightest hopes was that I should soon be back at my old Sunday school. The inward joy I got from this no words can tell. Next to having a home of my own was the proud thought of being again in my Sunday school class. I had really loved my teacher, and as it was a grief to be parted from him, so now it was a joy to get back to him.

On the first Sunday morning I was up betimes to be ready for the Sunday school, and no schoolboy with "shining morning face" ever carried a brighter face or a cheerier heart than I did. But a cloud fell upon it, deep, dark, and chilling, and before that day was over I felt like "a lost soul," as if all the brightness and hope had gone out of my life, never to return. The despair of a child is an absolute despair for the moment. The child has no outlook beyond this moment. It is all feeling, pressed round by a grim ignorance which only feels.
But I must explain how this came about.

When I went to the workhouse all my clothes were taken away, as I have already related, after having a cold bath on a cold day.
I was then supplied with stockings, clogs, moleskin breeches, roughly put together, and over these I wore a grey "brat" or pinafore, which served as waistcoat and jacket. My old clothes were bundled up and put away, with the idea that I should have them returned when I left the workhouse. But when I came to leave they were found to be in such a dilapidated condition that there would have been some difficulty in even hanging them about my body.

I was therefore told to keep my moleskin trousers and the "brat," and even another "brat" was given me so that I could have a change for Sunday.
When I went to my old Sunday school the following Sunday morning, I never thought about my clothes. I had an overriding eagerness to be there.

The Sunday school I attended was a three-storied one, and my class was in the top room, in the north-west corner, in a sort of recess. The other boys in the class were bigger and older than myself, but as I could read as well as any of them, I was promoted to this high position, thanks to old Betty's tuition. The teacher was Ralph Lawton, "a butty collier." He was a man whose strength of character lay in a simple and sincere piety. 

I never saw such instances of absolute devoutness and trust as in some converted colliers in those days. Many of them had been "brands plucked from the burning," as they were fond of telling in their love-feasts. I remember, even yet, most vividly, how, as I sat among the other scholars on the side benches placed in the chapel for scholars, Ralph Lawton's face shone as if transfigured as he sat in his pew under the gallery. I have seen him lift his eyes heavenwards while singing, as if he saw a beatific vision. There was one hymn and tune which always seemed to inspire him with a radiant rapture, which suffused his face and filled his eyes with an unspeakable serenity. The hymn was the one beginning with the words, "Would Jesus have the sinner die? Why hangs He then on yonder tree?" etc. The tune, unusual in those days, was tranquil and dwelling in its strains. He little thought that sixty years after the vision of his ecstasy would be like a "bright cloud" hanging over an old scholar's life, at once an inspiration and a joy.

When I went to my class on this fateful Sunday morning, Ralph Lawton received me with more than his usual tender interest. But the scholars in the class looked at me askance, and whispered to each other. I saw their eyes travelling, sometimes furtively, and sometimes boldly, over my clothes. They also kept apart from me. In a very few minutes I was given to understand that I was not to sit near them. Ralph Lawton did all he could to see nothing unusual as between the other scholars and myself. Still I went again to the school in the afternoon as I had not yet the consciousness that the workhouse clothes, and my having been to the workhouse, had made such a difference. But I found it out during the afternoon. No cry of leper, in the old days of Israel, could have put people more apart than I was apart from my old schoolfellows. In the afternoon they had become bolder. My clothes were mockingly pointed at, I was laughed at, jeered at, and I saw that I was clothed with contempt in their eyes.

"The golden gates of childhood" were thus rudely and suddenly closed. I knew now I was not as other children. I was tainted with a social leprosy. I was a sort of Cain, whose only crime was to have lived at a time when English states¬manship had so manipulated its help in time of need as to make it cast a social stigma even upon little children, to consign to social damnation those whom it had saved from starvation. Would Herod's policy have been more merciful? I felt that Sunday afternoon, when the school was dismissed, that, if not a fugitive, I was a "vagabond," I was "driven out" from the place I loved. Those that found me would not slay me, but would smite me with looks which were deeper than the wounds of swords.


 the houses in Piccadilly Street, built 1821-3
 the houses in Piccadilly Street, built 1821-3



Methodist New Connexion, Tower Square, Tunstall
Methodist New Connexion, Tower Square, Tunstall
"At the top of our street there was a little chapel belonging to the Methodist New Connexion"
Piccadilly Street was to the left side


In all this there was seen the deep repugnance which pauperism had created even among the children. Many of the boys in my class were almost as poor as I was, but they had not been in the Chell shadow, they had not been branded with a workhouse "brat." Cruel as all this was, it yet indicated a healthy influence in the midst of the barest poverty, and a self-respect which shunned the devil of parish beneficence.

Yet we sang in those days, "Britons never shall be slaves." Who was it who said if he knew the songs of a people he could tell their history? From this song could he have told the history of the poor in the Thirties and Forties? For weeks after this I was too shamefaced to venture out on a Sunday. It was winter time, so the near fields were not available; But the passion for the Sunday school would give me no rest. Every week I got uneasier, until one Sunday afternoon I broke through all shame and fear. 

At the top of our street there was a little chapel belonging to the Methodist New Connexion, where the Sunday school was held in the body of the chapel. Taking my younger brother by the hand, who had also been to the workhouse, and who wore a parish "brat" like myself, we crept up the street, and stood against the wall of the little chapel, which fronted the market-place.

While standing there, a young man came to the door of the chapel, evidently on the lookout for scholars who might be loitering outside. When he saw my brother and myself, he came to us at once, and bending down, asked me, as the eldest, if we went to any Sunday school. I told him in hesitating words we had gone to Sunday
school. He then inquired why we had left, and when I told him his already gentle face became softened in a way I cannot express, and the tones of his voice, I should say now, from what I felt then, had tears in them. Taking each one of us by the hand, "Come with me, my boys, and you shall be welcome in our school."

His name was George Kirkman. His name has been on a gravestone erected more than fifty years ago in Tunstall Churchyard, as a tribute of public respect, and describing the rare virtues of a young man who pre-eminently distinguished himself in all good works in the town.

His name is written upon the fleshy tables of my heart, in the light of a memory which may be eclipsed for a time, but shall shine out again "as the stars for ever and ever."
His name is written in " The Book of Life," for the Recording Angel never passes by deeds like his. 

I cannot tell all this "saintly'' young man was to me, I shall have to speak of him later on in connection with another form of public service ; but in his hands I was as a plant carefully tended, nurtured and watered. He lent me books. He gave me counsel. He breathed his prayers for me.

He was teacher of the Bible class, as well as assistant superintendent, and as soon as he could he got me removed into his class among much older and bigger boys.
I don't know what became of the "brat," but as it made no difference to George Kirkham, I never cared what others thought about it. Unfortunately for me, and for many others in the town, I only had his care and love for about six years. To the surprise and consternation and grief of the whole town, one morning came the news, " George Kirkham is dead."

Tunstall was then a small town, with only some seven or eight thousand of a population, but that population poured into the streets on the day of George Kirkham's funeral. Our scholars and other public bodies joined the procession, and as we walked through the crowds on either side of the streets the common grief expressed itself in many tears and sobs.

Relatively to its population, Tunstall has never been more moved in its sorrow than when it mourned over the loss of one of its noblest and most promising sons.

After George Kirkham's death I felt a loneliness that chilled me. He had given me a dawning interest in a larger world than I had ever dreamed of. Like the blind man in the Gospel, I had begun to "see men as trees walking." I had not focussed many questions, but I had been made to feel there were many questions whose dimness spurred my interest in them. But now I felt my lack of guidance. No other adult human being had interest and ability enough to continue this guidance. I should in this perilous interval have lost all I had gained but for the Sunday school and the companionship of a few youths a little older than myself. Of this I shall have more to say later on, but for the time I was under a dark cloud.


next: Joseph Capper of Tunstall
previous: Beginning of Life Again at Ten Years of Age




Related Pages..

The development of Tunstall

Methodist New Connexion chapel in Tunstall

also see... 

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