|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
Some special industrial and social considerations
then prevailing in the Potteries
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I have told the story of these riots
as I saw them in part, and in part as I heard of them and have read of them.
There was a marked difference between the Pottery working people and the miners who had invaded their towns from the outside districts like a storm-flood. While having sympathy with them in their sufferings and wrongs, they were mutely appalled by their violence. The Pottery people have not the grit which makes revolutions, nor successful riots, nor even masterful trade combinations.
Visitors from the northern counties of England, where labour organisations have been so pronounced and effective, have always spoken of the working classes of the Potteries as being too obsequious in their bearing and wanting in self-assertion. I know what this means, but I know what is called obsequiousness covers qualities which are becoming too rare in the atmosphere of democratic arrogance. I have seen other working populations, and lived among them for many years, but have never met with the same moral aroma in the relations between different classes. I have seen more strength, more dominance and more aggressiveness in the working classes in other parts of England, but not an indefinable something which seemed to lean towards the old feudal tie, but which, whatever its origin, carries a charm. Perhaps the concentration of the Pottery towns, and their long seclusion from the aggressive forces of modern industry and progress, may account in some way for the long retention of the quality I have spoken of.
These are strong and vivid words, nor am I surprised at the contrast between " these unfortunate potters and other artisans." These latter, all through their industrial history, have been achieving while the " unfortunate potters" have always been failing in a more or less marked degree.
There must be some special reason for so signal a contrast. These potters are Englishmen, and are as keenly alive to their great heritage, as such, as any of their countrymen. The causes of difference must be mainly local, and acting persistently upon a population untouched by the flowing currents of movements in the larger centres of English life.
I write now, after many years of observation of the working classes in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and where I have seen suggestive contrasts in modes of labour and in asserting the claims of labour.
Hundreds of workpeople never did a day's work for the first two days of the week, and laxity abounded. Drinking or pure idleness were seen and winked at by the bailees and employers. It was never considered that if a week's work had to be done in four days it must be scamped to a great extent. If a man worked for these four days until ten o'clock at night, or began at four or five o'clock in the morning, this did not concern the "master," for each man found his own candle. There was loss, of course, in the use of coal for these extra hours, but this disturbed no sense of economy, for it did not exist. A man might begin to do his work on Wednesday morning, half asleep or half drunk, after two or three days' debauch, and "the bailee" might never notice him, or, if he did, he would throw out some contemptuous sneer, or some menacing words which meant nothing.
Nothing can more strongly mark the absence of every economical element than such a condition, and the consequent demoralisation of the workers in the matter of production.
Now, if there had been a governing power like machinery, and if a steam-engine had started every Monday morning at six o'clock, the workers would have been disciplined to the habit of regular and continuous industry, and employers would have seen that this was necessary to economise the power of the steam-engine and the machinery.
In Lancashire and Yorkshire the same thing produced a determined struggle, but the struggle developed a fibre in both employer and workman which has been worth all it cost. It nurtured an independence whose face has scared futility from almost every province of their lives.
Further, many of the pot-works sixty years ago were rambling, ramshackle conglomerations of buildings, as if a stampede of old cottages had been arrested in their march.
It also prevented any effective inspection by the bailee of the habits of the workpeople in each shop. Many of these shops were on the ground floor, and the floors were often thick with wasted clay, of which little, if any, notice was taken. The shops on a second storey were equally available for methods of killing time without any fixed purpose to waste it.
"Some of the " banks " had very few square yards of open spaces.
I remember in one of such shops in which I worked there were two hollow-ware pressers, one was a Methodist local preacher and the other was "a burgess" from Newcastle-under-Lyme. There was a cup-maker who was a Methodist class leader, and a saucer-maker who wanted to be one, and myself, as a "muffin-maker."
Ordinarily these discussions, though earnest and absorbing, would pass pleasantly enough. Sometimes, however, their temper and tone would not have suited a class meeting, and I have seen these men leave their work benches to demonstrate in the middle of the shop floor, and sometimes lift their fists, not to fight (as a casual observer would have thought), but to give effect to their views. Usually, when this state of things arrived, "the burgess" from Newcastle-under-Lyne, who was both the "Punch" and the "wicked man" of the shop, would begin laughing or singing some political ditty, or would jump up and begin talking, as if to another "burgess" in an election dispute, and would stamp and mouth until the other three disputants would smile themselves into an abashed silence.
I give this as a typical interior view of the waste of time in the ordinary life of one of these workshops. If the bailee or "the master" came, there was immediate silence, at a given signal. "The master" of this particular bank seemed to have no purpose in marching through a few of his workshops except to air his dignity by holding his hands under his swallow-tail coat and look loftily all round at nothing, and he generally saw it. I have referred before to waste of time by drinking and feasting in shops.
Sometimes, however, there was fighting. In another workshop I once saw a fight between two boys under ten years of age, poor half-starved lads who had no quarrel of their own, but were "egged on" by some half-drunken men in the shop to fight.
In Lancashire such a fight would have been over in ten minutes, as both clogs and fists would have been used. These boys got a rest after each round, and so were able to keep on for so long a time. Noses bled, and eyes began to grow black ; the fighters, too, lost all their flush, and got pale and weary. At last a big Yorkshire woman who worked in one of the shops, and who had married a potter, rushed to the lads and separated them, and stood in front of the men and defied them. She was a tall woman with a large head and face, and great brawny arms, which had not yet paled by Pottery workshops. Her eyes flashed, her brow was clouded, and her arms were held out as if for business if required. The men slunk away in their coward shame, and the other women in the shops came to her side and cheered her. The women took the lads and washed their faces, and then warmly kissed them.
I don't describe this scene for its moral bearing, but to show how impossible economy was in a trade so loosely conducted. It would have been better for employers and workpeople if they had been in the disciplinary grip of machinery.
I have noticed, too, that machinery seems to lead to habits of calculation. The Pottery workers were woefully deficient in this matter; they lived like children, without any calculating forecast of their work or its result. In some of the more northern counties this habit of calculation has made them keenly shrewd in many conspicuous ways.
Their trades-unionism always presented a marked contrast to that of Lancashire. Though the latter, fifty years ago, had not the masterly organisation seen in the present day, yet it was on the lines of the present development. It had elements within it of calculation and shrewd foresight. But the trades-unionism of the Potteries was haphazard, feebly and timidly followed. It was surrounded by suspicion, for even many of those whose interests demanded its protection looked at it with misgiving and spoke of it with bated breath.
Moreover, I know in Tunstall, many working men were Methodists, even among the poorest, and most long-suffering. The same condition prevailed, too, more or less, in other towns. Now Methodism in those days always frowned upon trades unionism as much as on "poaching." Even a working man, though suffering himself from palpable injustice, if he were a class leader or local preacher, would warn his fellows against the "wiles of the devil." These "wiles" were often supposed to be found in trades unionism, but never in the tyranny and injustice of the "masters."
I remember The Potters Examiner (though I have never seen one for over fifty years) was steeped in the forms and methods of biblical expression. I remember letters addressed to certain "masters" in the style of "The Book of Chronicles," but there was no license and no irreverence in this form of address. To the bulk of the readers of the Examiner the rebukes were all the more weighty and scathing because of the Biblical form in which they were presented.
It will be seen how this dominant feeling militated against any successful trades-union.
There were two other elements which helped this "futility" in any combination.
One was in the relation of the workmen to each other, and further, in their relation to their employers.
Even those who did not regularly attend places of worship would be seen on the Sabbath "in their Sunday best."
Now in any attempt at union, trade or otherwise, it was impossible to unite classes which differed so widely in sentiment and habit. Two men might work in the same shop and be friendly enough in their intercourse, but if you could have seen these two men on the Sunday, or at a holiday time, you might have taken the one to be the employer of the other. I have never met with such contrasts and separation among working men anywhere else as those seen sixty years ago among the workers on a pot bank.
Another hindering element of the success of trade unionism was the relation of the workpeople to "the master." He was always "the master," regarded with awe and fear on the bank, and meekly and deferentially passed in the street, though often not seeing those who diffused this token of conventional regard. The spirit of feudalism must have saturated the Pottery district as in no other industrial district. This perhaps was helped too by the fact that up to the time of the introduction of the railway, just over fifty years ago, the people were shut up to themselves.
This fear of "the master," this overweening deference undermined all true independence of character and proper self-regard. If these elements had not existed the workpeople would never have so long tolerated their "annual hiring," their "allowance of twopence or threepence or fourpence in the shilling," "good from oven," and the "truck system." These were carried out in abusive forms and measures, such as no other industrial population in the country would have tolerated for so many years. I saw then their demoralising and cruel results.
I saw the sufferings of the Lancashire working-people during the American War. I saw both food and clothing rejected which would have been eagerly accepted in the Potteries between 1840 and 1850. I was on more than one relief committee, where the committees were harangued by the men because the food was not up to the quality desired, and I have seen women refuse new linsey petticoats and demand flannel ones. On such occasions my memory always went back to Tunstall market-place and the rubbish I had seen given out there. "Futility!"
Yes, any true inner history of the Pottery working-people will account for the absence of a beneficent co-operative movement and an effective trades-union. There was a want of economical discipline in their work and life.
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Chartism in Stoke-on-Trent - Chartism was popular movement in Great Britain from 1838 to 1848 for electoral and social reform.