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 22
A contrast between this and the
generation of my early youth 

next: The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties
previous: "an out" to Trentham at Tunstall Wakes


After the riots my mind became acutely alive to political and social questions for one so young. There was a premature development of fear of public turmoil in the shape of other riots, or public trouble in the want of work or food. 

Sixty years after, though we have had epochs of material prosperity by "leaps and bounds," I cannot yet free myself from this oppression of misgiving when political movements are ominous. A sort of "chill" atmosphere surrounds me, and I dread for my country a repetition of the chilling and blighting touch of such trouble. 

I cannot describe how terribly this feeling has oppressed me since the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made his proposal to go back to Protection. I never thought such a thing possible in my time, and I seem to feel the chill and shadow of those early days, when lean, half-starved figures stood at our street corners waiting for work that did not come, and hungry for food they could not get. I have a sort of dull, deadening wonder whether
history is going to repeat itself, and whether the first half of the twentieth century, through the burdens of war and the stupid burden of ignorance is going to see as terrible nakedness in the land as in the first of the nineteenth century. 


L to R - John Fielden 1784-1849 - Richard Oastler 1789-1861 - Lord Shaftesbury 1801-85

Social reformers who campaigned on working conditions, child labour and education



This feeling comes over me, though it gets no sustenance from the general buoyancy and pursuits of pleasure seen on every side. This generation might be as far from the time of my youth as the age of the Sphinx. It seems to know as little, too of the "Forties" in England as of the condition of Egypt in the time of the early Pharaohs. There might always have been Free Trade and Factory Acts as thorough as those which now forbid a child to begin to work before twelve years of age. 

There might always have been education as abundant as today and as free. There might have been Board schools as palatial and sanitary as now and furnished with such graded and effective equipments, with a staff of teachers as able and devoted as we now possess. Food and clothing might always have been as plentiful and as cheap as now.

The thunders of Carlyle might never have been heard against the "infernal" usage of the poor little toilers of his day. Fielden, Oastler and Lord Shaftesbury might be myths born of monstrosities in some industrial Sodom and Gomorrah.

This "age of intelligence" and prosperity and liberty has a glamour about it which blinds to all that went before. Our social history of the first half of the nineteenth century is walled up by halfpenny and penny novels, sporting papers, and "evening editions," read almost as quickly as flame could consume them.

There never was such a time, to use an old Methodist phrase, for "the giddy multitude" before this time. Yet this multitude is not separated more than two generations from those from whose loins they have descended, and of whose sorrows and woes they seem to know nothing. Perhaps this paper wall of "latest news," "sporting intelligence" and sensations may be rudely broken down, and by the time of the Forties of the twentieth century they may have as grim an outlook as their forefathers had a century before.

Such a condition no one would wish for, rather would we hope that every true patriot and reformer will say—

"I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, 
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land."

But the Nemesis of nations is not stayed by mere wishes or poetical sentiments. For ever nations and men reap as they sow, and if the wildest of "wild oats" are not now being flung into our national furrows of self-indulgence and waste and folly, then some deep misconception holds the minds of many.

In this I am sure, however, that the generation that lived about sixty to seventy years ago, though far less "educated" than this, had a deeper and stronger grip of the facts of life, and saw more of the potentialities latent in progress and liberty and righteousness. 

They were rude of speech. Many of them could hardly have read a halfpenny novel of the present day, and certainly would not have understood its flimsy and flaming sensations if they had. Its sickly descriptions of life, its immoral innuendoes and its fevered extravagance would have been as strange to them as Egyptian hieroglyphics.
What reading power they had they had got mostly at the Sunday school. They drank, however rarely, at the "well of English undefiled." 

Their thoughts were shaped by what they learnt from their Bible, probably helped by a teacher who knew little more than they knew, but whose heart God had touched. 

This teacher could not command a commentary. Sometimes he had heard of Dr Adam Clarke's Commentary, but that seemed to him something as distant and as awful as Mount Sinai, and he kept away from it as if its light would blind him. But he had heard "a still, small voice" within his own soul. He gave its whispers reverently, sweetly and modestly to his scholars. 

As I write I have such a teacher in my mind's eye. If he met with "a bid word" he always looked pathetically towards the smartest lad in the class for help, yet, with all his defects and stumblings in literary matters, he commanded the regard and love of his scholars, and breathed a savour which kept their lives sweeter when they were separated from him. 

It is a too little specialised coincidence in our national history that, just when "the new industry" was beginning to draw young people from their homes to the factories, Providence inspired Robert Raikes to draw them into Sunday schools. Factories rose in the Midland and Northern Counties, and so did Sunday schools with equal rapidity. The kindliest and finest elements of our social life were drawn to those schools. These in turn kindled self-help on the part of those who had been scholars. Hundreds and thousands of young men and women, who had to work long hours at hard labours, readily, cheerfully, and with heroic self-sacrifice, would give the hours of "the day of rest" to toil for the children under their care. Self-help ! There never was a more glorious manifestation in the history of England, or of any other country, than that shown in the early history of our Sunday schools. Their spell and charm, too, were seen in many social ways.



typical gathering for a Methodist procession


I will try to describe "a Charity Sunday." It is typical in many ways of most others, but in the instance I am going to give more pronounced, because connected with one of the largest Sunday schools in Tunstall. I am referring to the Primitive Methodist "Charity Sunday." This was the phrase used to describe the Sunday school anniversary. The term "charity" came down from the time of Raikes and the schools he founded.

To prepare for "Charity Sunday" was a serious, or delightful, or anxious time for teachers, scholars and parents. For teachers, because " the collections" for the day were all-important for the welfare of the school, and for scholars, because it was "the maddest, merriest day" of all the year. 

No "May Queen" looked forward with keener joy to "May Day" than boys and girls to Charity Sunday. This meant new clothes, it meant, too, walking through the streets on Sunday morning in procession, so that everybody would see the new clothes. Besides these things, many would be chosen as "little singers," to stand on a stage apart, surrounding the pulpit, "the observed of all observers," the girls in their white dresses, looking as lovely as a bed of lilies. The boys, though a contrast in dress, had faces and hands as clean as soap and water could make them, and hair shining with whatever lustre nature and hair-oil could give. Though not so charming as the girls in their white dresses and ribbons, they were attractive by an unusual elateness, by a dignity compelled by the honour and joy of the occasion.

If you had seen some of those boys and girls coming home from their work on the Saturday afternoon, with the smudge of clay on their clothes and faces, some too in patches and rags, you would not have known them again as you saw them "on the stage" on Charity Sunday. I have said this Sunday in its coming was an anxious time for parents. New clothes had to be found for the children, and this out of scant resources. Perhaps some of them had only just wiped off obligations incurred by clothes for the last Charity Sunday.

Yet the parents were under a gracious and compelling motive to get their children the best they could. They had memories of their own childhood, and even after the wreck of many hopes and the experience of many bitter disappointments, they had golden moments of memory when they, too, were Sunday scholars, and for their children not to have the joy which they once had was not to be thought of. They were inspired to a self-sacrifice which gave nobility even to their poverty. 

Not only was carefulness carried into the least possible expenditure for food for weeks, but it was well known at the time that even fathers who had giver way to drunkenness would keep themselves sober for weeks before "Charity Sunday." On that day the poorest parents were proud as their children passed their door in the procession of scholars. 

There was a throb that brought smiles and tears to their faces, if only for a few moments. They were back in the softness and joy of their youth, and on this day, though skies might be clouded or sunny, it rained many precious drops on the hearts of parents who had long been separated by poverty or folly from the sweet hopes of their youth.

The "Charity Sunday" has now come, but soon after its sun rose many young eyes opened, not to look at the glory on the hills or in the fields, but at their "new clothes," which careful mothers had laid about their beds and bedrooms. Those poor children knew nothing of "Santa Claus." His day had not yet come for the children of the poor ; but no Santa Claus ever scattered his gifts with more excitement of surprise than that brought by the sight of new clothes.

These had not been seen in many instances before the children went to bed. They had to be fetched by fathers and mothers, after a late wage had been paid, from the dressmakers or milliners or tailors, or boot and shoemakers.

Not much breakfast is required that morning, nor would there be time to prepare much even if there was much to prepare. The children want "to be got off," and the streets are streaming with hurrying feet and happy faces.

There is a murmur of joy over the whole town. Groups of observers are gathering together at the corners of streets, or wandering slowly towards the point of departure. Doors are open in every street, with eager observers on the steps. At last the procession is on the move, and a flowing radiance of bright faces is seen, lovelier than a "lane of beams athwart the sea." The "big singers" walk apart from the procession, and stop to sing in some public place or at some "patron's house."

A trumpet gives the the keynote, and then follows a burst of song from hearts elated and inspired by all the expectations and hopes of the day. If the day happened to be a sunny one, no lovelier sight could have been seen in all England.


Hundreds of children with shining "morning faces" and throbbing "morning hearts." And such a morning! The very glory and summit of all the year's mornings. All smiling and all gladsome, with clothing so unusual for so many of them, it might have been brought by Ceres and her attendants from fields and gardens of Elysium and cast upon the children as they passed along the streets. The air, too, filled with the music of "the singers," and the melodious murmurs of the eager, watchful multitude. If the great bulk of those children could have been seen on Saturday, returning from their week's work, weary, pale, ragged, splashed and daubed with clay, with broken boots and shoes, as dirty white as their clay-stained clothes, and now seen on this Sunday morning, no "staged" transformation scene could ever have equalied this. The paleness, the weariness, the smudginess, the rags were all gone. Bright faces, rippling with laughter and joy, as if their glad lightness never left those faces; shining forms of dress, flimsy perhaps in substance, as they had been low in cost, but lending illusion and transport to the bright day. Then there was the movement of all the happy throng, rhythmical, measured, and yet so full of soul. All these things made up sights and sounds that "guardian angels" might stay to watch and listen to with joy. But a thought intrudes much below this celestial one.

Those children belonged to the Primitive Methodist Sunday School, then gathering together the poorest in the town. But they would raise that day, by the help of friends, some £170 to £180 to educate those children in their Sunday school, teach them to read, while the Government of that day was not giving as many shillings to educate all the children in the town as these poor people were giving to educate their own poor. "Sunday schools are England's glory" is a line which causes many superior persons "to curl up their lip" at the thought of what they deem the singing cant of a few fanatics. 

But that line covers a substratum of fact and truth never matched by any Government policy, to help the children of England for some sixty or seventy years, after the Sunday schools had been pouring out their beneficence for over two generations. After the happy tumult of the morning, there was movement again in the early afternoon for the service. Little girls were seen flitting about the streets, as if they had just come below the clouds for "a pop visit," but these were the "little singers," really the biggest attraction of the day. If the choir and the preacher could have seen the true perspective and proportion in which the popular imagination drew them and the "little singers," the former would have hidden their diminished heads.

Carts and traps from country districts many miles away began to enter the town in the morning, and continued into the afternoon. This was to the Primitive Methodists of the districts a veritable coming up to Mount Zion, as real in its gladness as the joy inspired by the sight of Jerusalem in the tribes who went up to its Temple. One striking incident was to be witnessed in the old chapel in those days.


A pew on each side of the gallery clock was reserved. If you looked, you would see twelve or fourteen men enter these pews; they came in quietly without any air of swagger, and yet with assurance. They knew they were expected and welcome. They were mostly young men, strong, active, and with an exceptionally virile look about them. They all wore neckerchiefs, according to the fashion of the time, about three inches deep, with the ends tied in little bows in front. The speciality of these neckerchiefs was that they were all made of dark blue silk, with small white spots. You saw no other class but the class these men represented with these neckties on.

It may surprise some to learn that some of these men were well-known prize-fighters or celebrated footracers and their abettors. It was well known many of these men had been scholars in the Sunday school in their earlier years. It is equally well known that they, in their way, were deeply attached to the school. It is well known, too, that on this "Charity Sunday" it was a common bond that all should give liberally.

I saw those men on many occasions in those services, and I have seen many far more irreverent worshippers. Perhaps anything like this would shock the conventional order and pious form of this day, and yet those Primitive Methodists of that day had some of the most devout and saintly men and women I have ever known.

I don't know whether this "laxity" in so indulging these men had any direct, injurious or demoralising influence, but I do know that that Primitive Methodist church got hold of the "vilest of the vile" in that town. It was the refuge of the outcast. It was "the House of Mercy" to which many fled who would never have sought the more "correct" churches of the town.

Though "the little singers" were the chief attraction, as I have indicated, the "big singers " were much admired, especially as "Dan Stubbs," with his first violin, was the practical manager of the whole business. There was "a leading singer," as he was then called (not choirmaster as now), but to those who knew Dan, another leader beside himself was unthinkable, and nobody ever attempted to think of it. He was a master with his own violin, he had an ear for choral effects as wonderful as his own manipulation of his violin.

Any singer or instrumentalist who strayed in tone or time got a withering glance, and sometimes a vocable, more out of harmony with the place where it was spoken than the slip Dan Stubbs was rebuking. He was aided by a few instrumentalists of very rare ability, though only local amateurs. Dan Stubbs was only an amateur. That is the pity of it, for he seemed to have the possibility of a Joachim of later days in him.

But his faculty was pitifully environed. If his amateurs had not been men of marked ability, they would not have been with him. The singing too was wonderful, considering most of the singers could not read music, but the practising went on for two or three months, and the singers always knew that at some particular practice they would have to meet Dan Stubbs. 

For a few "practices" some hard words were uttered, and a terrific stamping of a foot too.
But all was more than forgotten on the great day. The burst of joyful sound, varied by rhythmic cadences, and the rushing swell of some exultant harmony made all one to-day. Even Handel, Haydn and Mozart would have been surprised to hear those pale-faced potters, male and female, give such sweet - voiced expression to their

Perhaps the least powerful factor of the day, though he seemed the central one, was the preacher. What was he, standing as in a garden of flowers, when those children in bright dresses and faces surrounded the pulpit ? What was his voice—earnest and pleading it might be—in rivalry with the mass of melodious and harmonious voices behind him? I have heard many of those preachers, but their most powerful moment seemed to come when they pleaded for the collection. If, after the evening collection, the money obtained was not enough, another pleading and another collection was made. If even this failed, a third pleading and a third collection followed, and then, if this was not successful, Dan Stubbs and the orchestra would give the " Hallelujah Chorus" in a manner which would close that day in a triumph of sound and memory and achievement.


next: The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties
previous: "an out" to Trentham at Tunstall Wakes




Related Pages..

Primitive Methodist chapels in the Potteries - The Primitive Methodist movement  originated between 1800 and 1810 in the efforts of certain Methodists, notably John and James Bourne, William Clowes, and James Steele, to convert people in the moorland areas north and east of Tunstall.

also see... 

index page for 'focus on'