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Bennett's Tunstall


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Turnhill - Bennett's Tunstall

Tunstall is the most northerly of the potteries towns. Described as being the shape of tiny beetle by Arnold Bennett, it lays claim to being the metropolis for the Moorland villages to the north of the potteries, which include Kidsgrove to the North and Biddulph Moor to the north east.

In the opening sequence of his classic novel, The Old Wives Tale, Arnold Bennett refers to Mow Cop, a hilltop settlement to the north of Tunstall, as a place where religious orgies occurred. The settlement, a rugged wind exposed peak, in fact became the birth place of primitive Methodism, which in the 1700's fought for the hearts and souls of the local population over the more established Wesleyan worship.

Mow Cop -to the north of Tunstall
Mow Cop -to the north of Tunstall


"It was the winter of 1835, January. They passed through the marketplace of the town of Turnhill, where they lived. Turnhill lies a couple of miles north of Bursley.
One side of the market-place was barricaded with stacks of coal, and the other with loaves of a species of rye and straw bread. This coal and these loaves were being served out by meticulous and haughty officials, all invisibly braided with red-tape, to a crowd of shivering, moaning, and weeping wretches, men, women and children - the basis of the population of Turnhill."

Tunstall town hall in Market Square c.1885
Tunstall town hall in Market Square c.1885

Sleepy Turnhill

Tunstall, or the Turnhill of Bennett's novels, is of little importance as a location in his Five Town Novels. Indeed, the people of the beetle shaped Turnhill would have been considered 'foreigners' by Constance and Sophia Bains in the provincial square of Bursley.

Little is said about Tunstall in Bennett's novels, but a number of Characters from the sleepy ancient village of Turnhill are introduced into the metropolis of Bursley life. Miss Chetwynd is a school teacher from Turnhill to whom Sophia Bains turns to try and escape life in the Bursley Drapery.

In "Anna of The Five Towns" unnamed people from Turnhill buy the business of Willie Price allowing him money enough to emigrate to Australia. In "Helen of the High Hand", Helen's Uncle collects property rents in the small town of Tunstall;

"I bank I' Bosley, and I bank I' Turnhill, too. And I bank once I' Bosley and twice I' Turnhill o' Mondays, and twice I' Bosley o' Tuesdays. Only yesterday I was behind. I reckon as I can do all my collecting between nine o' clock Monday and noon Tuesday. I go th' worst tennents first - be sure o' that.

There's some o' 'em, if you don't catch 'em early o' Monday, you don't catch 'em at all. " It's incredible to me how you can do it all in a day and a half," she pursued. "why, how many houses are there?" "Near two hundred and forthy I' Bosley," he responded. "Hast forgotten th' sugar this time, lass?" "And in Turnhill?" she said passing the sugar. "I think I'll have that piece of bacon if you don't want it." "Over a hundred," said he. "A hundred and twenty".

"Bastille" the Workhouse

Perhaps, the most moving reference to small Tunstall in the Bennett novels is to be found in the Classic, "Clayhanger". It's the Turnhill school-teacher Mr. Shushions who saves the Clayhanger family from the feared poor house of the area;

"The Bastille was on the top of a hill about a couple of miles long, and the journey thither was much lengthened by the desire of the family to avoid the main road.
They were all intensely ashamed; Darius was ashamed to tears, and did not know why; even his little sister wept and had to be carried, not because she was shoeless and had nothing to eat, but because she was going to the Ba-ba-bastille; she had no notion what the place was. It proved to be the largest building that Darius had ever seen; and indeed it was the largest in the district; they stood against its steep sides like flies against a kennel.
Then there was rattling of key-bunches, and the rasping voices of sour officials, who did not inquire if they would like a meal after their stroll. And they were put into a cellar and stripped and washed and dressed in other people's clothes, and the separated, amid tears. And Darius was pitched into a large crowd of other boys, all clothed like himself. He now understood the reason for shame; it was because he could have no distinctive clothes of his own, because he had somehow lost his identity. All the boys had a sullen, furtive glance, and when they spoke it was in whispers."

Arnold Bennett watches over a family wending their way to the workhouse
the face of Arnold Bennett watches over a family wending their way to the workhouse
(from a mural in the Potteries Shopping Centre)


The poor house that Bennett based his emotive writings on, was in fact the poor house of Chell. Chell is a suburb of Tunstall on the easterly road to the ancient settlement of Moorland Biddulph. It was to this place that the truly poor of the district would be incarcerated in the mid 1800's.

The Union Workhouse or the Bastille in Bennett's novel "Clayhanger" would strike fear into the hearts of the people of the area. The residents of Tunstall would hurry past its door, not daring to look up or breath the air around the building for fear that they would catch the extreme poverty which seemed to afflict some families, like the nameless horror of an unspeakable disease. The horrors that awaited the poor residents of the Bastille so graphically captured by Bennett.

"In the low room where the boys were assembled there fell a silence, and Darius heard someone whisper that the celebrated boy who had run away and been caught would be flogged before supper. Down the long room ran a long table. Some one brought in three candles in tin candlesticks and set them near the end of this table. Then somebody else brought in a picked birch-rod, dripping with salt water from which it had been taken, and also a small square table. Then came some officers, and a clergyman, and then, surpassing the rest in majesty, the governor of the Bastille, a terrible man. The governor made a speech about the crime of running away from the Bastille, and when he had spoken for a fair time, the clergyman talked in the same sense; and then a captured tiger, dressed like a boy, with darting fierce eyes, was dragged in by two men, and laid face down on the square table, and four boys were commanded to step forward and hold tightly the four members of this tiger. And, his clothes having previously been removed as far as his waist, his breeches were next pulled down his legs. Then the rod was raised and it descended swishing, and blood began to flow; but far more startling than the blood were the shrill screams of the tiger; they were so loud and deafening that the spectators could safely converse under their shelter. The screaming grew feebler, then ceased; then the blows ceased, and the unconscious infant (cured of being a tiger) was carried away leaving a trail of red drops along the floor."

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