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 1 - Education

next: work as a mould runner

My education, such as it was, was like that of thousands in my day. I went to old Betty W.'s school, and as I had "finished my education" when I was seven years old, I must have attended her school between three or four years. 

The school was the only room on the ground floor of her little cottage. It was about four yards square, with a winding, narrow staircase leading to the one bedroom above. The furniture was very scant, consisting of a small table, two chairs, and two or three little forms about eight inches high for the children to sit upon. There were a few pictures on the walls of the usual garish sort, blazing with colour, and all the figures upon them in strikingly dramatic attitudes. 


One small picture was reserved for special distinction, as it was supposed to be the portrait of old Betty's deceased husband. He had been a soldier, and must have attained the rank of colour-sergeant, his stripes and sword being well to the front. The children were duly impressed with the greatness of the personage represented by the little picture. To us he was a greater warrior than either Wellington or Napoleon. He was more real, for while we only heard of these men in a distant manner, here was a visible hero, whose exploits were described by old Betty in tones of awe, and in words of admiration. The children listened with wonder to the never-failing recitals of his courage and valour and deeds, and so it has come about that my first vivid impression of a soldier, and what soldiers did, was got by old Betty's devotion to her husband's memory, and by the aid of her husband's portrait.


Frederick Georges Cotman - The Dame School
Frederick Georges Cotman - The Dame School



The course of education given by the old lady was very simple, and graded with almost scientific precision. There was an alphabet, with rude pictures, for beginners. There must have been something intensely vivid about these letters in the alphabet, for to this day when I see the letters Q and S as single capitals I see them rather as when I first saw them in old Betty's alphabet. I have often wondered whether other people carry the same weird impression of the capitals of their first alphabet. I have an impression, too, that the distinctness of that old alphabet had something to do with the success of old Betty's teachings, for though she never taught writing, her scholars were generally noted for their ability to read while very young. I know I could read my Bible with remarkable ease when I left her school, when seven years old. 

  • Betty's next grade, after the alphabet, was the reading-made-easy book, with black letters, fluking words in two, three and four letters.

  • The next stage was spelling, and reading of the Bible. For those successful in these higher stages old Betty had peculiar honours. They were allowed to take the ashes from under the fire-grate to the ash-heap outside the house. This ash-heap was a common meeting-place, as every-body used it, and on its elevation many doughty battles were fought. Whoever among the youngsters could get on the top of it and " hold the fort" against all comers, was considered a Victor. Going to the ash-heap, then, meant a bit of sport, and possibly a victory to be talked of in the little school world.

Another honour of old Betty's was to allow a successful scholar to sit on the highest visible stair in the winding staircase leading to her bed-room. It was a rare joy to see and be seen by four fellow scholars from this vantage-point of honour. There was yet another distinction the old lady had to bestow. She taught both boys and girls who were successful in reading how to knit stockings. She was a remarkable knitter herself, and could carry on this occupation with the regularity almost of a machine, while her eyes were everywhere in her school. I knew boys who knitted stockings for their families. They thus learnt reading and knitting, instead of reseading and writing.


George Smith of Coalville who became famous in getting legislation carried to relieve the children employed on brickyards was one of old Betty's scholars at this time. If the old lady had only known that one of her boys would inspire and counsel lords and gentlemen in Parliament. Yet in her humble cottage began the movement of impulses which should move the policy of the Parliament of England. 


George Smith knew the work of the brickyards'. His own father was a tile-maker on one of these brickyards, and the labour for boys and girls in the open yards, or inside the tile sheds, was monstrously and cruelly heavy. I once worked in a tile shed for a fortnight. I was persuaded by a companion to do so, but the smoke and dust of that shed, combined with the hard and oppressive labour for a child, drove me back to the pot works. 

George Smith, humble as his position, followed in the footsteps of Lord Shaftesbury, and followed with a dogged courage which no discouragement ever abated. His humble heroism, the incarnation of his solicitude for the children who suffered, is not the least shining light of the last century. 


George Smith 'The Children's Friend'
book on George Smith 'The Children's Friend'
out of print but usually available from



Old Betty had yet another resource for pleasing all her scholars. On fine days the little forms were taken outside her cottage, and placed under the windows. The children had their books, or their knitting, and the old lady, knitting herself incessantly, marched backwards and forwards, hearing lessons and watching work. The joy of the children was that they could see the passers-by, and their mothers, for old Betty's cottage was at "The Bottom," a favourite resort for the dwellers in the neighbouring cottages. 

These were occasions when the old schoolmistress lapsed into continual smiles, and when her usual rigour, in the matter of lessons, disappeared. In spite of the rigour, however, she was deeply respected by both children and parents. It would be too much to say she was beloved, for there was an air of stateliness and solitariness about her which precluded warm attachment. Whether her stateliness came through her military associations in past years, or whether it was a natural habit, I cannot now say. But for her, as a schoolmistress, it suited well. It impressed the children with a feeling of reverence, and it kept parents from intruding mischievously in the little world she ruled.


Poor old Betty! She was, perhaps, above the average of her class who taught the children of England in those days for a mere pittance, when our rulers were squandering the resources of the nation in less useful ways, and were blind to the wisdom of educating the children of the country. 

She and her class did two things - they made night schools possible for those who wanted to go forther, say, to learn writing and arithmetic ; and they made it possible for Sunday school teachers to have less elementary drudgery. 

But for these two social forces, helping to uplift men who have become "captains of industry" and "architects of their own fortunes," besides wider if less distinctive issues of good, England would have been lacking some of the national greatness of which we are now proud. In a nice estimate of effects of this matter, it would be difficult to say whether the statesmen of those days would not have to stand behind the old schoolmistresses and schoolmasters, who, in their cottage schools, for sparse pay, saved the children of England from the barbarism of absolute Ignorance. 


Compare the lavish resources of Church and State with the pittance received by these old instructors of the young, and then imagine what unenviable backwardness and evil we should have escaped as a nation if those resources had been as fruitful as the pittance. Poor old Betty! I say again. She and her class shine out to me with a richer lustre of true usefulness and goodness to her kind than many whose names are blazoned in the pomp of history. 


But there was another kind of education going on concurrently with that given by old Betty. I was a Sunday scholar. I cannot tell when I became such a scholar, it lies so far back in the early mists. But I do know this: that old Betty's teaching me to read so early and so well, placed me in front of much bigger boys, and by the time I was six years of age I was in a Bible class. 

One day I remember the superintendent of the Sunday school, Daniel Spilsbury, came to the class in which I was sitting, and called me out. He took me to the staicase leading up into the gallery of the chapel (for in the body of this chapel our Sunday school was held). We sat down on the stairs, and he gave me a Bible and told me to read certain passages. I did so. The old man smiled pleasantly upon me, and stroking my hair, he told me to be a good boy, and said, the Bible I had read from (an old one without backs) I could take home as a present. 

Sunday school prizes had not then come into fashion. I may say here I never remember any difficulty in reading or spelling, except, of course, very exceptional and long words in the Bible. 

We had spelling in our Sunday school in the afternoon, and in my class we had words up to five syllables, but I managed to trip them off easily, while other boys struggled and scowled at their spelling books as if they hated the sight of them. 


The praise of my success I give to old Betty's method of teaching. But what shall I say of the benefit I got from the Sunday school ? To speak of the benefit it has been to this nation would be a joy, and all I could say would fail to tell the measure of its beneficence and inspiration, especially to the children of the poor in those days. 

To me, very soon, it was a life within my life. In the midst of a life of hardship and temptation, this inner life shed a brightness and a sweetness which always gave me an upward look and an upward Aspiration. Sunday was verily an oasis in the desert to me. Whatever the weather on other days, Sunday always seemed to me a sun's day. It gave me the only gladsome morning of the week. I got a washing that morning such as I had not time to get on other mornings. I had poor enough clothing to put on, but my eldest sister always helped me in my toilet on Sunday morning, and my hair got brushed and combed and oiled (with scented oil), so that I always carried a fragrance with me. I have the memory of that scent yet, and when I have met with it since, I know it in a moment.


With this fragrance I always had the feeling of flowers about me. Though I had gone to my work between five and six o'clock every morning, and sometimes even earlier, and worked until eight or nine at night, I was always ready for school on Sunday morning at nine o'clock. 

I never remember playing truant but once—one bright summer's afternoon - being persuaded by some boys to go as far as the Old Tunnel through which the Canal ran.
I was so punished, however, in my conscience, I never did it again. The Sunday school, I know, leavened my life from my sixth to my tenth year, and this determined all my future. I had temptations afterwards, some of which I dare not name. Even yet at times I tremble with horror as I think of them. In my daily work, nearly at the beginning of every week,


Some employers were easy about the morals of their workpeople, and winked at the weekly indulgence, if only the week's full work were done. There was no machinery. The men, as they found their own candles, could work until ten o'clock at night and begin at four or five in the morning. The hardship this involved for women and children was never considered by the men nor their employer, who could have restrained it. Amidst these unfriendly and perilous circumstances, the influence, of the Sunday school stood me in good stead. 

It was not so much that I understood all the evil about me and saw into its baleful depths, as that I had an inward influence which gave me an opposite bias and always led me to think of the Sunday school. When this came round again, it was as if I had passed through a washing of regeneration." 

Sunday brought sweetness into my life, and lifted me out of the demoralising influences of the working days. I was emancipated from the past week, and when the scenes I had to witness, as on Monday and Tuesday, were fullest of evil I felt strongest, for the spell of the Sunday was then fresh in my soul.


My education then came from two sources— old Betty's school, and the Sunday school. The former soon ceased to flow directly, but never indirectly, while the latter, Nile-like, has spread its fruitful waters over all my life.



next: work as a mould runner




Related Pages..

Dame Schools and education in The Potteries

Education and Schools in The Potteries - part of Samuel Scriven's 1840 report to the House of Commons commission in to child employment. 


external links... 

George Smith of Coalville who became famous in getting legislation carried to relieve the children employed on brickyards - entry in 1911 Enyclopedia

also see... 

index page for 'focus on'