|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
Chapter 5 - My Native Town - Some other Social Aspects
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We sometimes hear of "horse-play," but the thing itself is now very rare.
When I was a boy, on Saturday and Monday nights, owing to the fact that work was seldom followed on those nights, horseplay was a common incident in the dark season of the year. There was no gas in the streets then. This dispeller of mischief and ghosts had not then come into the available "resources of civilisation."
Woe to the man, too, who had a cottage whose chimney could be easily reached, especially if he lived alone. There was a schoolmaster lived near old Betty's, who had a living room apart from his schoolroom. He taught the bigger boys who could go during the day, but as these were few, his school was busiest in the evening. He was not an old man, but reputed to be very clever, a born gentleman, but a drunkard who had wasted his substance in riotous living. Many were the times when the poor fellow's chimney pots were stopped up by mischievous marauders, and he and his scholars choked by smoke, or forced to leave off their work. When they got outside they were assailed by the jeers of their tormentors, who fled into safety in the darkness of the surrounding streets.
Another proof of the low social condition of the time was found in the way idiotic and half-mad people were allowed to go abroad.
"Suck Thumb" or "Billy Suck," as he was sometimes called, was another idiotic wanderer. He would be from twenty-five to thirty years of age. His particular weakness was always gripping his coat collar near his chin, by which to hold his thumb in his mouth, as if it were the most delicious lollypop. If you seized his hand and pulled it from his coat, you would see a poor little shrivelled thumb, almost sucked away. The fun was partly to see this little thumb, and partly to irritate "Billy," for as soon as he felt the thumb out of his mouth he would make a violent dash at it with his mouth to get it back to its welcome receptacle. If it were taken out persistently Billy would get wild, and even dangerous, but just then the fun and fury of his tormentors rose to their height.
The allowance of such revolting sights, and the torture these poor creatures were put to, shows a strange grossness in the moral condition of the multitude sixty years ago. Yet England had thousands of clergymen and ministers. Its Government was supposed to be the noblest fabric of law and order and liberty. The great Reform Bill had been passed, and commerce and wealth were rapidly increasing. The schoolmaster was not yet abroad, and whether since he came, his "ruler" has ruled these things out of sight, is a question I must leave others to determine. These things may have had no more relation than the Tenterden church steeple and Goodwin Sands, but the coincidence, at the least, is suggestive. The churches and Parliament didn't work the change alone. Have the schools helped the merciful issue ?
Tunstall Town Hall in the middle of Market Square
I don't know whether the winters were always severe in a meteorological sense, but in my memory of what I saw and felt I should say they were. The lower half of our market-place stands out vividly in my mind in those wintry seasons. The lower and upper halves of the market-place were divided by what was called our Town Hall. This was a quaint little building, where the stipendiary magistrate, Bailie Rose ruled as the Jove of the Pottery district. He was certainly a terror to evil-doers, but only a terror. When he had committed a prisoner to gaol, the poor wretch was first taken to a damp, dark, foul den under the Town Hall.
In front of the Town Hall, just at the bottom of its flight of steps, was placed "the stocks" for the tipsy fellows who had given trouble to the constable. Many poor fools have I seen sitting there for weary hours, sent there by the magistrates, and tormented by onlookers. If the magistrates had been sent there as often as they went tipsy from the Lamb, the stocks would have been kept busy. But every constable in those days was smitten with a judicious, if not with a judicial, blindness. He could never see a drunken magistrate.
All the great events of the town took place, as I have intimated, in this lower half of the marketplace. During the severity of winter I have seen one of its sides nearly filled with stacked coals. The other side was stacked with loaves of bread, and such bread. I feel the taste of it even yet, as if made of ground straw, and alum, and plaster of Paris.
These things were stacked there by the parish authorities to relieve the destitution of the poor. Destitution, for the many, was a chronic condition in those days, but when winter came with its stoppage of work, this destitution became acute, and special measures had to be taken to relieve it.
The crowd in the market-place on such a day formed a ghastly sight. Pinched faces of men, with a stern, cold silence of manner. Moaning women, with crying children in their arms, loudly proclaiming their sufferings and wrongs. Men and women with loaves or coals, rapidly departing on all sides to carry some relief to their wretched homes - homes, well, called such.
Twenty people of any other time would have made more noise than this hungry crowd did. The silence froze your heart, as the despair and want suffered had frozen the hearts of those who formed this pale crowd. This relief, wretched as it was, just kept back the latent desperation in the hearts of these people. In contrast with the silent patience of the poor recipients was the noisy fussiness and brutal insolence of Bumbledom's officials. This crowd might have been ordained from all eternity to be pale, and pinched, and hungry, so that these pampered blusterers might display their fat paunches and their overblown importance.
It seems strange now that such a sight should have been authentically visible within the realm of England during the last sixty years, but there it was in all its ghastly and tragic awfulness—a spot, aching with the deepest of human pains, and yet treated by the powers that be as a matter of course, like a bitter frost or a destructive tempest.
The Tories who inaugurated and sustained this policy were not, individually, hard-hearted. Perhaps none were kinder when they came in sight of actual need and suffering, but for all that they could support a cruel policy. This is the curse of a bad policy. Men can put their personal feelings behind it, and so support issues whose cruelty they would shrink from, if they were directly responsible. A party policy is very much like a limited liability company where the liability, morally, is intangible and impersonal. But so we keep blundering on through tragedies and sorrows for the weakest, and so it will be until the strong and the weak are just, and the bond of brotherhood unites both.
I have seen signs of plenty and gladness in that market for many years since that time. If the old scene could be reproduced for a moment, the present generation in our industrial hives would rush away affrighted. Instead of that sad old market-place there is now the covered market, with its loaded stalls of what were once luxuries to the poor, and joyous thronging crowds, with chink of money in their pockets, buying those luxuries, or carrying them off.
We hear now of the "submerged tenth," and it is written of as if it were a monstrous, abnormal condition, sprung upon us in this generation. There may be terrible social conditions in the purlieus of our large towns and cities, brought about largely by a mad gregariousness, and all the corrupt evils of gin palaces, but in the time of which 1 am writing, there was no over-crowding, and facilities for drunkenness were much less than now.
The crime of keeping food out of the country was even less than keeping them in ignorance. I remember hearing a clergyman oppose educating the people on the grounds that they would write nasty things on the walls. They might write them on their lives. There have been dreadful things written on palace walls, but I never heard a clergyman propose they should be pulled down lest " Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin," should be written upon them.
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