the local history of Stoke-on-Trent, England

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'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 6 - A New Situation

next: New Experiences in a New Situation 
previous: My Native Town - Some other Social Apects


After working as a "mould-runner" for twelve months, and when eight years of age, I was sent to work at another pot-works as a handle-maker. This occupation was much lighter every way but in the matter of long hours. I had mainly to make tea-cup handles and porter-mug handles. These were made by two half moulds made to fit into one another by notches on one side and holes on the other. The piece of clay to form the handle was placed in the bottom half of the mould, then the top half was put on and pressed down by the boy's stomach, with a sort of wriggle. The clay for making handles after being "wedged," was put in an iron box, round in shape. At the bottom of the box was a metal die through which the soft clay was forced by a large iron plate at the top of the box, and which was worked down to the bottom by a screw, with a long handle to work it down. The clay came out like a tape worm, through the die, varying in thickness according to the size of the die, as required by the different sizes of handles to be made. 

The " bank" I now began to work at was to open to me a new world, strange and sad and terrible in its revelations. So striking were those revelations that after sixty-years I could go over the old ground and point out the places where the incidents occurred I am now going to relate. I shall not indicate where this bank was, as some persons yet living might be pained by identi¬fication, even in a remote degree, with such memories. No one is now living who was in any way responsible for the things of which I write, but I vouch that every in¬cident is strictly authentic.

I very soon found out that though I was required to be at the bank six days a week, that on Monday morning I was not required to be there before breakfast time. I found, too, that the place in which I worked bore a holiday aspect on Monday and Tuesday. This was the more noticeable from the size of the place I worked in. It was a long, narrow cellar, the basement of a five-storey building with a handsome frontage. At the lower end of the basement storey was the throwing-room, in which two throwers worked, and at the back of this was the "stove," in which the ware was dried. No daylight ever directly penetrated this place, being built below the surrounding earth, and only lit by the stove fire.


On the line of the throwers' room there ran in front of the high road the turners' room, from thirty to forty yards in length, filled with lathes, and at the back of it another dismal dungeon, called a cellar, for the green ware brought from the throwers' stove or drying-room. Beyond the turners' room, still fronting the road, there were the handlers' rooms, connected by a dark, narrow passage, called "The Purgatory," which ran underneath a grand entrance to the bank. 

The first handlers' shop was partly occupied by six young women who made "stilts," or pot triangles, to put between pieces of flat ware in firing, so as to prevent cohesion. There was another handlers' shop in which a man and two boys worked ; and "the top hopper," a small dark den, with little light and no ventilation, sometimes used by stilt makers and some¬times by handle-makers. 

All these latter shops were much below the high road, and were damp, dismal, stuffy holes, with little light even at midsummer. They always had a close, mouldy smell, as the only entrance to them was a deep, narrow staircase, some twenty steps deep. A similar entrance, some fifty or sixty yards away, led down to the turners' room.


When all the different workers were following their work, there was a busy hum from end to end of this long cellar. 

In the throwing-room were the two throwers, and four young women to turn the thrower's wheel, and to "ball" for them. 

In the turners' room, there were about eight or ten lathes, with a turner and a lathe-treader for each lathe. These lathe-treaders were young women. 

The stilt-makers and the handlers in the rooms beyond made up a busy community of workers when work was going on. 

But on Mondays and Tuesdays one or both throwers would be away drinking at a house properly called "The Foaming Quart,'' Sometimes half the turners would be away drinking too, and always one or both handlers. 

This course left the young women and boys very much to do as they pleased, and merriment and frolic were the order of those days. 

Sometimes the men would "drink on the premises," and the drink was got by the most stealthy and ingenious methods, so as to elude the observation of the "bailees" or overlookers. Once I remember a youth was sent to fetch some beer in a large slop-jar, and he was directed to bring the beer as if he had come from a well outside the works. He went boldly up the steps of the grand entrance in the centre of the building, but by some means tripped on the top step. Crash went the jar, and flooded the floor of the entrance. 

The noise soon brought officials from their offices near by, and the beer told its own story to the utter confusion of the lad, for he couldn't say he was fetching water. A rumpus followed in the cellars beneath, official threats were flung about, a cowed silence fell on all the men. No one was responsible. No one man knew anything about it. Somebody else had sent for it. But when the bailee had left, the sullen silence was broken by a torrent of curses hurled at the poor lad who had been so unfortunate. Never after this was the grand entrance tried again. 

The drink was got by the top gate of the works, and women and boys were used to get drink in vessels which would have deceived a detective. Drinking away at the beer-shop was bad enough, and this was the commonest course taken, but drinking on the works was far more horrible, being accompanied by jollification and devilry unnameable. 

Then the young women were persuaded to join in the indulgence. Drink was forced upon them in many instances, if new to the business. Before night came some of these women were drunk, and didn't know where they were. Then the most lustful and villainous of the men—young men, generally— would scheme to stay all night. The boys were sent home. The decent and sober women fled before their usual time. The night was a revel of drink, lust and beastliness. Whoever came early next morning saw a veritable pandemonium.

Men were seen still stupefied with drink, and young women blear-eyed, dazed, with a stupid shyness dawning upon them, with woe-begone faces, and with tumbled and torn garments. The faces of all carried signs of besotmfnt and weariness. No food was wanted, and little work was done. Some of the men stole away to the beer¬house to get revived, and the many self-accusing women were languid and silent, and ashamed, till the closing hour released them from the scene they evidently loathed.

I know this is a grim picture, but I know it is true in every detail given, while many repulsive details, moral and physical, are suppressed. I am not sure whether the employers knew of these proceedings. One of them was rarely seen at the works. The other used to come about ten o'clock in the morning in a carriage and pair, and stay half-an-hour or an hour. I never saw him in a workshop. He may have been in one. I only speak that I know.

The evils at this Pottery works were perhaps the result of the cold, aristocratic attitude of this employer towards his own business. He was a county magistrate, and in those days, "county people" looked disdainfully upon "Trade." 

There has been a change since then. How ? It is not for me to inquire, but this, I imagine, is one of the cases where necessity becomes transformed into a virtue. Still, I don't think this the noblest form of social evolution. This old employer showed in many ways that his trade connection was rather irksome, so the business was left to others to manage, whose responsibility was leavened with freedom. 

But the employer did not disdain to accept the profit got out of seventy to eighty hours' labour per week for a child nine years of age, while the child got one-and-six or two shillings. Probably his carriage-horses would eat as much food at one meal as such sums would buy. But they were " carriage" horses, and I and others were only work children. Any¬one can see the difference. Those were the times when not only in America but in Eng¬land human nature was cheaper than beast nature.

I don't think the "bailees" knew of these orgies either. They nearly always left at six o'clock, and work was carried on for hours after that time every night, except Saturday night. The watchman, who went about the works with his bunch of keys to lock up every shop, should have known, and did know, but he was bribed. He shared in the drink, if not in the revelry, and so this foul form of corruption went on to my knowledge for two years at least, fresh victims and victimisers always coming forward by the changes of situations. 

Sometimes feasting and drinking on the works would go on together. It was easy to cook with a stove in each shop. A sheep's pluck and onions was a favourite dish. Sometimes ropes of sausages would be sent for. Sometimes the feasting would be accompanied with a broad practical joke. If any of the men kept fowls or rabbits, they stood a good chance of being swindled. 

A boy would be sent away to a man's house with a message that the husband wanted the black cock sent as he was going to "swop" it. No sooner was it got hold of at the works, than it was killed, plucked, and put in a pot of boiling water. When it was cooked, and bread provided, the owner would be sent for to join them in the "mess." 

Nothing loth, and not being given to ask questions when ravenous eating was to be done, he greedily devoured part of his own bird, and chuckled when he was told it had been "fetched" from some other man's house. He was a wiser man when he got home at night, but his own wife had to be " slated" for her foolery, as it was called. In spite of all the efforts to deceive the bailee in getting drink on the bank, sometimes he would drop on a lad with a lot of beer in some vessel. 

In such a case the beer was confiscated, and given to the "ovenmen," on account of their hot employment making them thirsty souls. On one occasion this had been done too frequently, as chance would have it, and the potters determined to be revenged upon the ovenmen. 

An order was therefore sent to the beer-house near the works for so many quarts of common beer, not ale this time. This beer was to be warmed and spiced, so that its fragrance should be most tempting. It was then arranged that a lad should bring it on the bank just when it was known the bailee would be about a certain place. The lad was seen, and he was marched off with his beer to the ovenmen. "Here, Evans," called out the bailee to the firemen, "those rascals have been sending for drink again. You and your men drink this." And they did drink it, but they didn't know it had been spiced with jalap as well as with nutmeg. Those poor ovenmen never wanted any more warm ale as cheap as that had been.


I have said there was generally little, if any, work done on Mondays and Tuesdays, and yet it was rare for any of the men to get on Saturday less than a full week's wage. 

From Wednesday to Saturday they worked themselves, and worked others, boys and women, like galley slaves. From four and five in the morning until nine and ten at night this fierce race for wages was run. 

There was no Factory Act then, nor for a quarter of a century afterwards. Women and children were then given up to the greed of employers, and to the drunken greed of many of their operative " masters," as they were called. 

Many a time, after fourteen and fifteen hours' work, I had to walk a mile and a half home with another weary little wretch, and we have nodded and budged against each other on the road, surprised to find our whereabouts. No wonder ghosts were seen in the dark, gasless "Hollow," with flashing lights of furnaces in the distance, and with noise of water from the flour mill in the valley. 

Oh, yes, I have seen ghosts and heard their wailings on such nights, when my senses were dazed with weariness. Boys don't see them now, even in the "Hollow," because the Factory Act sends them home at six o'clock, and because the road is lit up with gas lamps. 

These long hours were worked, too, on the poorest and most meagre fare. Bread and butter were made up in a handkerchief, with a sprinkling of tea and sugar. Sometimes there was a little potato pie, with a few pieces of fat bacon on it to represent beef. The dinner time was from one till two o'clock, and from then until nine or ten the weary workers got no more food. Weary for sleep, weak with hunger, and worn out with hard work, many wretched children, through summer and winter nights, had to make their way home at these late hours. 

Summer was no summer for them, except for warmth and light ; while winter, dark and pitiless, always brought its full burden of horror and suffering.

Imagine a poor child getting home at nine or ten o'clock, having left between four and five in the morning—a child, too, under ten years of age. His mother takes him on her knee and salts his porridge with her tears. She then carries him to bed, and makes that bed shake with her sobs. She cannot help all this, and this is all she can do. This poor child never sees his parents after Monday night, and on Saturday and Sunday nights, except at this weary meal, for four days a week, and a few minutes each morning. 

I, and others, had to endure this, in addition to scant food and clothing, and harshness and brutality besides from some drunken man who earns in four days what he should have earned in six. 

But even where there was no brutality, as happily in many cases there was not, the summer was no summer to these children, except on Sundays. Its light and brightness did not visit the dusty and stuffy rooms in which they worked daily so many long hours. Winter was winter indeed, for again they never saw clear daylight except on Sundays. 

Those Sundays for children ! Who can tell their value? Beside the light and freedom they brought, there was the ever-fresh joy of the Sunday school. I am thrilled many times even yet as I think of those simple joys in contrast with the hardships.


next: New Experiences in a New Situation 
previous: My Native Town - Some other Social Apects




Related Pages..

The Scriven Report on Child labour in the pottery industry

also see... 

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