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 7 - New Experiences in a New Situation

next: Paying Wages at Public Houses
previous: A New Situation


Besides the over-driven work to make up for the time lost by drinking, the boy handle-makers were expected to get a lot of handles made ready beforehand, so that when the drunken " master " came to work he could rattle away at handling to his heart's content. 

The boys were only boys, and, left to themselves, indulged in frolic and play, besides going home earlier on Monday and Tuesday nights. It followed that the usual " task" was not done; fewer handles were made ; and, when the man, who had been idle altogether for two days, came to his work on Wednesday morning, and found that a sufficient number of handles were not ready to hand, he went into a mad rage with his poor little handle-maker. 

He saw a possible curtailment in his resources for drinking during the following week. There was at that time a vicious custom of paying beforehand for work not done. This work was called " an old horse," and those who worked at it were never in a good temper while it lasted. The handler, then, who had wasted the two first days of the week, found on Wednesday morning the " old horse " before him, and fewer handles prepared by which he expected to work it off. 

This meant first, in his ungovernable temper, a flogging, and then longer and harder hours during the week. A flogging was after this fashion : the rope which lined the iron box I have mentioned before, an inch in thickness, and clogged with clay, was used for this purpose. 

The man in his wild passion laid this with all his might upon the back of the poor little handle-maker. In spite of yells and screams and cries for mercy on the part of the boy, and in spite of the entreaties of those who looked on, the blows fell thick and fast. I have seen when the shirt was forced into the boy's flesh, and after being dried in during the day's work, it has had to be sponged with warm water so as to get it out of the bruises.

The man for whom I worked, and who committed this brutality, was really to be pitied. He was a young fellow, only about twenty-five or six years of age, and yet a veteran in drunkenness. He had been tempted by those older than himself in his daily employment, and had yielded. He had become a notorious drunkard. As a rule, from Saturday night until Tuesday night he was under the influence of drink. When he came to his work on the Wednesday morning he was sometimes hardly sober. He was sullen with passion and vexation for the time he had lost, but he had the certain habit that he always earned a week's wage in the four days left. But this meant slavery for himself and slavery also for the poor lad who worked for him. But such brutality was never rebuked either by employer or bailee. I don't know whether they knew of such things, but I now think they ought to have known. 


But the times then were marked by a general callousness, and we should not judge the men of that day as we should judge them now. Newspapers never mentioned such matters in the Potteries. I never heard them referred to in the pulpit, nor even on the Radical Temperance plat¬form from which 1 heard hundreds of speeches from and after my early youth.
Drink thus accounted for everything, and yet most of the speakers were working-men who saw not what was always before their eyes.


No doubt there were kind-hearted men among them, but so far as my observation went, they took little notice of juvenile workers, and the workshops were too seldom visited by the officials. All was piece-work, and examination of workmanship was generally done in the "greenhouse," where the pots were placed on long, narrow boards on stallages. These two conditions may account for the absence of close oversight of the workshop. 


I remember, most painfully, one Tuesday night, when that day or the day previous had been given up to the usual idle playfulness, and the required number of handles had not been prepared, having an overpowering dread of the flogging which would come next morning, when the handler would come to his work. 

In my fear I durst not go home, as I knew I should be sent to work the next morning. With a sickening dread of punishment, and of the darkness and loneliness of the night, I went to Booth's field, so called, but no field then, only a wide vacant plot of land which was reserved for building purposes. 

At the lower (western) end of it there was a brickyard, without any sheds, with only two ovens, and neither of them was being fired. No one was to be seen anywhere about. The night was very dark, though not particularly cold. I walked about until 1 was completely tired out. Then I searched about for some place to lie down. 

At last I found some mats for covering the clay prepared for the brickmaker. I got some of these mats, lay down on the bare ground, and drew the mats over me. This formed the bed of a boy nine years of age. Some would perhaps say, " Serve him right, the idle young rascal." Whoever says this, or feels it, I only hope he may never be put to such terrible straits for so small a crime as being a foolish boy when left without guidance or control. As soon as I got under the mats the most torturing apprehensions seized me, natural and supernatural terrors rushed through my mind. There were no stars to be seen in the sky, so I got no solace or comfort from their friendly gaze. Every noise was intensified by fear. Every flashing light was transformed into some ominous presence approaching. Sinister sounds and sinister sights were beating incessantly on ear or eye. Then the sense of friendlessness came upon me with acuter agony than any other experience.

The image of life, as wretchedness, and hunger, and suffering made it for me, came bitterly before my mind. 1 asked why I was ever placed in this hurly-burly of awkward things, what was above, and what was below ? I knew other children so differently placed to myself, who could go to school every day, who never wanted food, who never wore shoes with the toes out, nor jackets with elbows out. 

They had bright homes in which they could laugh and sing and play. I hardly ever saw my home except on Sundays, for I only slept there during the nights.


J N Peake - a staffordshire brick from Peake's Tile Works, Clayhills, Tunstall

J N Peake - a staffordshire brick from Peake's Tile Works, Clayhills, Tunstall



typical 'beehive' type kiln for firing bricks

typical 'beehive' type kiln for firing bricks 



But in spite of these questionings and comparisons, the flesh was weak, and I slept. Was there any guardian angel watching over me ? God knows. I know there was one who lay on a sleepless pillow wondering and fearing what had become of her boy. I slept, and the grim, hard, fierce world was swept out of my mind, and I was a denizen of that great unconscious world where nightly "the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest." 

I woke soon after midnight, shivering with cold, and at once got up and begun walking about again. I was perplexed as to what I was to do and where to go. The night was still black and the heavens starless. There came noises and flashes from distant furnaces, and as these were familiar sights and sounds they relieved the awful sense of loneliness which came over me. The agony of this night's experience for a timid boy—the inward creepings of fear, the strained and acute apprehensions, the nerves played upon by a thousand sensations, with the dull, sickening fact before me that I might be flogged next morning—never can be fully described. 

At last I thought of Peake's Tile Works. I knew ovens would be firing there, and that I might not only meet with a friendly fire but a friendly face. I was chilled by the loneliness as well as by the cold. The ovenmen, 1 knew, if somewhat rough, were kind-hearted men. Many outcasts and wanderers in those days, before casual wards came into existence, were sheltered at these ovens. I was received there with a kindly welcome and given a drink of buttermilk. I was told to sit down in a little shelter opposite an oven mouth, and after my little story was told, I was left alone.

The warmth soon lulled me to sleep, and there I was found sleeping the next morning and taken back to my work. But I got no flogging. The horror of this was more to me than the lonely or chilling night through which I had passed. 


Another method of making up a full week's wage in four days was, when certain kinds of work were to be done, to set a handle-maker to work in the cellar for green ware, to do such work as his " master" should have done. 

Sometimes there would be orders for small mugs called "cans." They had handles put on them. These handles were simply made out of narrow strips of clay forced through the die in the iron box. These were cut into short lengths on a long board, and then twisted by the thumb and fingers into something like the shape of the letter S. After drying a short time, the ends were cut inside into flat surfaces, and dipped into " slip" (liquid clay), and put on the sides of the cans. For all such work done in secret, the handlers got full journeyman's price.

As to the cellar in which this work was done, three sides of it were formed by walls built against the solid earth of rising ground. The other side was formed by the wall in the turners' room, and in this there was the doorway. No natural light entered except through this doorway, and that was only sufficient to make the "darkness visible." There was no drain in it, and the uses to which it was put produced a sickening stench. 

In this hole I have worked for days, handling " cans," and if the bailee came into the turners' room, a signal was given, and out went my farthing candle, by whose dim light I was working. Such was the fidelity in deception, the bond of honour, that though between thirty and forty people knew all about what was being done, no one ever told. No one was ever concerned about me or any other lad suffering from confinement in this dark and stinking hole. It was taken as a matter of course, and the ignorant callousness accepted the whole thing merely in its aspect as a piece of sharp practice.

In these later days of sanitation, that " hole," and all the " shops" on the same floor, have been closed " by order." 


I have said that long hours were often the result of the drunkenness at the beginning of the week. When this was deemed a necessity, we handle-makers were commanded to be at work sometimes by three o'clock in the morning, and all sorts of threats were put before us if we failed to be there. The watchman was told overnight of this, and asked to let us through the gate of the works at that time.

Poor Bill S. and I wended our way home one night between nine and ten o'clock. Bill had been so often punished that he was full of fear on this particular occasion. We parted with the understanding that he was to call for me about half-past two in the morning, as he had to pass our door. As I was so often woke up when drenched with uneasiness, I was not surprised when told Bill S. had called for me. 

I was told further that it could not be the time Bill said it was, but as we had neither clock nor watch in the house, and poor Bill's fears made him urgent, we started. When we got near the turnpike, we met some nightsoil men with their " tumbrils," and when we asked them the time, they laughingly told us it was only just turned half-past twelve. 

With weary steps we toiled on to B[urslem] , and stood opposite the Town Hall clock just as it struck one. What could we do? We had seen a little old cobbler near the works, going into his cottage, as we passed, evidently just before going to bed, and we durst not go back and ask him to let us in. We durst not go to the works, for the watchman always had with him a big dog, and to mount the gate with such a terror before us was out of the question. So we stood looking at the clock under the window of an inn opposite for a whole hour ; then, at two o'clock, we decided to go to D[alehall] , to call up another lad who had to be at work at the same time as ourselves. We sheltered in his home for half an hour, and then went to the works, and found the watchman and " Turk," the dog, at the gate, ready to receive us.


Perhaps about this time the statesmen in London were going to their luxurious couches, thinking of the greatness and glory and freedom of England, and thanking God we were not as other nations. We lit our farthing candles, and soon our handle moulds were rattling like dancing dolls. And yet these little white slaves were flogged at times nearly as brutally, all things considered, as Legree flogged Uncle Tom. Nearly all England wept about thirteen years later for Uncle Tom, especially the " classes," but no fine lady or gentleman wept for the cruelly-used pottery children.

Poor Bill S. ! Where in the universe he is now I know not. I know he became in later life a professor of phrenology. What other dignities, social or mental, he may have achieved I have not heard. He was a lumpy lad, clumsy in many ways, and not deft or apt in his work. For this he suffered in many ways. He had more bumps made on his head for these things than ever his later phrenological science could account for. 

I have seen portions of bad handles which he had made taken and made into pills, and the poor boy made to swallow them. Brutality was fun to poor Bill's " master." Still, his good nature was inexhaustible. His smiles would soon succeed the cruellest treatment, but his amiable passiveness made more revolting the cruelties from which he suffered. Such cruelties ought not to have been possible in a pot-works. I blame no one, I simply recite facts.


next: Paying Wages at Public Houses
previous: A New Situation




Related Pages..

The Scriven Report on Child labour in the pottery industry

Brickmaking in Stoke-on-Trent

also see... 

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