|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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
typical 'beehive' type kiln for firing bricks
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.
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.
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.
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.
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previous: A New Situation