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 9 - Special Incidents

next: Happy Days and Sad Changes
previous: Paying wages at Public Houses


But these play-times were not invariable, sometimes an order would come requiring prompt delivery, and the "Bailee", by menace or persuasion, would make it well understood that the shuffling on Monday and Tuesday would have to be given up. Then these days would be as stressful in hard work as any Friday. Early and late all were hard at work, more and surprising wages were earned. 

Wearier looks were upon all by the week-end, and then, when the stress was over, the wilder and more excessive the revelry and drunkenness which followed. Nobody was the better off for the harder work, for the strain for the women and boys was more hurtful than the small gain in wages for them, and even though the men's wages rose to a great height, all above the average went in more drink and longer carousals. 

I have since thought that but for the reliefs at the beginning of the week for the women and boys all through the pot-works, the deadly stress of the last four days could not have been maintained. Of course, if there had been a more even distribution over the six days of the labour required, as was generally the case with the hollowware-pressers, it would have been better for all. And with proper oversight and management, a closer watchfulness on the part of officials, and more sympathetic intercourse between them and the workmen, these times of idleness and undue labour, these periods of revelry and profligacy, might have been prevented. 

It seems astonishing now in these competitive and economical days, that such wasteful methods of business should have been allowed. It seems astonishing, too, that so little attention should have been paid to the workpeople's habits in their shops. 

My present employer I never saw in any shop on the works. A later employer, I remember, very occasionally came through the shop with a tall silk hat on, and a swallow-tailed coat and shining boots. His habit was never to stop a moment, but to look up and forward, over the heads of the workpeople, with his hands under his coat tails, which tails were incessantly tossed, looking as if he had come on parade to show the awful or sublime contrast between his special humanity and that of the drudging humanity around him. 

Not one thrifty, economical, practical outlook did this man ever give, for we never heard that he had seen anything, and never heard that he recommended anything different from our ordinary procedure. But profits were large in those days, and those who gathered them got very exalted notions. This swallow-tailed coat "master", to whom I have just referred, some years before was a warehouseman, but as you saw him there in the dainty dress I have described, and with his haughty looks, you would have supposed he had been all his life accustomed to drawing-rooms and saloons.

Some of the pottery masters in those days were very amusing. They aped the manners of the country gentlemen in the neighbourhood, but only the manners. It was funny to see men who had been "working potters" themselves a few years before trying to look like "partridge breeders of a thousand years." The Pottery District lent itself to this influence, for there were many " country squires," and before, and for some years after, the Reform Bill, country squires were powerful social factors. I wish now to relate several special incidents.


Practical jokes, other than those I have mentioned, were sometimes carried out. One of the grimmest I remember was after this manner. We had a young " thrower," whose ware was always a matter of complaining by the "turners." A deft, artistic thrower could, in shaping his pieces on his potter's wheel, very much lighten the labour of a turner. 

Poor Joe H. was not deft, nor artistic in taste or faculty. He belonged to a higher social grade than most of the workers, but evidently his natural dulness had forced him out of his own rank, and unfortunately he had been put to an occupation requiring special facility in skilful manipulation and artistic instinct. The result was, that his ware was always leading the turners to vent their maledictions on his head. 

On one of the days of revelry, when drink had half bemuddled the men in that long range of shops, they decided to have a funeral. One of the usual boards, about coffin size, on which ware was carried, was selected for the purpose of representing the coffin, and on the board was a choice selection of the bad ware made by Joe H. He had an old clay wedger called "Owd Jimmy." This poor wretch seemed a cross between a skeleton and a scarecrow. He was long and lean, with a back curved outward, which made him look of only ordinary height, though he would have been a tall man if he could have stood straight up. He had a cadaverous face, with sunken cheeks, and eyes which squinted most viciously. He had a repulsive appearance, and yet his voice gave assurance to all of an inner kindliness. 

Poor "Owd Jimmy" was the victim of a cruel trade, as clay-wedging for a thrower was in those days. The man, too, was ordinarily half-starved, for his wages could not keep himself and his family. "Owd Jimmy" was appointed as chief mourner in this mock funeral. Two men were selected to carry the board with the bad ware. The women and boys were to follow in a proces¬sion of two and two. Nearly all were willing to join in the fun, so that some thirty people were attending this farcical ceremony. " Owd Jimmy " followed immediately behind the board of bad ware with a long brush held in his hand, the brush head uppermost. 

The procession started from the higher end of the long turners' room and wended its way in slow and solemn march towards the throwing shop. All heads were bowed to hide the grinning faces and to make the show all the more solemn. Poor Joe H. sat astride his box behind his wheel, unconscious of what was coming. The board-bearers and pall-bearers marched into his shop, with " Owd Jimmy " behind, carrying a face the image of desolation and fear. The bearers took, the board alongside Joe's box, and tumbled the board and its contents upon his head. 

In wild rage he picked up ball after ball of clay, which were lying ready for his ordinary use, and he hurled them with all his force at his persecutors, who struggled pell-mell to get out of the room. Just then, as luck would have it, a most unusual visitor appeared in the person of the "young master." Making his way to the front, he came in for the ball from Joe's hand, which, catching him in the stomach, stayed his progress and rendered him unable to speak for a few moments. Poor Joe, with horror, saw what he had done, and stopped his ball-throwing. Jumping from the box, he begged, most abjectly, the " young master's" pardon. This personage saw at once the meaning of this broad, practical farce, and as he was capable of humour himself, Joe H. was let off on condition he would make better ware in the future.

This "young master" knew more of the condition in that range of shops than the " old master." He was a frequent visitor in one of the shops where a fair stiltmaker worked. Many visits were paid to that shop. Poor girl, after the "young master" began to pay his attentions she came to her work with a veil on, and decked herself with other cheap fripperies, to " look like a lady." It was a piece of simple folly, but I never heard that any mischief came out of it.



We had sometimes great folks to come and look through our works, especially the showroom, in which the chief productions were exhibited in most inviting array. 

Once, I remember, we had a duke and a duchess and friends. On such occasions we had to clean the windows, wash the benches, remove every particle of dust and dirt, and sand the steps and floors with bright new, clean sand from the biscuit ovens. 

What happy lives we must have led, to work in such clean and beautiful-looking places, and how radiant and smiling we all were, with washed faces and hands. 

I have no doubt our visitors would go away to talk of the conditions of our employment in their drawing and dining-rooms, in their country mansions, and in "London town." If ever the condition of the pottery workers was mentioned as demanding some attention, how these people could confront Lord Ashley and others with their memories of our bright faces and those beautiful white sanded floors. 

They did not know that the day after their visit that sand was trodden into smudge and clay, thick and damp, to be taken off occasionally with spade and mattock, and no more white sand allowed until their next visit. They were not allowed to see the two shops in our long range, ending in the "top hopper." They did not see those women and boys leaving their work between nine and ten o'clock at night, after straining their eyes before farthing candles for four or five hours, and making a day's labour of fourteen or fifteen hours. 

These great folks lived in an illusion as to our condition, while we lived in the ghastly fact. No deception was intended, and yet they were deceived. Their pleasure only was sought, but it veiled the real nature of our suffering, for some of those dark, damp, undrained rooms were unfit for human habitation, and to-day no factory inspector would allow their occupation. 

There were other forms of poison besides lead poisoning in those days. I don't think lead was such a deadly factor in those days as now, except among "the dippers," who were always using it. The same processes were not carried on then as now, such as have been required by modern developments. 

Earthenware then was a very different thing from what it is to-day, with its dirty, brownish-looking glaze, whereas to-day it has to look as brilliant and white as china ware. Still there was heavy sickness and mortality in those days. 

If I were to ask the question, " Where are the friends of my youth ? " with comparatively few exceptions, I should have to say, " They have long been lying in their graves." What holocausts have been offered to our great but badly-managed industry ?


next: Happy Days and Sad Changes
previous: Paying wages at Public Houses




Related Pages..

The Scriven Report on Child labour in the pottery industry

Dipping pottery into the glaze

also see... 

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