|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 15 - Beginning of Life Again at Ten Years of Age
next: The Sunday School and my Young Life
previous: Other Workhouse Glimpses - a Case of Discipline
Three stages of life
It was somewhat unique for a boy of ten to be started on three stages of life before he touched his eleventh year. I had begun as old Betty's scholar at about three.
So I went to school instead of to my work as a handle-maker, and to a workhouse where I had no work to do. If I had been a philosopher at that time, I might have been puzzled at these contradictions and caprices, but I was only a boy and took what came before me as a horse takes a road, not asking why it is paved or unpaved, muddy and soft, or clean and hard.
Leaving Chell Workhouse
But now the one dominant feeling I had was one of exultant joy. All the world was changed that day when I left Chell Workhouse. It was a grey day when I went there, with a chilling air. It was now four or five weeks nearer mid-winter, yet I have no remembrance of greyness or chilliness. All seemed sunshine and gladness. As I came down the hill from Chell to Pittshill, and then on to Tunstall Church, everything seemed to welcome me. We had stealthily gone to Chell by field-paths as far as possible, but we came back by the high road. Everybody seemed to smile upon us and say they were glad to see us.
Few realities I have met with since have given me as much joy as those illusions did. The world was now to me a great, glad place, full of freedom and hope, and yet if the experience of the next ten years could have been foreseen it would have been found what bitter mockeries my hopes were. But I was free now. I had escaped the loathsome terror of the workhouse, where my whole career might have been poisoned at its source.
Father's previous employer
My father had had a situation offered him as a painter and gilder by a toy manufacturer, a friend of his. His late employer's vengeance had been gratified and his prophecy fulfilled.
The year that man drove my father to the workhouse, I have since learned, he bought an estate for about
£200,000. Yet trade was so bad he had to reduce the wages of his painters and gilders.
Fortunately for me and others, his influence did not rule at the toy manufactory, or we might have been forced to longer residence in the Bastile, with what issues God only knows. That employer has been dead for many years, and the grand mansion he then resided in has been pulled down, but the issues and memories of his vindictiveness cannot be so easily removed. I have long since forgiven him and pitied him as the creature of his time. The times then were hard and cruel for the poor. The rich were hampered with the notion they must not be resisted, and so even justice, in resistance to the rich, was counted as insolence in the poor. In such a time a man might make a mistake, even tragic in its consequences. That man made a mistake, and one which, could he have foreseen the cruel wrongs and memories it gave birth to, in his life and after his death, I am sure he would have shrunk from.
Work as a toy maker
When I left the workhouse I became a toy-maker, just as my father had become a toy-painter and gilder. My new work introduced me to a few curious circumstances. My new employer was a man who had been seriously reduced only a few years before he took this toy factory. I remembered seeing him, before his trouble came, on his white horse. He was considered a good horseman, and was to be seen daily about the town. He had then an earthenware manufactory, and was, in what was then considered, a large way of business. George H. was a man everyone liked, gentle and simple. He had a breezy heartiness, and a "hail-fellow-well-met" air always about him. He was a conspicuous figure among "the gentlemen" who used to attend the bowling green of "the High-gate Inn." That green was sacredly reserved for "the gentry."
He was said to have been deeply wronged by a principal servant, yet I heard no word fall from his lips about this man. One day, however, he gave me a fearful shock which I shall never forget. He and I worked back to back at benches on each side of a small room. One day I turned round and saw him lifting the top of his head off. I was thrilled with horror and unable to move. I had never seen a wig, nor heard of such a thing; and even when I saw him drop his wig on his head again I hardly knew whether to regard him as a man or a demon. He never saw or knew of my horror, and it was only when I told the incident that night at home that my mind was set at rest. This reference to "home" reminds me that I have forgotten to mention our recovered home on the night of the day we returned from the workhouse.
I went to bed in a bare room, but it was not haunted. I heard no young voices pouring out hoary blasphemies against the schoolmaster and governor. I heard no stifled sobs of timid children, who were appalled by what they heard and the fear of all that was about them. Guardian angels might now have been in that room, shedding upon me the healing of their wings. Between me and the highest heaven there was " peace, perfect peace," and so I rested for the first time for weeks without a wakeful fear keeping my eyes open.
"TH' HELL HOLE"
Wedgwood and Etruria
Josiah Wedgwood, its great son, had left his native town many years before to prosecute his brilliant work in Etruria, a village a few miles away. Etruria, by its very name, would seem to indicate a place of classic beauty. I am afraid, from my remembrance of it in those early days, its architectural achievements and sanitary conditions were not quite a world removed from those of Burslem.
In the early days of " Th' Hell Hole," Burslem would be leavened largely by good Churchmen and Methodists. The latter were a large and powerful section of the community, yet, while often singing about the beauties and delights of the " New Jerusalem," they could allow a part of the town to be made a " devil's ground " for the ruin of bodies and souls. It would not do to allow even saints to build a city on green fields without restraints, if they owned them. Force may be no remedy for some things, but it has the action of grace in some departments of our human life. In sanitary affairs, at anyrate, it has made " the habitation of dragons" a way for the redeemed to walk there with joy and gladness.
A TOY MANUFACTORY
The toy manufactory itself was a curiosity in structure and management. It was rusty and grim. As to form, it might have been brought in cartloads from the broken-down cottages on the opposite side of the street. The workshops were neither square, nor round, nor oblong. They were a jumble of the oddest imaginable kind, and if there had been the ordinary number of workshops on an average-sized pot-works, placed as these were placed, it would have been impossible to have found the way in and the way out. As it was, though so small, it was rather difficult. The one cart-road went round a hovel nearly, and then dived under a twisted archway. Only about a dozen people were employed on this "bank," and if we all turned out together we were thronged in the narrow spaces outside the shops.
It is curious how a man who thirty years before had been a veritable ogre and demon to the Eng¬lish people should now have become so popular. If all the Napoleons made at this toy manufactory could have had life given them, then England, if not invaded, would have been crowded by military Frenchmen, and of the dreaded Napoleonic type.
It is astonishing what amiable squinting those swains and maids did in pretending not to look at each other. I have never seen squinting so amiable looking in real life. But that was where the art came in. The course of life in this little toy-works was always pleasant. There was nothing strenuous or harsh. "The master" was the president of a small republic of workers. All were equal in a sort of regulated inequality. We did different work, of different grades of importance and value, and yet no one seemed to think himself better than anyone else.
We had no drunkenness and immorality such as I had seen elsewhere in the same town at a "bank," which would, if it could, have looked down on our "toy" place as the Pharisee looked on the publican. There have been worse employers than George H., even in his adversity, and his little place of business was a quiet refuge for a few toilers, and one free from the demoralising influences prevailing in much larger concerns.
THE EXTREME OF POVERTY
Right opposite the shop I worked in was a house more tumble-down, if possible, than any of the rest. It was approached from the street by a shelving clay bank about two yards above the level of the street. This ascent was unpaved, and was roughly stepped by treading on the clay bank. In this squalid-looking house lived a squalid-looking man, with a squalid-looking wife and with several squalid-looking children. The man was called "Owd Rafe " (Ralph).
This was one of the cries - pathetic, comic and tragic in its way - among thousands which arose in that day as the result of the starvation and rent-producing policy of Protection. Poor Ralph never lived to see the times of a wiser policy. He died and was put in a workhouse coffin, and on the day of his funeral, as the bearers were bringing the bier and coffin down the clay bank in front of his house, they either slipped through the wretched condition of the bank or through semi-drunkenness, with the result that poor Ralph's body came out of the miserable shell the workhouse had supplied. His poor "remains" had to be re-coffined, so that before his body got to the grave it had been committed "earth to earth" without the Church's ceremony.
Let us hope that the angels which took Lazarus to Abraham's bosom took better care of Ralph's soul than the bearers of the parish coffin did of his body. These were grim days, but equally grim was the unconcern of the people themselves and "their betters." The former, perhaps, were so degraded or hardened, or maddened, as to look at these things with stolid defiance or indifference. But for "their betters," their callousness is unexplainable to me even yet. When 1 remember the men who stood at the head of affairs in the town at the time, I am amazed that such a house as Poor Ralph's should have been allowed to stand in such a place. But "Th' Hell Hole" itself might have been as far away as hell for any love or care I ever saw bestowed upon its dwellers while I worked there.
the poverty of the people... which both Church and State.. upheld
With what reverberations Carlyle's words, "mostly fools," come rolling through my memory as I think of many things which existed among the poor sixty years ago. We might be sixty centuries away from those times, and yet though no millennium is at hand, there is an immense change for the better in many ways and in many conditions. Adverse conditions now are largely self-imposed. In the times of which I write, they were imposed by reckless power, by heedless tyranny, and by fathomless fatuousness which was called statesmanship.
drink more beer
While ignorance and poverty so abounded, the aforesaid legislators thought it well to comfort the poor by inducing them to drink more beer.
This statement carries the fact that the individual man in the first half of the century was bound down by a "wanton hindrance," against the purpose of the great Maker of men. This wanton hindrance was seen in keeping the people ignorant, in keeping them poor, in maintaining harsh laws against all self-help, as in the conditions and price of their labour, and as in making their food dear when their labour was kept at the lowest value.
Yet, in spite of this disastrous and degrading achievement of aristocracy in the latter part of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century, I have seen the question recently asked, "Why are we disappointed with democracy?"
a land of contrasted illusions
When I read these words, I wondered whether I had lived for nearly seventy years in a land of contrasted illusions.
I know democracy has been disappointing in many great moral and intellectual issues, but to say that it has "ludicrously failed" to create "better moral and material surroundings" is to contradict history, and more, the living, burning and agonising experience of those who lived sixty to seventy years ago.
That new industry came like an ogre,
devouring the domesticity and the child-life of England, and to its everlasting disgrace the aristocratic statesmanship of England lent itself to the dread carnival of greed and cruelty. Democracy will never match issues like these, or if it does, then it will be quite time for some " friendly comet " to come and surround us with its destructive embrace.
next: The Sunday School and my Young Life
previous: Other Workhouse Glimpses - a Case of Discipline