|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
A contrast between this and the
generation of my early youth
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After the riots my mind became acutely alive to political and social questions for one so young. There was a premature development of fear of public turmoil in the shape of other riots, or public trouble in the want of work or food.
Social reformers who campaigned on working conditions, child labour and education
This feeling comes over me, though it gets no sustenance from the general buoyancy and pursuits of pleasure seen on every side. This generation might be as far from the time of my youth as the age of the Sphinx. It seems to know as little, too of the "Forties" in England as of the condition of Egypt in the time of the early Pharaohs. There might always have been Free Trade and Factory Acts as thorough as those which now forbid a child to begin to work before twelve years of age.
There might always have been education as abundant as today and as free. There might have been Board schools as palatial and sanitary as now and furnished with such graded and effective equipments, with a staff of teachers as able and devoted as we now possess. Food and clothing might always have been as plentiful and as cheap as now.
The thunders of Carlyle might never have been heard against the "infernal" usage of the poor little toilers of his day. Fielden, Oastler and Lord Shaftesbury might be myths born of monstrosities in some industrial Sodom and Gomorrah.
This "age of intelligence" and prosperity and liberty has a glamour about it which blinds to all that went before. Our social history of the first half of the nineteenth century is walled up by halfpenny and penny novels, sporting papers, and "evening editions," read almost as quickly as flame could consume them.
There never was such a time, to use an old Methodist phrase, for "the giddy multitude" before this time. Yet this multitude is not separated more than two generations from those from whose loins they have descended, and of whose sorrows and woes they seem to know nothing. Perhaps this paper wall of "latest news," "sporting intelligence" and sensations may be rudely broken down, and by the time of the Forties of the twentieth century they may have as grim an outlook as their forefathers had a century before.
In this I am sure, however, that the generation that lived about sixty to seventy years ago, though far less "educated" than this, had a deeper and stronger grip of the facts of life, and saw more of the potentialities latent in progress and liberty and righteousness.
They were rude of speech. Many of them could hardly have read a halfpenny novel of the present day, and certainly would not have understood its flimsy and flaming sensations if they had. Its sickly descriptions of life, its immoral innuendoes and its fevered extravagance would have been as strange to them as Egyptian hieroglyphics.
It is a too little specialised coincidence in our national history that, just when "the new industry" was beginning to draw young people from their homes to the factories, Providence inspired Robert Raikes to draw them into Sunday schools. Factories rose in the Midland and Northern Counties, and so did Sunday schools with equal rapidity. The kindliest and finest elements of our social life were drawn to those schools. These in turn kindled self-help on the part of those who had been scholars. Hundreds and thousands of young men and women, who had to work long hours at hard labours, readily, cheerfully, and with heroic self-sacrifice, would give the hours of "the day of rest" to toil for the children under their care. Self-help ! There never was a more glorious manifestation in the history of England, or of any other country, than that shown in the early history of our Sunday schools. Their spell and charm, too, were seen in many social ways.
I will try to describe "a Charity Sunday." It is typical in many ways of most others, but in the instance I am going to give more pronounced, because connected with one of the largest Sunday schools in Tunstall. I am referring to the Primitive Methodist "Charity Sunday." This was the phrase used to describe the Sunday school anniversary. The term "charity" came down from the time of Raikes and the schools he founded.
If you had seen some of those boys and girls coming home from their work on the Saturday afternoon, with the smudge of clay on their clothes and faces, some too in patches and rags, you would not have known them again as you saw them "on the stage" on Charity Sunday. I have said this Sunday in its coming was an anxious time for parents. New clothes had to be found for the children, and this out of scant resources. Perhaps some of them had only just wiped off obligations incurred by clothes for the last Charity Sunday.
The "Charity Sunday" has now come, but soon after its sun rose many young eyes opened, not to look at the glory on the hills or in the fields, but at their "new clothes," which careful mothers had laid about their beds and bedrooms. Those poor children knew nothing of "Santa Claus." His day had not yet come for the children of the poor ; but no Santa Claus ever scattered his gifts with more excitement of surprise than that brought by the sight of new clothes.
These had not been seen in many instances before the children went to bed. They had to be fetched by fathers and mothers, after a late wage had been paid, from the dressmakers or milliners or tailors, or boot and shoemakers.
A trumpet gives the the keynote, and then follows a burst of song from hearts elated and inspired by all the expectations and hopes of the day. If the day happened to be a sunny one, no lovelier sight could have been seen in all England.
Hundreds of children with shining "morning faces" and throbbing "morning hearts." And such a morning! The very glory and summit of all the year's mornings. All smiling and all gladsome, with clothing so unusual for so many of them, it might have been brought by Ceres and her attendants from fields and gardens of Elysium and cast upon the children as they passed along the streets. The air, too, filled with the music of "the singers," and the melodious murmurs of the eager, watchful multitude. If the great bulk of those children could have been seen on Saturday, returning from their week's work, weary, pale, ragged, splashed and daubed with clay, with broken boots and shoes, as dirty white as their clay-stained clothes, and now seen on this Sunday morning, no "staged" transformation scene could ever have equalied this. The paleness, the weariness, the smudginess, the rags were all gone. Bright faces, rippling with laughter and joy, as if their glad lightness never left those faces; shining forms of dress, flimsy perhaps in substance, as they had been low in cost, but lending illusion and transport to the bright day. Then there was the movement of all the happy throng, rhythmical, measured, and yet so full of soul. All these things made up sights and sounds that "guardian angels" might stay to watch and listen to with joy. But a thought intrudes much below this celestial one.
Carts and traps from country districts many miles away began to enter the town in the morning, and continued into the afternoon. This was to the Primitive Methodists of the districts a veritable coming up to Mount Zion, as real in its gladness as the joy inspired by the sight of Jerusalem in the tribes who went up to its Temple. One striking incident was to be witnessed in the old chapel in those days.
A pew on each side of the gallery clock was reserved. If you looked, you would see twelve or fourteen men enter these pews; they came in quietly without any air of swagger, and yet with assurance. They knew they were expected and welcome. They were mostly young men, strong, active, and with an exceptionally virile look about them. They all wore neckerchiefs, according to the fashion of the time, about three inches deep, with the ends tied in little bows in front. The speciality of these neckerchiefs was that they were all made of dark blue silk, with small white spots. You saw no other class but the class these men represented with these neckties on.
It may surprise some to learn that some of these men were well-known prize-fighters or celebrated footracers and their abettors. It was well known many of these men had been scholars in the Sunday school in their earlier years. It is equally well known that they, in their way, were deeply attached to the school. It is well known, too, that on this "Charity Sunday" it was a common bond that all should give liberally.
Though "the little singers" were the chief attraction, as I have indicated, the "big singers " were much admired, especially as "Dan Stubbs," with his first violin, was the practical manager of the whole business. There was "a leading singer," as he was then called (not choirmaster as now), but to those who knew Dan, another leader beside himself was unthinkable, and nobody ever attempted to think of it. He was a master with his own violin, he had an ear for choral effects as wonderful as his own manipulation of his violin.
For a few "practices" some hard words were
uttered, and a terrific stamping of a foot too.
Perhaps the least powerful factor of the day, though he seemed the central one, was the preacher. What was he, standing as in a garden of flowers, when those children in bright dresses and faces surrounded the pulpit ? What was his voice—earnest and pleading it might be—in rivalry with the mass of melodious and harmonious voices behind him? I have heard many of those preachers, but their most powerful moment seemed to come when they pleaded for the collection. If, after the evening collection, the money obtained was not enough, another pleading and another collection was made. If even this failed, a third pleading and a third collection
followed, and then, if this was not successful, Dan Stubbs and the orchestra would give the " Hallelujah Chorus" in a manner which would close that day in a triumph of sound and memory and achievement.
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Primitive Methodist chapels in the Potteries - The Primitive Methodist movement originated between 1800 and 1810 in the efforts of certain Methodists, notably John and James Bourne, William Clowes, and James Steele, to convert people in the moorland areas north and east of Tunstall.