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 23
The pursuit of knowledge under difficulties 

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I have not, as yet, given any particular description of the methods of my own educational development. I think I have let it be seen that the Sunday school was the most powerful factor in giving any education to poor children. There were scholars who could go into day schools, but the bulk of the little workers on the pot banks got no education after being six or seven years old, except in the Sunday school. 

As a scholar under George Kirkham, I got great assistance and stimulus for so young a boy. This led me to read all I could. We had a few books in our small Sunday school library which attracted my attention. I read Robinson Crusoe and a few other favourite boys' books, but there were not many there. After these the most readable book I could find was Rollin's Ancient History. I was somehow drawn by it. His narratives opened a new world, but I never supposed that world had anything to do with the one in which I was then living. It might have been a world whose development took place on some other planet. regarded it as remote from Tunstall and England as those other worlds I read of in Dick's Christian Philosopher, which book I found in the library too.

This book was a real charm and inspiration. Scientific matters were put before me with such new vividness and interest, I felt far more interest in this than in Rollin's History. Nature, from sods to stars, became to me a temple. The religious tone of the book entranced, and the sublimities of the heavens which it unfolded awoke in me imaginings which thrilled my soul. 

Then I read Milton's Paradise Lost, Klopstock's Messiah, and, later on, Pollock's Course of Time, and Gilfillan's Bards of the Bible.

These books may look now a strange assortment for such a boy of fourteen or fifteen to read, but they were no assortment at all. They just happened to fall into my hands, and though I might have read more elementary and educative books, these could not have moved the passion in me which these other books did. 

All this time, however, I had learned very little writing and arithmetic. I always felt then a strange indifference to these things, and I suppose this must account for my not learning to write at the Sunday school. Reading had been my main passion so far, but my very reading now led me to feel more and more my need of the power to write. I began to feel a desire to express myself about the things I read, and certain forms of expression lingered in my ear as well as entranced my eye. 

This, I Imagine, was the first movement of a literary instinct. I read these expressions again and again, and their rhythm became a sort of new music in my ears. 1 remember my first efforts at composition were made on a slate. I could better manage a slate pencil than a pen. I tried a pen and a copy-book now and then, but the exercise proved a weariness to the hand and arm and an irritation to the mind. 

I had an old friend who was a boot and shoemaker. He was a well-read man, and one who thought deeply on many subjects, as I thought then and have known since. I spent many hours near his bench while he was cobbling. I found, too, he liked me to go to his house and encouraged me to go. He undertook to give me lessons in writing and arithmetic two nights a week. These exercises always went on slowly and irksomely, but the conversation pleasantly. Sometimes, when this became absorbing, both teacher and pupil forgot the more mechanical work on which I should have been engaged. However, after about two years' drill, I could scrawl a little, beyond which I have never been able to go. I was a little better in arithmetic, but always kept even this well inside the range of vulgar fractions.

About this time I began to develop a taste for reciting, as it was one of the chief items in the Sunday school entertainments. No tea-meeting would have been complete without recitations.

I had as companions two friends who had been much more highly educated than myself, and they had acquired rare elocutionary power. One of them especially developed such a faculty in this direction that he would have chosen the stage for his profession in life, but his father, a Wesleyan local preacher, sternly forbade this, and spoiled his son's life.

He went afterwards to America, with the bitterness of a broken purpose and a lost ideal, and was lost among the roaming thousands of the West, whose occupations in those days may be described as "various." But my association with these youths gave me a distinct mental uplift. I began to enjoy the literary charms of certain recitations, not only when reciting them in public, but they sent their music through my daily drudgery. In the midst of this, when opportunity served, I recited a few verses or lines aloud, and found they were always more inspiring when I heard them than when I simply said them to myself.

When I was about eighteen years of age a few more youths and myself formed, in connection with our Sunday school, a "Young Men's Mutual Improvement Society." These institutions in England's educational barrenness were as oases in the desert.

Our wise Governments of those days were only just beginning to lead the children out of the desert of neglect, but for growing youths there was only then the desert, except they had opportunity or ability to pay for attendance at a Mechanics' Institute.

Most of the youths who belonged to our Society had neither the one nor the other. What a "Cockerton judgment" has done in these days was then done silently and effectively by official apathy. The time of figs was not yet come, so no "Cockerton" blight could fall upon them. What was amusing, as now seen, was, that in our Mutual Improvement Society we never dreamt of any elementary pursuit of knowledge. There was a most comfortable and consummate assumption that this was not required. We met to discuss and criticise all things in heaven and earth, and sometimes even a far deeper province of the universe.

This habit was not born of our conceit—it was the pure birth of our simplicity. We could expatiate about the universe when an examination in the geography of England would have confounded us. We could discuss astronomy (imaginatively) when a sum in decimals would have plucked us from our soaring heights into an abyss of perplexity. 

We could discuss the policies of governments and nations, and the creeds and constitutions of churches, while we would have been puzzled to give a bare outline of our country's history. The audacity and simplicity of young men in such societies in those days cannot be understood in these more disciplined days. "The schoolmaster has been abroad" since then, and by examinations, and even by "cramming," has scared away all such lofty flights.

But we had the freedom of the universe, and such lesser matters as nations and churches, policies and creeds, statesmen and preachers, came easily under our purview. It was well our "essays" were not published and our discussions not reported, and so of most other such meetings in those days. 

The world has no doubt lost what would have been a moving source of wonder and amusement ; but while it has lost this, it has also lost a chance of great misinterpretation. For in these more self-conscious days it would have been almost impossible not to have seen bombastic pretence where only simplicity and sincerity were the impelling forces.

I think I may say this, that when our society had got much enlarged by growth and by amalgamation with another society, no members of the "Imperial Parliament" ever go with a prouder joy to their great "House" than we went on Saturday nights to our meetings. There was a hum, a bustle and an interest when we first met, as if the fate of a nation depended on that night's debate. The reader of the essay was a man of mark for the occasion. Who else would become a man of mark that night was an uncertain quantity. The subject determined variety in development. Sometimes a man who had been hitherto comparatively unknown would surprise by his essay, or his criticism of another, sometimes there was much excitement over a subject, and intense feeling, but I never remember any abiding bitterness. It was well understood that all was for our mutual improvement, and this was mainly the issue.

When I had got fairly in the grip of these meetings, I set myself to prepare for them as much as possible by a more determined course of study.

We had in our house a small room over " an entry." This "entry" afforded a passage from the street to the backyards of the cottages. This room was about three to four feet wide, the widest part being a recess near the window, the other part of the room being narrowed by the chimney. I got a small iron stove to warm the room on cold nights, and I fixed up a small desk against the wall, and two small shelves for my few books. I don't know what a university atmosphere is. I have dreamt of it, but I know when I entered this little room at night I was in another world. I seemed to leave all squalor and toil and distraction behind. I felt as if I entered into converse with presences who were living and breathing in that room. I had not read many authors then, but such as I had seemed to meet me with an unspoken welcome every night. My life there was strangely and sweetly above what it had been during the day.

It was often from nine o'clock to half-past before I could enter this room after walking from my work and getting my tea-supper, the only meal since half-past twelve at noon. 

But, usually, as soon as I entered that room, I was as a giant refreshed with new wine. Its silence was as refreshing as dew, and exhausted energies seemed refilled with vigour and pulsed along with eager ardour. Unfortunately, I never acquired much in the way of knowledge. As I have since found out, I was on the wrong tack, and had no one to guide me. But what I failed to get in acquisition I got in inspiration and communion with some of those "sceptred sovrans who still sway our spirits from their urns." I made the mistake of climbing trees for golden fruit when I should have been employed in the simpler and more needed pursuits of digging and delving in the soul.

It was my misfortune to live in a town where there was not then one public institution to help those who had either taste or ambition to rise above their environments. Not only was there no local public spirit to create such an institution, but the Government of the country had no idea of the mental possibilities of enrichment in industry and commerce, and art and literature, which lay in the growing youths of that day. These youths wanted cheap and easy facilities for the development of their powers and tastes, but as these were not provided, the powers lay in lethargy and paralysis. Probably the country's neglect in this matter has lost more wealth than the mines of the Transvaal will ever yield. 

And yet the Government is lingering in this matter sixty years after. The youth of the country, in the hours after their day's labour, are not tempted or charmed by such facilities as would probably enrich their country in the future beyond the dreams of avarice. Party politics fill up our horizon. We see nothing else, and are striving for nothing more, while other countries are training their young men and women as soldiers in a bloodless conflict, but in which defeat means a deeper and more abiding disaster than defeat in arms ever brings. The flow of our national virility, in our "evening classes " for the improvement of the young, is arrested by "a Cockerton Judgment," and then we try to compensate for this by a measure which proposes to lay waste one of the most fruitful provinces of our educational system.

Verily, then, I have no need to groan over the folly and neglect which smote mv opportunities sixty years ago. The same foolish smiting is going on to-day. When will the nation come to see that the first potency of all its wealth and character is in the minds of its children. It is not she who rocks the cradle who rules the world. It is the wise policy which seeks for "hid treasure" in the minds of "the rising generation," rising not simply in years, but in faculty and power and achievement.

This diversion from my immediate purpose in this chapter is the result of an outburst of feeling against "my time," and yet even "our time," great as it seems to us, and proud as we are of it in many ways, may look to our grandchildren a time of amazing crassness, dulness, and ineptitude. They may see how we allowed rich tides of possibility to pass, by "taking" which we might have been carried on to "fortune " beyond our dreams, whereas they may find themselves crippled by misfortunes, the legacies of our apathy and neglect. I said it was my misfortune to lack guidance at a critical period in my history, but I had to seek what came by groping. Groping is better than standing still, but pathetic tragedies and failures strew the lives of individuals and nations, which might have been avoided if the light of guidance had shone in place of the shadows of groping.

I know it may be said, and said proudly, that England has done some masterful groping. So it has. "The rule of thumb" has done wonderful things in our country's history, but it has required very strong thumbs; and though all men may be born with "great toes," all are not born with great thumbs in this sense. It is better, in the main, to organise the weakness of the many into strength, rather than rest upon the strength of the few.

These even will be more powerful in a soil of potency than in one of weakness. So that "Cockerton Judgments," and all such hindering and blundering policies, want sweeping away by the tide of a true national wisdom.

I look back pensively and gratefully, however, upon what I did in my little room. I might have done much more in much less time if I had had a guiding mind. Sometimes I read and wrote on till two or three o'clock in the morning, and a mother's eye in the next room, seeing the light of my candle through the chink of the door, she would often call persuasively or chidingly for me "to get into bed."

Much of this was wasted time, but groping is not only a slow process, but it misses much in the process. How much then has the country missed through not lending its guiding hand to its youth in past generations?

Mutual Improvement Societies, like the one I was connected with, though crude and blundering in many ways, did much to provide social workers in the next generation, when the bounds of free-dom were made wider still in many social and municipal ways. Some of the members of our society rendered good service in these ways in their native town, or in other districts, some as widely remote as Canada and Australia.

Without knowing it, our poor little society was preparing to help in empire-building. Our contributions never became the elements of reck-less and unscrupulous aggression. So far as I know, they only became quiet fruitful factors of those forces which give to the empire its most assured strength.
When I left my native town I was presented with a volume of tracts by "Benjamin Parsons of Ebley," Stroud. They contained some of the most vigorous and sane writing then extant for "the people," who had just then been moved by the great stir produced by "The People's Charter."

I mention the book only to show the trend of many of our discussions, and also that it was presented to me as "a memento of a consistent and efficient membership of more than four years."

The book was in very humble form, but its inscription was loaded with an adulation which I dare not quote. The writer, who was a collier, would have surprised Johnson by his Johnsonese style. But what matter, a man who toiled amid the perils and hardships of a collier's life in those days, and won the culture of literary expression, even if a little too rotund, had done something altogether noble, and had done it by the bravery of his own self-help.

So much then for lowly Mutual Improvement Societies in the barren times of the Forties and Fifties of the nineteenth century.


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NOTE: The "Cockerton Judgment" of 1901 caused a crisis by undermining the legality of "higher grade schools" for children over 12. A temporary fix allowed the schools to operate one more year.

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