Stoke-on-Trent Local History



Poverty and the poor Law


Previous: Development of Local Government
Next: The Poor Law

the face of Arnold Bennett watches over a family wending their way to the workhouse
the face of Arnold Bennett watches over a family wending their way to the workhouse
from a mural in the Potteries Shopping Centre

"The Bastille was on the top of a hill about a couple of miles long, and the journey thither was much lengthened by the desire of the family to avoid the main road. They were all intensely ashamed; Darius was ashamed to tears, and did not know why; even his little sister wept and had to be carried, not because she was shoeless and had had nothing to eat, but because she was going to the Ba-ba-bastille; she had no notion what the place was. It proved to be the largest building that Darius had ever seen; and indeed it was the largest in the district; they stood against its steep sides like flies against a kennel. Then there was rattling of key-bunches, and the rasping voices of sour officials, who did not inquire if they would like a meal after their stroll. And they were put into a cellar and stripped and washed and dressed in other people's clothes, and then separated, amid tears. And Darius was pitched into a large crowd of other boys, all clothed like himself. He now understood the reason for shame; it was because he could have no distinctive clothes of his own, because he had somehow lost his identity. All the boys had a sullen, furtive glance, and when they spoke it was in whispers."


The poor house that Bennett based his emotive writings on, was in fact the poor house of Chell. Chell is a suburb of Tunstall on the easterly road to the ancient settlement of Moorland Biddulph. It was to this place that the truly poor of the district would be incarcerated in the mid 1800's.

The Union Workhouse or the Bastille in Bennett's novel "Clayhanger" would strike fear into the hearts of the people of the area. The residents of Tunstall would hurry past its door, not daring to look up or breath the air around the building for fear that they would catch the extreme poverty which seemed to afflict some families, like the nameless horror of an unspeakable disease. The horrors that awaited the poor residents of the Bastille so graphically captured by Bennett.

"In the low room where the boys were assembled there fell a silence, and Darius heard someone whisper that the celebrated boy who had run away and been caught would be flogged before supper. Down the long room ran a long table. Some one brought in three candles in tin candlesticks and set them near the end of this table. Then somebody else brought in a picked birch-rod, dripping with salt water from which it had been taken, and also a small square table. Then came some officers, and a clergyman, and then, surpassing the rest in majesty, the governor of the Bastille, a terrible man. The governor made a speech about the crime of running away from the Bastille, and when he had spoken for a fair time, the clergyman talked in the same sense; and then a captured tiger, dressed like a boy, with darting fierce eyes, was dragged in by two men, and laid face down on the square table, and four boys were commanded to step forward and hold tightly the four members of this tiger. And, his clothes having previously been removed as far as his waist, his breeches were next pulled down his legs. Then the rod was raised and it descended swishing, and blood began to flow; but far more startling than the blood were the shrill screams of the tiger; they were so loud and deafening that the spectators could safely converse under their shelter. The screaming grew feebler, then ceased; then the blows ceased, and the unconscious infant (cured of being a tiger) was carried away leaving a trail of red drops along the floor."


A print of Chell Workhouse, circa 1839.
A print of Chell Workhouse, circa 1839.
picture: Exploring the Potteries

In the Workhouse this ration was only 137oz (approx.) of food per inmate per week (about half of that allowed to a prisoner).

The staples were bread, cheese, gruel (thin oatmeal), soup, potatoes, and very rarely meat and bacon. Food was also stripped of everything that might have been attractive to inmates. Especially salt. And in the early workhouses of the 1830s inmates had not even been allowed cutlery.



"Samson Rowley, a half-famished looking lad of about 15 years of age, was charged with neglecting his work as an apprentice to Mr. Ridgway, of Shelton. It was shown that the lad was not sufficiently fed by a brother with whom he lived, who had a large family, which circumstance led a brother-in-law to obtain him a situation on the railway, where he could earn 12s per week, and provide for himself. He was discharged on promising to return to his master, and Mr. Ridgway kindly promised to assist  in bettering his condition."

Staffordshire Advertiser, 10.07.1847

 "Poverty and the prospect of poverty were the biggest problems which working families had to face"
(M. Anderson, Family Structure.. p.166-7)

What is poverty?

Two people of the same sex, height and build may receive the same wage but one is above subsistence level and the other isn't because they do different jobs, one which requires a great deal of physical effort, and therefore more food, while the other works as a clerk.

It becomes impossible to tie down with exactness what constitutes the amount of food needed to keep body and soul together. Poverty doesn't just involve food, but clothing and shelter as well.
And then there is the environment to consider. Compare a farm labourer and a potter living in the same sized house and earning the same money; one environment is poorer than the other, and highly likely to cause illness and shorten life.

Few families could save to meet temporary losses in income, so that even short or comparatively minor crises could cause destitution. Gradually working people tried to protect their position through savings clubs, friendly societies, burial clubs and so on in an age when public welfare was limited and provided through the poor law.

Income and expenditure

By the mid 19th C wages in the pottery industry were considered to be very good compared with other industries, despite fluctuations in trade.

For example: in the 1860's 90% of adult men in the pottery industry earned 20 shillings per week; in the cotton industry only 50% of men earned that amount. In the coal and iron industry wages were lower.

Women could earn 9-10 shillings per week, plus overtime. Boys began at 2s to 3s 6d at 13-14 years old and girls earned 1s a week aged 10-13 years.
(Source: Dupree)

Michael Anderson (Family Structure) used the following figures, calculated by Rowntree about 1900 as a rough guide to the mid 19th C: 

Cost of subsistence for an adult: 7s per week
Cost of additional adult: 3s 8d
Cost of additional child: 2s 10d

 It can be seen that the margin is narrow. All the figures are approximations because of fluctuations in trade and overtime and also the particular combination of circumstances of each family.



Previous: Development of Local Government
Next: The Poor Law


questions / comments / contributions? email: Steve Birks

Updated 30 Nov 2008