|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 2 - Work as a Mould Runner
next: first knowledge of disadvantage
I began to work, but I could never see in what way my poor little bit of an education could prepare me for such as came to my hand.
This began when I was a little over seven years of age, and it was in this wise:
It is true Queen Victoria had come to the throne after dynasties of confusion, corruption and weakness. She was a bright, pure presence, and her gracious looks and acts carried the promise of a reign whose beneficent depths and heights no statesman then foresaw. We know now she was a remedial and healing influence from the first. In nothing was her solicitude more active than in relief of the oppression of child-workers, and the poverty of the poor. No wonder her goodness, and her sanctified sorrow, made the nation, the empire, and even the world render her such a homage as the mere pomp of monarchs can never command.
When the Queen came to the throne, work was scarce and food was dear. The Corn Laws were bringing into play their most cruel and evil results. One of these results was that little children had to compete for the decreasing sum of available work. As no Factory Act applied in the district where I began to work, the work of the children could be used as harsh necessity or harsher greed determined.
loading the bottle kilns with ware
We had an old neighbour, a kindly-disposed old woman, full of sympathy for her poorer neighbours, suffering herself, perhaps, a little less than those about her, and so willing to do what she could to help them. She had a son, Jack, who was an apprentice in a "pot-works" as a "muffin-maker." His mother, knowing the poverty of my parents, suggested I should become Jack's "mould-runner."
It was no unusual thing for this stove and the chimney pipe to be red with the intense heat of the fire. Frequently there was no light in this stove-room but such as came from the glare of the fire. It was the mould-runner's business to place the plaster moulds on the shelves on their edge, slightly leaning against the wall, so as to get full surface heat, and to avoid damage to the soft plate on the moulds.
The latest developments of irrigation in Egypt would not surpass that of the "sweat of the brow" and face and back of this boy. When so many dozens of the soft plates had been made, and had attained a certain dryness, the moulds were carried to the "master" to be tooled or "backed" on his whirligig, so as to smooth the outer surface of the plate. They were taken back one by one into the stove-room to be still further dried, so as to shell off from the plaster mould, and then the "green" plates were gathered in "bungs," about two dozen in each "bung," ready for "fetling."
an adult pottery worker wedging clay c.1900
This "fetling " was the last process of the day's work, and a comparatively easy time for both "master" and boy, and very welcome, as both were exhausted by the long hard labour of the day. I should say there were regular intervals of change in the work when a "set" of plates had been made, and this interval was filled up by the platemaker and the boy "wedging clay", or making "battings." This "'wedging clay" was nominally the work of the boy, sometimes assisted by the platemaker, and the latter made the battings, that is, from balls of wedged or refined clay he made the pancake-like shapes of clay which he had to use in making the next "set" of plates.
Thank God there is no mould-running or wedging now. Mechanical contrivances have done away with these cruel forms of child-labour. But such was the condition of life of thousands of youths "when I was a child," and the great humane Parliament of England, composed of lords and gentlemen of kind and beneficent hearts, never once thought of the little Pottery slaves. Something was done for the children of Lancashire and Yorkshire, but for those of the Potteries, either in pot-works or brickyards, nothing was done till many years after the time of which I write.
While Elizabeth Barrett Browning was writing her " Cry of the Children " in heart-piercing words, I, and many other children, were making that cry in heart-piercing accents. That poem comes to me like a sort of poetic autobiography, written not with ink, but with bitter tears. Read that poem, and you have the inner history of English children sixty years ago as it could only be given by the sympathy and imagination of a great poet. Some poetry is truer than any " chronicle," however realistic.
But the lords and gentlemen of our district were deaf, and dumb, and blind. This mould-running, then, was my first employment. What affinity there was between it and my learning to read the Bible with ease at old Betty's school I never knew. No legislation of that day ever condescended to inform me, either. In fact, no legislation knew of my existence or occupation, and that of thousands of others, except, perhaps, one aldermanic legislator, who, through the glare and glory of city dinners in London, could hardly be expected to think anything of the condition of the childrenwho worked for him in the Potteries.
were let in the kiln firemouths and batted - that is, coal was loaded onto
There was another part of a mould-runner's business, not the pleasantest, which should be mentioned. The poor lad had to get a fire lighted in the iron stove before mentioned, so that work could be begun by six o'clock in the morning.
The fireman got exasperated by such an intruder, because he was afraid any disturbances of his fire might endanger the proper firing of his ware, and this was a very responsible matter. His responsibility often made him brutal. There were, of course, instances of rare fun, where a boy's tact and audacity would beat the fireman's utmost vigilance. This fire-hunting went on in all seasons of the year, in sunshine and in pelting storms of rain and snow. Shivering or sweating this hazardous business had to be done, and was done, with mocking laughter in success, or with howling torture in defeat.
Every morning brought its peril for the poor mould-runner. I have seen sights of sickening brutality inflicted upon mere children, and yet such was the social callousness of the time that neither masters nor men thought of measures to do away with these cruelties. I remember after I had been working for Jack, my "master," for some weeks, he proposed one day that I should have a day's "play." This was the word used for a holiday. His reason for doing this was that he would save my day's wage of twopence.
Poor Jack! I shall never forget his face at that moment. More than sixty years have gone since then, but I shall never forget his confusion of face. What was worse for Jack was, that in my simplicity I told in the work¬shop that Jack's mother had paid me for my day's play. This brought upon him the laughter and banter of his shopmates. Jack took it all very quietly, and, to his credit be it said, he never blamed me for this, but I never got another day's play on such welcome terms.
next: first knowledge of disadvantage
Mould Running - Boys were often employed as 'mould runners' which consisted of running in all weathers from one building to another.
Clay Wedging - "some plate-makers even require their boys to what is called wedge their clay, which is a very laborious process, and consists in lifting large lumps of clays, and throwing them forcibly down on a hard surface, to free it from air and render it more compact. These boys are usually thin and pale, and frequently suffer from pulmonary and digestive diseases. Sickness prevails among them extensively."