I believe most of us have a few cherished heirloom plates, bowls or cups in our cupboard which may have been handed down from loved ones, or which caught our eye in an antique shop, or even a thrift store. From the shelf they call out to us with their beauty, their intricate design or depth of color. We turn them over to inspect the maker’s mark. Who was the potter? When was it made? Could it be a highly-desirable collectible?
Admittedly, I have also sold quite a few pieces on EBay, but I also have quite a few pieces with which I will not part. Do I bring them out when guests come over? No … but I love to display them, inspect them and wonder what story lies behind their manufacture. I conjure up images of a romantic industry of rugged, muscular potters, each in their drafty factories, sitting at their wheel throwing on a rough ball of clay and shaping it until the clay morphs into the symmetrical shape the potter had intended, creating the stunning pieces we have come to revere.
What I’ve never thought about was how could these individual potters produce thousands of pieces of pottery, in the over 300 factories located in the six-town area which made up the “pottery district” of Stoke-on-Trent. It had to have taken hundreds if not thousands of people, working continuously, to keep up with the demand of the Victorian era. Who were these people?
Sadly, the majority of people who worked in the potteries were children. Some as young as five or six … with most children in the area employed by the age of eight. Why? Because children were cheap. Most of the factory owners saw nothing wrong with children working to run errands, carry raw materials, and provide power for the potters machines.
Of course, adults were employed too by the factories, quite often the children’s parents. The adults were paid on a ‘piece-meal’ basis, which meant their earnings were dependent on how many saleable pieces they actually produced, but not the children. The children were the ‘batters’, the ‘jiggers’ and worst of all, ‘mould runners’.
For individual pieces, a typical potter or thrower would need three helpers … one to actually turn the wheel, one to cut the clay into the right-size balls, and another to carry the finished pieces to the stove or kiln where they would be fired. As the demand grew, more and more pottery was made using molds. The plate-maker or presser would press the balls of clay into a plaster mold while it was spinning on a ‘jigger’ wheel. The plate-maker also required three helpers … a ‘jigger’ turner, a ‘batter’ to prepare the clay, and finally a ‘mould runner‘ who would take the plaster molds, each with clay plates on them and then run the molds to the stove buildings.
The young boy would place the molds on the shelves in the oven rooms, and then pick up two dried molds with plates on them and run back. This would continue for 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, with Sundays off.
Many of the children worked much longer hours because they were expected to be in the factories before the adults arrived in order to have the fires lit, the water brought in, and the clay ready for the potters. Working a 72-hour week for an eight or ten-year old was commonplace. And many employers saw nothing wrong with this. Let’s not forget that, at the end of the day, the children then had to walk home, sometimes two to three miles. Because of the long work days, children could not attend school, most never learning to read or write. If they did, it was through Sunday school.
Of course, there were many other dangerous jobs being done by young children in the potteries including carrying 60 lb. baskets of clay up to the workshops … or working in the 100 degree oven rooms … stacking the earthenware to be fired and then bringing it out again when finished … but the most dangerous of all jobs at the factories was dipping the fired pots into the liquid glaze which contained raw lead. Needless to say, mistakes by tired children happened often. But these would not be tolerated … the children would be beaten, or not allowed to take their meal breaks.
I’m sure , by now, you’re asking yourself how could the parents allow their children to work under these circumstances. Because poverty was everywhere and families needed every penny they and their children could earn, regardless of how dirty or dangerous the work. And ‘pennies’ were just about what they did earn.
During Victorian times, children not only worked in the potteries and factories, they worked in the mines, as chimney sweeps, as ‘ratters’ and even as ‘pickpockets’ as we’ve learned from Charles Dickens novel, OLIVER TWIST. In 1840 a commission was set up to inquire into the state of employed children. Adults and children were interviewed by the Commissioner in 1841 as were employers, religious leaders and school teachers.
This is an interview with Robert Hood, age 10:
“I run moulds for father; have been employed three years for Mr. Hood. I cannot read; I cannot write; never went to day school ; I go to Sunday school. My father is a saucer- maker; he is always in work; don’t know how much he gets a week; but I get 3s.
Have no mother. Have one sister and one brother. My sister stops at home to look after house; she cannot read. My brother goes to school, but he is young yet. I go home to breakfast, and have milk-meat ; and go home to dinner, when I get bacon and tatees.
I like my work very well; would like to work in the warehouse better, cause they are paid there for working till nine, and I am not; I think ours harder: and get so much a day. I am always very tired when I go home at night, get my supper, and be glad enough to go to bed.
‘Tis very hot in the mould-room, and a good deal hotter in summer; it makes us sweat, and we drink plenty of water. I catch cold very often, but have never been laid up with it. Father flogs me some-times, if I let go a mould or break a saucer ; nobody else. Master is very good to me.”
Reformers like Lord Shaftesbury were very worried about children at work, and he, and other politicians tried to change the laws in the “Factory Acts” so that children under nine were not permitted to work, and that they must have schooling. But potteries were not classified as factories until the 1860s. Unfortunately, changes did not happen as quickly as they should have and as recently as WWII children under the age of 16 were still finding work in the potteries.
So, the next time I pick up that Wedgewood, Burleigh Ware or Royal Doulton figurine or plate, I’ll be thinking about the young boy or girl slogging away in the potteries for pennies a week to bring home to their families, for their not having the opportunity to go to school, or even to play with other children. I won’t romanticize about brawny potters creating magnificent pieces of porcelain, but rather the “mould runners” without whom I wouldn’t be holding that plate.