Ancestry UK

Charles Shaw — When I was a Child

Charles Shaw was born in August 1832 at Piccadilly Street, Tunstall, the sixth of eight children of Enoch Shaw, painter and gilder, and Ann nee Mawdesley. He attended a dame school run by Betty Wedgwood in Tunstall, then began work as a mould runner to an apprentice muffin maker, earning a shilling a week. When he was eight, he moved to another factory as a handle maker. In 1842 his father lost his job after participating in a strike and for a few weeks the family were forced into Wolstanton & Burslem union workhouse at Chell.

Charles later became a minister, a mill owner, and a writer. His book, When I was a Child, was published in 1903 under the pen name of "An Old Potter" — some extracts are included below. Some of the events that Shaw recounted were made use of by Arnold Bennett in his 1910 novel Clayhanger.


The Journey to Chell

Early in the morning we left a home without a morsel of food. We called on a relative who had kindly provided breakfast for us, and yet it was a wretched meal for my parents. I remember the choking sobs, though I did not understand them as I did afterwards. I remember, too, how the food seemed to choke as much as the sobs, and the vain entreaties to "eat a little more." We went by the field road to Chell, so as to escape as much observation as possible. One child had to be carried as she was too young to walk. The morning was dull and cheerless. I had been through those fields in sunshine, and when the singing of birds made the whole scene very pleasant. Now, when the silence was broken, it was only by deep agonising sobs. If we could have seen what was driving us so reluctantly up that hill to the workhouse ("Bastile," as it was bitterly called then), we should have seen two stern and terrible figures — Tyranny and Starvation. No other powers could have so relentlessly hounded us along. None of us wanted to go, but we must go, and so we came to our big home for the time. The very vastness of it chilled us. Our reception was more chilling still. Everybody we saw and spoke to looked metallic, as if worked from within by a hidden machinery. Their voices were metallic, and sounded harsh and imperative. The younger ones huddled more closely to their parents, as if from fear of these stern officials. Doors were unlocked by keys belonging to bunches, and the sound of keys and locks and bars, and doors banging, froze the blood within us. It was all so unusual and strange, and so unhomelike. We finally landed in a cellar, clean and bare, and as grim as I have since seen in prison cells. We were told this was the place where we should have to be washed and put on our workhouse attire. Nobody asked us if we were tired, or if we had had any breakfast. We might have committed some unnameable crime, or carried some dreaded infection. We youngsters were roughly disrobed, roughly and coldly washed, and roughly attired in rough clothes, our under garments being all covered up by a rough linen pinafore. Then we parted amid bitter cries, the young ones being taken one way and the parents (separated too) taken as well to different regions in that merciful establishment which the statesmanship of England had provided for those who were driven there by its gross selfishness and unspeakable crassness.
   I was ushered or shoved into a large room which I found was both dining and schoolroom. There were many guests assembled, and on the principle, "The more the merrier," we ought to have dined merrily. But I saw no merriment, not even in that company of boys, at whose age Heaven usually endows them with almost irrepressible fun. I saw hungry-looking lads, with furtive glances, searching everything and everybody, and speaking in subdued whispers. I saw a stern, military, cadaverous-looking man, who was said to be the schoolmaster. I noticed his chilling glances, carrying menace in every look. When dinner was ready this stony-looking individual bent his head a few seconds and mumbled something. I suppose it was grace he was saying before meat, but as far as I could see there was no grace in anything he did. I noticed he did not join us in our repast, and I know now he was a wise man for not doing so. He had asked God's blessing on what we were to eat ; but he would have cursed it had he had to eat it himself. It was a fine piece of mockery, though I did not know it then, or I should have admired his acting. I was hungry, but that bread ! that greasy water ! those few lumps of something which would have made a tiger's teeth ache to break the fibres of ! the strangeness, the repulsiveness, and the loneliness, made my heart turn over, and I turned over what I could not eat to those near me, who devoured voraciously all I could spare. It was the first great dinner I ever attended, and I didn't like it. I have been at other big dinners where there were many courses, and flowers, and gleaming silver, glass, and other amenities. But this big dinner was simply coarse, and looked only coarse even for a poor lad who had not been too daintily fed. In the afternoon we had our school work to do, and as I could read well I had no trouble with such lessons as were given. But if some of the other lads had had heads made of leather stuffed with hay they could not have got more knocks. It was a brutal place for the "dull boy." However hard he worked, and however patiently he strove, he got nothing but blows. If the devil had kept a school to teach boys how not to learn, he could not have succeeded better than that schoolmaster who asked God's blessing on the dinner he didn't share. Tea and supper by a wise economy were joined together. The New Poor Law was to be economical if anything, even to the least quantity of food a growing boy's stomach could do with. But supper time came. What would it bring ? That was the question for me. It brought a hunch of bread and a jug of skilly. I had heard of workhouse skilly but had never before seen it. I had had poor food before this, but never any so offensively poor as this. By what rare culinary-making nausea and bottomless fatuousness it could be made so sickening I never could make out. Simple meal and water, however small the amount of meal, honestly boiled, would be palatable. But this decoction of meal and water and mustiness and fustiness was most revolting to any healthy taste. It might have been boiled in old clothes, which had been worn upon sweating bodies for three-score years and ten. That workhouse skilly was the vilest compound I ever tasted, unutterably insipid, and it might never have been made in a country where either sugar or salt was known.
   Skilly in those days was the synonym for Bastile repulsiveness, and I can well understand how that came to pass, having tasted such a malignant mockery of food. My supper that first night was as disappointing as my first dinner had been. But here I was, caged as in iron bars, with no power to say what I liked, even to a pinch of salt. Oh, "august Mother of Free Nations!" too august to look down at thy poorest and weakest, bound in a tyranny which closed the lips from even saying, "A little salt, please."
   Soon after supper, prayers were read by that saintly-looking schoolmaster — saintly, that is, if flintiness and harshness can make a saint good enough to read prayers in such a place. Our schoolmaster was distinctly two personages. In matters of school work, he was always militant and menacing. His face to all the appeals rising from the faces of those poor children day by day was as chilling as the grey of a winter's sky. No gleam of sunshine ever seemed to fall on the face of any child. Yet when he read prayers he tried to be awe-inspiring by speaking in his deepest tones, but the tones and the face never suggested the thought of a Father above who watched over us. The feeling in us was, while the prayer was going on, that He was rather an infinite schoolmaster who was mercifully distant and invisible.
   We had been under the vicarious care of the Guardians during the day. We were now commended to the care of our Heavenly Guardian for the night. If we had to interpret the one by the other we should have gone uneasily to our beds. But some of us had the faith of children who had prayed at their mothers' knees, and we never thought of such a comparison. We thought only of One who was to us, "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild." We believed He was looking upon us in that cold loneliness, away from our fathers and mothers, and we thought of Him as we saw Him in His glorified form in pictures blessing little children.
   Our bedroom was a long, narrow room, with the beds in rows on each side of the room. Down the middle of the room was a long, narrow passage. The bed clothing was scant enough, and the beds hard enough for athletic discipline. At the end of the room, near the staircase, was a wide, shallow tub. There were boys there as cruel as neglect and badness could make them. They soon found out the timid ones, and would "walk the midnight air" to frighten all they could by ghostly appearances. A poor lad, seeking the tub at night, would sometimes shriek through some brutal attempt to frighten him. By sheer weariness some would soon drop off to sleep, while others, alive with fears, would have to listen to the most harrowing stories of ghosts, boggarts and murders. Every new boy had to sing a song or tell a tale — the other boys wanted a taste of his quality — the first night, and pitied was that poor boy to be who could neither sing nor tell a tale. He was bullied, was pulled out of bed, and scarified by pitiless mockery such as that of "a schoolboy ere he's learned to pity." There were, of course, demons among these youngsters, made so partly by the cruel treatment they themselves daily received. These demons, by the grace of the Guardians, governor and schoolmaster, were permitted each night to hold their revels, and so long as they kept within their bedroom they might riot in their cruelty. That bedroom brought strange contrasts of company together. Misfortune brought boys there who shrank to the very narrow of their souls from the brutalities, obscenities and coarseness allowed. Other boys were there who were verily "children of the devil" ; yet these two sorts of boys were forced into association and community. If "guardian angels" looked over those beds they must have seen little hearts palpitating with horror and fear, and that helpless wonder of a child which finds no reason anywhere for things as they are. Feverishly and restlessly I spent that first night. Hunger and terror were about my bed. A lively imagination made real and present some of the characters in the tales which had been told by the boys who were now asleep. I saw the ghosts they had spoken of. I saw the murderers, red-handed, rushing through the room. I heard their footsteps, and only found out too late that the footsteps were those of the poor little fellows who were visiting the tub at the end of the room. Sanitation was an angel undreamed of in the workhouses in those days, as well as in England generally. That tub, too, had to be carried down the stairs every morning before breakfast by two small boys in turn.

Sunday Dinner

This first day's experience of the Bastile was like most others, and the night's too. On the Sunday, I remember, we were taken to church in the morning. After the church the clergyman came to our "dining-room," but, like the schoolmaster, not to dine with us. He was to say "grace before meat" in place of the schoolmaster as it was a most sacred day. He also gave us a preliminary homily as long as the sermon he had given in church. We stood up while this was given. We were told on that and other Sundays, as I well remember, of the great mercies we enjoyed, of the good food provided, of the comfortable clothing we had, and how we were cared for by those about us. All this was said while before us on the table lay a small hunk of bread, a small plate with a small slice of thin, very thin cheese, and some jugs of water. This was our Sunday dinner, and for such a dinner "that good man, the clergyman," was brought to say grace. It was a dinner we liked, nevertheless, because of the bit of cheese with its appetising taste, and its power, as was said in those days, "to eat a lot of bread." And because we liked it we disliked the parson for keeping us so long from enjoying it. However, the homily and the grace came to an end at last and the parson departed, but not to a dinner, however sumptuous, that he relished more than we did that bit of cheese. This was the one bit of food that reminded us of home. It was tasty in itself and cheering in its association, so there went up to Heaven that day from the hearts of those poor lads a thanksgiving, "uttered or unexpressed," more acceptable to the Divine Father than went up from many a table "groaning with luxuries."
   Sunday afternoon brought an hour of unspeakable joy. The children who had mothers were permitted to go to the women's room. It can easily be imagined what happened then. Bedlam was let loose for an hour. Wild joy, frantic exclamations, every conceivable form of speech possible to such people under such circumstances were employed. Love went mad in many cases. But all did not give way to the wild revelry of passion. Some mothers and children hung together in quiet, intense endearments. These were conveyed more by soft pressures of hands, embraces, and lips, than by words. Even among the poor many stand worlds apart. This was the one sweet merciful relief in the harsh discipline of the workhouse.
   It was a reminder of home and of the humanities outside. It was an oasis in the desert of our common life. The Sunday afternoon shone through all the week. Even the troubles which burdened the children's hearts got release on the Sunday. Many stories of young griefs were told in the mother's ear, but forgotten as soon as told. There was, however, one dreadful moment came, when the bell was rung in the room by a porter to tell us our time was gone. It would have made no difference if that bell had been a silver one, its tones would have been as harsh as metal could make them, and the man who rang it would have been regarded as the incarnation of cruelty. We never thought of discipline, order and authority. The man who rang the bell was alone the author of all this dismay, and hurry-scurry, and sudden tears, and even yells, seen and heard in the women's room. We knew that he would let us have no supper that night if we did not leave the room at once. Woe to any stubborn or nervous loiterer. For that child there were menacing words, harsh looks and a supperless night. "There must be discipline, you know" ; yes, there must, as there must be many things under which "the whole creation," gentle and simple, must groan and travail in pain. But true discipline should never take the form of cruelty.

A Case of Discipline

There was one "case of discipline" while I was at the Bastile to which I must refer. It was a conspicuous case, and therefore had "to be made an example of." So ran the official cant. Discipline was administered with unfailing regularity every day. Hardly a boy escaped some form of it, and it was usually a merciless form. It seemed to be a standing regulation that this treatment was as necessary for the soul as skilly was for the body. No distinction was made, the same cuts and slashes and cuffs were aimed at the mobile and sensitive boy as were aimed at the sluggish and dull boy. The one boy would writhe and sob, and the other maintained a stolid silence. The case I am now going to refer to was that of a boy of lively temperament and unflagging energy. His activity was always bringing him into trouble. The theory formed by the officials seemed to be that his activity was essentially vicious, and so, instead of trying to guide it into wise and useful developments, it must be sternly repressed. Such a policy goaded the lad. He became defiant and reckless. Punish him they might, but he could not be repressed. One day, after being unusually provoked and punished, he scaled the workhouse wall, and bolted. Soon a hue and cry was raised, searchers were sent out, and after a few hours the lad was captured and brought back. This incident made an awful flutter in our little dove-cote. All were sorry for the lad, for he had made no enemies among us. All sorts of punishment were imagined as likely to be inflicted, but the boys who had been longest in the workhouse said he would be flogged in the presence of the other boys with a pickled birch rod — that is a rod which has been kept soaking in salt water. After the usual skilly supper that night we were all told to remain in the room. None were to go out on any account. The long table was cleared, and a smaller square table was brought in and placed in the middle of the room. The knowing ones whispered that the flogging would take place on this table, and this news made us all curious, eager, yet fearful. Several persons came in whom we did not usually see. Then the governor came in. To us poor lads he was the incarnation of every dread power which a mortal could possess. He was to us the Bastile in its most repulsive embodiment. Personally, he may have been an amiable man, I don't know. He never gave one look or touch which led me to feel he was a man. He was only "the governor," and as such, in those days, when the New Poor Laws meant making a workhouse a dread and a horror to be avoided, he was perhaps only acting the part he felt to be due to his office. His functions, and any outward compassion, were as wide asunder as the poles. He may have had compassion. He may have been inwardly tortured by the necessity for outward callousness. May Heaven forgive me if I do him any wrong, but word or act of kindliness from him I never heard or saw towards myself or anyone else. Now, however, the governor was in the room, and his presence seemed to fill it with an awful shadow. We were duly informed by him what was to take place, the bad qualities of the runaway were ponderously and slowly described, and we were exhorted in menacing tones to take warning by his "awful example." This homily was enough of itself to make us shiver, and shiver most of us did with fear of those present and fear of the sight we were about to witness. When the solemn harangue was finished, the poor boy was pushed into the room like a sheep for the slaughter. He had a wild, eager look. His eyes flashed, and searched the room and all present with rapid glances. His body was stripped down to his waist, and in the yellow and sickly candlelight of the room his heart could be seen beating rapidly against his poor thin ribs. To punish such a boy as that, half nourished, and trembling with fear, was a monstrous cruelty. However, discipline was sacred, and could do no wrong in a Bastile sixty years ago. The boy was lifted upon the table, and four of the biggest boys were called out to hold each a leg or an arm. The boy was laid flat on the table, his breeches well pushed down, so as to give as much play as possible for the birch rod. The lad struggled and screamed. Swish went the pickled birch on his back, administered by the schoolmaster, who was too flinty to show any emotion. Thin red stripes were seen across the poor lad's back after the first stroke. They then increased in number and thickness as blow after blow fell on his back. Then there were seen tiny red tricklings following the course of the stripes, and ultimately his back was a red inflamed surface, contrasting strongly with the skin on his sides. How long the flogging went on I cannot say, but screaming became less and less piercing, and at last the boy was taken out, giving vent only to heavy sobs at intervals. If he was conscious, I should think only partially so. The common rumour was that he would have his back washed with salt water. Of this I don't know. I do know there had been cruelty enough. A living horror, hateful in every aspect, had been put before the eyes of the boys present. To see a poor lad with red rivulets running down his back and sides, as I see it all again even yet, among strangers, with the governor's awful presence, with the schoolmaster's fiercely gleaming eyes, away from father, mother and home; — all this when our late gracious Queen was a young queen. The spirit of the New Poor Law and of the Corn Laws was present in that torture-room that night. Lord Brougham, not many years before this, had said that "charity is an interference with a healing process of nature, which acts by increasing the rate of mortality, and thereby raising wages." Political Economy was then on the side of harshness. This was the time of Ricardo's "iron law." Flog on then, my governor and schoolmaster. No "Guardians" will protest against your cruelty to that writhing waif, and there is "no chiel among ye takin' notes," as in a later day, to bring down the judgment of the public conscience upon your heads. So far from this, perhaps the said "Guardians of the Poor," will "note with satisfaction," at their next meeting, that "you have quite properly maintained the discipline of the house." House ? That should be the shrine of a home. Was there a more ghastly mockery than that to be seen that night on that table with its bleeding waif? Such was the Bastile sixty years ago. Such was one scene in Chell, and if you drop the "C" in the word it only remains more truly descriptive of the place where such "discipline" could take place. How that poor little wretch got on that night I never knew. He did not come to his usual bed in our room. Perhaps he was thrust into some "black hole," or lonely room, to add to his sufferings. His "guardian angel" and himself would have a sorry night that night. Probably the governor and schoolmaster, and those other "Guardians," would all sleep in peace. The former "had done their duty," and the latter slept in the assurance they would do so.
   What tragedies and mockeries get mixed up under our stars. Governor, schoolmaster, the Guardians and the poor waif have probably slept for many years. Let us hope that sleeping so long with the clods of the valley, and in combination with divine influence, they will come forth to a sweeter life. We went that night to our beds scared, and wild with fear and excitement. The long, dark room became a veritable purgatory, with red flames of memory mingling with the red blood we had seen flowing down the boy's back. There was little sleep in our room for some boys, all their pulses were alive with fear and terror. The night bore on slowly and wearily. The broken whispers told of restlessness and sleeplessness. But the morning came, and the skilly, and the room where we had witnessed the bleeding back of the boy. The boy didn't come, however. Where he was none of us knew. I never saw him again, for in a few days came the joyful news that my father had got a situation. I left the place with a delight no words could express, and I have only once since permitted myself to see the place where I first felt the degradation of existence, and saw the infamies which were associated with such guardianship. The New Poor Law was wise enough, economically considered, but there could have been the economy without the brutality and harshness and humiliation pressed into the souls of old and young. Any system which makes young boys ashamed of their existence must be somewhat devilish in its evil ingenuity, and that was what Bastile "discipline" did for me.

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