Imagining Sam Burgess

In his history of The Common People of Great Britain, J. F. C. Harrison spells out plainly what all family historians eventually come to understand: no matter how curious, sympathetic or imaginative we are, we will never be able to recreate more than a fragment of the experiences and sentiments of our working-class ancestors.[i]

Don Gayton, when he attempts to bring his great-grandfather Thomas Gayton to life, writes that lives which were largely undocumented “can be expanded by inferential research, but far more substantially by a kind of geographically centered imagination.” [ii] It is this imagination the family historian learns to develop. We carefully research the skeletal facts of a life—the baptismal record; the census entry; if we are lucky, the will—and then we immerse ourselves in the local history. Once we have some knowledge of the place and the times in which our ancestors lived, the bare-bones facts of their lives take on new meaning. Many times we are able to conclude, “given this detail and that piece of local history, almost certainly this was a reality for my ancestor.” I experienced just such a moment of clarity the day George Burgess’s death certificate came in the mail.
Knowing what I did about George’s life and times, I could vividly imagine what his death would have meant to his family—especially to his young son, Sam.

Sam Burgess was born in 1838 in Longton, Staffordshire, the southernmost and the roughest of six towns in the English Midlands known collectively as the Potteries.

The locals called Longton “Neck End”; Robert Slaney, the health commissioner who surveyed the area in 1845, called it “a rude scattered hamlet without form, a chaos of unarranged mud huts.” [iii]

There were two main jobs in the Potteries of the 1840s: making “pots” (which weren’t pots at all, but dishes) and mining coal (to fuel the ovens where the pots were fired). Sam’s father George was a mining engineer in the coal fields east of Longton. He married Hannah Wilshaw after his first wife died and became a father to her three illegitimate children, Cicely, William and Priscilla. Sam was born a year and a half later, followed by Joseph and George at two-year intervals.

Life in the Staffordshire coalfields was unsettled and grim. Most mine jobs didn’t last long and the family moved house often. After a devastating miners’ strike in 1842, George was hired on at the Mossfield Colliery in Adderley Green.[iv] For a time, the family’s future must have seemed at least somewhat secure. Then, on April 16, 1844, George Burgess fell down a coal pit and died. In an instant, Hannah was the single mother of six. Childhood was a luxury she could not afford for her children. Young Sam would have to start earning wages. He was six years old.

In the Potteries of the 1840s, thousands of children worked in the potbanks. The ones as young as Sam were hired as jigger-turners, dipper’s helpers, and mould-runners. When Samuel Scriven submitted his Report on Child Employment in the Staffordshire Potteries to the House of Commons in 1842, he concluded that the youngest children in the potbanks lived a life that was little removed from slavery.[v] The testimony of the children he interviewed reveals what life was like for a boy like Sam: “I run moulds for William Bentley, have been at work five years. I never get a bit of play. I would rather work 10 hours a day than 15, should not care then if I had less wages a good sight. I should go to school then and have a bit of time for play.” [vi]

Potters’ jobs were highly specialized: a plate-maker, for example, made nothing but plates. From six in the morning until six at night, he hunched over his “whirler” making plates. This wasn’t art, it was mass production. A good maker could turn out nine hundred plates in a day.

The whirler was part of a jigger, a machine that consisted of two iron frames with a spindle in each: a driving spindle, attached to an iron belt pulley, and a driven spindle, which turned the jigger head, or the whirler. The jig was attached to a moveable arm which the maker would lower and raise as he worked. He made his own jigs from clay and fired them; a plate jig measured about three inches across the top and was curved on the bottom, with a small, rounded notch cut into the curve. The machine was powered by a large vertical wheel, connected to the driving spindle by an endless rope. The maker needed both hands free to throw a plate and shape it on the whirler, so he’d hire a boy like Sam to turn the wheel. That boy was a jigger-turner. “I turn jigger for William Wilcox, used to run moulds. Come to work at six [in the morning] and leave at eight or half-past [in the evening]. I cannot read, I cannot write. I get two shillings a week and am always in regular work.” [vii]

From a mound of wedged clay beside the jigger, the maker would cut off a lump with a wire and roll it quickly between wet hands, pressing it flat as he rolled. He pounded this “bat” on a board until one side was smooth and then he threw it, smooth side down, onto a convex plaster mould attached to the whirler. As the clay spun around on the whirler, the maker coaxed it out gently with the ball of his hand from the center toward the edges. Once it covered the mould completely, he smoothed the surface with a wet knife and cut off any overhanging clay by holding a wire against the edge of the mould as it spun. Then, he pulled the jigger arm toward him with his right hand and held it steady with his left while the notch in the jig shaped the plate’s foot-ring and its curve defined the rim.

At this point, he needed a runner. He couldn’t make nine hundred plates in a day if he had to run each to the stove room. He would lift the mould off the whirler and pass it to a boy like Sam, who ran with it as quickly as he could to the stove—this was a room within a room, four or five yards square, with floor-to-ceiling shelves on all its walls and steps that could be moved along as needed. In the centre of the room was a cast-iron stove, blazing hot. The runner’s job was to set the mould on a shelf, tip it forward carefully until the plate slipped off toward his hand, lean the plate against the wall, and leave it there to dry for about ten minutes while he ran the empty mould back to the maker. Once a plate was partially dry, he returned it to the maker, who slurried its back with a sponge and reapplied the jig. This process gave the plate a crisp finish that couldn’t be achieved the first time because the clay was too soft.

Imagine our boy: back and forth he would run. The faster the maker, the faster the boy had to sprint. The stove room was stifling hot and the only light was the glow of the stove. The maker was paid by the piece and only for those “good from oven.” Breaking a plate was a serious matter, as two young boys told Scriven: “William Bentley licks me sometimes with his fist, he has knocked me the other side of the pot-stove for being so long at breakfast.” “I run moulds for my father; he flogs me sometimes, if I let go a mould or break a saucer.” [viii]

Every half hour, the running would halt while the plate-maker shaped the next set of bats and the mould-runner wedged clay. Outside in the yard, a boy no bigger than Sam began with a block of clay about half his body weight and sliced it in two with a wire. He lifted one half above his head and slammed it down hard against the other, using all the strength he could muster to drive the air out of the clay. Then he’d lift the other half and slam it down hard against the first.[ix] Lift, slam, repeat, until the clay was the consistency of putty and the maker was ready to throw the next set of bats. “I get meal and water for breakfast, and tatoes for dinner, sometimes a bit of bacon. I don’t get enough. I could always eat more if I had it.” [x]

In winter, the temperature outside might reach 20 degrees below freezing while the temperature in the stove room ranged between 100 and 120 degrees. Samuel Scriven reported seeing boys running back and forth between the stove and the yard, barefoot and sweating, without jackets and often without shirts. “The results of such transitions are soon realized,” he wrote. “Many die of consumption, asthma, and acute inflammations.”[xi]

Adult potters were no better off. Dr. J. T. Arledge, senior physician of the North Staffordshire Infirmary, said in 1863 that “the potters as a class, both men and women, represent a degenerated population. . . . They are, as a rule, stunted in growth, ill-shaped, and frequently ill-formed in the chest; they become prematurely old, and are certainly short-lived. . . .” [xii]

Sam may have fared better than most. By 1851, at the age of 14, he had progressed to the job of warehouse boy; he likely began an apprenticeship very soon after. Typically, youths in the potbanks served a five- to seven-year apprenticeship. During that time, they did the work of an adult, often for wages that were lower than a child’s. An apprentice might earn two shillings a week; in consideration of getting no learning, a child not yet apprenticed might expect two shillings and ninepence. Once his apprenticeship was complete, a man’s wages could jump to twelve shillings.[xiii]

Sam Burgess learned to make bowls. Until he died of a stroke in 1899, he hunched over a “whirler” twelve hours a day, six days a week, and made bowls. He married and raised nine children and did his best to keep them out of the potbanks. Sam was solid, a man you could count on. From the age of six.


[i] J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People of Great Britain: A History from the Norman Conquest to the Present. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1985, p. 14.

[ii] Don Gayton, “A Schooner in Memory.” In Lynne Van Luven, ed., Going Some Place: Creative Non-Fiction Across Canada, Regina, Coteau Books, 2000, p. 237.

[iii] unknown source via Pamela Cotton, 1999.

[iv] There is no proof that George Burgess worked at the Mossfield Colliery, but in light of the information on his death certificate, this was the most likely place of employment.

[v] Samuel Scriven, Report on Child Employment in the Staffordshire Potteries, 1842.

[vi] Excerpted from evidence collected at the Scriven enquiry, 1842.

[vii] ibid.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] The descriptions of the pottery-making process are derived from a number of sources, including Charles Shaw, When I Was a Child (1903, reprinted by Churnet Valley Books, 1998); Arnold Bennett, Clayhanger (1910, reprinted by Methuen & Co., 1952); and Charles Counts, Pottery Workshop: a study in the making of pottery from idea to finished form (New York, Macmillan, 1973).

[x] Excerpted from evidence collected at the Scriven enquiry, 1842.

[xi] Scriven, 1842.

[xii] “First Report of the Children’s Employment Commission” 13 June, 1863.

[xiii] Leonard Whiter, Spode: A History of the Family, Factory and Wares from 1733 to 1833. London, Barrie and Jenkins, 1970, p. 4.

3 Responses to “Imagining Sam Burgess”

  1. commatologist

    Thanks, Theresa! I’m still quite attached to the “wrong” Sam Burgess and I often wonder what happened to him. I lose track of him in his 20s, and he may have died fairly young. He and my Sam were born in the same year five miles apart. It was my Sam who ended up the bowlmaker, but he started working at a more reasonable age (14 as I recall).


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