Family Structure in the Staffordshire Potteries: 1840-1880.

Family Structure in the Staffordshire Potteries: 1840-1880. – book reviews

David Levine

Talk about deferred gratification – Dupree began this study in the 1970s, received her doctorate from Oxford in the early 1980s and, now, in the mid-1990s this work sees the light in public! In point of fact, Family Structure in the Staffordshire Potteries bears the imprint of this protracted delivery. Its main point of reference is Michael Anderson’s 1971 monograph on Preston’s Family Structure in the Nineteenth Century. Indeed, much of Dupree’s discussion takes on the character of a friendly argument with Anderson’s pioneering study. This discussion is cross-cut, as it were, with another that draws inspiration from Patrick Joyce’s 1980 book on industrial paternalism in Lancashire – Work, Society and Politics: The Culture of the Factory in Later Victorian England – although this is very much a secondary theme.

The Staffordshire Potteries were a region apart – “a most unusual impression of provincial remoteness, an impression heightened by their odd littleness and shabbiness” is how J. B Priestley viewed them in 1934. One index of their remoteness was the high level of native-born residents, another was the inbredness of the pottery workforce although neither index suggested anything like complete isolation. Rather, their isolation was relatively more intense than either poor, proud Preston or the rest of England and Wales.

The Potteries “odd littleness” is an altogether peculiar construct since the size of firms in the Potteries was very large indeed – in the mid-century the average workforce in region’s 180 companies was 167 although the twenty-five largest pottery firms (all vertically integrated in a series of little workrooms) employed over 500 while the biggest (Mintons and Davenport) had more than 1,000 workers apiece. This concentration of employment compares quite favorably with contemporary cotton mills, coal mines, engineering firms, railways, and iron works. Furthermore, although the region was called “the Potteries” it was, in point of fact, industrially diversified – the presence of coking coal and two varieties of ironstone provided the material basis for both mining and iron working which took off in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. These, too, were exemplars of the most advanced vanguard of Victorian capitalism – in 1867 there were 1,500 workers in the Granville Ironworks while Robert Heath’s firm employed 3,500 men and boys in a complex which included twenty-eight mines, eight blast furnaces, 144 puddling furnaces, and fourteen rolling mills.

This network of industrial plants would not have been on Priestley’s travel agenda, or else how could he have considered the Potteries to be characterized by their “odd littleness.” What does seem to have been striking about the physical geography of the Potteries was their straggling character as the industrial plant was scattered across the countryside round and about the commercial center of Stoke-on-Trent. Adding to the dispersed nature of the landscape were the small townlets which cropped up near the industrial plants. In Etruria – a “factory town” par excellence which was the preserve of the Wedgwood works – there were 966 “Etruscans” in 1861. Although not all Etruscans worked in the Wedgwood works nor were all of Wedgwood’s workers Etruscans, the fit was quite tight. Certainly, the “provincial remoteness” Priestley noted in 1934 was in place eighty years earlier as the Wedgwoods’ influence allowed key workers advances on wages and apprenticeships for their sons while providing paid employment for their wives and daughters in the rabbit warren of workrooms, shops, and finishing departments that had changed but little from the glory days of Josiah Wedgwood himself. Indeed, the “backwardness” of the technical infrastructure is one of the striking characteristics of the pottery industry that gave workers privileged positions.

The labor process in the pottery industry is one of the keys to understanding the family structure of the region’s working-class families. Dupree is at pains to point out that the fit between adult male potters and the industry was not perfect – some of their sons went into mining or ironworking, while not all of their wives or daughters worked for wages – but, overall, the role of the minutely-subdivided pottery industry was a huge, readily-tapped source of work. In this sense, then, the potteries were almost proto-industrial since there was no central power plant and each of the processes of production was small, skilled, and self-contained. It was the genius of Josiah Wedgwood to create a system whereby these separate units could be brought together under one capacious roof. His children and grandchildren did not do much to change this structure – nor it would appear were his competitors more likely to supersede his system so much as to imitate it. His workers and their families took advantage of its demand for labor as it suited them, and for their own reasons. The point of contact between this industry and the working-class family was the wages packet.

Adult male breadwinners were recorded by their occupation in the 1841-1881 censuses which Dupree consults, and so were their wives, sons, and daughters. By mid-century, boys and girls usually began work before their tenth birthdays if they came from broken families; by their fourteenth birthdays it was common for boys to have begun full-time work and hardly unknown for their sisters to be in waged employment. Older girls and unmarried women were often employed and so, too, were young marrieds; with the onset of childbearing and childrearing, their working lives were truncated or, at least, interrupted. Seventy-five per cent of female pottery workers were under thirty. These women married around two years earlier than was average for England and Wales – by their twenty-fifth birthday forty-eight per cent were married in the Potteries as opposed to twenty-nine per cent in Preston. Child/woman ratios in the Potteries were a bit lower than the national average (illegitimacy ratios were very much higher) although infant mortality rates were significantly higher so that “effective fertility” was about mid-way between the national levels and the much lower fertility of the Lancashire cotton towns which was the site of the earliest fertility decline among the industrial working class.

These large families in the Potteries were made up of a number of wage workers, so that the early-middle years of marriage were characterized by a “dependency hump” while the later years were, all other things being equal, comparatively prosperous. Of course, all other things were not always equal – in particular, cyclical depressions or booms were part-and-parcel of the fabric of early industrial life while in the Potteries rates of adult male mortality were even worse for potters (as a result of breathing dust) than for miners or others:

The potters as a class, both men and women, but more especially the former, represent a degenerated population, both physically and morally. 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, they are phlegmatic and bloodless, and exhibit their debility of constitution by obstinate attacks of dyspepsia, and disorder of the liver and kidneys, and by rheumatism.

Dupree’s discussion locates the similarities and differences of the family culture of the Potteries in relation to Anderson’s findings for Preston and makes some other comparisons. However, I could not help but being struck by the now-traditional (if not old-fangled) nature of her account. She does not connect individuals across censuses, nor does she link individuals with any other routinely-generated source. The result is that her analysis lacks the imaginative and historiographical novelty of Thomas Sokoll’s Household and Family Among the Poor: The Case of Two Essex Communities in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries which does this to great effect. In arguing for an adaptive family strategy in which contributions came from many sources, Dupree would like to undervalue the importance of the male breadwinner, but in 1861 potters earned more than miners or laborers. Their wages were lower than ironworkers’ but they more than made up for this difference by the money their wives and children brought home. If the adult male potter was not the only breadwinner in his family, he brought home most of the money most of the time. It would have been invaluable if Dupree had tried to calculate a longitudinal measure of total and relative breadwinners’ earnings but that was just one more opportunity that was missed in this study.

One of the archaic characteristics of the pottery industry is that its labor process permitted (and even encouraged) the employment of men alongside their wives and children. Even if they did not actually work right next to one another in a physical sense, the adult male breadwinner was not the sole earner/provider. In this sense, the mid-century potters’ families looked backwards to the family wage economy of the proto-industrial era quite as much as they looked forward to our contemporary system of dual incomes. They were not, however, similar to that “aristocracy” among their laboring contemporaries who relied solely on the wages packet of the adult male.

Dupree supplements her conversation with Anderson with an extended discussion of state intervention and social welfare. Her point is that the potters’ nuclear families were neither isolated nor bereft of ties, yet here again the force of her argument is vitiated by the lack of linkage between the census families and the other sources (such as wage books) that might have given the reader a stronger sense of just how much isolation and affiliation ebbed and flowed in the family lives of those who lived and died in the Potteries. Overall, Family Structure in the Staffordshire Potteries 1840-1880 is the kind of revisionist study that pushes the envelope but does not really turn it inside out. It will be of interest almost solely to specialists; those who want to add some nuance to their understanding of the variety of family structures in early industrial England can profitably dip into it, too. Considering that this was a book that was so long in the making, it is a pity that it so profoundly bears the imprint of its genesis and seems to have developed so little of its own character in its formative years.

David Levine The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History

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