Sweat & Toil

Short Time Working

There were always fluctuations in the iron trade, just as there are fluctuations in the economy today. In the period around 1900 there were several times when workers were laid off or hours and pay were reduced. With no welfare state this caused great hardship for families. By 1911 the situation improved when the National Insurance Act provided basic unemployment insurance for workers.

25 June 1904: "3/4 time commence in the Pattern Filing Shop"

30 January 1908: "Short time again commenced in the Dale, all fitters and filers coming in at 8.00 and 8.30am until 5.00pm, and not at all on Saturdays. The moulders in all the foundries coming in at 6.00am and paid at 1.00pm on Fridays and no work from then at all until 6.00am on Mondays unless special work is required."

29 July 1909: "Reduction in wages 5%. 29 men laid off altogether"

Short Time Working

Pit Girls

Women and girls were employed in the ironworks trade. They were known as "Pit Girls". Their main role was at the pit heads where they were employed to clean the dirt off the freshly dug ironstone. The ironstone was then loaded into ‘baskets’ which were really more like small tubs made out of iron. When these were filled a girl, with the assistance of another girl, would place the basket on her head and carry it to a large heap where it could be dried in the sun and air. This was done so that any of the water trapped within the stone would evaporate.

In the winter they wore flannel dresses and thick coats with a handkerchief around their necks and hats or bonnets on their heads. The loads they had to carry were sometimes so heavy that they caused injuries to their necks and backs.

Pay varied according to age, with older girls and women being paid more because they would be taller, stronger and able to do more work. Girls of 8 or 9 were paid 6d per day, girls of about 12 years old would get 1s 0d a day and young women would earn 1s 3d or 1s 4d per day.

 Pit Girls

Taken to the Workhouse

Before Old Age Pensions were introduced people either worked until they died, had to rely on savings, or were supported by other family members when they could no longer work. The alternative was the workhouse; something that was dreaded by all working class families. Workhouses were deliberately meant to be unpleasant places where people would not go unless they were in abject poverty. Food and lodging were given in return for work, but families were split up and inmates had to abide by strict rules.

Charles Peskin recorded this sad event in his diary:

October 14th 1903: "Miss Price from the back of the viaduct taken to the Union (workhouse). John had turned her out the previous night aged 85."

October 16th 1903: "John Price taken to the Union (workhouse). William Preston took him in his waggonette. Poor fellow – I saw him as he was going past the pattern shop wrapped up in his blue top coat with his head bent and his back towards the shop where he had been wont to work and where he had done some of the best work which had been done." They would have been taken to the Madeley Union workhouse, just to the north of Ironbridge, which had been built in 1875.

Children in the Ironworks

In 1842 the Royal Commission investigated working conditions in the various parts of the Coalbrookdale Company Ironworks. Their report stated:

"The work is wholesome, being carried out in the open air, and is not laborious if not too long endured"

The average working day was 12 hours and Sunday was the only day off. Young boys and girls, as well as women, were used in various parts of the iron making process. Jobs carried out included working on the pit banks, cleaning and carrying ironstone, preparing coal to be burnt into coke, filling boxes with coke and taking them to the furnaces, carrying water in barrows, opening the furnace doors, removing hot cinders and slag from the furnace and taking it to the cinder tips, fetching and carrying tools and driving loaded horses and wagons. Work for boys included working in the wrought ironworks as a puddler or a hammer man, or working in the rolling mills. This work required more strength, it was also dangerous because the metal was red hot. At the foundry, boys would be employed to assist the moulders and pattern makers.

However hard the work was, it has to be remembered that children worked because they had to. Without their additional income the family could not survive. It was only when working men were given a living wage that families could afford to allow children to go to school. Children were also expected to grow up much sooner and this continued until into the Twentieth Century. A hundred years ago free schooling was available to all and young children no longer went out to work, but for many working life would still start at an early age and by 12 many children would have started work. 

Death and Disease

In his diaries Charles Peskin recorded life and death in Coalbrookdale at the turn of the Nineteenth Century.

Childhood illnesses and accidents were common and many fewer children would survive to adulthood than at the present time. Children died from infectious diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough, measles or scarlet fever. Accidents were also common with children being killed or injured while playing on the railways, near the river and pools, or from being burnt or scalded in the home.

Both children and adults suffered from Pneumonia or bronchitis. This may have been partly caused by the polluted atmosphere in the valley, but also because without antibiotics minor infections could become fatal. Despite efforts to improve water supply and sanitation there were also cases of typhoid in the area.

Aug 18th 1900 "Edmund Nicholas died of Typhoid fever after several weeks of lingering illness his wife also dying of the same complaint"

Women died during childbirth or from infections following the birth of a child.

April 30th 1897: "Mrs Arthur Hewit died in the early morning of inflammation after childbirth through taking cold or as I afterwards heard of injudiciously taking solid food the day after confinement."

Physical illnesses were not the only problem as there was a high rate of suicide. Poverty was just one cause, with the lack of welfare systems and adequate treatments for mental illness being other factors which drove people to despair.

Adults were also likely to suffer injuries at work. There were no health and safety rules, machines were unguarded and working practices were often dangerous.

Sept 26th 1901 "Tom Tranter had his thigh very seriously laid open by the planing machine. He was putting his time down with the machine in motion and somehow got pulled up with the bed of the machine. After being attended to by the ambulance members he was conveyed to Shrewsbury infirmary."

Friendly Societies

These were an early type of private insurance scheme for workers. They were called "Friendly Societies" because club meetings became a social occasion as well as used for conducting business. For a small weekly payment an allowance was paid out in times of sickness or a lump sum of money was available to cover funeral expenses. No-one over 35 was allowed to join and most colliers were debarred from membership as their jobs were deemed too risky. People were expected to behave well; drunkenness and fighting were forbidden. One society in Broseley would pay out 9d per day for six months to cover sickness and 3 shillings for a surgeon to attend.

28 July 1914: "Friendly society parade procession from Dale End to Ironbridge Church."

The National Insurance Act of 1911 provided basic sickness insurance for workers who earned less than £160 a year. Workers paid 4d per week, employers contributed 3d per week and the state contributed 2d per week.

15 July 1912: "National insurance Bill came into law and the premiums stopped for the week commencing July 15th (first stoppage of 4d Friday 26 July)"

If a worker was off sick they were paid 9 shillings (45p) a week and free medical treatment was also available.

Coalbrookdale Company

"To see how many things are now made of iron in England, one must visit one of the iron warehouses, as for instance that of Coalbrookdale, at this place. Tables, sofas, vases, inkstands, and an endless variety of articles fashioned into the most graceful forms may there be seen" – J.G. Kohl – 1842.

Towards the middle of the Nineteenth Century the possible uses of cast iron seemed almost inexhaustible. Railway stations, balconies, bridges, fireplaces, staircases, shop fronts, and even household, office and garden furniture was made. Art castings were popular, but the Coalbrookdale Company also produced many structural items as well as machinery, pots, stoves and all sorts of other items that could be made from iron, including items such as chimney pots and gravestones. In the introduction to the Coalbrookdale Company exhibits in the "1851 Great Exhibition" catalogue it states that the Company employed somewhere between three and four thousand men and boys at Coalbrookdale and Horsehay, and that the output was 2,000 tons per week.

Towards the middle of the Nineteenth Century the possible uses of cast iron seemed almost inexhaustible. Railway stations, balconies, bridges, fireplaces, staircases, shop fronts, and even household, office and garden furniture was made. Art castings were popular, but the Coalbrookdale Company also produced many structural items as well as machinery, pots, stoves and all sorts of other items that could be made from iron, including items such as chimney pots and gravestones. In the introduction to the Coalbrookdale Company exhibits in the ‘1851 Great Exhibition’ catalogue it states that the Company employed somewhere between three and four thousand men and boys at Coalbrookdale and Horsehay, and that the output was 2,000 tons per week.


Craven Dunnill’s Jackfield Tile Works

Craven Dunnill's Jackfield Tile Works"My grandfather was in the tile trade and my uncle was in the mosaic works…he’s shown me how he cut the tiles to fit in with the mosaics – which was made in a pattern upside down, and then, when it was laid on the floor, or where they did lay it, it was turned over, and the pattern was then wet and cleaned off, which made it as we see it on the floor……the workers in the glaze at the encaustic tileworks used to be examined once a month because lead was in the glaze they also had an allowance of milk and some other medicine to keep them free from lead poisoning". William Bagley.

Despite the size of the works, Craven Dunnill employed just 95 workers in 1899: 53 men, 16 women, and 26 "youths". At the turn of the century the majority of women at Craven Dunnill worked in the mosaic room, cutting and setting thousands of tile pieces into the required patterns. Craven Dunnill became particularly well-known for their ability to reproduce medieval tiles and built up a large range of what they described as "ancient tiles" in their pattern books. These tiles combined a simple design, such as an heraldic bird - in buff and red clay, with a clear glaze - thereby producing a convincing substitute for old tiles. Many tiles made by Craven Dunnill bear the distinctive trademark of a tile works with a smoking bottle kiln.

Coalport China Works

"When we first had to learn to do Indian Tree pattern, and when we had done that for about a month, we went on to the flower painting you had a flat brush for the roses, but you had a little pointed brush for the leaves and stems and all like that about twenty girls in the room, sitting round. But we were all very happy, and all happy one with another" – Mrs Owen.

In the early Nineteenth Century many workers were paid piecework, others were paid hourly, and some work was contracted. The only surviving wage list from Coalport is for 73 painters in 1859, many of whom were apprentices on a low wage; for example 3s 6d per week, yet artist Joseph Birbeck was paid £6 5s 0d. Women were wage earners in many households. Warehouse women received 10s a week, transferers up to 7s 6d for a 51-hour week and burnishers 8s for a 42-hour week. Many single women worked full-time, and at Coalport married women with children were allowed to start work an hour later. Women would work as burnishers, painters, polishers, transferers and colour or gold-grinders, but highly skilled workers such as potters, artists, gilders or firemen tended to be male. Many girls began their working life with simple jobs such as sorting the glazed ware or burnishing the gold.

"I went to work in the pit about eight years old. I had sixpence a day. I was always very tired at night we have many rats, they rob our bait bags and tear the candles" 1841 Parliamentary Paper Report on Coal and Iron Mines.

"up comes the "cage", and you can see that it is an iron framework, This is a most unromantic mode of reaching the depths, for here we are "cabined, cribbed, confined" in a dirty iron frame In this cage you are safe, and yet, perhaps if iron be constantly deteriorating in these shafts, not too safe. One day a link may be severed, and the cage become a coffin at the bottom of the shaft." – extract from "Half Hours Underground"

A communal grave at Holy Trinity Church, Dawley, is the final resting place of miners killed in the Springwell Pit disaster of 1872, and another communal grave at St. Michael’s Church, Madeley, is dedicated to the nine men and boys who died in one of the Lane Pits on 27 September 1864. Five of the victims were adults, but the others were aged just 12, 13, and 14, as Nineteenth Century children were permitted to work alongside adults in many dangerous professions. After a long day’s work the last group of workers were just a few feet away from the surface when the ‘doubles’ or chains they were holding became detached and they fell several hundred yards to their deaths.


Puddling & Shingling

William Ball was born at Horsehay, on 8 July 1795, in the parish of Dawley, near Wellington, Shropshire. When he was eight years old he went to work as a "puddler" at the Coalbrookdale Company works at Horsehay. Afterwards he was employed as a "shingler" for twenty years at Horsehay until a serious accident to his left eye - from a small piece of molten iron - meant that he was unable to work. Once, as a feat of strength, he placed under the forge hammer, without the assistance of machinery, a piece of iron from the ball furnace, weighing nearly nine hundredweight. In 1845 William Ball was weighed; he weighed thirty two stone and ten pounds and the circumference of his body was six feet and three inches, round the thigh three feet, and round the arm twenty inches. He was five feet nine and half inches tall.

William Ball

Bow Hauling

"How are they bathed in sweat and rain. Fastened to their line as horses to their traces, wherein do they differ from the laborious brutes? Not in an erect posture of the body, for in the intenseness of their toil, they bend forward, their head is foremost, and their hand upon the ground. If there is any difference it consists in this; horses are indulged with a collar to save their breasts; and these; as if theirs were not worth saving draw without one; the beasts tug in patient silence and mutual harmony; but the men with loud contention and horrible imprecations." – John Fletcher

Sailing vessels on the River Severn usually had a crew of three or four "watermen". The vessels went downstream with the current and would use their sails when possible. To travel upstream they relied mainly on bow haulers, men working usually in gangs of six or eight. In the 1770s Richard Reynolds described bow hauling as "degrading and unseemly, the means of harbouring and collecting persons of bad character and facilitating a system of plunder injurious to trade and destructive of the morals of the people engaged in it." The use of human bow haulers was phased out when tow paths were built and the work was then undertaken by horses, but a few bow haulers were still living in the Ironbridge Gorge in 1851.