Industrial work in the Gorge was often insecure and injury, illness, old age, or death could lead to workers’ families suffering greatly. In a time before the welfare state, financial support was very limited and a fall in wages or being out of work could mean destitution.

Well, they’d do anything for anybody in them days, they wouldn’t hesitate, they’d just do it and if they’d got some food in their house and you hadn’t got any, they’d bring it to you.
Lucy Fewtrell (1911-1998), (Ken Jones Oral History Archive).

For many workers the only support offered by the Government were workhouses which were purposely designed to be cruel and harsh to ensure they were a last resort. As a result, industrial workers and working-class people often relied on and supported each other within their own communities.

In the late 18th century, skilled workers began to form trade clubs to look out for their interests. They would pay a small subscription to join the club, which would then support them if they were in financial need. These clubs also began to try and improve working conditions and wages by leading strikes and riots. This was in a time of revolution and, fearful of the consequences, the government banned these clubs in 1799. The clubs found loopholes by calling themselves Friendly Societies and were eventually legalised again in 1824. The clubs continued to campaign for improved working conditions and wages, and some eventually became known as Trade Unions.

John Price taken to the Union [Workhouse]… 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 employed and where he had done some of the best work which had ever been done.
From the diary of Charles Peskin (1862-1949), foreman for the Coalbrookdale Company, 1903.



As industry grew during the Industrial Revolution, the divide between employers and workers increased. Most employers were unconcerned about their workers’ living conditions, but some tried to improve them. For example, the owners of the Coalbrookdale Company built some housing for their workers, including Carpenters Row in c.1783.

Plans and Photograph of Carpenters Row, Coalbrookdale.

Then we had that frost for eleven weeks and no labour exchange… And we had to have the soup kitchens at Jones’s, the Calcutts. Great big boiler there full of soup and some of the women volunteers used to go…Everything was all frozen up and of course there was no labour exchange for them to go on and they had to go and do the best they could…
Ernest Dicken (1901-1991) (Ken Jones Oral History Archive, 1983).

The Ironbridge Dispensary was set up in 1828 to provide healthcare to the people of the Gorge. Employers could subscribe to the dispensary and, depending on the amount paid, send a certain number of their employees to the dispensary for medical care.

Ada York (1866-1953)

Ada was born the second of five children to John and Caroline York in February 1866. In the late 1870s the family moved to Blists Hill where John was employed as a labourer at the brick and tile works.

In 1883, just a few years after the family had moved, John died leaving Ada’s family without their main wage earner. The wages of her older brother, Thomas, who was working as a coal miner, were not enough to support the family. If the family could not support itself, the only help available was through the workhouse. Ada’s mother was told by the people who ran the workhouse that if she accepted help, the family would be separated, and her children would be sent to a different workhouse. To save her family from this fate, Ada went to work at the Blists Hill brick and tile works and remained there for at least the next 21 years.

At the brick and tile works, Ada assisted male tile makers by carrying and preparing tiles for drying and by ‘pitching’ the tiles. She worked from 7.30am until 4.30pm and would have been paid by the tile makers she assisted based on the number of tiles they made per day. One of the men she assisted, George Smith, eventually became her husband in 1904. Ada may have continued working at the brick and tile works for a time, but she likely stopped working when she had her first child in 1906.