The Lives of Disabled Workers in the East Shropshire Coalfield

Discover what life was like for disabled working class people in the East Shropshire Coalfield during the 19th century in this blog post, which was guest written by Melanie Williamson, a freelance researcher, as part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust’s ‘Hidden Histories' project.

This project was funded by Arts Council England through their Cultural Recovery Fund in early 2021 and allowed IGMT to fund research into LGBTQ+ history, women’s history, the history of disability, and the history of Empire, with a focus on how they relate to the industrial history of the Ironbridge Gorge and the wider East Shropshire Coalfield area. The project aimed to give a voice to those people whose stories have been ignored or silenced throughout history and to act as a starting point in a much larger plan to improve the relevance and inclusivity of the Trust’s collections.

The Lives of Disabled Workers

Melanie Williamson

On behalf of Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust (IGMT), I carried out research into disabled industrial workers of the Ironbridge Gorge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period, disability was viewed very differently to how we perceive it today. Historically, disabled people were labelled by their presumed limitations; emphasis was put on their impairment. This is known as the medical model of disability. It wrongly assumes that a person’s diagnosis needs to be managed or cured and that it will automatically give them a poor quality of life. In the past this idea fostered pity or negativity towards disabled people. Today we largely follow the social model. It is the understanding that disabled people have impairments or differences, not disabilities, and it is society that creates barriers to equality, or ‘disability’, by not accommodating these differences. Through my research I found a range of workers and people who lived in the Ironbridge Gorge who were disabled and would have faced these barriers in their daily lives: here are two of their stories.

Albert Marshall Cureton (1853-1912) was an iron moulder who was Deaf. Born in Coalbrookdale to Joseph and Eliza, he was one of five siblings and grew up with his family at Bawdy Bank. When he was eight years old, Albert was sent to ‘The General Institution for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Children’ which had been founded in Edgbaston near Birmingham in 1812. During his time at the school, Albert was taught by Mr Hopper, the headmaster, two assistant masters, a matron and three female teachers, all of whom were Deaf, and former students of the school. A typical day at the school consisted of six-hours of teaching with the evenings free for recreation and chores. Sign language was the principal method of teaching and children were taught subjects that would prepare them for future employment.

Whilst at the school in the 1860s, Albert would have been taught British Sign Language. However, 20 years later there was a severe backlash against signing that brought a stigma to it until the late 20th century. This stigma stemmed from a convention held in Milan in 1880, a significant moment in Deaf history, when 160 delegates from across the world debated the use of sign language as a way of teaching Deaf students. They decided that the preferred teaching method should be oralism, which focussed on only on teaching Deaf children to speak rather than any curriculum topics. Whilst the delegates were the teachers of Deaf students, none of them were Deaf themselves. They voted that oralism was to be used going forward, which resulted in the prohibition of sign language. This led to children signing in secret and, in some cases, being restrained and scolded when discovered. It also meant that Deaf children were only taught how to speak and were not given the same opportunities to learn as hearing children.

’The Modern Alphabet for the Deaf and Dumb’, wood engraving, date unknown. (Image courtesy of The Wellcome Collection’

From 1871 until 1912 Albert worked as an iron moulder for the Coalbrookdale Company. It was a repetitive but dangerous job, with workers being paid by the piece to make moulds and pour molten iron into them to produce cast-iron goods. Pouring the iron required teamwork as it had to be carried in a heavy ladle by two workers before being poured into a mould. Albert would not have been able to use sign language whilst carrying the ladle, so it is likely that he communicated through lip reading instead.

Albert lived a relatively short life, dying at the age of 58. Iron moulding was a dangerous job; it caused conditions such as silicosis and anthrax infections and it was a very hot environment where burns were common. We don’t know much about the end of Albert’s life, but he was taken to Madeley Union Infirmary in December 1912 and he died the next .

Iron moulders at work in the Coalbrookdale Company’s Severn Foundry, c. 1901. [1983.3431]

I was keen to include the stories of women through my research, but struggled to find records of disabled women who worked in the industries of the Ironbridge Gorge. It seemed that disabled women were less likely to work than disabled men were. However, I did find some local women who had their own stories.

One of these women was Eliza Vickers (1843-1911) who was born without arms. She was born in Donnington Wood to James and Ann Vickers and grew up at Waxhill Barracks with her siblings. Eliza meant a great deal to her family and when one of her descendants showed some of her belongings to IGMT, they talked about her determination, how she contributed to the family’s income, and about how she adapted tools to undertake everyday tasks. Her descendant also shared verbal anecdotes of Eliza using her neck, chin, and shoulders to do everyday chores like sweeping up and bringing in the coal. She also carried out more delicate and complex tasks such as embroidery. The sampler below is one of Eliza’s objects shown to the museum by her descendant, who revealed that Eliza had embroidered it using her toes.

Sampler, linen and woollen embroidery thread, 1856.

When Eliza was 27, she worked as a schoolmistress. She had 12 students in her care and taught them in a school she most likely set up herself in Donnington Wood. She would charge parents a small fee to teach their children basic academic skills. Girls would typically learn sewing skills, so it is possible Eliza’s sampler was used as an example in class. Eliza died in 1911, but it is clear that she had a great influence. Her great-niece was named after her and stories about her life have been passed down through three generations.    

Disability history is often an under-represented area of social history in museums across the UK. These are just a few of the many stories of disabled people that are waiting to be revealed. Hopefully they will be a foundation for more visible representation of disabled peoples’ lives, past and present.

About the author:

Melanie Williamson is a museum professional and heritage freelancer based in Cheshire. She graduated with an MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies from the University of Leicester in 2010 and since 2013 has worked for Staffordshire Archives and Heritage as a Collections Assistant. Her previous research projects have included looking at the history of mental health using County Asylum Registers and researching the everyday lives of people summoned to the Consistory Courts in the 17th century. In all her roles, making collections accessible and telling people’s stories through objects and artefacts is at the heart of what she does.