Meet Charles Shaw (1832–1906), author of a searing autobiographical account of child labour in the North Staffordshire potteries at the time when classically themed ceramics were popular. One of eight childen of a Tunstall pottery painter, at the age of seven Charles began working fourteen-hour days in the factory of Enoch Wood & Sons in Burslem, subsequently moving to Samuel Alcock’s pottery. His 1903 memoir When I was a Child, by ‘An Old Potter’ contains horrifying descriptions of the hunger, brutality, dangerous working conditions and degradation suffered by the work force, as well as first-hand accounts of the Chartist riots.
Shaw was no classical scholar. He enjoyed Charles Rollin’s Ancient History, which he came across at Sunday school; Rollin, he wrote, ‘opened a new world, but I never supposed that world had anything to do with the one in which I was then living. It might have been a world whose development took place on some other planet’. He acquired most of his education as an adult in the Tunstall Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society. He became a Methodist minister, and studied further at Owens College, Manchester.
In his life story he laments how the pottery industry has disfigured nature: the ‘lovely, peaceful, and fruitful valley is now choked with smoke and disfigured by mining and smelting refuse. If Cyclops with his red-handed and red-faced followers had migrated upwards from the dim regions below and settled on the surface amid baleful blazes and shadows, a greater transformation could not have taken place.’ The classical figures painted by his father and produced by the companies for whom he worked seem to have lingered powerfully in his imagination. He described a particularly ruthless local magistrate as one who ‘ruled as the Jove of the pottery district.’ The first Jove (aka Jupiter) on which he will ever have laid eyes was almost certainly this angry, thunderbolt-wielding figurine (above), produced by his first employer Enoch Wood & Sons.
n.b. around 1840