Chapter Four of The Spyders of Burslem: what is historically correct?

Notes on “Chapter Four: A Pint of the Finest”, in the North Staffordshire novel The Spyders of Burslem:—

There was indeed a horse-tram that ran between Burslem and Hanley.

There was no pub called The Albion, as far as I know. Burslem did have an Albion Pottery and an Albion Street. Albion is, of course, an ancient name for the British Isles.

“I was not at all a pub-going man, and had no local woman with fur cuffs and a sharp bonnet to place on my arm and to guide me in such matters.” [so in procrastination about entering the pub] “I stepped into a shadowy little side alley and spent some minutes there reading some garish poster adverts for ‘The Circus of Pandemonium’. I knew that the Circus had then just arrived for its winter camp in the great railway sidings at Cliffe Vale…”

…there was indeed a large circus based there in the winter, but later. The railway sidings and buildings at Cliffe Vale were used as the winter quarters for the world’s biggest circus, Barnum & Bailey, from 1897 until 1911.

“The faces were not always of an attractive nature, and there was much use of powder and rouge, for that was a time when many of the diseases of childhood were not kind to the skin.”

…broadly true of the faces of the 1860s. There would also have been a lot more deformity around.

“the shallow diggings of the Red Shagg, the Bassey, and the Half Yards”

…these were the names of local ironstone mines. The Bassey had, however, been abandoned in 1861.

“For the deep coal mines were then a very new thing, and the first of them had only recently been sunk. The deep pits were able to be sunk because the really powerful steam engines had then become available to drain such places, and the Davy lamps to detect the gasses.”

…true. The first deep coal pits were sunk in Warwickshire, seemingly in the 1850s. These two new inventions made possible access to the deep coal seams, which otherwise would have been out of reach.

The description of the coal miner’s lifestyle seems to have been correct. Their pay was indeed twice the pay of an ironstone miner.

It seems there were many female publicans around at that time. I found many during my family tree research in South Staffordshire. The licencing magistrates seem to have not been prejudiced against them.

The Burslem Cosmograph newspaper is an invention of the novel. The 1855 Stamp Act had indeed removed the tax on newspapers, provoking a rash of such little town newspapers. However, it seems Burslem did not have its own newspaper. There was a North Staffordshire Mercury, and Potteries Mercury, whose titles have a similarly ‘cosmic’ ring to them.

“family memories of the last-ever plague year of 1647”

…1647 was indeed the last year the plague seems to have been in Burslem.

Rousseau had indeed lived in the Staffordshire Moorlands, but only for a year in 1766-7. He is also featured later in the novel.

“the strange newly-discovered earth currents and the electrikery”

… earth currents had indeed only just been discovered by science in 1869.

“firedamp and chokedamp” were real names for coal mine gasses.

“Jimmy Tunnicliffe” — this major character is based on a “James Tunnicliff”, a Staffordshire ‘cunning’ man brought to trial at the Stafford spring assizes, 1857 (full account in Susan Hoyle’s unpublished “James Tunnicliff’s Story: The Narrative of a Cunning-Man’). His appearance, however, is taken from Arthur Berry’s autobiography in which he describes a Burslem man of the 1920s or 30s…

“an effeminate man who wears a ginger wig … muttering to himself all day, he pushes an old pram with a bird cage in it.”

The working-class tradition of tolerating cross-dressers is correct. The term “intersex”, as used by the narrator was in real use in the 1880s until in faded away in the 1940s. Since the novel is imagined as an account written in 1919, it is the sort of word a narrator of that time would have used.

Astrology had indeed been suppressed in England in the 1850s, as stated in the novel. This makes the real choice of the Zodiac for the frontage of the Institute all the more curious. It seems there is no historical documentation about why it was chosen.

The anti-socialist feelings of Moses Steel the mine-owner are broadly historically correct. The North Staffordshire Miners’ Association was about to be formed. His comments about Kropotkin, Marx and Engels are all factually correct.


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