What is historically correct in Chapter Six of The Spyders of Burslem.

This is a note on what is historically correct in Chapter 6 of the North Staffordshire novel The Spyders of Burslem, set in 1869:—

The description of differing times is broadly correct. The passage of measured time was not yet wholly uniform in provincial England in 1869.

The animosity toward women readers is correct. A old colleague of mine once wrote her M.A. dissertation of the subject. Here is a report of a debate, given in the Journal of the Society of Arts (2nd April 1869), on the topic. This is advocating in the other direction…

The novels mentioned are of the time, but Middlemarch was only begun in 1869 and did not see print serialisation until 1871.

The famous fantasy novel At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald was indeed in that year being serialised in Good Words.

There was indeed a Mrs. Brougham, Bookseller, in Burslem. As well as selling books she held what then amounted to a local lending library and a local records service before the opening of the Wedgwood Institute library in the 1870s. She seems to have inherited the business from her father(?), Mr. Stephen Brougham, since he is mentioned in regard to his marriage as a Burslem bookseller in The New Monthly in 1816. She appears as “Mary Brougham, printer” of Burslem, and appears to have operated as such from 1828 into the 1850s, whence the printing seems to have taken a back seat to the bookselling.

Mrs. Brougham also appears to have had a sideline in commissioning brooches from the finest local artisans, since in 1851 it was recorded that “The elegant Parian Brooches manufactured by Mrs. M. Brougham, of Burslem, had received the patronage of Queen Victoria”. This fact features in the novel, and is tied into the visit of the Queen to Burslem.

The real Mrs. Brougham appears to have been connected with the Burslem and Tunstall Literary and Scientific Society (founded 1838, seems to have later floundered and was re-founded in 1849 as a Mechanic’s Institute which lasted until 1854).

Charlotte Cotton was another female bookseller in Burslem at the time. For a small town of 22,000 to support two booksellers suggests good sales and a wide readership.

The Potteries has indeed been called the cradle of the nation’s comedy, although at a later date.

In 1869 about nine out of ten of the town’s children and youth did indeed have some form of schooling, and could read and write.

I remember reading years ago that some historians had changed their views on the history of British education, and had come to see the penny schools as providing a generally good service, regulated by the market because paid for weekly and directly, and the compulsory state education as often inferior to what it replaced. I assume in the novel that people in a prosperous working town would pay a shilling (five pence) a week rather than a penny. This supposition seems to be backed up by this quote from the Journal of the Society of Arts, 1869…

“Penny schools [in England] used to be laughed at, and then the fee was raised to twopence and threepence; and when the parents found the value of the education which was given they were willing to give even another penny, and thus more teaching [staff] power could be provided.”

My grandmother has bad memories of being schooled by nuns, and this is reflected in the narrators’ comments about the potential cruelty of compulsory education run by religious zealots using corporal punishment.

Blackshaw was, I seem to remember from my research reading, a real chemist in the Burslem Market Square. Lovatt was a real drapier (gent’s outfitter), and there was a Commercial Bank of England branch.

Toni Chilterni the barber is a name some people may recognise 🙂

Pigeon racing may have been a gambling sport at that time, since cock fighting had been abolished.


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