Staffordshire University lecture on the 1860s

Staffordshire University is to host a public lecture on the ‘Potteries, Public Health and Karl Marx’. Specifically Das Kapital, in which Karl Marx selected a paragraph of evidence from an appendix of the voluminous Royal Commission on Employment of Children (1862, published 1863), to illustrate the conditions of the Potteries workers in the early 1860s…

From the report of the Commissioners [published] in 1863, the following: Dr. J.T. Arlidge, senior physician of the North Staffordshire Infirmary, says: “The potters as a class, both men and women, represent a degenerated population, both physically and morally. They are, as a rule, stunted in growth, ill-shaped, and frequently ill-formed in the chest; they become prematurely old, and are certainly short-lived …”

Actually, Marx slightly mis-quoted Arlidge, and also mis-spelled his name as “Arledge”. But what is interesting, and what Marx neglects to mention, is that Arlidge had literally only just arrived in the district when Assistant Commissioner Longe of the 1862 Commission was taking evidence in the Potteries in April 1862, and that Arlidge had then undertaken no systematic research in Stoke. His main academic training in London had been in Botany. He had moved up from Kent to Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1862, and although he had once been apprenticed to a GP, in Kent he had been wholly a psychiatrist (then called an ‘alienist’) — only interested in the treatment of the mentally ill. In the Potteries he kept rooms at Trentham and a house at Newcastle-under-Lyme, so he was not exactly cheek-by-jowl with the workers. His comments were regarded as extreme, at the time, by people in the Potteries and by medical colleagues, and he had to defend them in the letters pages of the Staffordshire Sentinel. Basically his reply seems to have been that the notion was ‘common knowledge’. Yet one of his colleagues at the North Staffordshire Infirmary, William Spanton, later wrote in his 1920 memoirs that Arlidge had… “greatly offended manufacturers and his medical associates” with his comments.

As it was, Arlidge was broadly correct on the statistical fact of pottery workers as a class being “short-lived”, although this appears to have been concentrated among particular types of pottery workers. After the firing process, some of the dry and finely-powdered flint adheres to the ceramic ware. This has to be removed by hand scouring. Fragments of the fine dry flint dust (flint was ground up with bone to make the wet ‘slip’ for the clay) can be inhaled by a type of worker called ‘scourers’, and presumably also by those unpacking and sweeping the kilns, and this gave rise to lung diseases. This, together with exposure to lead in some decorating paints, had by the early 1860s led to an overall higher death rate in potteries workers than in other large industries. Arlidge noted scourers were “always women belonging usually to the rougher, more ignorant and reckless of their sex”. Many manufacturers rapidly shifted to leadless or reduced-lead glazes, but the flint dust was generally only dealt with by forced ventilation during the scouring process. On the overall death-rate, Arlidge was in 1864 able to produce new research, distributed by him in a pamphlet rather than a medical journal, proving his earlier anecdotal claim that potters were “short-lived”. Yet it seems that his wider comments — those used by Marx and forever thereafter repeated as gospel by socialists — were highly contested by other local medical men and by the local people at the time, and were not then based on any research work done by Arlidge himself or even on his general experience of treating physical ailments. Arlidge did later write a book on the subject of industrial diseases, but his findings have been found wanting. For instance, a 1973 scholarly article in the Journal of Industrial Medicine by E. Posner concluded that: “it must be recorded that many passages in Arlidge’s book [on industrial health] have not withstood the test of time”.

Conditions were indeed bad in certain types of small workshops of the mid 1800s, especially for the young children who would often be sent to work by alcoholic adults ‘in the place’ of the adult. But the quotes selected by Marx have the effect of giving the impression that the problems swept across the whole of the industry, and indeed the whole population of the district, rather than being largely confined to certain specific tasks within ceramics production. Marx’s slight mis-quoting of Arlidge serves to emphasize this effect on the reader.

Marx also neglects to mention that a Dr. Boothroyd — whom he selectively quotes as saying that: “Each successive generation of potters is more dwarfed and less robust than the preceding one” — was also the mayor of Hanley, and thus presumably a highly political figure. One suspects it was from Boothroyd and his circle that Arlidge adopted his initial prejudiced position on Potteries health. In 1878 Arlidge was himself elected Mayor of Newcastle-under-Lyme, a little more than ten years after arriving in the district. So one has to wonder what part headline-grabbing claims about health problems played in the local politics of the day.

3 comments on “Staffordshire University lecture on the 1860s

  1. David Haden says:

    Sadly such claims are still being made on the left. A review in Bulletin of the History of Medicine of Carolyn Malone’s book Women’s Bodies and Dangerous Trades in England (2003) noted the medical impossibility of… “Malone’s exaggerated contention that “lead poisoning was decimating” the workforce of Stoke-on-Trent”.

  2. […] no. So I can only assume that the author of this rather slight article was thinking of the use made by Marx of statistics on the Potteries, and assuming that these must have been collected by Marx himself on a visit […]

  3. […] 1990s life expectancy figures here, and at Marx’s oft-repeated but very shaky 1860s claims here. I’ve also taken a close look at “Air pollution in the Potteries”, including a […]

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