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A Coalville Hero

George Smith was born in 1831 at ‘Clayhills’, near Tunstall, in an area now known as the Potteries. Clayhills was named after the good quality clay that made the Potteries famous for its pots, pipes, tiles and teacups.

George was born into a poor working family. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to school. Like most of his friends and family, he worked from the age of 7 in a factory that used the local clay to make bricks and tiles.

George worked at Peake’s Tileries. The children were expected to carry lumps of clay from one part of the factory to another. Each load of clay would be over 40 pounds in weight. The wet clay would drip down their hair and clothes and they would be covered in it to their skin. Women who worked in the brickyards would be so dirty people could hardly tell they were women at all.



Experiment no. 1

·         Take one small child (age 7-11) and 20 standard 1kg bags of sugar.

·         Put the bags of sugar in a sack and then lift the load onto the child’s head.

·         Make the child walk from one end of the school to the other carrying the sack.

·         See if you can make them spend ten hours a day doing just that.

Learning point 1.

This was the life of a child in the brickworks and tileries in Victorian times. But they were not carrying nice clean sugar. They were carrying cold, wet slippery lumps of clay.

Learning point 2.

If the Head Teacher finds out, the children will also see what happens nowadays to adults who treat children as cruelly as in the 1840s.  ;-)


George goes to school

George was a clever lad and a hard worker. He knew that, if he could read and write, he could get a better job and earn a lot more.  He needed money so he could go to school in the evenings. 

So he did extra work. Two nights a week he kept the fire going in the brick kilns. This was where the clay was heated in huge ovens and turned into bricks.

Out of the shilling he got for his night work he gave sixpence to the schoolmaster and spent sixpence on books. Every day he would practice his reading, writing and reckoning (now known as maths).

George also learnt everything he could about brick-making. At the age of 26 he became the Manager of a brickworks in Humberstone, the other side of Leicester. He was now well-paid, earning £125 a year.


George comes to Coalville

One day, on his way home, to see his parents in Clayhills,  George passed by William Stenson’s coal mine in Whitwick. By now he knew a lot about clay and mines. Clay is often found as a layer above the coal. George could see from the lie of the land that this would be a good place for a brickworks.

George arranged to buy a small brick-yard from the Whitwick Colliery Company. It was only making drainpipes and bricks for the mine, but George could see how the clay could be used to make much finer things. He knew it could make fancy tiles and decorated bricks that would sell for a higher price.

He also wanted a yard where he could work the clay without employing boys and girls. He wanted to prove that he could run his brick-yard without child-labour and still make money.


George’s big mistake

Being an honest and trusting man, George made the mistake of telling the Whitwick Colliery Company how good the clay was and what he hoped to do. He was so keen to start his new business he had already given up his job at Humberstone. But he hadn’t signed a contract on his new brickworks.

The owner, William Stenson, seeing there was money to be made, changed his mind. He offered to let George be the manager and offered to pay him £75 a year. Without a job, George agreed. Annoyed at himself for being cheated, he moved to Coalville in 1859.


George manages the brick-works

George Smith ran the Whitwick Colliery Companys’ Terra Metallic Tileries, Ornamental White Brick and Pipeworks. He ran the works without employing any children under the age of 12. The business was a great success even though he refused to employ any girls or women at all. He would not let the boys he employed do overtime or work on Saturdays.

George was not popular. The local working people wanted the money the girls and young children could make. They didn’t see the point of school and in any case could not afford to send them.

In 1864 and 1867 the Government made new laws – the Factory Acts. These laws were to stop people employing children under the age of 8. Children age 8 to 13 could only be employed part-time. They had to spend ten hours a week in school. But the Act did not apply to workshops employing fewer than 50 people. So many brick-works just carried on employing the children as before.

George has a dream

In 1868 George Smith had a dream. In his dream, he was pulling children up and out of the clay with the help of Queen Victoria and the Prime Minister. He had the same dream three nights in a row.

He began to write letters. He wrote to the newspapers. He wrote to the Chief Factory Inspector. He wrote to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. At first it seemed that nobody would listen to him. Finally, in 1870, he was invited to give a talk to a Congress.

George took with him a large lump of clay in a huge basket. When he stood up to give his talk, he took the basket and tipped the lump of clay out onto a table. He then told the audience about the long hours. He told them about the hard and dirty work and the terrible way the children were being treated.


Old enemies and new friends

Not everyone was impressed. John Nash Peake of Peake’s Tileries, where George had worked as a child, wrote letters to the newspapers accusing George Smith of exaggerating. At home in Coalville George began to be openly insulted. His wife and children were followed and shouted at.

George would not give up. He wrote a book ‘The Cry of the Children from the Brick-yards of England’. He paid for it to be printed and gave out thousands of copies to anyone he thought cared enough to help.

He sent a copy to Lord Shaftesbury. Rather than just believe the book, Lord Shaftesbury went to visit a brick works for himself. As he drove up to the clay field he saw from a distance what looked like eight or ten pillars of clay. He thought these pillars had been left to show how deeply they had dug into the clay-pit. Then he saw one of the pillars move and realised that this was child, so filthy with clay that it looked like a pillar of earth.


George’s law

With Lord Shaftesbury on his side, it looked as if George had won. In 1871 a Bill went through Parliament that said ‘no female under the age of sixteen years and no child under the age of ten years shall be employed in the manufacture of bricks and tiles, not being ornamental tiles’.

The Brick-yard Masters Association were not ready to give in. John Nash Peake was furious. He was also clever. He realised that, if he claimed that his factory made ‘ornamental tiles’ he could still employ women and children at low wages to do the same heavy work as before.

Peake carried on like this until 1875.  That year the Royal Factory and Workshops Commission decided to meet in Hanley in the Potteries to see if the laws in the Factory Acts were being obeyed.

George’s enemies

George Smith knew that Peake and his friends were cheating and would lie to the commission. So he made his way to the Queen’s Hotel where the Commissioners were staying.

He took with him a blue brick, a garden tile and a roof tile of the type made at Peake’s tileries. He also took an ‘ornamental’ tile made at a nearby earthenware factory. This sort of tile was light work compared with making bricks and pipes.

He explained to the commissioners, over breakfast, how some of the brickworks were claiming to make ornamental tiles so they could employ women and children to do the same heavy work as they had before the 1871 Factory Act.

The Commissioners believed George Smith. They stopped Peake’s Tileries from employing children. George had finally pulled the children out of the clay.

George Smith went on to campaign for education for the children of canal boat dwellers, gypsies and travellers. He carried on campaigning even when his employers, the Whitwick Colliery Company, told him he must give up or lose his job. He carried on even after he was made bankrupt in 1875.

His good works were finally rewarded in 1884 when he received a Royal Bounty, a sum of £300 from the Queen for special service to the community. He was also given a pension from subscriptions to the Pall Mall Gazette, who had published so many of his letters.

George Smith moved to Crick, near Rugby where he carried on campaigning for children’s rights until his death in 1895.

© Theresa Eynon 2014