Monday, 8 September 2014

Bottom Knockers and death in the Ironbridge Gorge

Blists Hill Victorian Village

Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire is a world heritage site. Here you'll find a collection of award winning museums, including Blists Hill Victorian Village (left), which tell the story of the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

Having always been a huge fan of Ironbridge, I was delighted to discover I had ancestors who lived and worked in the area.

My three-times great-grandfather, Malcolm Sinclair BENBOW was born in 1807 in Broseley, Shropshire, a short distance away.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century it was Broseley which was known for producing fine porcelain, with blue and white decoration. But in the 1790s a new pottery was set up in Coalport. The original factory was dismantled in 1821 and re-used at Coalport, and became the Coalport China Works.

Yours truly sitting beside the river at Coalport

The 1851 census lists my ancestor Malcolm Benbow working as a warehouseman. Although not stated, it would have been at the Coalport China factory. His wife, Eliza (nee Jones) is listed as a warehousewoman and his eldest daughter, Henrietta, aged 19, is a china burnisher. The two younger children, Sarah Ann (my great-great grandmother), aged 12, and Daniel, aged 8, attended school. Many of their immediate neighbours' occupations were also in the pottery trade - from factory labourers to potters and china painters. There was also a china guilder and china turner.

As its name suggests, the china guilder applied gold to pottery ware A china turner's job was to turn the clay ware to the required outline before it was fired. A china burnisher would polish the outside of a pot, using a stone or metal piece, to improve the finish and reduce its porosity.

Amongst other occupations I saw listed was the wonderfully named 'Saggar Makers Bottom Knocker'! It was an occupation which apparently appeared on the 1950's TV game programme, What's My Line. A saggar is the clay container which holds the items to be fired. The maker of said saggar is called (unsurprisingly) the Saggar Maker. Although it was a skilled job to fashion the saggar itself, it seems that the bottom of these containers could be knocked into shape by the Saggar Maker's assistant, usually a young lad - thereby acquiring the name, Bottom Knocker.

The census of 1861 finds Malcolm still working at the china works, still a warehouseman, and Eliza again as a warehousewoman, but now Sarah Ann is employed as a china burnisher and her brother (now called John D, rather than Daniel) is a china turner. With no mention of Sarah Ann's elder sister Henrietta, I assumed that she must be living elsewhere as a married woman, perhaps with a family of her own.

But on further investigation I came across a record of her death in 1854, aged just 23. I sent for her death certificate and while waiting for its arrival, I read about the health issues associated with the potteries and wondered if her death was connected to her work.

John Thomas Arlidge was the first person study the health of the pottery workers and published his findings in 1864. The average age of death of male potters in Stoke was nine and a half years earlier than the general population. As for the cause of death, he found 60% died of diseases of the lung and consumption.

Henrietta's death certificate arrived and confirmed my suspicions. She'd died of consumption.


An enquiry conducted by the General Board of Health, 2 years after Henrietta's death, concluded that the worst cases of bronchitis "were found amongst young women employed in scouring china, who did not live many years after entering that employment."

My great-great grandmother, Sarah Ann, was lucky enough to leave the industry in the same year as Arlidge's report was published, when she married and moved to Wolverhampton. She went on to have six children and died in 1912, aged 72.


The blog comestepbackintime has an interesting article on Coalport china and its history.

You can find out more at The Coalport China Museum, which is one of the Ironbridge Gorge
Museums mentioned above.

Further information on the history of Coalport Porcelain can be found here.

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