Staffordshire is about the central county of England—a busy county, containing more people for its size than any other, except Lancashire and those counties which divide London between them. It is so busy a county because it has two large coal-fields, one in the south, twenty miles long by ten broad, and a smaller one in the north. Upon each of these coal-fields a great manufacture is carried on, which gives work to many people.
Staffordshire is a flat county on the whole, though there are some hills of mountain limestone in the south, near Dudley, against which a bed of coal, thirty feet deep, abuts.
All the middle of Staffordshire is within the Trent Valley, for the first fifty miles of Trent are in Stafford. It rises in the north-east moorlands, flows right across the county, and leaves it to enter Derbyshire, after passing by the town of Burton. Burton is a great brewing place—a rather dull town, with many rows of brick houses just alike, where more than 4000 men are employed in the breweries.
Not until it reaches Burton does the Trent become wide and deep enough to carry boats of any size; but it is a useful river to Staffordshire in another way, as the green meadows all along its banks show. Both the Trent and the little rivers which join it, the Blythe, the Tame, the Sow, and others, overflow their banks after rainy weather; and when the rivers get back into their beds again, they leave river mud behind, which is good for the grass.
Going up the Trent Valley, we come to Tamworth on the Tame, an old town, where there are two large paper-mills and other works. Farther on is Lichfield, another ancient town, standing among low hills. Paper and carpets are made here, but the city is chiefly known for its beautiful cathedral, one of the sights of which is a monument by the sculptor Chantrey, representing two little girls lying asleep in such a soft and natural way, that you forget they are made of cold marble, and want to give them a good-night kiss.
Passing Cannock Chase, once a great forest, now an open heath, we come to Stafford on the little river Sow, near the Trent; it is a rather large brick town, where quantities of boots and shoes are made. The beautiful Trentham Park and Newcastle-under-Lyme also lie within the valley.
The north-east corner is filled with moorlands, a continuation of the moors of the West Riding. These moors are cold and wet, bleak and high; the highest being over 1017 feet. The Trent, the great river of the central plain of England, brings its waters from these moors, where it rises in three springs.
The north-west of the county, where the coaL-field is, is a level tract.
II. The "Black Country"
The great South Staffordshire coal-field, upon which more than 400 collieries are worked, stretches from the high ground of Cannock Chase, south of the town of Stafford, to the borders of Worcestershire. This district is called the "Black Country," not because coal is black and colliers are black; but a great manufacture is carried on here, the smoke caused by which blackens the buildings and the very air.
The stranger who passes through the Black Country by the London and North-Western Railway, on a winter's night, sees a curious and rather awful sight. Dotted everywhere about are what appear to be many small volcanoes, from fifty to seventy feet high, with sheets of flame breaking out from the top of each. Below are what look in the dark like black caverns lighted by a lurid glare, within which black figures are flitting about. The din of clanging hammers reassures the stranger; by that he knows he must be in the midst of some great metal-works.
All these flaming furnaces and forges are employed in the working of our English precious metal—not gold, nor silver, but the far more useful Iron, which lies in seams among the very coal necessary to work it. It is as if fuel and metal had been placed together, in God's providence, that, working together, they might help to make England a great nation.
For what should we do without iron? We travel upon iron ways, drawn by iron horses; we pass over iron bridges; sleep upon iron bedsteads; have iron steamboats and iron war-ships; break up the ground* with iron ploughs, drawn, too, by iron horses. We have iron grates, and iron gates, and iron tools; iron churches and iron schoolrooms; we even send iron houses over the sea to distant lands.
Why is iron thus useful above all metals? Because, though it is as a giant for hardness and strength, it is obedient as a child to the will of man. It can be changed into a fluid; it will take any shape the workman pleases. It can be made into strong bars, or drawn into the finest wire. It can be spread out into plates or sheets; it can be twisted or bent in every direction; it can be made sharp or blunt, soft or hard.
This precious metal is found, combined with various earthy substances, chiefly clay, in a stony, dark-coloured ore, called ironstone. The ore occurs in beds of varying thickness, from a few inches to several feet; there are generally a great many beds or seams one beneath another, separated by beds of other mineral. Here, in the Black Country, these other minerals are often coal and lime, the very things which are wanted to melt the ore.
III. The Sow and the Pigs
The next question is—how to extract the metal from the ore?
In the first place, the ore is roasted. Those great roundish heaps, like the nests of some strange creature, which are to be seen smoking away by thousands in the iron country, are made of layers of coal and ironstone, then coal, then ironstone, and, over all, a thatch of fine coal or slack. A fire is kindled at one end, and it works its way slowly to every part of the mass, roasting the ore as it goes. We know how the gas in a coal fire bubbles and blazes, and at last passes off in smoke ; the ironstone is roasted to get rid of all the waste matter which the heat of the fire will cause to pass off as gas. Now the ore is ready for the blast furnace, into which it is thrown to be smelted. These furnaces are the ever-flaming volcanoes, more than one hundred and sixty of them in all, of the Black Country. They are huge and clumsy buildings, something like rounded pyramids, built so as to possess great strength, and great power of resisting heat.
They are always full of fiercely burning material which is thrown in at the top as fast as it is drawn out at the bottom: the top is generally open, and a great body of flame may be seen shooting up night and day.
At the bottom of the blast furnace there is a deep square hearth, and all the hollow of the furnace, above this hearth, is filled with ore and coal. But if only ore and coal were burned in this furnace, we should never get iron out. It is a curious fact that certain substances have an affection, or what chemists call an affinity, for each other. The ore, as it is cast into the furnace, contains much clay along with the iron. The thing to be done is, to separate the iron from the clay; this separation is brought about by throwing in another substance, along with the coal and the ore, for which the clay has such an affinity that it will leave the iron and join itself to this new substance, so leaving the iron pure.
Lime is this useful substance; one reason why the iron of South Staffordshire is so valuable is that lime, as well as coal, is found quite close to the ore, often in the same seams.
When once it is filled, the furnace is kept roaring and blazing away, fresh coal and ore and lime being poured in at the top three or four times every hour, day and night. The metal, when it is melted, being heavier than the rest, sinks to the square hearth at the bottom of the furnace.
When the melted iron has been falling into this square trough for twelve hours, it is tapped, or allowed to flow out.
In front of the furnace is a flat space covered with sand. One long channel, or hollow in the sand, called the sow, is made down the middle of this space: from each side of the sow, a hundred or more smaller channels, called pigs, branch out.
All being ready, the clay stopper to the hole at the bottom of the furnace is broken away, and the white-hot liquid metal pours forth in a stream, bubbling and hissing, taking all manner of beautiful colours, and filling the air with a cloud of fiery sparks. Men stand about with long poles to turn the stream of liquid metal into the pig moulds, until they and the "sow" are all filled; and fiery bright and very beautiful the whole appearance is. The pigs soon become solid, and are carried away from the moulds while they are yet hot.
IV. The Foundry
This is pig iron, which, to make fire-grates and railings, and knobs, and a thousand other things, is once more melted in a furnace; and then the liquid metal is poured into a mould, a hollow clay shape of the exact pattern of the article that is to be made. This is called casting, and all goods which do not require either great strength or great beauty are made of cast iron. Look at an iron fender or fire-grate, and you will generally find that the edges of the pattern are round and dull, not fine and sharp; a proof that the article has been cast in a mould, "and not wrought with hand and hammer.
But if the iron is to be brought to the forge to be made very close and strong, or to be wrought into delicate patterns, it has much to go through yet; for pig iron is brittle and will not bear the hammer.
The "pigs" are once more cast into a furnace called a finery, out of which the melted metal, much purer than when it went in, flows into a flat mould, where it is instantly chilled with cold water. Then these long slatis of refined iron are broken in pieces, and put into the puddling furnaces, where the brittle iron becomes malleable, that is, able to bear the hammer, and ductile, that is, capable of being drawn out into thin wire if need be. The puddling furnace is one in which the flame and heat are cast down, or reverberated, from an arched roof.
The "puddler" is a kind of salamander, able to bear any heat. Naked to the waist, he watches the iron as it begins to melt through a hole in the furnace, stirring the pieces about with a long bar of iron which he is obliged to change for a cold one every few minutes, or the bar would melt.
When the whole is melted, the puddler keeps the mass constantly stirred, and, under the stirring, the fluid becomes thickened, and gradually separates into lumps; these, with two iron rods, he works into one big ball, or bloom, as it is called.
Then the fiery ball of iron is lifted out of the furnace, and passes from one workman to another with great rapidity; it is carried in little iron carriages from one place to another.
The bloom is flattened under an enormous hammer, and then pressed out further under great rollers, until it is brought to the shape and size required. This rolling is very hard work, as the sheets of iron must be made red-hot between each rolling; and the men may be seen, bathed in perspiration, carrying a sheet of red-hot iron, two or three yards square, to and from the furnace. By plunging the hands in water it is possible to handle red-hot iron. More wonderful still, in many foundries iron may be seen "cut like cheese " by a huge pair of shears worked by machinery.
The iron is now ready for the forge; where the smith shapes and hammers it upon his anvil into whatever kind of wrought-iron goods it is his business to produce.
In the towns of the "Black Country," Wolverhampton, Walsall, Bilston, Wednesbury, West Bromwich, different kinds of hardware, the name given to iron goods, are produced: nails, bedsteads, locks, bolts, keys, screws, in fact all kinds of iron articles; as well as much japanned ware, that is, iron goods coated with a peculiar kind of varnish such as we see on some tea-trays.
V. The Potteries
One of the oldest and most interesting of all crafts is carried on upon the North Staffordshire coal-field. There the potter may be seen at work, perhaps upon the very sort of potter's wheel mentioned in the Bible.
The district called "The Potteries" lies a little to the east of Newcastle-under-Lyme, and is about ten miles long and two or three broad. It is really one long street, for all the towns and villages are so near each other that they either touch, or are joined together by rows of houses. There are many towns and villages along this high road; beginning at the north, the most important we pass through are Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Shelton, Etruria, Stoke, Fenton, and Lane End. Along either side of the road passing through these towns is a long string of potteries and porcelain works.
The Grand Trunk Canal goes through the Potteries, bearing many barges, which bring flint or clays from the south coast, or carry away cups and jugs and plates to one of the two great ports which the canal connects, Liverpool or Hull.
Flint and clay are the materials used by the potter, and they are not found in Staffordshire, which yields nothing now but coal to bake and water to bear away the ware. The blue clay of Purbeck and other parts of Dorset, black and brown clays brought from the south of Devon (which lose their colour and become white in the oven), and the white china-clay of Cornwall, are the clays most prized. Flint is always found in the chalk districts, and the roundish flint stones are brought from the south in boat-loads, chiefly from Gravesend.
These materials are prepared for the potter with great care. First, the clays are mixed with pure water to the thickness of cream. Then the flints, hardest of all stones, are also, by means of much burning and beating, made into a sort of cream of a beautiful whiteness, though the stones themselves are nearly black inside. These creams then flow into a large tank, where they are mixed together; the mixture is drained through very fine silk sieves, so that it shall be perfectly smooth; it is then "slip," and is carried to the slip-kiln, a long open trough with great fires underneath, where the water evaporates until the cream becomes a rather stiff clay.
The clay is then kneaded pretty much as dough is kneaded for bread, only this kneading is always done by a machine.
VI. "Biscuit" Making and Printing
Potter's "biscuit" is the dough after it has been made into vessels and baked.
After the kneading, the dough is cut into wedges, which are allowed to lie for some months; then it goes through a violent process of "slapping" which lasts until there are no air bubbles left in the mass, when it is ready for the thrower.
The thrower works with a potter's wheel, that is, a little round table on a single leg, which is so set in the ground that it can turn round freely. Bound the table leg is a band, which also goes round a wheel at a little distance. This wheel is kept constantly turned by a woman or a boy, and as the wheel turns, the band causes the little table to twist round with it.
The potter sits on a stool behind his little whirling table. A boy at hand gives him a ball of dough large enough to make cup or jug or other vessel of a round shape. It is truly an astonishing thing to see the potter at work on his clay: it seems as if he could do anything, everything, with it.
Pressing his two thumbs on the top of the mass, he hollows it, and, with the thumbs inside and fingers outside, he so draws and presses and moulds the clay as to make it convex outside and concave inside, and of any form he may desire. The whirling of the table causes the clay to whirl round under his hands, and so to take a round shape. Vessels which are not quite circular are baked in moulds.
We cannot follow the jugs and mugs through the drying, the shaving under the turner's lathe, the baking in the large sugar-loaf shaped kilns, from which they come out as biscuit. There is no pattern on the biscuit, and it is quite dull looking.
The pattern is drawn by a designer—leaves or flowers it may be, or pretty pictures; the engraver copies the pattern in deep lines on a copper plate. These deep lines are filled with ink of the proper colour, green, or blue, or red. A sheet of thin yellow paper is pressed upon the copper plate and takes the pattern of the lines in the moist ink. Then the paper is laid, inky side down, upon a dish or saucer, and a woman rubs the paper with a roll of flannel until the wet ink has gone into the dish and made the pattern on it.
The "biscuit" ware is baked again to fix the pattern ; and then the vessels are plunged into a tub of glaze, and come out with a new coat,—they are covered with a substance bright and smooth like glass. After one more baking, they are ready for use;—cups and saucers, jugs and plates, such as we have upon our tables, which are smooth, shining, and gay with a pretty pattern.
The greatest of our English potters was Josiah Wedgwood, who lived in the reign of George III., and built the village of Etruria, or "Trury," as the people call it, for his workpeople. He took part also in the making of the Grand Trunk Canal, a most useful canal to him, in bringing materials and carrying his pottery away from the works.