Doing it tough in the 1890s: more Kirkcaldy pottery workers

"Watching the pennies" was less a homily than a daily reality for so many of my forbears. photo credit: N1CT4YL0R via photopin cc

“Watching the pennies” was less a homily than a daily reality for so many of my forbears.
photo credit: N1CT4YL0R via photopin cc

Since last week’s post about my great grandfather David Leslie and the Kirkcaldy potteries, I’ve revisited the family tree and found more ancestors who were employed there.

Before her marriage, David’s wife, Isabella Gourlay worked as a  pottery dresser. The 1891 census shows that that most of Isabella’s household was similarly employed. Her mother,  Mary Gerrard was a pottery transferer; her brother Thomas a pottery painter and her youngest sister Mary also a pottery dresser. Only Isabella’s sister Elizabeth Gourlay was employed elsewhere – as a flax mill worker.

Mary was the head of the Gourlay household in 1891 – her husband Rankine Gourlay having been admitted to the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum.  The income earned by Mary and her four oldest children was all the family would have had. It occurred to me when I was reading the census return that any problems in the pottery industry — or even in one particular company — would have hit this family particularly hard.

In those days before trade unions, pottery workers were generally employed on “piece rates” – that is paid according to their output, rather than by the hour. While this may seem reasonable, the employer set the rate and was able to change it without notice, reduce the amount of work they offered staff, or even terminate employment without the worker having any real recourse or rights. Labour was totally casualised, and any drop in orders could result in mass layoffs. For a family like the Gourlay’s that could have been disastrous.

The Methven mark placed on the objects produced at their Kirkcaldy pottery. Photo credit:

In 1893, there was a dispute at the Methven pottery — where I believe the Gourlay and Leslie families worked — over the rate being paid for a particular line of merchandise.  While it doesn’t seem that my ancestors were directly involved, reading about the case has provided me with some really useful information.

The dispute was settled in the Kirkcaldy Sherriff’s Court  with the average wages and working hours for pottery workers forming part of the evidence.

It seems that the for skilled job of manufacturing potteryware (jugs in the case that went to court), a worker was paid  around 23-24 shillings per week (the equivalent of about £106 in today’s money). This was for a working week of 60 hours.

I don’t know whether my ancestors’ jobs would have been considered to be as skilled as those making the objects, but if they were, it means that the family had a weekly income of — at most — around £4 12s per week from the potteries, plus whatever the daughter in the flax-mill earned.

Given that three of the four Gourlay pottery workers were female, it is likely that they were paid less than their male counterparts, so the above estimate could easily be a bit high. Even if it’s basically accurate, the calculator at  measuring worth. com puts their £4 12s weekly income at around £420 in today’s money.

Being in New Zealand, I’m not sure how easy it would be to feed, clothe and house a family of six on £420 a week, but I’m guessing they would not have been living in luxury.  And of course, before the NHS and welfare benefits (however miserly they seem now), any sickness or injuries would have been an enormous drain on the family finances; not only necessitating doctors bills and medicine but potentially leading to a loss of wages as well.

I’ve always known that I’m descended from mainly working class stock, but it’s not until I start collecting tangible evidence of their lives that I can begin to really appreciate how hard their lives really were.

10 thoughts on “Doing it tough in the 1890s: more Kirkcaldy pottery workers

    • Thank you. I’ve got a little bit obsessed with finding out more about the potteries, so I guess there will be a few more posts on the same theme til I get it out of my system.

        • Yeah; apparently it’s quite collectible. There are lots of photos on the websites of antique dealers. And today one of my dad’s cousins told me she had inherited a commemorative plate given to my great grandfather by his workplace as a wedding present. It was made at one of the Kirkcaldy potteries and inscribed with the date of his marriage. I’m going to ask her to send me a photo of it. Although that g-grandfather wasn’t involved in the industry, his daughter married into a family that was.

    • Thank you; yes, I’m finding more and more that I’m getting almost obsessed with details of my ancestors’ lives. I want to know what sort of work their occupations actually entailed, where they carried out the work, what the conditions were like, how much they were paid, etc. And of course with the potteries – what they made – since there are examples of the work still around today. Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment; I appreciate it.

  1. Pingback: A thousand thank you’s | Shaking the tree

  2. Brilliant! It’s fascinating researching an industry, isn’t it? You might want to see if there were any Friendly Societies linked to the pottery or the area that your family would have subscribed to, which then paid out if you were ill, etc. Coal miners certainly paid subscriptions for doctors, schools, strike funds, illness, etc.

    Today’s average weekly wage here in the UK is £446 before tax, or £476 including bonuses. That’s about £25,000 a year. My computer tells me that gets $NZ48,000.

  3. Thanks Judy. I hadn’t thought about the Friendly Societies (particularly dumb, as I archived the records of a few here in Auckland last year!). I’m discovering how difficult it is to do wage/price comparisons between now and the past but it is really fascinating. I think one of the reasons the pottery workers have interested me so much is that so much of what they produced is still around today. I love the idea that I can touch something that one (or several) of my ancestors helped to produce. It’s a bit like the attraction of quilts and samplers and things like that made by the women in a family. Thanks again; I find your blog to be one of the most inspiring I follow, as well as one of the most useful in terms of research advice and technique. 🙂

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