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Home | William Laud | George Smith

George Smith of Coalville (as he called himself) spent the last five years of his life living at 22 Laud's Road Crick and is buried in Crick Churchyard, but was born at Clayhills in the Potteries on 16th February 1831.

He was to become nationally known for his campaigns to improve the life of children working in brickyards, on canal boats and gipsy children.

His parents, William and Hannah, were members of the Wesleyan Chapel in Tunstall and it was in the Sunday School there and in the Dame School in Clayhills that the young George learnt to read and write. However at the age of seven (as was usual) he was out to work making bricks and worked in Peake's Tileries.

The work was not easy. Children would carry lumps of clay weighing between 20 and 40 lbs on their heads and/or 10 to 20 lbs under each arm.

The hours (ten hours a day) were long.

The discipline was immediate and harsh.

George Smith not only survived in these conditions but also attended night school to further his education. He also maintained his membership of the Primitive Methodists and progressed to become a Sunday School teacher. There he met Mary Mayfield and they married on 1st November 1852.

He had progressed in the brickworks and there was little that he did not know about the trade and in 1854 he left Peake's Tileries and worked in a brick yard two miles south of Leek. While working there he discovered at Reapsmoor (seven miles northeast of Leek) clay suitable for brick making and he set up his own brickworks there. He ran the yard according to his principles, refusing to use child labour. He set up a local Sunday School. The remoteness of Reapsmoor caused transport difficulties which meant that the yard never really flourished and in 1857 he took up the job of managing a brickworks at Humberstone, Leicestershire. After two years there he moved to be manager of the brickworks at the Whitwick Colliery Company. Originally he was to have rented the brickworks from the Colliery, but a combination of naivety on his part and sharp practice on the Colliery's part meant that he was manager rather than owner of the business.

Managing the yard he refused to use child labour and demonstrated that it was possible to run a successful brickworks without the practices adopted by most other yards. He also set up a Sunday School and the Coalville Primitive Methodist Sunday School had literally hundreds of children and a new schoolroom was built.

Needless to say, the success that he enjoyed created a degree of resentment and George Smith was not universally popular in Coalville. That was not his only sadness. His wife Mary died on 19th January 1866 and buried in Coalville churchyard. However (as was not unusual in those times) he married again and two months after his first wife's death he married Mary Lehman from the village of Ockbrook.

1868 saw that start of his campaigning against the use of child labour in brickyards. Through a mixture of letter writing, lobbying, publicising what was happening and sheer stubbornness he was instrumental in a Bill going through parliament, clause 5 of which read "After the first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and seventy two, 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, ..."

For Smith, an expert in brick making, there was no doubt as to what were "ornamental tiles" but he was soon to discover that those words had written an area of dispute into the legislation. It was not until 1875 that there was clarity as to what was intended and the legislation enforced.

Even before the dispute about "ornamental tiles" had been settled Smith was looking for his next area of reform (or he would say that, inspired by a dream, it found him). This time it was the condition of children on canal boats. However to do so was to cost him dear. The animosity which his success had created in Coalville was exacerbated with the passage of the brickworks legislation. Now taking on the canal companies his employers gave him an ultimatum that either he ceases his campaigning on gives up his job. He chose the latter option. In 1873 he found himself unemployed with a wife and five children and another on the way. In spite of his skill as a manager no one would give him a job. He did have a two year spell as manager of a new firm but discovered the small print meant he could be sacked when the business was up and running. Selling most of his possessions he rented a formerly empty house in Coalville, with damp walls and water coming through the roof. It was not till October 1880 that the Smith Family left and moved to the village of Welton in Nothamptonshire. Doubtless chosen in part because the village is on the canal system. He lived there for four years before moving to Crick.

At the height of the canal system most boats were crewed by men whose families lived ashore. However the coming of the railways meant increased competition and the canal companies were forced to cut their cargo rates with the effect that it became impossible to support a home ashore and the families moved on board into cramped and grossly over-crowded conditions. The living quarters of a typical narrow boat would be eight and a half feet long by six and a half feet wide by five feet high In that confined space the family (and they were often large families in those days) did everything that families do.

The constant journeying of the boats meant that there was no possibility of the children even attending Sunday School and he was concerned at the sometimes complete lack of knowledge of anything to do with the Christian Faith.

Concerned for the welfare of children being brought up in this environment, Smith went about trying to reform the situation with the same determination that he had shown with the brickworks. Many miles were spent walking the canal system to provide evidence for his case. Again lobbying intensively he was able to achieve much. Legislation was passed in 1877 which gave power to registration authorities to inspect boats and to restrict the number of people who could live on board. However the legislation simply permitted this to happen rather than required it to happen and little changed until the Act was amended in 1884.

The end of that year saw the establishment of a fund support Smith and £300 was given from the Royal Bounty Fund in recognition for what he had done for children. With that money, and the promise of more to come, Smith bought a house in Crick, 22 Lauds Road. This (the house on the right) he called "The Cabin".

Hodder (who wrote a biography of Smith shortly after his death) contrasted the number of flourishing public houses with the struggle of the Church and Chapels to survive. The place was of "a bad tone" caused by the fact that the village once swarmed with navvies "of a very low type".

Smith set about improving the village and formed an organisation called "The Band of Love" which met in the "White Cottage" (left on the picture above). Reviving the Agape of the early Church it was here that he held "love feasts" recording on one occasion that there was "an excellent and bountiful tea."

As well as these activities he was now engaged in the third area of reform in which he campaigned. Just as he was concerned about the conditions for children on boats, so too he was concerned about gypsy children growing up in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and with no education and no knowledge of Jesus.

This was an area of reform in which he was not to meet with success in his lifetime. However it is worth bearing in mind that today specialist teaching for itinerant children is provided by local education authorities, as well as gypsy sites . A number of gypsy families have a lively faith in Jesus.

Smith's health was now deteriorating and after consulting a number of doctors without success he finally was given a diagnosis of cancer of the liver. His last weeks were surrounded by friends and family. The band of the Rugby Primitive Methodist Church played hymns outside his window. He died on 21st June 1895 aged 64 (though the age on his gravestone says 65 it is wrong). His grave is where he chose it - near the school and close to children.

His widow survived him, living another 20 years in Crick. His son, Grosart, carried out a medical practice from The Cabin. Later he took a Dr. Morrison into partnership with him and he it was who changed the house name to "Queens House" (its present name) in recognition of the donation from the Royal Bounty Fund which enabled its purchase. The house continued as the village surgery until the 1990s when a growing village and more sophisticated medical equipment necessitated a move to larger premises.

For further reading refer to George Smith The Children's Friend by Adrian Bristow ISBN 0 9535002 0 9
Published by Imogen, 1 Greenacre Road, Chester CH4 7NH