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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

Nob Thatchers & Bottom Knockers

Later than advertised.... as they say in the world of TV... due to a 5 day power outage (along with our internet connection) due to Storm Eunice, here's the chance to catch up with the latest blog post!

After a recent conversation with a fellow family historian about the ancestors’ weird occupations, I found a fascinating blog post called the A-Z of unusual and obsolete occupations of the Victorian Era on the website of Family Wise Ltd.

I have several favourites from the list, one of which is a Nob Thatcher. If you think about it, you might be able to guess what he did, as his title is totally logical. He made wigs! (I love that!)

Another which intrigued me wasn’t one you’d be able to guess so easily – a yowler. Not someone who made a lot of noise yowling like a cat, but a thatcher’s assistant who threw the bundles (or yowls) of reed up to the thatcher on the roof.

Perhaps it’s because I live in a thatched cottage that these two particularly appealed to me.

Potty jobs in the pottery industry

One bizarre occupation not on the list, however, was one I came across while researching my West Midlands’ ancestors.

My 3x great-grandfather, Malcolm Sinclair BENBOW was born in 1807 in Broseley, Shropshire.

In the late eighteenth-century Broseley had begun to produce fine porcelain with blue and white decoration. But in the 1790s a new pottery was set up in a location which would go on to become well known for its distinct blue pottery - Coalport.

The original factory was dismantled in 1821 and re-used at Coalport and became the Coalport China Works.

Me on a visit to Coalport a few years ago

On the 1851 census Malcolm Benbow was working as a warehouseman 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.

Dangers of the pottery industry

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 like her sister in the previous census, and her brother 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. Her death certificate confirmed that she’d died of a disease commonly associated with the pottery industry – consumption.

In 1864, John Thomas Arlidge, the first person to study the health of the pottery workers, published the findings of his research. The average age of death of male potters in Stoke-on-Trent 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 or 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." Henrietta, of course, had been involved in just that type of work, as a china burnisher.

A lucky escape

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.

But – I hear you ask – what has all this got to do with unusual occupations? Well, it’s because amongst my ancestors’ colleagues’ jobs was the wonderfully named Saggar Makers Bottom Knocker!

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 occupation apparently appeared in an episode of the 1950's TV game programme, What's My Line, and I think it still remains one of my favourite of strange jobs, as it always makes me chuckle!

Have you come across any bizarre occupations during your research?


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