Smith, George of Coalville

George Smith of Coalville
By kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery ref. D6780
The old Primitive Methodist Church & Schoolrooms Coalville
Coalville Heritage Society
Memorial plaque to Mary Smith in Marlborogh Square Methodist Church Coalville

“George Smith was a remarkable man who did remarkable things in a remarkable manner” reads the Preface of Edwin Hodder’s biography of George Smith of Coalville.

Born on 16th February 1831, he was the eldest child of William and Hannah, both Methodists, who attended the Wesleyan chapel in America Street Tunstall. Their home was in the appropriately named Clayhills with its vast reserves of clay which had given rise to the thriving brick and tile industry of which his father was part being employed in the local brickyard. Aged 4 George was enrolled in the Sunday School and Dame School of a Primitive Methodist, Betty Westwood, where he was taught the rudiments of reading and writing which were to stand him in good stead later. Aged 7 he was transferred from the innocence of school to the harsh reality of the treadmill of work in a local brickworks. Child labour in the brick and tile yards was extensive and the conditions appalling both physically and morally. The child workers of both sexes were subject to a harsh regime. George Smith himself told how at the age of 9 he was required to carry  40 lbs of clay from the pug mill to the moulders and in a day he could move 5 tons of it. On other occasions the work entailed carrying bricks from the moulding room to the kilns. For a day’s work of 13 hours he received sixpence.

And so, in later life, he campaigned relentlessly to improve conditions for the children in these yards. His reward came in 1871 with the enactment of an Act of Parliament providing for the inspection of brickyards and the regulation of child and female labour in them.

Not content to rest on his laurels, he then turned his attention to the atrocious conditions to which canal boat children were subject. His appeal to improve these was effectively launched at the 1874 Sunday School Anniversary of Moira Primitive Methodist chapel where he described the appalling circumstances in which they lived and the complete lack of education. Again, his efforts were rewarded. The Canal Boats Act 1878 was passed which required registration of canal boats in a place where there was a school and regulated sanitary conditions.

In view of the work done by him to improve the lot of the children of the clay works and canal boats (and later that of gypsy children) it would be easy to overlook his considerable achievements with local Sunday Schools. Following six days of exhausting work he did not rest on Sundays but attended the two services at the America Street chapel and as a scholar in the Sunday School later at the age of seventeen, as a teacher there. He married Mary Mayfield, a fellow teacher, and moved with her to Reapsmoor where he started a Wesleyan Sunday School before later moving to Coalville around 1859 and repeating the exercise. Within two years he had increased the number attending from six to over sixty. Sadly, he upset his teachers and, as a result, ceased to be superintendent but any void was soon filled because he was approached by the Primitive Methodists to become the superintendent of their Sunday School which position he readily accepted. He was joined by his father, William, and, with his help, the Sunday School flourished just as the others had. Other denominations were jealous amongst them the Anglicans from whom the Primitive Methodists rented the premises in which the Sunday School met and they terminated the tenancy. This resulted in about 180 scholars, the teachers and himself moving into the chapel itself and trying, with considerable difficulty, to manage among the pews.

Purpose built schoolrooms were a necessity and every effort was made by George Smith to ensure that they were built. A large financial contribution was obtained from the Whitwick Colliery Company towards the cost of erecting some and, on 8th August 1865, George Smith, as superintendent, had the honour of laying the foundation stone with the silver trowel with which he had been presented. This he did, we are told, in “a workmanlike manner” before placing a £5 note on the stone. The schoolrooms were substantial and two storeys high with direct access to the adjoining chapel and gallery. He continued with his Sunday School work until he reluctantly gave it up in 1874.

He later moved to Crick. George Smith of Coalville (as he referred to himself) died there on 21st June 1895 and it is said children thronged round the grave throwing white flowers onto the coffin until it was covered by them as they paid their own tribute to the man who was also known as “the children’s friend”.

Comments about this page

  • George Smith is my Great great great grandfather we have some of his original books he wrote signed and dated by him. also 2 family portrait photos as weoll as his family photo album guess about 1870 shows is children both wife’s and brothers / sisters

    By mark dowden (04/11/2018)
  • George Smith’s work with gipsy children is the subject of an article in the Primitive Methodist, 27 November 1879: 

    ‘Mr George Smith, of Coalville, is endeavouring to do a work for the children of Gipsies similar to that he has done for the children employed in brickyards and the children of canal boatmen – that is, bring them under some sort of supervision, so that they may secure at least a small share in the educational advantages of the country.  Recently he published an account of a visit to an encampment of the Gipsies near Wandsworth Common, and it is evident that these wanderers without any settled place of abode look on his efforts with some considerable approval.  The encampment was made up of a number of tents, huts, and vans, and contained some 60 half naked poor Gipsy children and 30 Gipsy men and women, living in an indescribable state of ignorance, dirt, filth, and misery, mostly squatting upon the ground, or otherwise making their beds upon peg shavings and straw; and it turned out upon inquiry that not more than four of these poor creatures could read a sentence or write a letter.  They are, however, not indisposed to be subject to regulations that will contribute to their partial education, if to nothing more.  In passing from one of these miserable habitations to another, Mr Smith found an old Gipsy woman proud of her name and descent, for she was a Lee, and a Lee of the fourth generation.  To this old woman he explained his purpose, sitting on a low seat under the cover of the tent with his knees on a level with his chin.  He wanted, he said, ‘to get all the Gipsy tents and vans, and other movable habitations in the country, registered and under proper sanitary arrangements, and the children compelled to attend school wherever they may be temporarily located, and to receive an education which will in some degree help to get them out of the low, heartrending condition into which they have been allowed to sink.’  Mrs Lee listened with pleasure to this narration of Mr Smith’s purpose, and, though in great poverty, desired to aid this good work.  Her stock of cash amounted to three-halfpence; but this she insisted upon giving, so that she might contribute a little, at any rate, towards the improvement of her people.  We hope Mr Smith may succeed in his work, and succeed speedily, so that these Gipsy children, who are trained up to a vagabond life, may have a chance of learning something better.  And evidently, from Mr Smith’s experience, there is no hostility to such a measure as he wishes to have made law among the Gipsies themselves.’

    By Jill Barber (30/08/2018)
  • Noticed that there is no page for George Smith on wikipedia. maybe you could create one…

    By Nick (03/11/2016)

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