I’m old enough to remember when many towns in England had their own specific identity, and much of that came from what those towns produced. The football teams of some of these places give us a clue as to what they produced by their nicknames: For example, Northampton Town are called The Cobblers (shoes), Sheffield United are known as The Blades (cutlery), and there are no prizes for guessing what was made in Stockport who are called The Hatters. To this list can be added Stoke City whose nickname is The Potters.
My first recollection of Stoke-on-Trent was from a Bristol City football supporters coach on our way to Huddersfield. We travelled north up to Manchester and across the Pennines into Yorkshire. The roads weren’t so good in those days and it was grim up north weatherwise. Wherever I looked there were chimneys and factories reminiscent of those dark satanic mills immortalised by William Blake. None of this was unexpected in Lancashire and Yorkshire, but what I wasn’t expecting to see was the vast number of pottery kilns dominating the skyline as we drove through the Midlands past The Potteries. This was definitely not a part of “England’s Green and Pleasant Land” that Blake wrote about.
The Potteries was the name given in 1910 to a collection of six towns in North Staffordshire that were involved in the production of ceramics: They were – Stoke-upon-Trent, Hanley, Burslem, Tunstall, Longton and Fenton. The other major town in the area, Newcastle-under-Lyme, not being directly involved in the industry, remained outside of the federation, and in 1925 the six towns became the city of Stoke-on-Trent. The name was chosen because Stoke-upon-Trent was the administrative centre and where the main railway station was located, but Hanley is the main commercial area and generally regarded as the city centre.
It was back in the 17th century though that the pottery industry started to make an impact on the area. A good supply of local clay, coal, salt and lead provided the main ingredients to begin with, but the boom time came when the Industrial Revolution enabled factories to produce more and better-quality products. Manufacturing equipment became more sophisticated, and the building of the Trent and Mersey Canal allowed for better quality china clay to be imported from Cornwall, as well as helping in the distribution of the finished products.
With the better-quality clay, it was possible to produce better quality pottery, and the area started to specialize in Creamware and Bone China. Famous names such as Royal Doulton, Spode, Minton and Wedgwood sprung up – but there were many more.
Experts believe that there was somewhere in the order of around 4,000 bottle kilns piercing the Potteries skyline during its heyday, and there were still around 2,000 in the 1950’s. These ovens were used for firing the clay and would use something like fifteen tons of coal for each firing of just one oven. The smoke from these kilns had to go somewhere and it’s hard to imagine what the air would have been like back then. Apparently, in Longton where the greatest concentration of ovens were, people couldn’t see across to the other side of the street.
In 1956, the Clean Air Act started to change things, and by the 1960’s the practice of using coal-fired kilns was virtually over. Today there are still 47 bottle ovens left standing in the Stoke area, and one of the best places to see some of them is at the Gladstone Pottery Museum in Longton.
Quite a few years after I first saw the Potteries skyline from that football coach I was in the area and wondered if there was anything much left of the industry to see. Fortunately, I stumbled across the Gladstone Pottery which had been saved from demolition, but was obviously in desperate need of some funds. The place was open as a museum, but it was hardly a museum in the true sense of the word. It may have looked unloved with all sorts of bits and pieces hanging around – but I loved it – and vowed to come back if at all possible, and in 2011 I did just that.
The Gladstone Pottery is located in Longton and started making creamware in the second half of the 18th century. It didn’t manufacture anything special, but it’s a bit special now because it’s the last remaining complete pottery factory from the era of the coal fired kiln.
I’m pleased to say that my second visit wasn’t a disappointment because it still hadn’t been over-restored. You can however see the pottery-making skills in action such as throwing, casting and hand decorating – and you can even have a go yourself. For me though, I love places like this because of their authenticity. The yards and workshops are just how I thought they would be.
It’s even possible to walk inside a bottle oven, but unlike the poor souls who had to retrieve the saggars from inside, there’s no extreme heat to have to deal with.
Apart from being interested in the industrial and social history of our nation, whether it be steel-making, ship-building or making pottery, I also have an interest in finding out how things are made, and so in contrast to the old Gladstone pottery in Longton, which is no longer involved in the manufacturing process, we also drove out to Barlaston where the current Wedgwood Factory is located, and still producing high class tableware.
I have to admit that I’m not particularly interested in ceramics as a work of art to be admired, but even I have heard of Wedgwood. Its founder, Josiah Wedgwood set up his first small business in Burslem back in 1759, and by 1766 had built up the business enough to acquire a 350-acre estate which he called Etruria.
Named after the Etruscans who were renowned for their artistic products in Italy, he built himself a smart new home and a factory next to the Trent and Mersey Canal. Now a suburb of Stoke, the factory at Etruria remained the home of Wedgwood until the business was transferred to the brand-new site at Barlaston in 1940.
The guided tour we had of the factory was a personal one because no one else came along, but I really enjoyed it. No photography was allowed, and I could understand why. For example, we watched an expert decorating a £40,000 dinner service in gold, so a flash gun firing off at close range wouldn’t be too welcome I don’t suppose. There is a demonstration area though where you can watch and photograph items of lesser value being made and sold.
The Barlaston site also includes a first-rate museum with many historically important pieces of porcelain and bone china. At the time we were here the collection was in serious danger of having to be sold off to fill a black hole in the company’s pension scheme, but thankfully since then the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and various other contributors have found enough money to donate it to the Victoria and Albert Museum who loan it out to the museum. Not only is the collection still on display where it should be, it’s also now in a safer pair of hands.
Some people may think that the best thing to come out of Stoke is Robbie Williams but I beg to differ. The prestige of owning an elaborate bone china dinner service to impress your guests may be a thing of the past for most people in the UK nowadays, and I can’t say I’m surprised to see that the biggest producers of ceramics and pottery in the 21st century is where porcelain was first made – China.
The pottery industry may not be as big as it once was in Stoke, but Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and Portmeirion are just some of the names that still thrive here. There are no smoking chimneys and bottle ovens to blight the horizon anymore, and that can be no bad thing of course, but I still haven’t forgot the day when I saw them for the first time on that dismal journey up north. The journey home didn’t improve either: The weather had got worse; the chimneys and bottle ovens were still spewing out their smoke into the atmosphere, and worst of all, Huddersfield won 2-0.
POSTED – AUGUST 2021