The North Staffordshire hill countryside, while unsuitable for agriculture, was rich in deposits of varying clays and coals. “The clay, though not now used for earthenware, is, and always has been, suitable for the saggars in which the ware is packed while being fired, and for the fire-bricks of the kiln in which the ware is baked.” (Wedgwood, Staffordshire Pottery and its History, 1911+, pg. 9) No less than thirty-four coalmines in the region have been recorded, some extremely adaptable to pottery manufacture and others more suitable for domestic use, with thinner coal veins connecting them. Because the plentiful fuel never had to be transported more than two miles, coal was extremely inexpensive.
In his 1829 History of the Staffordshire Potteries, Simeon Shaw speculates that, because the coal deposits were spread quite evenly throughout the area, the heavy smoke from the potteries was more easily dissipated, leaving “this pleasant and healthful district.” (Shaw, History of the Staffordshire Potteries, 1900 reprint of 1829 manuscript, pg. 6) By today’s standards, however, in an attempt to insure cleaner air, area businesses must comply with strict regulations; judging from early 20th-century photos of the distinctive bottle-shaped kilns, these rules were clearly necessary.
The most expensive raw material, and frequently the only item of the potter’s equipment requiring capital, was lead. The metal came, conveniently, from Lawton Park, just six miles to the north of the area. In his will, dated 1656, John Colclough of Burslem left all his pottery-making equipment and materials, except the valuable metal and its ore, to “Thomas Wedgwood of the Churchyard in Burslem.” (Wedgwood, Staffordshire Pottery and its History, 1911+, pg. 10) Why the lead was the exception we will never know. The mention alone serves to accentuate the fact that lead was one of the potter’s primary commodities.
In 1616, a notation in the Tunstill Court Rolls cites an agreement between Richard Middleton and Thomas Danyell of Burslem, a “potter”, giving Danyell the right to dig clay in two pastures owned by Middleton, provided he “fillinge upe the pitts after him.” (Wedgwood, Staffordshire Pottery and its History, 1911+, pg. 8) This may be the first reference to the trade of potting. After 1640, “every reference to Burslem or Tunstill is replete with ‘potters’ or ‘earth-potters’ and men trained to the trade were acquiring the skill necessary for the localization of the coming industry.” (Wedgwood, Staffordshire Pottery and its History, 1911+, pg. 9) For much of the remainder of the 17th century, North Staffordshire potting was, according to J. C. Wedgwood, a “Peasant Industry.” (Wedgwood, Staffordshire Pottery and its History, 1911+, pg. 14)
The entire pottery area was joined to the sea by a web of secondary canals, each one merging with the major waterway, the Trent-and-Mersey Canal. Courtesy of Steve Birks, www.thepotteries.org.
An effective, inexpensive means of transportation is an integral factor in determining the success of any industry undertaking. Long before railroads were an alternative, the virtually isolated Staffordshire area sought to solve its vexing transport problems with the construction of the Trent-and-Mersey canal.
As early as 1755, various options for joining the two rivers had been considered by the “Company of Proprietors of the Navigation from the Trent to the Mersey.” (www.wedgwoodmuseum.org.uk ) Included on this special commission were the Duke of Bridgewater, Earl Gower, Thomas Anson, Matthew Boulton, and other “respectable persons of the neighborhood.” (www.wedgwoodmuseum.org.uk ) Josiah Wedgwood was the non-paid treasurer for the group. On July 26, 1766, Wedgwood, in a symbolic representation of the potteries, turned the initial piece of sod for the first channel of the ambitious canal system.
One aspect of the project, the cutting of the Harecastle Tunnel, caused major construction delays. When completed, the 2880-yard tunnel was hailed as an engineering masterpiece. Originally, the obstacle was traversed by legging, “men lying on their backs and pushing against the roof with their feet to give the boat momentum.” (www.thepotteries.org ) Thomas Telford improved the situation in 1827, with the construction of an adjacent wider tunnel encompassing a towpath. This pass-through is, as the remainder of the system, still used today by pleasure craft. James Brindley, engineer for the original construction project, died September 27, 1772, of complications from diabetes. His brother-in-law, Hugh Henshall, directed completion of the important waterway, which opened in May 1777, eleven years after the first earth was dug.
Despite the environmental challenges of the Potteries, district life appeared typical of English reality. Courtesy of Steve Birks, www.thepotteries.org
The completed Trent-and-Mersey canal encompassed five tunnels – the Harecastle and four others to help maintain a constant level of water in the system of waterways – several major aqueducts over various rivers, 160 smaller aqueducts, 109 cart bridges, 11 foot bridges and several locks – 35 to the Mersey and 40 to the Trent – to accommodate a descent of 408 feet from Etruria to the sea.
In a letter dated February 13, 1786, Josiah Wedgwood remarked to R. L. Edgeworth that the enormous £300.000 expense of the canal construction had, for the potteries, reduced the transportation costs for raw materials from 10 pence to a little over 1 pence per mile per ton.
Another major boon to the transport problems of the landlocked pottery area came with the creation of a significant roadway from Derby and Uttoxeter to Newcastle, the first in the vicinity. Recognizing the potential of the road, the Borough of Newcastle stepped up its fight against the rapidly growing industrial towns in the political battle for control of the district.
In the 1840s a national railway system was developed, providing the potteries with a faster and less expensive form of transportation, completely destroying the canal businesses. The North Staffordshire Railway Company, headquartered at the Stoke Station, formed the hub for a huge network of rail lines that literally reached the world.
Stafford County, England: The Potting Capitol of the World. Courtesy of Steve Birks, www.thepotteries.org.
With the unprecedented growth of the pottery industry during the Industrial Revolution, the now-famous district drew worldwide attention. In 1829, Simeon Shaw wrote this description: “About five miles north west, and five miles south east of Newcastle-under-Lyme, are the two extremities of that interesting and opulent district, named – THE POTTERIES – because almost exclusively appropriated to manufactories of porcelain and pottery, not yielding in the elegance, beauty, and utility of the productions, to those of China; and in extant of operations exceeding all others in Europe.” More than twenty thousand acres “… forming one of the most populous and industrious districts of equal extant in the nation.” (Shaw, History of the Staffordshire Potteries, 1900 reprint of 1829 manuscript, pg. 1) The vast majority of the population in the three parishes (Stoke, Burslem and Wolstanton) could directly attribute their salaries to the pottery manufactories or related businesses.
The district itself benefited from the prosperous pottery manufacture of the area, with greatly increased population, plentiful markets, many new public buildings, beautiful mansions, imposing churches, improved roads, balanced wages and an increased philanthropic attitude. Simeon Shaw called the improved situation “social comfort to multitudes” (Shaw, History of the Staffordshire Potteries, 1900 reprint of 1829 manuscript, pg. 9) and “opulence for the employers.” (Ibid, pg.. 7) A larger percentage of the area’s citizens owned their own homes than in any other place in England. In 1829 at the height of its success, the Potteries was “a busy and enterprising community of fifty thousand persons,” (Ibid, pg. 9) supplying wares for most of the markets on both Eastern and Western continents.
Although still primitive by today’s standards, the completion of the ninety-three mile Trent-and-Mercy Canal in 1777 made it possible for pottery manufactories to ship to and from the sea at Liverpool for just one-seventh the cost of earlier methods. Courtesy of Steve Birks, www.thepotteries.org.
Success brought with it the usual trappings, some of the most ordinary and practical but nonetheless complicated being the naming of new streets, the numbering of establishments and residences and the accessibility of public services. “Many of the new streets are distinguished by the Name on the corners; but few of them have the doors of the houses numbered. This might be done on a very useful, simple, and convenient plan – all the even numbers might be on one side, and all the odd one on the other; a person would then be certain on whether side was situated the house he was seeking. The introduction of gas lamps with powerful burners, in the streets, and most of the highways, is a very convenient accommodation to all parties, strangers and inhabitants. Good Water is supplied from reservoirs at Lane End, and Hanley; but is more of a rarity in all the Towns, than is desirable for the health and cleanliness of the population.” (Ibid, pg. 13)
As with rapid growth in any area, many of the urban improvements were primarily funded by generous annual donations from philanthropic individuals; a number of prominent potters were included in this group.
The “operative class” (Ibid, pg. 15) of pottery workers also contributed small weekly deductions from their earnings to help defray the expenses. In addition to reservoirs, these generous donations made possible a medical library, the North Staffordshire Infirmary, the Library of Philosophical Researches and the Museum of Anatomy and Physiology.
In his 1829 text, Shaw offered these somewhat marginally flattering words about the district’s citizens: “The inhabitants of the Potteries, regarded as a body, possess the spirit of true patriotism. Parties there are, and sometimes they can scarcely ‘agree to differ’; but, whatever differences may have occurred to the manner of promoting the public good, all have united in the desire and means whereby it might be accomplished.” (Ibid, pg. 10)
Despite the generally successful impression, and wages said to be the best in the country for the work done, working conditions in the potteries – especially for children – were dreadfully poor. In December 1840, on the authority of an order issued by the House of Commons, Samuel Scriven visited 173 potteries to collect evidence for a study of working conditions in the manufactories and their coal mines.
His well-documented report is filled with numerous accounts of children laboring long hours in deplorable conditions for extremely poor wages. These youngest of workers were between the ages of eight and seventeen, with boys seldom employed until they were fourteen. “Both [boys and girls] serve an apprenticeship of seven years, and receive in the first year ls. per week, ls. 6d. the second, 2s. the third, 2s. 6d. the fourth; for the fifth and sixth they get half price of the adult journeyman or women, and on the seventh year, full price, allowing a drawback to the master of 4d. in the ls.” (www.thepotteries.org ) The children were little more than enslaved prisoners.
From this account in Scriven’s report emerges a picture of a child’s lot in England’s unique industry. “The class of children whose physical condition has the strongest claims to consideration is that of the ‘jiggers’ and ‘mould-runners’, who, by the very nature of their work, are rendered pale, weak, diminutive and unhealthy; they are employed by the dish, saucer, and plate makers; their hours are half past five in the morning to six at night, but in numberless instances they are required to labour on to eight, nine, or ten, and this in an atmosphere varying from 100 to 120 degrees [F.]; all these extra hours being occasioned, nine times out of ten, by the selfishness or irregularities of their unworthy taskmasters.
“Each man employs two boys, one to turn the jigger, or horizontal wheel, from morning to night; the other to carry the ware just formed from the ‘whirler’ to the hot-house and moulds back. These hothouses are rooms within rooms, closely confined except at the door, and without windows. In the centre stands a large cast-iron stove, heated to redness, increasing the temperature often to 130 degrees. I [Scriven] have burst two thermometers at that point. During this inclement season I have seen these boys running to and fro inclement season I have seen these boys running to and fro on errands, or to their dinners, without stockings, shoes or jackets, and with perspiration standing on their foreheads, after labouring like little slaves, with the mercury 20 degrees below freezing. The results of such transitions are soon realized, and many die of consumption, asthma, and acute inflammations. It is admitted on all hands that their work is the most arduous and fatiguing of all others.” (www.thepotteries.org )
Thankfully, with the adoption and enforcement of early child-labor laws, situations have vastly improved. August 1, 1898, marked the day when the manufactories could no longer employ anyone under the age of fourteen. One year later, they were prohibited in hiring a person under fifteen years of age for work in the dipping house or the dippers drying room. These positions were also included in the prohibition: china scouring, color dusting, glaze blowing, glost placing, majolica painting, transfer making and ware cleaning immediately after the dipping process.
In 1805, an act of Parliament separated Burslem from the Rectory of Stoke; in 1826, another parliamentary act named Burslem as a town. As early as 1817, citizens had urged the amalgamation of the population centers of the area into one administrative unit. Local commissioners for the six major towns were saddled with steadily increasing responsibilities in street upkeep and improvement, public medical needs and routine urban services. Definitive action toward unification finally became a reality in 1857 when Hanley and Shelton were combined to form the borough of Hanley.
In 1865 Longton and Long End joined to become the borough of Longton and, in 1874, the towns of Stoke, Penkill and Boothen united to become the borough of Stoke. The borough of Burslem was formed in 1878. Two remaining towns, Fenton and Tunstall, gained urban district status in 1894.
By the end of the 19th century the villages of Staffordshire had become sizable towns, with Burslem leading the way as the largest. In 1910, the Federation of the Six Towns was formed to bring under one governing body the boroughs of Burslem, Hanley, Longton and Stoke, and the districts of Fenton and Tunstall. The event, creating the County Borough of Stoke-on-Trent, is heralded as “the largest such amalgamation ever to occur in Britain.” On June 5, 1925, granted by a Royal Letter Patent from George V, Stoke-on-Trent officially became a city. To this day, however, Brits, when referring to the area, will invariably call it The Pot’tries rather than Stoke-on-Trent, the official title.
The coat-of-Arms for the city of Stoke-on Trent, granted in 1912
The Coat of Arms for the new city used images from the arms of each of the six towns to decorate the city’s symbol: From Tunstall came the Staffordshire knot; from Stoke, the boar’s head (of the Copeland family crest); from Burslem, the Portland vase; from Fenton, the Felty cross; from Hanley, the Dromedary camel (of the Ridgway family crest); from Longton, the eagle (of the James Glover crest); and from both Tunstall and Burslem, the scythe. The Egyptian potter at his wheel represents the pottery industry. Stoke-on-Trent’s motto is “Vis unita fortior” or “United Strength is Stronger.”
The list of notable citizens of the city includes: Captain E. J. Smith, senior officer on the ill-fated Titanic; Reginald Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire, World War II airplane; Sir Oliver Lodge, inventor of the spark plug; football star Sir Stanley Matthews; and British pop singer Robbie Williams.
Stoke-on-Trent is still the pottery capitol, not just of Britain, of the entire world. In addition to being the largest clayware producer on the globe, it now lists chemical plants, rubber works, tire manufacturing, engineering plants, paper mills, textile processing and electronics amid its industries. In 2000, the population was estimated at 254.000. Among major pottery manufacturers, Stoke-on-Trent is home to Moorcroft Pottery, Johnson Tiles, Portmeirion, the Royal Doulton Co., Spode and the Wedgwood Group.
(To see many, many more photos of the Pot’tries, please check out Steve Birks’ wonderful website, www.thepotteries.org.)