England’s Pottery Powerhouse
In the sixties, the ‘Potteries’, as the potteries area of Staffordshire was called, was still a place of memories of the old world – unbridled pottery production, low wages, but unquestioning loyalty to the ‘company’. Such was the life-long faith to the Potteries, that a card company only half jokingly printed postcards of the ilk “The Change of Air Soots Me Well” (see below; click for enlargement).
The people of this area don’t call their workplaces a pottery. Rather, they refer to the ‘potbank’. The word ‘Potteries’ actually refers to the area of Staffordshire itself. There was a strict hierarchy at the potbank. At the lower end of the rung was the sliphouse, which was usually located in the building’s cellar. Here, slip would be mixed and clay pugged for use on the upper floors. Next came the molders, the spongers, then the engravers (for decals) and at the top of the list the decorators or painters.
The Potteries consisted of the six towns of Burslem, Tunstall, Fenton, Hanley, Longton and Stoke. In 1925 they consolidated into the City of Stoke-on-Trent. It was Burslem, where Josiah Wedgwood was born in 1730. Spode, Doulton and Minton were associated with Stoke – these companies making up the ‘Big Four’. In 1907, there were supposedly 391 pottery manufacturers in Stoke-on-Trent.
It was the old ‘bottle’ kilns, combined with domestic smoke and that from the coal factories that lent the special air to Stoke-on-Trent. The bottle kilns were up to 30 feet (10 meters) in height, dotting the landscape. Today they are replaced by electric kilns, much lamented by the ‘old timers’.
Today, the ‘Potteries’ are still an important part of ceramics production in England. It’s history is a vibrant one, with much more to learn and discover. For the curious, the Museums of the Potteries offer more.