Pottery and ceramics are enjoying a revival in England. It’s early days, and it’s patchy, but there are some gloriously green shoots of renewal, investment, and public support. A visit to the Staffordshire Potteries opens up the history of this important industry and demonstrates why it thoroughly deserves a resurgence. And this year is the ideal time to visit, as they are marking 40 years since the last giant bottle oven was fired…
Gladstone Pottery Museum is a place of thriving ingenuity and hope. Sitting in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent’s cultural heritage zone in Longton, the museum offers both an authentic glimpse into Britain’s industrial past as well as a beacon for the future of this recently-beleagured craft, in all its many forms and functions.
Step into Gladstone’s courtyards and maze of original workshops, and you enter a world of rich artistic and Victorian industrial achievement, where their output ranged from the highly-patterned Arts & Crafts tiles of William Morris to elaborate sanitaryware and everyday housewares.
There’s even a new language to learn – and a ‘Bottle Oven Dictionary’ to help you. You’ll come away talking about saggars (the fireclay boxes made to protect the pottery they held during firing), the saggar maker’s bottom knocker (the guy who flattened a lump of clay for the base of each saggar) and clammins (the bricked-up entrances to the huge ovens to allow each firing).
In August and September 2018, as the first event of Longton’s new Heritage Action Zone, Gladstone Pottery Museum is leading local landmarks in celebrating the 40th anniversary of the last bottle oven firing, with a wide variety of events and workshops.
At the industry’s peak, more than 2,000 of these bulbous brick ovens dominated the skyline of Stoke, their furnaces belching out fire, ashes, and smoke. Today, just 29 remain and most are either on, or within a five-minute stroll of, the Gladstone site. (The latest repair bills for these amazing towers topped £250,000, so they need more than love to keep them standing.)
Husband and wife, Paul and Kathy Niblett, met inside a bottle oven at Gladstone Pottery and are part of the team organizing the anniversary event. Said Paul: “It’s 40 years since young enthusiasts of Gladstone organized a small group of retired potters to demonstrate what coal-firing bottle ovens were all about. Sadly, the potters are no longer with us, but their legacy of skill and knowledge survives. For those of us involved with the 1978 last firing, we felt it was time to celebrate this legacy, before we, too, have passed on.”
But don’t be fooled into imagining a romantic glossing-over of the harsh realities of everyday life for former Potteries workers: the staff and volunteers peddle no nostalgic illusions. The North Staffordshire ceramic boom that began in the 17th century – when they discovered that ground flint added to local clay produced creamware – made the factory owners rich while they kept their workers, often women on piecework, on low wages and their families lived in poverty, amid life-limiting pollution.
Hundreds of companies produced decorative or functional items, from tea services to toilets, and the Staffordshire Potteries swelled to encompass six towns – Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton, and Longton – that now comprise the city of Stoke-on-Trent.
Potteries-born novelist and local hero, Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), conjured up this graphic image: “… it was squalid ugliness on a scale so vast and overpowering that it became sublime. Great furnaces gleamed red in the twilight, and their fires were reflected in horrible black canals; processions of heavy vapour drifted in all directions across the sky, over what acres of mean and miserable brown architecture! The air was alive with the most extraordinary, weird, gigantic sounds.”
Amid these inferno-like scenes, exquisite and desirable ceramic creations emerged, creating world-famous brands like Spode, Burleigh, Doulton, Minton, and Wedgwood. Later renowned twentieth-century ceramic designers training or working in Stoke include Clarice Cliff (1899-1972) and Susie Cooper (1902-1995).
The industry has suffered a demise over the last 30 years, partly due to cheaper manufacturing in the Far East, but today there are signs of change. Labor costs are rising in China, and British products are sought after in the luxury market. Factories have begun to recruit and to re-route some production back to England. Some are even running at capacity: they fire seven days a week and profits are up.
There are smaller newcomers too, many with teams who have their roots in Stoke. Emma Bridgewater, who started out in the mid-Eighties and bought the Victorian Eastwood Works from Wedgwood in 1996, produces all her cream-colored earthenware in the city. And Reiko Kaneko, a Japanese-British designer, moved to Stoke from London to be near the Longton company that makes her fine bone china wares and to draw on the expertise of the city’s mold and pattern-makers. Tourists can visit these and other working potteries and gallery shops.
Back at Gladstone Pottery Museum, you can chat and enjoy practical lessons with some of the team who work in the old buildings, producing goods for sale in the shop and using time-tested techniques for casting, painting glazes and throwing. Like Carol Everall, born in Stoke, trained in Coalport (in nearby Shropshire) and now expert decorator in the only remaining flower painting workshop in the city: “Grandad was a saggar placer, mum was a painter for Spode and other family members are still working in the industry too. It’s wonderful to promote my family industry and heritage, especially now that we’re enjoying something of a revival.”
Memories of the giant bottle ovens are helping to rekindle new prosperity for Staffordshire and English potters. However, the Potteries historic sites and trails are remarkably uncrowded. So, if history, art, and crafts are on your vacation tick-list, beat the crowds and put this on your schedule in the next 12 months.
Gladstone Pottery Museum
Uttoxeter Road, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, ST3 1PQ, UK
Tel: 01782 237777