Stoke-on-Trent can be confusing to a visitor, particularly a motorist who is unfamiliar with the history of the City. Stoke-on-Trent is a city created in 1925 from an amalgamation of six towns, one of which is Stoke, which still exists. It is also known as the Potteries. Stoke-on-Trent is the name given to this amalgamation in 1910. The six towns are Stoke, Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton and Tunstall. However, the city is often known as “the city of five towns”. This name was created by Arnold Bennett (Enoch Arnold Bennett) in his “five towns novels” the first of which, ‘Anna of the Five Towns’, was published in 1902 and followed by ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ in 1908 and ‘Clayhanger’ in 1910. These tell the social and industrial history of the pottery workers. Bennett believed the ‘five towns’ sounded better than six and omitted Fenton. Stoke-on-Trent is situated halfway between Manchester and Birmingham, surrounded by beautiful countryside, the Peak District National Park to the north and the Shropshire Hills to the south.
Stoke-on-Trent is world famous for pottery manufacturing. The production of ceramics originated in the 17th century, although pots had been made here since the 15th century. The abundance of quick-burning coal, clay, salt and lead, provided the raw materials necessary for the manufacture of pottery. Brands such as Wedgwood, Doulton, Spode and Minton are renowned throughout the world for the skill of their workers and the pottery they produced. Tragically many factories have closed and left England to manufacture overseas where production costs are cheaper. It is heartbreaking to gaze upon the vast derelict Royal Doulton site in Nile Street, Burslem and to realise the number of skilled potters that were left unemployed. In 1769, Josiah Wedgwood, the father of English Potters, built the largest factory in Britain at Etruria, Burslem. Production continued until 1940 when a new factory was built at Barlaston outside the City. Here at the Wedgwood Visitor Centre and Museum, 250 years of history, craftmanship and creativity can be experienced. The original factory was demolished in 1960. The site is now used by the local paper, “Evening Sentinel”, as a production plant. All that remains is the Roundhouse. Etruria Hall, the Wedgwood family home and where Josiah Wedgwood died in 1795, is now part of the Moat House Hotel.
The canal system is a prominent feature of the Stoke area. Now much used for leisure purposes, development helped to expand the pottery industry by providing an outlet to the ports of Hull and Liverpool, transporting raw materials into the city. The boats were towed along the canals by horses. Before the 18th century, Staffordshire did not have any navigable rivers although the Trent and Severn were close at hand. By the 1760s the Duke of Bridgewater had built a canal between Manchester and Runcorn. James Brindley, the Duke’s engineer, was employed to survey and construct Staffordshire’s first canal, the Trent and Mersey, in 1766. Other canals soon followed, of which the Caldon, Newcastle, Uttoxeter and Staffordshire are examples. The Etruria Industrial Museum is located at the junction of the Caldon and the Trent and Mersey Canals. Here are the bone and flint crushing works of Jesse Shirley and Sons, which illustrates the importance of the canal network.
Stoke-on-Trent is famous for its pottery industry and the hundreds of distinctive bottle ovens and the smoke emanating from them dominated the city’s skyline in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Only approximately fifty remain as part of museums. The pollution which they produced and the detrimental effect on the workers’ health, is well known. Pottery workers lived close to their workplace. Women and young children all worked in the industries, as late as the 1920s. In 1910 the largest cause of death in Stoke-on-Trent was respiratory disease.
The quality of life in the Potteries has been greatly improved since the 1950s. Although unemployment remains a problem, air pollution has vastly improved and leisure facilities, e.g. parks and swimming pools, have been created from the slag heaps and other remains of the coal industry.
Burslem is known as the “Mother Town of the Potteries”, using local clays for materials and local coal for firing. Burslem was a centre for pottery manufacture. In 1832, there were 205 bottle ovens and although not working, a few can still be seen at Moorcroft Heritage Visitor Centre, Moorland and Burleigh. Burslem town centre has a number of interesting sites and buildings. Many of the buildings in use date from the late 18th and early 19th century periods.
Arnold Bennett, the novelist, although born in Hanley, spent his childhood in Burslem, or “Bursley” as he called it in his ‘Five Towns Novels’. Many of the buildings he used in his novels, ‘Clayhanger’ and ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’, still survive. He left the Potteries in 1889 to pursue a career in journalism and whilst he never returned to live there, as a chronicler of the people and places of the Potteries, he has achieved for Stoke-on-Trent, a permanent place in English literature. His ashes are buried in Burslem.
Robbie Williams, the singer, spent his early years in the Red Lion pub, in the centre of Burslem, run by his mother. His acting debut was as ‘The Artful Dodger’ in ‘Oliver’ at the Queens Theatre, just down the road from his home.
Hanley is the commercial centre of the City. The vast Potteries Shopping Centre attracts shoppers from the wide regional catchment area. Here in the 1900s, were the bottle ovens and their smoke, which dominated the skyline. It is still possible to visualise this from Century Street. Portland Street, adjoining Century Street, where my Father was born, is typical of the streets containing workers houses. His Father worked at the Shelton Iron and Steel Works. Just a short walk from the Potteries Shopping Centre is Central Forest Park, a vast park of 80 acres, containing a lake, 40,000 trees and the biggest skateboard park in Europe and a hill 700 feet high, from which can be seen the Pennines, eleven miles away. The Park was constructed from the reclaimed coal spoil heap of Hanley Deep Pit Colliery, which was the largest coal mine in Hanley, until it closed in 1962. The Park opened in 1976. Hanley has given birth to many notable people. Arnold Bennett was born here in 1867, before moving to Burslem. Edward John Smith, (1850-1912) captain of the ill-fated ‘Titanic’, rose from humble origins to become the White Star Line’s principal captain.
Sir Stanley Matthews CBE, one of the most respected English footballers of all time, was born in Hanley in 1915 and played for Stoke City and England. There is a statue of him in the shopping area. Reginald Mitchell, designer of the World War II Spitfire, was born at Butt Lane, Hanley in 1895. Tragically, he died at an early age, before his famous design flew. Throughout the 1920s, his designs repeatedly broke the air speed record.
Fenton was a quiet town compared with its neighbours, to which it was connected by trams. It is short of landmarks, but has a fine Town Hall, built in 1888. The Samuel Radford China Works still existed in 1950.
Stoke-on-Trent dominated the other five towns, as it was the controlling parish of the area. Set in a valley, it had the early advantage of canal transport and later, the main railway station for the area. It remains the administrative core of the six towns.
Longton, known as Lane End, was a major centre for bone china production and contains the only complete Victorian Pottery factory in England, preserved as the Gladstone Pottery Museum. Here Gladstone’s famous bottle ovens dominate the skyline and in the original workshops surrounding the cobbled courtyard, visitors can see how the potters would have prepared and decorated the pottery. The doctor’s house gives an idea of the diseases suffered by workers in the Potteries.
Tunstall is the most northern of the six towns. Arnold Bennett called it “Turnhill” in his novels. It stands on a ridge surrounded by old tile making and brick making sites, some of which probably date back to the middle ages. All the bottle kilns have now gone, but Tunstall was the home of the ceramic tile manufacturer H. and R. Johnson – Richards Tiles Ltd.