I will admit that Stoke-on-Trent was largely a closed book to me until quite recently. I have The Great Pottery Throwdown (initially BBC, later Channel 4) to thank for piquing my interest, and in September I visited one of the potteries where the programme has been filmed.
From ‘Six Towns’ to ‘Stoke-on-Trent’
Thanks to an abundance of local clays and coal, from the mid-seventeenth century, six towns in Staffordshire emerged as the centre of the British pottery industry, and one of the foremost pottery centres in Europe. These six towns were Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Stoke-upon-Trent and Tunstall. A flip through the 1891 census shows Fenton, Hanley, Longton and Stoke-upon-Trent categorised as sub-registration districts under the civil parish of Stoke-upon-Trent. Tunstall was a sub-registration district under Wolstanton civil parish, and Burslem was a separate civil parish.
Modern-day Stoke-on-Trent is, famously, an amalgamation of those ‘Six Towns’. This happened in 1910, with the creation of the federation and county borough of Stoke-on-Trent. Later, in 1925, Stoke-on-Trent was granted city status. The county borough was abolished in 1974, when Stoke became a non-metropolitan district of Staffordshire, although it became a unitary authority in 1997. (Note that the original town and parish name of Stoke-upon-Trent becomes Stoke-on-Trent when referring to the modern city/unitary authority; or indeed, just ‘Stoke’.)
Even in 1911 and 1921, after the creation of the county borough of Stoke-on-Trent, the census returns continue to be enumerated under the headings of the distinct towns.
Today, in recognition of the importance of Stoke-on-Trent to the British pottery industry, this whole area is known as ‘The Potteries’. By the turn of the nineteenth century there were more than 300 potworks here. However, in the last quarter of the twentieth century it became difficult to compete with cheaper overseas producers. A succession of factory closures resulted in the loss of 32,000 jobs in the ceramics industry: from 45,000 in 1975 and 23,000 in 1991 to just 13,000 by 2002. (The Guardian: Gone to pot, 29 May 2002)
I’ve not been able to find a properly sourced account of the proportion of the population of ‘The Potteries’ actually employed in the industry during its heyday. However, census pages suggest a very high proportion. Try looking for Clarice Cliffe’s entry on the 1901 census. This future ceramic artist and designer, now regarded as one of the most influential of the 20th Century, was born in 1899 in Tunstall, and is to be found in 1901 living with her father, Henry T Cliffe, mother Ann and three older siblings at 19 Meir Street. With the exception of Clarice’s father (a Foundry Ironmoulder) plus four other people, every single person of working age on the two pages straddled by the Cliffe family’s entry is employed in the potteries.
Okaay… But why ‘a family historian’s dream’?
Pottery has been a huge part of Stoke-on-Trent’s past; and although there’s no doubt that the factory closures and decline of the industry have taken their toll on the local economy, it is immediately obvious to the visitor that it’s still very much part of the area’s present. First, a number of significant producers continue to thrive. These include Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton; Portmeirion; Steelite International; Burleigh; Wade; Churchill; Endeka; Johnson Tiles; Dudson and Emma Bridgwater. Second, a number of the closed factories are now open to the public as museums. One account I read described the area as a sort of ‘pottery theme park’, but this is not a derogatory statement. Quite apart from this successful move to tourism, it’s clear from other blogs and articles found online that these museums attract serious ceramics enthusiasts as well as practising potters. It’s here, too, where the genealogical goodness is to be found. Wherever we’re from, most of us are descended from the ordinary workers, not the big people who employed them, made the rules and more frequently made the news. Often, all we know about our ancestors is a handful of entries on a number of official documents. However, by reading about the area, the industry they worked in, the history of churches the devout ones attended and so on, we can build up a picture of their lives – and for me, this is really enjoyable. How much more so, then, if we can add to this by visiting the actual place where they worked, or at least one very similar to it, listen to recordings/ watch footage of people who worked there, and see before and after photos of the place. Apart from the New Lanark mill and village, now a wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site but being a much smaller, individual concern, of direct ancestral relevance to fewer researchers, I haven’t come across anywhere to rival Stoke’s living heritage experience. If you know of other places, please do say so in the comments.
The Visit Stoke website has a page dedicated to the area’s award-winning pottery museums, heritage centres and pottery factory outlets. Here, you’ll find, among other listings:
Spode Museum Trust Heritage Centre This tells the story of Spode and its importance to Stoke over the 230 years of its operation, with displays of its history, people and working conditions from the 1770s until closure in 2008.
Etruria Industrial Museum The last working steam-powered potters’ mill in Britain.
Dudson Museum, in Hanley. Located in an atmospheric, original Grade II listed bottle oven, and focusing on the history of the company’s production together with industrial history, what life was like for the workers, etc.
Middleport Pottery, in Burslem. Includes the mould store, rooms where the paintresses worked, original Victorian offices, and a Grade II listed bottle kiln. The earlier series of The Great Pottery Throwdown were filmed here.
Gladstone Pottery Museum, in Longton. The only complete Victorian pottery factory. Although not one of the famous potteries, it was typical of hundreds of similar factories in the area making everyday ceramic items for the mass market. Here, you can experience what conditions were like for the men, women and children who worked in the Staffordshire pottery industry. The 2021 and 2022 series of The Great Pottery Throwdown were filmed here.
The museum we visited was the Middleport Pottery, home of Burleigh ware and known locally in its time as the ‘Seven Oven Works’, this being the number of bottle kilns (three biscuit and four glost bottle ovens). All my own photos included here were taken there. It’s free to wander round outside, with a charge if you want to go into certain rooms and exhibitions.
The Middleport works opened in 1889, on the banks of the Trent & Mersey canal, and the Burleigh company was hailed as an example of efficient production and greatly improved conditions for the employees. That said, although these photos suggest a picturesque industrial past, The Potteries was not a healthy place to live and work. While today there are only forty-seven bottle kilns remaining in the city, there were previously more than two thousand. You’ll find more information about the bottle kilns [here].
Longton, below, situated in a slight hollow, was the most polluted of all the towns. Writer Arnnold Bennet considered it ‘akin to Hell’.
Clearly, such living conditions would have caused and aggravated lung diseases for all inhabitants. However, for those in close proximity to processes involving flint or alumina powder, there was an additional hazard, known in the trade as ‘Potter’s Rot’. Caused by breathing in large amounts of the dust, this affected the lungs of potters. If your potter ancestor’s death certificate recorded a cause of death of silicosis or other lung disorder, there’s a good chance this may have been Potter’s Rot.
It was a poster about Potter’s Rot in one of the rooms at Middleport that opened my eyes to the possibilities of this as a fantastic, experiential source of information for family historians. I have no Stoke-on-Trent or potter ancestors at all, but I’ve enjoyed researching this, and have no hesitation at all in recommending a weekend in Stoke with visits to as many of the above-named museums as possible for anyone who can trace their ancestry back to this area.
If a visit is out of the question, there are still other resources, several of them freely available online.
On YouTube, search for “the potteries” and other similar terms to find lots of videos, including some documentaries.
Read the works of Arnold Bennet, which tend to be set in the area, including Anna of the Five Towns. Most of his works seem to be available for free from the Amazon Kindle store. (On the Amazon website, limit your search to Kindle, and search for “Arnold Bennett free”.)
The Colour Room is a film about the life of Clarice Cliff.
There is a good bibliography on the Stoke-upon-Trent page at GENUKI. I’ve seen excerpts from The Borough of Stoke-upon-Trent… by John Ward (1843) and On the Mortality of the Parish of Stoke-upon-Trent, with reference to its causes, and the ratio of deaths among children and potters by John Thomas Aldridge (1864) whilst researching for this post; and they would be very useful for family historians. The older books are likely to be available freely online through Internet Archive or similar.
I also came across a chapter about the Pottery Industry in Staffordshire by Peter Van der Heyden which had useful historical information.
Whether you have Potteries ancestry or not, I hope you found this interesting. I hope it might give you some new ideas about thinking outside the box when researching the lives of your own ancestors. Do please add comments about any similar places you’ve come across, that would give useful insights about the lives of people working in particular places and industries. Is there anything to rival Stoke-on-Trent?!