Pottering around the Potteries - the Center of English Pottery Making during the Industrial Revolution, Stoke-on-Trent Has Become a Hub for Tourism

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Why ever do you want to go there?" asked an English friend when I told her that I was headed for the city of Stoke-on-Trent. "It's the heart of the British pottery industry," I explained. "I'll be visiting industrial era museums in that part of England, and I want to see the pottery museums in Stoke."

"If you say so..." she added dubiously, surely picturing a grimy factory town, its air polluted by smoke and its buildings covered with coal dust.

Though that image would have been accurate not very long ago, my English friend--and potters of the past--would be surprised to learn that tourists now flock to Stoke-on-Trent. A clean city, it is no longer plagued by the pollution and squalid living conditions that made the average life expectancy there only forty-six years in 1900.

Located in the county of Staffordshire, Stoke-on-Trent is actually a city made up of six towns--Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton, and Longton--situated about halfway between Manchester and Birmingham. Known officially as the Potteries, this area is the only region in Britain named for its main industry.

Pottery has been made at many sites in the British Isles since prehistoric times. By the late 1600s, several small settlements on the River Trent in Staffordshire had become noted for the pottery produced there. Individual artisans came to this part of England because it had the kind of clays that could be made into ceramics, as well as an abundant supply of coal to fire the kilns for baking the pottery.

Traditional skills were practiced side by side with innovative processes that were adopted over time. Some of the potters turned the clay by hand into a wide range of products, including plates, bowls, drinking vessels, candlesticks, and cooking pots. Others used molds of clay, wood, metal, or stone, into which they poured liquid clay to make both functional and decorative items. In 1745, the introduction of porous, plaster of paris molds--which allowed the clay to dry more quickly--speeded up the production process and allowed potters to make many duplicates of a master form in a much shorter period.

By the 1750s, the English ceramics industry was concentrated in this region, and by 1800 Staffordshire had become recognized as the national center of that industry. During the late 1700s, new canals and roads were built to facilitate the transportation of clay and coal to the Potteries and take the finished products to market. Some of the companies constructed warehouses in major cities to expedite distribution of their wares. In 1848 a railroad line was built connecting Stoke with the main lines of other railroads, further improving the transport of raw materials and manufactured goods.

Time for tea

All this development was spurred by an increasing demand for ceramics during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much of this consumer demand arose in conjunction with the importation of tea to Britain, which began around 1700. Tea was a luxury good, heavily taxed by the government. Those who could afford to buy it wanted elegant ceramicware to drink it from. The highly decorated porcelains shipped to Britain from China were costly, too, so the English pottery industry began producing ornately painted porcelains of its own, often imitating popular colors and styles from the Orient. Royal patronage spurred sales even further. After all, who wouldn't want to eat off the same kind of china as the king?

The Industrial Revolution brought in steam-powered machinery and new processes for producing pottery. Competing factories began turning out an ever-greater number of products, with a variety of shapes, colors, and motifs designed to attract customers from Britain's growing middle class. By the end of the nineteenth century, Staffordshire potteries were producing an extensive range of decorated household and ornamental wares, as well as more prosaic functional goods such as industrial porcelains, toilets, sinks, chimney pots, and tiles for floors, walls, and roofs. …