Feet (and hands) of clay
Kilns have been found in the Potteries dating back to the 13th century. The 16th-century potters of Stoke were so eager to get their hands on the underlying clay that they started to dig up the roads, giving a name to a familiar modern scourge —the pothole.
The first Wedgwood potter was born in 1617 and it was his successor, Josiah, who opened his famous Etruria Factory in the town in 1769. Then, Stoke’s population was only 2,500—100 years later, it was to be more than 101,000. Through technological innovation and commercial acumen, the industry massively expanded and, by 1958, there were 298 pottery factories, but this was the peak. Soon, it was cheaper to manufacture goods abroad, Spode moved 80% of its manufacture to Indonesia and the final blow was Wedgwood, the founding firm of the Potteries, outsourcing operations to South-east Asia.
However, Stoke’s fortunes as a manufacturing centre are looking up again. Emma Bridgewater is one of the few who have stuck with the town through thick and thin. ‘The skills and traditions are all here and we really benefit from that —there’s a perceptible plus in the quality of what we make,’ she explains, adding that, although quality is important, her customers also want ‘Englishness’.
But it’s not just such stalwarts who are flourishing—tristram Hunt, the outgoing MP for Stoke and historian of the Industrial Revolution, comments: ‘The firms that stayed and invested in design and quality are doing much better than those who went for offshore production.’ He’s right. Portmeirion has just repatriated much of its production from China back to Stoke and Mr Hunt says that numbers employed in the industry have now risen from a low of 8,000 to nearly 12,000.
Today, there are 100 or so small producers, as well as the few big names in Stoke and, as such, the Potteries still represents the largest concentration of ceramics manufacture in the world. If you want quality, it is to Stoke that you still go.