Feet (and hands) of clay

Country Life Every Week - - Reel Life -

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.

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