Made In Great Britain Preview
The new BBC Two series Made in Great Britain, which begins this month, reveals how our talented ancestors helped to craft modern Britain, says Nell Darby
We take you behind the scenes of the new BBC series that celebrates our country’s regional industries
Until she had a conversation with her grandmother one day, Claire de Lune had no idea that she was keeping up a family tradition. Working as a ceramicist, Claire was unaware that her ancestors were also potters – and that their history in Staffordshire could be traced back to the 15th century. However, when the journalist and BBC presenter Steph McGovern took her to Stoke, she found herself on a personal journey, discovering how her potting forebears lived, and the hardships that they suffered.
Claire is one of the four contemporary British craftspeople featured in the six-part BBC Two series Made in Great Britain, which celebrates the importance of local industry and our ancestors’ crafting skills – the programmemakers say that their aim is to “feature the extraordinary stories behind ordinary objects”. As they travel the country the quartet go back in time, as each hour-long episode explores a particular city or town and the historic craft associated with it.
Cheese-making in Wensleydale, pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, cutlery-making in Sheffield, shoe manufacture in Northampton, chocolatemaking in York and millinery in Luton: the series takes in various well-known trades that have helped construct a region’s identity. Although Made in Great Britain is focusing on specific crafts, these are put into their wider context, with Steph revealing how they helped to shape Britain’s economic and social history. For example, in Northampton the programme visits the traditional shoe factory Tricker’s, where master shoemaker Scott McKee demonstrates how to hand-stitch a ‘turn shoe’ as medieval cordwainers would have done, showing how 14th-century workers helped set the town, and themselves, on a path to prosperity.
As the Northampton episode demonstrates, various experts are brought in to help the contemporary craftspeople create items that represent each industry, using historic instruction manuals, logbooks, diaries and tools. Through making their own products, they learn how their trade has changed over time – but also how there is continuity as well as change. Jo Bishop, Made in Great Britain’s executive producer, says that location is the key to the series: “Our rule was that the products still had to be produced in the home town where they were first established – a sense of place was as important as the craft.” Therefore the guest experts who feature in the programme had to have a connection to the particular town or city, as well as being top craftspeople in their field. “They needed to be able to lead us through four eras, and help teach our makers the skills required for each period.”
Testimony From The Past
Local record offices play a crucial role in the series too. As Jo explains, “For each craft, we delved into local archives to find original ledgers, documents and testimonies from people at the time. One of my favourites was from a Northampton factory-owner, telling a provider of sewing machines to stay away because of a feared uprising in the town. ‘They don’t want us here,’ he said.”
In Claire’s case, her visit to Stoke – her first – gives her a strong sense of connection with both her craft and her ancestors. Although she was able to find out information about her family herself, the programme-makers also employed a professional genealogist to help delve further.
From a document showing that one of her forebears was fined for digging up clay in the road in 1448 – ‘pot holing’, as it was called – Claire then moves forward to the 19th century, where she finds the humble terraced cottage in Bold Street where her relative, potter Richard Adams, lived with his wife and children. While half her family grew rich during this era (the Williams Adams and Son pottery company ran for two centuries, before being sold to Wedgwood in the 1960s), her own family line was poor.
The programme visits Stoke’s Gladstone Pottery Museum to explore the dangers historically associated with Claire’s trade: almost 90 per cent of potters died before the age of 45, and a third were dead by the age of 15. Her family history is put into its wider social and political context as the programme looks at poverty and sickness, and how workers in the field were prone to developing a horrible lung disease, ‘Potter’s Rot’, because of their proximity to smoke, dust and lead glazes.
A farm is another filming location in the same episode, and leads to an unexpected revelation for Claire. “It turned out that the owners were indirectly related to Claire, and held a book actually written by another member of the Adams family dynasty,” says Jo.
The series also talks to other craftspeople and business owners whose families have been involved in their craft for generations. One example is millinery dyer John Horn. Based in Luton, John’s great grandfather owned a strawplait shop back in the 1820s, before his family moved into felt- and straw-dyeing by the end
of the century. John, who dyes hats for famous designers including Philip Treacy, works in a Victorian dye-works that was once the centre of Luton’s hat-production industry, and has been owned by his family for the past four decades.
However, not all of those involved in the series have such a long family history with a particular craft. Jo Bishop notes that master shoemaker Scott McKee is “only second generation – just his father had been a shoemaker before him, and not a master – yet Scott felt a natural affinity to his past, and had meticulously preserved the equipment and machinery from bygone eras”. Of course, Northampton itself has been a centre of shoemaking since the 17th century, and you can study footwear to degree level at its university.
For viewers who find themselves inspired to find out more about the crafts in their tree, Jo advises, “Visit local museums and archives. Even factories themselves often have a wealth of information and archive material tucked away.”
The Legacy Of Talent
Made in Great Britain emphasises the lasting importance of crafts to both our history and our psyche, despite our modern consumerist society, and focuses on the lives of our artisan ancestors, and the impact of their creativity and skill so many centuries later. As Jo concludes, “I hope that viewers will gain an understanding of the history and long line of makers who came up with the brilliant ideas that have helped to form those ordinary, everyday objects which we often take for granted.”
‘The series focuses on the lives of our artisan ancestors’
Steph McGovern ( centre) takes four craftspeople back in time in the new series, including Claire de Lune ( second from right)
Workers dip pots into a vat of glaze at Wedgwood in Stoke- on-Trent, 1930
In the new series ceramicist Claire de Lune discovers how the potters in her family tree once practised her trade
Nell Darby is a social historian and writer. She also edits our Q&A section – see page 41