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18 April 2017

Ian Cox, MA, a specialist in art history and decorative arts is leading a tour later in the year to explore industrial Staffordshire.

Industrial Staffordshire – the Ceramics Dimension

I studied Geography in Staffordshire as an undergraduate back in the early 1970’s.

Though the University of Keele was situated in the countryside, just outside Newcastle-under-Lyme, the towns of the Potteries were only just a few miles down the road.

During my time there I came to know them well and it was a field trip to the Wedgwood factory at Barlaston in 1972 that sparked and initiated a lifelong history in ceramic history – a field I would come to specialize in later in my life when I became involved with teaching the history of the decorative arts at Christie’s Education in London.

It was my old geography professor Stanley H Beever however, who provided the foundations for my understanding of why the pottery towns of Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton came to be, in the 19th and 20th centuries, a humungous manufacturing centre for ceramic making the likes of which the world had never seen before.

It was “mega” in every respect and markets for the products of these small towns were worldwide extending to North America and as far away as the Antipodes.

A long tradition of ceramic making in the area using local materials could be traced back to the medieval period, but it was in the 18th century that the upper Trent valley would start to transform itself into the pottery making centre of the world.

North Staffordshire coal, imported clays, an entrepreneurial atmosphere and a local skilled work force combined to make a powerful cocktail and most will be familiar with the important role that entrepreneurs like Josiah Wedgwood, Josiah Spode and Herbert Minton played in making their potteries world famous brands.

I am pleased at the opportunity to explore the industrial archaeology of the Stoke on Trent and Shropshire areas with this ACE tour.

A pair of china vases made at the Minton pottery manufactory in Staffordshire, England. Created in the pâte sur pâte technique, the decoration of the vases is attributed to Henry Hollins, circa: 1882

The itinerary allows for exploring tile making and fine porcelain making in Coalbrookdale, but it is in Stoke on Trent where the group will have the opportunity to see, first hand, how a typical Victorian pottery functioned in the potteries town of Longton at the Gladstone Pottery Museum.

Still with its bottle kilns intact (there are so few of them left in the potteries today) this little museum is an industrial archaeological gem and there will be a chance to see the various small factory processes involved in making pottery in the 19th century.

The Hanley Museum has one of the finest collection of ceramics anywhere in the world and our visit to the museum will provide opportunities to see and explore a wealth of material related to the history of ceramic making in the region including 17th century slipware, (does anyone remember Ozzy the Owl who turned up on the Antiques Roadshow in 1990?) 18th century creamware, jasperware, and from the 19th century outstanding examples of bone china, parianware, majolica and pate sur pate.

We will also have the chance to glimpse a wonderful collection of art pottery wares produced as a reaction to factory products.

Today the Potteries are a vestige of their former selves and I am keen to explore with the group the demise of this great industry and the reasons behind its massive decline in the late 20th century.

How could a glorious firm like Wedgwood reach bankruptcy in recent years and the great Minton factory end up being demolished to make way for a supermarket?

Finally we’ll discuss why there are the first glimmerings of a recent recovery in the area through initiatives taken by firms like William Moorcroft, Burgess and Leigh and Emma Bridgwater.

Josiah Spode tea service circa: 1800