Pottery and Coal

This is a transcript of episode 31 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Dr Tristram Hunt, Charles Smith, Professor Emma Griffin, Hayley Underwood and Rob Jones as we continue our journey through the history of industry, trade & commerce in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Hello, I'm Dr Suzannah Lipscomb from the University of Roehampton and you're listening to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. In this series we explore the amazing places that together tell the story of England. Ten expert judges have worked across ten categories and thousands of your nominations to compile a list of 100 places which have helped make England the country it is today. If you're enjoying the series, don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss an episode and if you're listening on iTunes, please rate this podcast and leave a very nice review.

Today we reveal two more Industry, Trade & Commerce locations that have been chosen by our judge, Dr Tristram Hunt. Joining me in the studio to discuss these are my guests, Charles Smith from Historic England and Professor Emma Griffin, a social and economic historian from the University of East Anglia.

We begin with our seventh location, which is in Stoke-on-Trent. This is Middleport Pottery which is home to the world-famous handcrafted Burleigh pottery. The site was built in 1888 and was considered cutting edge in its layout at the time. The building has recently been given a new lease of life through a restoration project and visitors can now explore the working factory site, the Victorian offices and the bottle kiln area. This is what our judge, Dr Tristram Hunt, had to say.

Tristram Hunt:
Middleport Pottery near Burslem stood just outside my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central but it is one of the great reminders of the culture of the potteries, those six towns in North Staffordshire which produced a world historic footprint in terms of ceramic design and production and there was an ethos and a design around the pot bank. So, whether it was the bottle kilns, whether it was the factories, whether it was the chimneys that came with it, that encouraged authors like Arnold Bennett to think of it like a Dutch town or an Italian renaissance cityscape, that there is a civic beauty to the architecture of the potteries that you have to go and see for yourself.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
We visited Middleport Pottery to find out more from heritage manager, Hayley Underwood, with a little bit of help from tour guide, Rob Jones.

Rob Jones:
Welcome to Middleport. I'm about to take you on the journey of clay from the raw material to the finished product. As we walk around the factory, you'll see the way the factory was laid out by its wonderful architect, Absalom...(fades out)

Hayley Underwood:
When you go into the working factory itself, there are processes taking place in there that are unchanged since Victorian times. It was built in 1888 by Burgess & Leigh who built the site as a brand new factory. It was purpose-built and it was known as The Model Pottery because production processes were designed to be in order, so the streamlined production made for a much more efficient process. The company continued to produce throughout two world wars and really had its boom time around the 1920s and 30s. That was the heyday of the pottery industry- the golden age, if you like, in the city. Everything that's for sale in the factory shop is still produced here on site. Each piece of ware goes through approximately 25 pairs of hands. So it really is a living, breathing site. We're also unique in that we have the underglaze tissue transferring process. So, this is a method that's been used since Victorian times and that uses copper scrolls to transfer designs onto tissue, which is then printed onto ware, so onto a plate or a cup, and then the tissue paper is peeled off and the ware then goes off to be glazed and fired. So, we're the only place that does underglaze tissue transferring. So there's many unique things that, if Middleport Pottery wasn't here, would simply disappear. So, it really is irreplaceable.

One of the things we're particularly proud of is our William Bolton steam engine. It's original to the factory and it did power the factory in its Victorian heyday. It's connected to a series of pulleys, for want of a better way of describing it, that pass through the walls to different rooms in the factory. So, there's a series of ropes and gears and as the large wheel on the steam engine turns, that then powered different machinery in the factory. It was restored two years ago, thanks to some grant funding, by a team of conservation experts and some of our fantastic volunteers. We're now able to operate it using steam again. It's amazing watching young children be fascinated by seeing this huge equipment.

(whistle noise) You can toot the whistle on the steam engine and just watching their faces light up is really rewarding and it really shows how restoration can really touch people of all generations. It's just a different experience than reading about something, to actually see it living, breathing, working again. I think Middleport Pottery is a great choice for Industry, Trade & Commerce to represent that, mainly because of the long history that it's had. You can't deny that a company that's been able to persist through 150 years throughout the decline of the pottery industry, and it's still going. There has been something of a revival of interest in British-made arts and crafts and traditional skills over the last few years and Middleport Pottery has been at the forefront of that.

One of the things that we continue to support at Middleport Pottery is UK-based trade and industry. We're really a hub for small businesses, the crafts movement. So, we have things like a furniture maker on site, obviously a series of ceramicists as well as things like jewellery makers. So, we really do support other crafts and activities as well as the traditional pottery factory and it really goes to show how historic buildings can be sustainable.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
That's Heritage Manager at Middleport Pottery, Hayley Underwood, taking us through just some of the many fascinating aspects of the site. So, as we heard, this factory is a wonderful example of how early streamlined factory processes worked- the idea of bringing everything together to create a more efficient manufacturing set-up. Can you elaborate on this?

Charles Smith:
With any manufacturing set-up you need several key things. You need the raw material- so we're in Staffordshire, you've got the clay, it's there. You need the transport- it was strategically located alongside the Trent and Mersey canal to transport goods in and out. And of course you need the production facility and this is where it was actually really quite innovative, this place- they really thought about the design to make it as efficient as possible. For example, traditional potteries had often been a lot more chaotic in their layout and grouped around bottle kilns but here we have a very efficient linear pattern to the design of the development. For example, passages between areas are just the right size to allow carts to move through and of course horse and carts were absolutely integral to the process of moving goods in those days. So, a really interesting innovative way of designing a manufacturing unit.

Emma Griffin:
I think one of the other things that's really nice about this area is we tend to think, with industrialisation, of big dirty and useful things like cotton and cloth and iron and coal. We kind of think big and dirty and what's really nice about this example is what they're making are decorative, delicate fripperies, if you like- extra nice things. Now that we've got a wealthier population who's working in industry and who have more disposable income, they don't need to spend all of their money just on food and clothes and shoes and boots. They can have nice things to decorate their homes. They can eat off a china plate instead of out of a wooden bowl. You know, it's a really nice example about the rise of consumerism that's happening at this time as well.

Charles Smith:
And it must have been great for the workers as well, a real sense of satisfaction to come out at the end of a working day having produced really beautifully integrate end products that would decorate people's living rooms and elsewhere.

Emma Griffin:
It's really just about kind of enhancing our experience of life and, as the industrialisation tends to be all about kind of the dirty and the dark and the miserable, it's a nice example that industrialisation had a brighter side to it as well.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
They really are beautiful, the Burleigh pottery things, even today. If anyone wants to enhance my life by sending me some of that, that would be great. So, Middleport Pottery is an excellent example of an irreplaceable site- it has so many unique qualities.

But let's now move from clay to coal for our next site which demonstrates how the coal industry in the North East of England connected to and literally fuelled, of course, the rest of the country. Our eighth location is Dunston Staiths in Gateshead, built to transport coal along the river Tyne. This huge wooden jetty curves out across the Tyne like a giant wooden snake and it's thought to be one of the largest timber structures in Europe. The Staiths are a kind of craggy, dark, huge structure but the enormity of it sort of belies the elegance of the structure as well and how useful it was at the time. Let's hear from our category judge, Tristram Hunt. Why does he think it's important to celebrate this symbol of our industrial past?

Tristram Hunt:
Dunston Staiths shows the manner in which the infrastructure of the UK had to keep up with the processes of industrialisation. And so after the canals came the trains and the railway system and with that the infrastructure to export. And this is a reminder, in a sense, of Britain as the workshop of the world- that the coal which came out of Britain, the manufactured goods which came out of Britain, then needed a port and docks and export stops to go around the world. And this surviving infrastructure connecting the rail to the port head, to the world is a very good example of what today we would call global Britain.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Now dare I say it, this is something of a Marmite location. You probably either love it or hate it, at least in terms of how it looks. But what it represents is what makes it irreplaceable, don't you think?

Emma Griffin:
Oh, I think absolutely and I love the fact that we've transitioned from a delicate china bowl that people are eating their soup out of, to the bread and butter of the Industrial Revolution- we've got a large infrastructure project. And I think it... you know, it just really draws to life what a kind of multifaceted phenomenon industrialisation is. And, just to repeat, in Britain at the heart of it is coal and coal is heavy and it's hard to move around and so much of what's going on in terms of technology and engineering at this time is figuring out ways to get the coal out of the ground and then to move it around the country. And I think this is so important to the process of industrialisation, and it's exactly what we see here at Dunston Staiths.

Charles Smith:
Yeah, and it's absolutely remarkable that this exposed timber structure -and it has to be seen to be believed- is actually still there, of course. We think of, you know, iron-framed buildings, we think of reinforced concrete buildings, we think of traditional solid stone buildings surviving, of course we do. But big timer framed, industrial, exposed structures like this still surviving today, albeit out of use, is a remarkable thing and something well worth preserving for the future.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And I think what I like about this structure is it reminds us how very important the Tyne was as, you know, one of the most important working rivers in the world and that the industry and the shipyards here, the power of coal tell us this important part of English history.

Emma Griffin:
Absolutely. So much of industrialisation really bore the imprint of what was there before, whether it was what agriculture was there, what industry was there, what resources are there and, of course, in this area we have the coal. So, so much ingenuity is going into figuring out ways of getting the coal out of the ground but we've also got the advantage of this great river that means you can move the coal around the country and these things are symbiotic. Part of the reason that the industry developed here is precisely because you can get the coal to where you need it, off over to Lancashire where you want it in the mills, and down to London where people want to cook food and warm houses.

Charles Smith:
And the statistics are quite astonishing. In 1913 the great north coalfield employed almost 250,000 men, producing over 56 million tons of coal every single year from across 400 pits. So, it was absolutely the lifeblood of the North East.

Emma Griffin:
And they were men and that's quite unusual in terms of industrialisation because a lot of industry actually wants female workers- it wants women workers. So, over in Lancashire we've got enormous employment of women and here, just the other side of the country, the workforce is very, very male-dominated.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And so coal mining is the lifeblood of industry and a key part of life in the North East. But of course for those men going to do it, actually it was a pretty dangerous industry, wasn't it?

Emma Griffin:
It's a really dangerous industry. I mean, there's very little... There's no health and safety, so there's very little regulation in terms of how to keep mines safe. The technology is not always particularly good and knowing how to keep people safe underground, but even what they did know was not necessarily enforced because there was no kind of legislative framework for that. It's very dangerous work underground in and of itself and of course there are these long term diseases that accrue even if you're not killed in an accident. Most miners aren't killed in an accident but you still do a lot of damage to your lungs potentially, working underground. So, there's a lot of ill health in these areas.

Charles Smith:
It's hard for us to envisage actually going underground in this day and age in this country with hand picks in cramped conditions, with terribly polluted conditions, and working there solidly for hours and hours on end. But that's, of course, what people did and that was normal and not only for those workers themselves was it important - the coal industry - it was also important to communities as well. Communities built up around these coalfields.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Well, I'd be surprised if we don't have a former miner or two listening, or at least their descendants, and of course we've got this major part of the story that we mustn't miss, thinking about the North East, which is the miner's strike in the 1980s.

Emma Griffin:
Absolutely. So, you have this area of the country that is really dependent on one industry, and then we have a government... we have a top-down government-imposed decision to really close that industry in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher. So, of course that led to a very bitter legacy in these regions.

Charles Smith:
And although we do export an amount of coal today, it's hardly anything compared to what we used to export. I mean, 156 collieries were closed nationwide as a result of that programme of closure, which does, of course, leave a long-lasting effect on those communities that have built their lives around those coalfields.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, these were the last working staiths on the river Tyne but they had to close, of course, as these changes you've been talking about occurred. What's the site used for today, though?

Charles Smith:
It's a Grade II listed site. Members of the public can actually go and visit it on occasions, which is a great thing. But what's really interesting is that it's actually turned into an ecological site of interest. So, it provides a natural habitat for birds, for saltwater plants, for other types of animals, which is quite astonishing if you think that it was a very environmentally unfriendly process for which it was actually operated, but now it's actually an ecological site of interest.

Emma Griffin:
Absolutely, Charles, but it's just exactly the same story as with something like the Norfolk Broads where in the Middle Ages we were digging out the peat and then, by the 20th Century we think this is a beautiful nature reserve. And it is a nature reserve but it's one that's born on the back of an earlier generation's economic activity.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Which they needed to do to live!

What a fascinating couple of places we've looked at today- quite a contrast.

That's all for this episode. Thanks again to my guests, Charles Smith and Emma Griffin and to our judge, Tristram Hunt for his comments. We've got two more Industry, Trade & Commerce locations to reveal next time. So, join us all then and don't forget to subscribe to this show on your podcast app. You can join the conversation by using #100Places and find out more online at historicengland.org.uk/100places. I'm Suzannah Lipscomb and I'll catch you next time.

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This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.

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