A potted history of The Potteries

Within an area of just over 20 square miles in North Staffordshire, the six towns of Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Stoke-upon-Trent and Tunstall – collectively known as ‘The Potteries’ – were one of the notable developments of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. In the late 17th century, pottery making was already shaping the local landscape, as Robert Plot noted in his topographical survey of Staffordshire, The Natural History of Staffordshire, in 1686:

‘…the greatest pottery they have in this County is carreyed on at Burslem near Newcastle-under-Lyme, where for making their several sorts of pots, they have as many sorts of clay, which they dig around the Towne, all within half a mile distance, the best being found near the coale.’

Many of the watercolour paintings in The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery record the industrialisation of the local landscape which began apace in the 18th century. With the development of canal transport systems, rural areas around and between the six towns were given over to growing clusters of pot works producing ceramic wares, bricks and tiles. The Adams family of North Staffordshire are the oldest potting family for which records exist. By the 19th century they had numerous factories in the Potteries and a tile works based in Tunstall, the northernmost town. The bottle-shaped ovens we can see in the background of Adam’s Tile Pottery (c.1840-1890) and in the portrait of John Adams Esq. (1772–1847, the son of the master potter, William Adams) dominated the industrial skyline of the Potteries from the 1800s until the 1960s. It has been estimated there were over 1000 bottle ovens operating across the six towns, however the Clean Air Act of 1956 signalled the end for smoky, coal-fired ovens as the factories turned instead to gas and electricity.

No two bottle ovens were exactly alike. They were all built according to the needs of the factory and the space available. Some small factories had only three bottle ovens, other large potbanks had as many as 25. When compared with depictions of other pottery factories elsewhere in Britain, such as The Old Pottery, Shaw’s Brow (1856) in Liverpool, or even further afield such as the Fowler Pottery (1865) in Australia by J. R. Roberts, the bottle-shaped oven seems to be a unique and distinctive feature of the Potteries’ industrial heritage.

The steam-powered technologies introduced in the 19th century clearly made their mark on the local countryside, as can be seen in numerous watercolours from the period. The Shelton district near Hanley had five coal mines and a complete railway system that served the Cauldon Pottery. Below the towering furnace chimneys in the foreground of Shelton Church and Cauldon Works, a pit head of a mine shaft is visible in the distance. Likewise, in the 1842 watercolour by John Salmon, A Pottery (Stoke-on-Trent), an early locomotive engine and trucks transporting raw materials can be seen in the middle-ground cutting through the countryside. Similar landmarks are visible in the View from Basford Bank, Newcastle-under-Lyme dated 1848.

In addition to the railway networks, canal systems near factories were vital to the area, providing safe transport for ceramic wares (pots transported by road were liable to be damaged and broken). In the watercolour Etruria, which depicts a 19th-century view of the Etruria factory established by Josiah Wedgwood in 1769, we can see the canal barges on the Trent & Mersey Canal that runs alongside the works nearby. Opened in 1777, the Trent & Mersey Canal was built to link the River Trent at Derwent Mouth in Derbyshire to the River Mersey, thereby providing an inland route between the major ports of Hull and Liverpool. Those with a keen eye may also have spotted the row of cannon lined up in the field opposite – these were likely to have been used in military exercises by local volunteer militias during the French invasion threats of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Wedgwood named his factory after the Etruria district of Italy, where black stoneware dating back to the early Greek settlements in Italy was being excavated at the time. Wedgwood’s first major commercial success was with his ‘Black Basaltes’, a stoneware inspired by these archaeological discoveries.

Wedgwood had his own showrooms in London to attract wealthy and aristocratic customers who could afford to buy his table and ornamental wares for their drawing rooms and salons. Meanwhile smaller potteries, in addition to selling directly from the factory, made use of pedlars and hawkers to sell their wares. Travelling door to door, or setting up a ‘pop-up’ stall, they were an essential link to scattered rural areas or poorer quarters of towns and cities, providing more households an opportunity to buy cheap pots. A good sense of this is provided by the watercolour of The Pottery Shop which appears to be located outside a local workshop or inn.

Dr Samantha Howard is Curator of Arts at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Browse the collection’s watercolours here or see them on our interactive map. The watercolours were scanned using a PFU Fujitsu scanner provided by The Watercolour World.