In the 1960s, The Potteries was a hive of industrial activity. Skilled crafts-persons living and working in the six towns created the best pottery in the world.
About 90% of the bone china, earthenware, tiles, porcelain, bricks and sanitary ware made in the United Kingdom was produced in Stoke-on-Trent. Pottery workers employed by factories in Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton were proud of their skills and expertise. They took pride in their work and knew that the ware they made was exported all over the world.
The seeds of North Staffordshire’s industrial development were sown in the 14th century. Iron ore was mined in Tunstall and at Apedale. Small pot banks which used local clay to make earthenware were scattered in isolated villages and hamlets throughout the district. There were coal seams near the surface and coal miners risked their lives working in drift mines and bell pits to get the coal needed to fire the ware.
Industrialisation came to The Potteries in the 18th century when entrepreneurs like Josiah Wedgwood, William Adams, Josiah Spode and Thomas Whieldon built factories that produced good quality ware which was sold at prices people could afford to pay.
During the 19th century the pottery industry and the coal mining industry expanded rapidly. The population increased and the six towns which we know today were created. New factories were built and the smoke from numerous bottle ovens and kilns polluted the atmosphere.
As late as 1939, the pottery industry used 1,500,000 tons of coal to fire its ovens and kilns. After the Second World War, coal fired bottle ovens and kilns were replaced by electric or gas fired tunnel kilns. Between 1945 and 1966, many small firms closed and others amalgamated to form large companies. In 1966, there were about 66,000 people employed in the industry 48,000 of whom were women.
Designed by Frank Matcham, the Grand Theatre of Varieties in Trinity Street, Hanley was built for two brothers, impresarios Charles and George Elphinstone who owned the Theatre Royal in Pall Mall, Hanley and Batty’s Circus.
Born in Devon during 1854, Frank was educated at Babbacombe School, Torquay. He became an architect and went to live in London where he worked for Jethro Robinson who designed and built theatres. Robinson died suddenly in 1874 while he was erecting the Elephant and Castle Theatre in south London. Although only 24 years old, Frank took over Robinson’s practice and finished building the theatre.
Rapidly establishing himself as one of the country’s leading architects, Frank designed over 100 theatres and music halls, including the London Palladium and the Coliseum, before his death in 1920.
Impresarios employed him to build theatres in towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom. He designed the King’s Theatre, Glasgow; the new Theatre Royal, Portsmouth and the Gaiety Theatre at Douglas on the Isle of Man. In the north-west, he built the Olympia Theatre. Liverpool and the Grand Theatre in Blackpool where he designed the Tower Ballroom and Circus.
The Elphinstone brothers commissioned Frank to increase seating capacity at the Theatre Royal, to build the Empire Theatre in Commerce Street, Longton and to design the Grand Theatre of Varieties.
An ornamental Renaissance-style theatre with a dome over its main entrance, the Grand cost over £25,000 and part of the auditorium could be converted into a circus arena by extending the stage.
Officially called “The Hanley Grand Theatre of Varieties and Circus” the new theatre opened on August 22nd, 1898 with a variety show starring Professor John Higgins, the world’s champion jumper. Billed as “the human kangaroo”, Higgins astonished a packed house by jumping over 30 chairs placed 11ft apart. The audience held its breath as he leapt over two horses, and cheered when he successfully jumped over a four-wheeled cab.
A popular venue, the Grand attracted world-famous music hall and variety artistes including George Robey, Vesta Tilley, Albert Chevalier and “The Potteries’ very own – the one and only” Gertie Gitana.
Gertrude Astbury, who took the stage name Gertie Gitana, was the daughter of pottery worker William Astbury and his wife Lavinia. Born at 7 Shirley Street, Longport in 1888, Gertie began her theatrical career as a male impersonator with Thomlinson’s Royal Gypsie Choir when she was four years old. A child prodigy, she made her music hall debut as Little Gitana at the Tivoli in Barrow-in-Furness. Gertie acquired a repertoire of popular songs that included “Nellie Dean”, “When the Harvest Moon is Shining” and “Sweet Caroline”, and went on tour captivating music hall audiences everywhere.
Like most variety theatres, the Grand showed newsreels between performances, and audiences saw Gladstone’s funeral, Queen Victoria’s visit to Ireland and British troops in action during the Boer War.
Travelling showmen brought “moving pictures” to fairs. The films they showed were very popular. During 1909, entrepreneur George Barber opened a cinema in Tunstall. Shortly afterwards four cinemas were opened in Newcastle-under-Lyme. In 1910, the Elphinstone brothers built the Empire Electric Theatre in Hanley, a cinema that could seat more than 900 people.
Cinemas provided cheap entertainment for working-class families. Even the most impoverished families could afford to spend a few pence watching a silent film and have enough money left to buy fish and chips on the way home. After the First World War, people started going to the cinema two or three times a week.
Audiences drifted away from music halls and variety theatres. When the Grand Theatre closed in 1932, the building became a cinema. The first film that was shown there was “Sally in our Alley” starring Gracie Fields.
Pottery and ceramics are enjoying a revival in England. It’s early days, and it’s patchy, but there are some gloriously green shoots of renewal, investment, and public support. A visit to the Staffordshire Potteries opens up the history of this important industry and demonstrates why it thoroughly deserves a resurgence. And this year is the ideal time to visit, as they are marking 40 years since the last giant bottle oven was fired…
A barrister whose attempts to pursue a political career in Parliament were unsuccessful, Harold Wright became The Potteries Stipendiary Magistrate in 1893.
A man who sympathised with the victims of domestic violence, Harold was determined to stamp out wife beating and child abuse in the six towns. Drunken men who had attacked their wives could expect no mercy when they appeared before his court. Even first offenders were sent to prison, and the sentences he imposed made him the most feared magistrate in the district.
Unlike the Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrates in London who sat alone, Harold sat with Justices of the Peace.
Sitting in Kidsgrove and The Potteries, his court committed indictable offences for trial to the Assizes or to Quarter Sessions. It heard matrimonial disputes and tried summary offences.
Burslem and Longton, which were boroughs, and Hanley, which was a county borough, had their own Magistrates’ Courts presided over by borough magistrates. The borough Magistrates’ Courts shared jurisdiction with the Stipendiary Magistrate’s Court, and local police decided whether summary cases were tried by borough magistrates or by the stipendiary court. Knowing that Harold would impose more severe sentences than the borough magistrates, the police always prosecuted professional criminals and habitual offenders before his court.
Harold lived at Aston Hall, a mansion near Stone. His hobbies included hunting, fishing, painting and drawing. Under the pseudonym Snuff, he drew caricatures for Vanity Fair and made sketches of the lawyers who argued cases before his court.
A man who liked animals, Harold supported the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He helped to organise Hanley’s Annual Horse Parade and launched a successful campaign against cruelty to animals in The Potteries – an area where every week between 30 and 40 people stood in the dock charged with ill-treating dogs and horses.
This photograph shows part of the tawny terracotta frieze above the main entrance to the Sutherland Institute in Lightwood Road, Longton.
Attributed to sculptor Charles Vyse, the frieze depicts Athena, the Greek goddess of culture, education, industry and commerce, with a child at her feet and two workmen presenting her with the fruits of their labour.
Vocational training in ceramic science for workers in North Staffordshire’s pottery industry began in 1870 when courses were started at The Mechanics Institution in Hanley and at The Athenaeum in Fenton.
During 1875, The Society of Arts (now The Royal Society of Arts) introduced examinations for industrial scientists and laboratory assistants employed in the industry.
In 1879, these examinations were taken over by The City and Guilds of London Institute. Classes to prepare students for City and Guilds examinations were held at the Wedgwood Institute in Burslem and at the Mechanics Institution. In 1880 four students from the Potteries took the examinations in pottery and porcelain manufacture. They all passed.
By the 1890s, courses in ceramic technology were being held in all “the six towns”.
The technical school in The Wedgwood Institute became the centre for advanced level training and preliminary courses were run by technical schools in Tunstall, Hanley, Stoke, Longton and Fenton.
In 1899, William Jackson was put in charge of all the ceramic courses in the Potteries.
Advanced level courses were transferred from The Wedgwood Institute to The Victoria Institute in Station Road (The Boulevard), Tunstall where a Pottery School, with a research laboratory, had been established.
The laboratory was created to test the firmness, plasticity, tenacity, porosity and colour of any type of clay and at the beginning of the 20th century, it was the only laboratory in England undertaking original research for the pottery industry.
Most students who attended classes at The Victoria Institute were trainee managers, industrial chemists and laboratory assistants who were taking City and Guilds Preliminary (Stage One), Ordinary (Stage Two) and Honours (Stage Three) examinations in pottery and porcelain manufacture.
William encouraged his students to undertake research and ran a weekly “post-graduate” class for those who had passed their Stage Three examinations. Many had become works managers or ceramic scientists, who used the laboratory’s facilities to find practical solutions to scientific problems they faced at work.
In 1900, William formed a discussion group where research students and pottery manufacturers met to share scientific knowledge.
Originally called The North Staffordshire Ceramics Society, the group later changed its name to The British Ceramics Society.
Membership increased and the society grew in importance. Visits to factories and technical schools in Europe and North America were arranged and the society extended its activities to embrace the whole ceramics industry including refractory products and building materials.
(Copyright Betty Cooper and David Martin – The Phoenix Trust 2010)