Tourists to the Potteries 1698-1933
We think of tourism as something that developed in the 20th century with the widespread adoption of rail, motor and air travel but for from the 17th century onward, those that had the money and leisure to do so, travelled around Britain, often keeping journals of where they visited and what they saw.
Unlike other parts of the country, such as the Lake District or Wales, North Staffordshire was not celebrated for its scenery, but some of the major roads running north-south and east-west passed very close to modern-day Stoke-on-Trent, bringing a variety to travellers to the area.
The majority of these travellers commented on the most distinctive feature of the area: the pottery industry, while others remarked on the state of the roads, the smoke arising from pottery making, or gave their opinions on the population.
One of the earliest visitors was Lady Celia Fiennes (1662-1702) who travelled extensively through England between 1698 and 1702. In the summer of 1698 she came to north Staffordshire passing by Trentham Hall, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to visit the pottery works of the Elers Brothers at Bradwell, near Newcastle-under-Lyme, just off what is now the A34, before complaining about the state of the road to Betley (now the A531).
“..and then to Trentum, [sic]and passed by a great house of Mr Leveson Gore, and went on the side of a high hill below which the River Trent ran and turn’d its silver stream forward and backward into S’s which Looked very pleasant Circling about ye fine meadows in their flourishing tyme bedecked with hay almost Ripe and flowers. 6 mile more to NewCastle under Line [sic].
I went to this NewCastle in Staffordshire to see the makeing of ye fine tea potts. Cups and saucers of ye fine red Earth in imitation and as Curious as yt wch Comes from China, but was defeated in my design, they. Comeing to an End of their Clay they made use of for yt sort of ware, and therefore was remov’d to some other place where they were not settled at their work so Could not see it; therefore I went on to Beteby [Betley] 6 miles farther and went by a Ruinated Castle ye walls still remaining called Healy Castle-this was [a] deep Clay way.
Over fifty years later, in 1750, Dr Richard Pococke (1704-1765) was travelling in north Staffordshire. Unlike Celia Fiennes he was able to visit several potteries after leaving Newcastle-under-Lyme:
“On the 6th [July] I went to see the Pottery villages and first rid [sic] two miles to the east to Stoke where they mostly make the white stone. I then went a mile north to Shefly [Shelton] where they are famous for the red china; then to Andley Green [Hanley] a mile further north, where they make all sorts, and then a mile west to Bozlam [Burslem] where they make the best white and many other sorts, and lastly a mile further west to Tonstall [Tunstall], where they make all sorts too, and are famous for the best bricks and tiles; all this is an uneven, most beautiful, well-improved country, and this manufacture brings in great wealth to it; and there is so much civility and obliging behaviour, as they look on all that come among them as customers, that it makes it one of the most agreeable scene I ever saw, and made me think that probably it resembles that part of China where they make their famous ware.”
It’s often said that Stoke-on-Trent people are friendly and approachable and it clearly always been true, with almost 270 years ago the local population being described as civil and obliging. I’m not sure about the area looking like China though.
A few years later the Swedish industrial spy RR Angerstein visited England and reported on the state of various industries in England. On visiting the Potteries, he described the making of salt-glazed stoneware and then continued
“When, as it sometimes happens, many kilns are glazing with salt at the same time, there is such a thick smoke of salt in these manufacturing towns, that people in the streets cannot see 6 feet ahead, which, however, does not cause any difficulties. On the contrary the smoke is considered so healthy that people who are ill come here from far away to breathe it.”
Oh, how tourism has changed! Some things don’t change however and Angerstein bought a quantity of pottery from at least two of the factories that he visited, making him one of the earliest known visitors to a factory shop.
The preacher John Wesley (1703-1791), visited the Potteries many times between 1760-1790 on his preaching tours and mentioned Burslem several times in his diaries.
‘1760, March 8th – Went from Wolverhampton to BURSLEM, (near Newcastle under Lyme), a scattered town on the top of a hill, inhabited almost entirely by Potters; a multitude of whom assembled at five in the evening.
‘1781, March 8th – I returned to Burslem. How is the whole face of this country changes in about twenty years! Since which, inhabitants have continually flowed in from every side. Hence the wilderness is literally become a fruitful field. Houses, villages, towns, have sprung up: and the country is not more improved than the people.
Wesley’s legacy in the area is clear with many Methodist chapels while the most famous portrait bust is that modelled by Burslem potter Enoch Wood, which was widely agreed at the time to be the most accurate portrait of the preacher
In 1795 Dr John Aiken (1747-1822), physician and author, published his A description of the country from thirty to forty miles around Manchester.
By this time north Staffordshire had changed considerably since Pococke’s visit in 1750 with the building of the Trent and Mersey Canal, the turnpiking of roads and, as Aiken writes, the building of new roads.
“Stoke-upon-Trent is the parish town…. It has like most other parts of the pottery improved much since the Staffordshire [Trent & Mersey] canal was cut. It contains some handsome buildings, and from its contiguity to a wharf upon the canal, it is conveniently situated for trade…. The river Trent passes here, and at times with rapidity, nevertheless the brick arches which carry the navigation above the river do not seem to have sustained much injury…. A new road has lately been cut from this place to join the London road between Newcastle and Trentham. …From this place to Newcastle… the prospects are extremely beautiful and near at the midway, a view so populous, and at the same time so picturesque is seldom met with.”
Despite, or perhaps because, of improvements in the transport system, few 19th century travellers published their impressions of Stoke-on-Trent. It was left to the author JB Priestley to give a long account of his impressions of the Potteries, when he visited in 1933, and which was subsequently published in his English Journey.
“After federation into one city had been first suggested, the inhabitants of these towns [Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-upon-Trent, Fenton and Longton] argued and quarrelled most bitterly for years. Finally, the obvious advantages of federation carried the day and there appeared on paper, the mythical city of Stoke-on-Trent. But when you go there, you still see the six towns, looking like six separate towns. Unless you are wiser than I was, you will never be quite sure which of the six you are in at any given time.”
Visitors to Stoke-on-Trent today often find it difficult to distinguish where one town ends and the next starts. One thing has changed dramatically since Priestley’s day however – the industrial pollution:
“There was more smoke than I had ever seen before, so that if you looked down upon any one of these towns the drift over it was so thick that you searched for the outbreak of fire, there were no tall chimneys, no factory buildings frowning above the streets; but only a fantastic collection of narrow-necked jars or bottles, peeping above the housetops on every side, looking as if giant biblical characters, after a search for oil or wine had popped them there among the dwarf streets. These, of course, are the pottery kilns and ovens, which are usually tall enough to be easily seen above the rows of cottage houses. I never got used to their odd appearance, never quite recovered from my first wild impression of them as some monstrous Oriental intrusion upon an English industrial area. But without these great bottles of heat, there would be no Potteries.”
Stoke-on-Trent has changed hugely since these accounts were written and some of the most significant changes have taken place in the last century. JB Priestly, writing in the 1930s would have seen sights that would not have been so very different from those that John Wesley saw in the 1780s – but neither of them would recognise Stoke-on-Trent today with its modern pottery factories, extensive green spaces reclaimed from old industrial sites and its much, much cleaner air.