At the beginning of his 1908 masterpiece The Old Wives’ Tale, Arnold Bennett wrote of his native district, the Potteries in north Staffordshire, as “unique and indispensable because you cannot drink tea out of a teacup without the aid of the Five Towns; because you cannot eat a meal in decency without the aid of the Five Towns. . . All the everyday crockery used in the kingdom is made in the Five Towns – all, and much besides.”
Even when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Stoke-on-Trent and its neighbours Hanley, Burslem, Longton, Fenton and Tunstall (six towns in reality; but five for the purposes of Bennett’s fiction) were so bound up with the manufacture of ceramics that their collective name, “the Potteries”, was self-evident. The potbanks (as the factories are known) were woven into local life and culture. School friends’ parents worked in them, or in connected industries (kiln-making, brick-making, coal mining).
The big firms were less imaginative with design. Who wants expensive bone-china dinner services?
A family friend was once described by a client, memorably, as having “the best white body in the Midlands” – she owns a factory in which raw clay is prepared (turned into “body”) for supply to the potbanks. In north Staffordshire, it is perfectly acceptable, indeed polite social practice, to turn over a plate and inspect the backstamp if you are eating at a friend’s house. Because Stoke has historically had a rather stable, immobile population, memories are long and the tentacular reach of families into the pottery industry goes back generations. (This is reflected in its arsenal of distinctive local surnames, to me the instantly familiar likes of Meakin, Machin and the comical Shufflebottom.)
Stoke had its own pungent pottery language, too – exotic job titles such as “saggar maker’s bottom knocker”. A saggar is a protective ceramic vessel in which a pot is placed when fired in the kiln. Back in the day, saggar-making was a skilled task, but the craftsman would have a young boy on hand who would make the saggar’s base by knocking clay through a ring with a wooden mallet. There are districts in Stoke called Etruria and Dresden. When I was a child, I was surprised to discover that there were places in Italy and Germany – famous for pottery – that laid original claim to these names. Even now, I think of a particular post-industrial panorama rather than Tuscan hills when I read the word Etruria. I don’t think the locals call themselves Etruscans, but it’s a pleasing thought.
Today, all that is beginning to sound like a bad joke. Little of the “everyday crockery used in the kingdom” is still produced in north Staffordshire, and even if your breakfast plate bears a familiar Stoke brand name, it could well have been produced in the Far East if it was made recently. After a disastrous year, Waterford Wedgwood called in the administrators on 5 January. Three hundred workers were made redundant on Monday 12 January. At the time of writing, talks were under way with KPS, an American private equity firm. If Wedgwood is bought, it is unlikely that much production will continue in Staffordshire: manufacture is so much cheaper in Indonesia. After 250 years of Wedgwood in Stoke, it could be the end.
It has been a slow and agonising process. When Bennett was writing, Wedgwood and Royal Doulton were the big guns, but there were hundreds of smaller concerns doing business. It is now fairly widely accepted that a cluster of medium-sized operations doing broadly the same thing can be a model for a district’s economic success. But in the 1970s Wedgwood and Royal Doulton bought up most of the competition. One effect of this was a drop in design values. Smaller firms, such as Midwinter, had in the 1950s employed excellent designers (in Midwinter’s case the great Jessie Tait in-house, and the young Terence Conran as a freelancer).
Midwinter’s ware was beautifully designed, and hand-decorated by paintresses (Stoke language allowing the feminised version of the word; the painters were always girls). But the ware was also as cheap as chips – my parents’ first plates and cups were Tait’s Red Domino.
Mounting labour costs did for that, but also the rise and rise of the big firms, which were less imaginative when it came to design. Midwinter was swallowed up by Wedgwood, and Tait continued to work, but her heyday was when she had freedom and her own studio at Midwinter. People started wanting different things, too: Wedgwood was still churning out enormous, expensive bone-china dinner services when no one put that kind of thing on the wedding list any more.
Josiah Wedgwood had been one of those miracles of the Industrial Revolution, a poverty-line kid who started as an apprentice thrower at nine and, at 33, with great chutzpah, sent a creamware breakfast set to Queen Charlotte. He was a hard worker who believed in the value of doing something as well as you could. He was a technical innovator, patiently conducting experiment after experiment to get just the effect he wanted. He had a flair for retail, opening showrooms just at the point in the 18th century when visiting glamorous shops was becoming an elegant new fashion. He knew what people wanted, and he gave it to them. What a falling-off was there.
Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief arts writer