Chapter One of The Spyders of Burslem: what is historically correct?

This is an account of the historical accuracy of the first chapter of the novel The Spyders of Burslem.

The novel is set in England in 1869. The train journey and the scenery of the route is accurately described. The escape of the Tasmanian Devil, read about by the hero in The Times, happened as described. Stoke Station is accurately described, and is much unchanged today. The Iron Works at Etruria did light up the sky, even during the day. Longport train station was then open, and is as described, but the “black roses” is the first hint that the novel is set in a slightly ‘alternative’ England. The narrator describes his post-Darwin generation and their estrangement from the church and from the corruption in London, which is accurate for 1869. London was indeed called ‘The Thing’ by that generation.

Mr. Thomas Wedgwood was a real person — but he was not alive in 1869. The novel imagines him living into his nineties, and masterminding the creation of the Wedgwood Institute. The Institute, however, was real, is as described, and was opened at that time.

The description of Burslem’s pottery industry is correct. Plot’s book describing the district’s industry is a real book, and it had indeed been updated into the 1850s.

BERT BENTLEY ARCHIVE - BURSLEM - Longport station & level crossing.

BERT BENTLEY ARCHIVE – BURSLEM – Longport station & level crossing.

Maddock was the name of a real ticket man at Longport station in Victorian times. There is also a Maddock Street nearby. Fauns are, obviously, an invention. But Maddock’s appearance is visually/mythologically correct…

The Transformation of The Faun was the original title of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1860), “possibly one of the strangest major works of American fiction”.

The use of “tha” for “you” is accurate for the local dialect.

Dale Hall, Trubshaw Cross are real places. Trubshaw Cross was indeed a great confluence of pack-horse routes to a safe crossing of the Fowlea. The packhorse men were called ‘jaggers’, as they are in the novel.

The reference to borax importation…

“I later learned that huge wagons of borax came weekly into the Potteries for the pot glazes, hauled all the way across Europe from the mountainous vampyr country of Romania.”

…is partly historically correct. Romania does indeed have most of Europe’s borax mines. But Italy/Turkey probably supplied most of the borax for the Potteries at that time. There are no vampires in the novel, despite this hint. This is one of several “false clues”.

There are yards, still to be seen at Longport, that are very like the ones described in the novel. One can also see here in my photo of the flat square cobbles at Longport, which can also still be seen on the entrance to Longport train station.

The description of the Trent & Mersey canal is correct, topographically and historically. So are the north-east and southerly views described from the canal bridge at Longport. Arnold Bennett also starts one of his novels with a view seen from this bridge. But in both instances, the imagined views are what one might be able to see if there were no buildings in the way.

“Puck in a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Nightmare

… this is obviously a variation on the Dream, and is another indication we are in an ‘alternative history’ world.

Queen Victoria never came to Burslem, that’s an invention for the purposes of the novel. Indeed, she is famously said to have asked for the blinds on her train carriage to be pulled down when passing through the Black Country in South Staffordshire (although that was probably an anti-royal myth). However, the Wedgwood Institute is located in Queen Street, Burslem.

The part where the girls run to touch the iron railings is historically correct. The practice was noted by a clergyman in the nearby town of Leek, in his memoirs.

The topography of the road route from Longport to Burslem is correct. The description of the intense “territoriality” of the streets is historically correct. Arthur Berry describes women wearing men’s caps in his autobiography.

Pipes would then have been long thin curved clay pipes, not carved wooden pipes. Here is an early clay pipe from North Staffordshire, with a long section of the pipe broken off…

One comment on “Chapter One of The Spyders of Burslem: what is historically correct?

  1. finbofinbo says:

    Beautiful pictures of the Wedgwood Institute. I only wish the Ceramica money had been used more wisely — it grates to see the Wedgwood Institute sporting weeds from its roof, nowadays. Will give your novel a read, I think…

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