What’s historically correct in Chapter 5 of The Spyders of Burslem?

This is a note on what is historically correct in Chapter 5 of the North Staffordshire novel The Spyders of Burslem, set in 1869:—

“A spectral cloud was haunting Burslem” is a play on the opening line of the Communist Manifesto. The title of the chapter is a play on the famous final line of the most famous poem of the period, Dover Beach.

The Burslem and Tunstall Gas Company was a real company of the time, supplying the town’s gas.

Most of the names given for the type of pottery worker are correct. But I have invented “jug-runner”, imagining them as the boys who would go to fill water jugs for the potters, and fetch their weak beer during the mid-morning meal.

Mow Cop is a real place, and the topography is as described. Rousseau had indeed lived in the Staffordshire Moorlands, and had seemingly gone mad there, in the 1700s.

Above: Burslem Town Hall, with a storm coming in from the tower and hill of Mow Cop.

The Town Hall does have “immense Roman columns”, but today it only has one golden angel, and not four as in the novel. On the inside, I’m not sure if the town ever displayed paintings of its prize cats on the walls. Probably not 😉

Above: the golden angel atop the Town Hall today.

Above: The mythological figures that support the top structure of the Town Hall tower.

From the novel: “These [county police] were well-paid men of large mustaches and little insight who saw a posting in Burslem as a penance. They were county men and they took the train to Stafford and to their warm beds every night, and left the patrol of the darkened streets to the night-watchmen of the manufactories or to the lamp-men.”

…the Town Hall did indeed house the Police Office at that time, among several other things. The lock-ups were indeed in the cellars. The County police stationed in the town were indeed thought to be much worse than the local ones they replaced, although the reference I found to that sentiment was from a little earlier in the century.

Above: the Town Hall today, seen from what the novel imagines as Mrs. Brougham’s bookshop (left).

The steampunk concept for the top of the Town Hall is an obvious invention. One can see, however, that there might once have been a detachable top section.

The Stoke inventor Oliver Lodge — a partial inspiration for Miss Craft (the inventor in the novel) — apparently made one of the first practical local demonstrations of electricity in 1868 at Moreton House on the southern tip of the Wolstanton Marsh, when aged about 16 or 17. Like Craft he was a science prodigy, and later was a key player in the invention of radio.

From the novel: “They had gone down into The Backlands, that area of sooty scrub and farmland that immediately surrounded the town to the south. Unlit at night, the locals told tales of great black dogs and loathsome toads that roamed there after twilight. The dogs had eyes that softly twinkled in the moonlight, like the reflections from lumps of fresh-cut coal. That, anyway, was the tale told to little boys to bring them home promptly for their tea.”

“The Backlands” broadly equate to the area now covered by Grange Park, between Burslem and Festival Park. The only black dogs there today tend to be slobbery labradors.

“Burgweard Woods” is my play on the name Bradwell Woods. These woods still exist on the western slopes of the valley opposite Burslem. Burgweard Lyme may have been the first name for Burslem, Burgweard being a man’s name, and the Lyme being the huge county-spanning escarpment forest that once ran past the valley. Hence the novel calls them the Burgweard Woods.

“Aetherstorms” are an obvious fantastical invention, and yet the aether was of course then a common concept, and many supernatural things were attributed to it.

The town’s Great Beast Market is my name for the meat market, which seems to have been built around 1836. Rather than being to the east between the Town Hall and the Queen’s Theatre, I have imagined it as being just to the north.

Tripey Ashley was a real name, I think he was mentioned in Arthur Berry’s autobiography. Ashley had a famously stinking yard between Burslem and Hanley.


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