What is historically correct in Chapter Eight of Spyders?

Some notes on the historical accuracy of Chapter Eight of the North Staffordshire novel The Spyders of Burslem:—

The Sytch is indeed just north of Burslem town centre, and appears to take its name from the old name for the Scotia Brook. There were such wastelands…

“The Burslem district, with its distinctive bottle ovens, a typical though vanishing feature of the Potteries scene, presents a built-up industrial landscape interspersed with several tracts of wasteland.” — A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 8 (my emphasis).

Here it is on the map of Burslem from 1800. There may be some confusion in the histories, because The Sytch appears to have been both a wasteland and the name of the road that ran alongside that wasteland…

Here is Paul Johnson on The Sytch, from his The Vanished Landscape autobiography of a 1930s childhood…

“The Sytch was the dark heart of the Potteries, an immense stretch of ground composed in almost equal parts of bare clay earth, black water, mud, industrial detritus both active and abandoned, and fumigerous furnaces, belching forth fire, ashes and smoke. […] The Sytch was desolation by day for, except when the wind was high, stagnant smoke clouds and a miasma of foetid mist which surged up from its black waters made sure that visibility was low and a semi-darkness prevailed.”

He may be mis-remembering somewhat, but the area was certainly the poorest in the district, and home to “fumigerous” small workshops that would not be tolerated elsewhere. The site of The Sytch is now said to be roughly on what is now the Trubshaw Playing Fields and the fields around the Brownhills High School, from there stretching up to the northern edge of Burslem…

BERT BENTLEY ARCHIVE - BURSLEM - Off Westport Road. The Sytch mill. The old mill house.

BERT BENTLEY ARCHIVE – BURSLEM – Off Westport Road. The Sytch and Sytch mill. The old mill house.

There were two parish surgeons in 1834, so it seems possible there was at least one resident town surgeon for Burslem in 1869. Medical training for women was not unknown at the time. For instance, America had the New York Medical College for Women by 1869. In 1887 Scotland opened the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, so the idea of Miss Craft going to Edinburgh to train enough to be a local part-time “jobbing” town surgeon is not as far-fetched as it might appear.

The efficient modern factory system of the division of labour, partly described in miniature in use at Craft’s workshops, has been said to have been the invention of ‘the Father of the Industrial Revolution’ Josiah Wedgwood of Stoke.

Some of the greatest grass engravers were indeed to be found at Wordsley in South Staffordshire.

Here are some visual examples of ocular devices of the type the novel envisages, although the simple middle one is closer to that in the novel…


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