Some characters from The Land of Pots

Some early Etruria characters, extracted from the reminiscence “The Land of Pots” in TITAN: A Monthly Magazine, 1859.

William Theed, another gifted artist and most amiable man, for a long time devoted all his talents to the improvements at Etruria. He lived rent-free in one of the cottages on the Basford bank, and was married to a charming little French woman, whose foreign manners and broken English seemed out of place in that dull smoky land.

Among the chemists [in the early days at Etruria] were Leslie, long professor in the University of Edinburgh, who is described as fat and ugly, yet, like many a hideous mortal, intensely vain of his person; and Chisholm, a worthy old bachelor, who worked out the ideas and suggestions of others.

In fact, Etruria soon became the resort of scientific men, among whom was Sir James Hall, the father of Basil Ball, and a great oddity.

For a long time there was no church or chapel at Etruria, and those who could not or would not go to Stoke or Hanley to hear the gospel, were addressed by a working potter, a Wesleyan who roamed from place to place carrying a lantern under his coat to light him home at night.

Canals were the railroads of those days, and a person who lived for many years in Etruria remember seeing the red jackets [soldiers], and hearing the shrill note of the bagpipes of the Highlanders, passing down on barges during the long war.

Walking by the sea at Penzance one day, Thomas Wedgwood [of Etruria] saw a boy picking up seaweed and rock plants. He spoke to him, and was so pleased with his answers, that he undertook to secure for him an education which should develop his latent capacities. He wrote in his behalf to Dr. Beddoes … The Doctor received [Humphry] Davy as assistant at Clifton, and Mr Wedgwood supplied the necessary funds.1

(No Davy Lamp would have meant no deep coal mining, thus no industrial revolution that lasted, and thus no modern world… )

(1) This is corrected a little by the book A Group of Englishmen (1795 to 1815) Being Records of the Younger Wedgwoods

“What were the benefits conferred on Davy by the Wedgwoods [in Cornwall in winter 1797, for their health] is not stated; but he certainly did not owe to them his [initial] introduction to Beddoes. That was due to Davies Giddy…”

However I would suggest that an introduction by letter, by a rather limited local antiquarian, of a promising local lad is one thing. An introduction by Thomas Wedgwood, with a donation of £1,000 attached, is quite another.

The first photograph?

A facsimile sketch of one of the few remaining heliotype photographs made by Thomas Wedgwood in a series at Eturia, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1791-3.

From the book A group of Englishmen (1795 to 1815) being records of the younger Wedgwoods and their friends (1871).

Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells

The 260-page book Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells: a record of a personal and a literary friendship (1960, Hart-Davis / University of Illinois Press) is sadly not available in any library in the Potteries. It’s not on the Staffordshire or Keele catalogues, and Stoke Local Archives is listing it as “0, reservations unavailable” which seems to imply “stolen or lost”. According to Copac the nearest copy is down at Birmingham University.

However, I’m pleased to see it’s actually online at for free: Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells: a record of a personal and a literary friendship. It’s been scanned and placed online by the University of Florida. Good for them. There’s even a Kindle ereader edition. The letters are annotated.

Here’s Wells at the opening of their correspondence, in 1897…

“… years ago I spent two or three months at Etruria and the district [the Potteries] made an immense impression on me. I wish I knew the people. I felt dimly then and rather less dimly today vast possibilities there. Think of Trentham, white Newcastle, and that Burslem Hanley ridge jostling one another — the difference in the lives and “circles of thought” there must be! And I’ve sat in ‘Trury woods [Etruria Woods] in the springtime, bluebells all about me, and seen overhead the smoke from Granville’s (I think it’s Granville’s) Iron Works streaming by under the white clouds. But I don’t know the people and “cram” is vile. I shall never do it.

Yours very faithfully

H. G. Wells.”

What does he mean by “cram”? Presumably not what Tolkien meant by it: a sort of mealy dry biscuit, sustaining but quickly unpalatable. He’s not talking about having to live on stale oatcakes if he were to live here. Rather I think he alludes to “cram” as in schoolboy “cramming” and “crammers” — swotting up on third-hand knowledge so as to have a smattering of patter than will enable one to just-about ‘get by’ when tested on a subject. So I think he means that he would rather admit that he doesn’t know the people of the Potteries, rather than come across as the sort of weaselling socialist who would pretend to be ‘in with the industrial workers’ through easy first-hand and intimate conversation with them.

Bennett replied…

“… you are the first man I have come across whom the Potteries has impressed, emotionally. There are a number of good men in the Potteries, but I have never yet met one who could be got to see what I saw; they were all inclined to scoff.”

Since the book has been placed “Out of copyright”, here are the front portrait pictures, extracted by me at their highest resolution. Feel free to re-use.

Giant gas-holder at Etruria

I found a very cool 1949 photo of a gas-holder at Etruria, Stoke-on-Trent. This one was up near the Shelton New Rd., across from Twyfords at Cliffe Vale. I recall that a few years ago Fred Hughes tried to have one much like it, and nearby to this one, preserved as the last local example of the type. The photo is at Britain From Above. Such a pity they don’t take Paypal — they must be loosing so much income by not doing so.

H.G. Wells and wind-stars and Weena

I’ve finally managed to get hold of R. Hampson’s article “H.G. Wells and the Staffordshire Potteries”, now that the scholarly journal The Wellsian has been scanned and freely placed online. Thanks to the scanners and uploaders!

Two points from the article, newly discovered there…

* Wells’s father had apparently once spent a summer as gardener at Trentham Gardens. Interesting, and I might use that in a future story.

* The article mentions “How I Died”, this being Wells’s very short account of the early part of his three-month convalescence in the Burton household on Basford Bank. It’s to be found in Certain Personal Matters (1898), and tells of how a chance meeting with a girl in some nearby woods gave the youthful Wells the will to live again. It’s left a little uncertain which woods these were…

“One day in the spring-time I crawled out alone, carefully wrapped, and with a stick, to look once more — perhaps for the last time — on sky and earth, and the first scattered skirmishers of the coming army of flowers. It was a day of soft wind, when the shadows of the clouds go sweeping over the hills. Quite casually I happened upon a girl clambering over a hedge, and her dress had caught in a bramble, and the chat was quite impromptu and most idyllic. I remember she had three or four wood anemones in her hand — “wind stars” she called them, and I thought it a pretty name. And we talked of this and that, with a light in our eyes, as young folks will. I quite forgot I was a Doomed Man.”

From that point onwards, he decided to find the strength to live again. Where these delightfully named “wind stars” were found, at that point in time and place, must be a little debatable. But it can’t have been in the southward direction of what is now Hartshill Park. Far more likely is slightly northward. Hampson’s article suggests that in the late 1970s he talked with locals about the possible location of these woods, and discovered that they would have been taken for the A500 road…

“The woods, the stream and the bluebells were still there in living memory, but have now been finally swept away by an urban motorway”

However the white star shape of Wells’s white “wood anemones” are not at all the same as Hampson’s “bluebells”. No stream is mentioned by Wells and the Fowlea Brook is well on the other side of where the A500 is now and it still flows. It seems to me unlikely that a ‘terminally ill’ Wells would have gone down and across into the smoky Stoke valley (a day of only “soft wind” so the city’s smokes would have lingered down below) for any length of time. Surely he would have kept to the higher ridge, with its woods and north-easterly views “over the hills” toward Burslem, Tunstall and the peak of Mow Cop.

It’s true that in his autobiography Wells expands on the role of a local patch of woodland in his later convalescence…

“Spring passed into summer and I grew stronger every day. It became manifest that I could not go on living upon the Burtons indefinitely. One bright afternoon I went out by myself to a little patch of surviving woodland amidst the industrialised country, called “Trury Woods” [Etruria Woods]. There had been a great outbreak of wild hyacinths [aka ‘bluebells’] that year and I lay down among them to think. It was one of those sun-drenched afternoons that are turgid with vitality. Those hyacinths in their upright multitude were braver than an army with banners and more inspiring than trumpets.”

This flowering places this second encounter with woods at some point from late April to late May, the latter part of which is when wild hyacinths are in full bloom in North Staffordshire, in contrast to wood anemones which bloom here a month or so earlier. Therefore the Etruria Woods cannot be necessarily conflated, as Hampson seems to have done, with the place where he met the girl on his walk. It also seems rather unlikely that a fragile convalescent, walking well wrapped and with a stick, would on his very first outline lay down on damp ground in the earliest springtime. Besides, Wells clearly recalls here that by this point… “Spring [had] passed into summer”. The matter is clinched when Wells goes on to remark that… “I told Burton I was going to London the day after to-morrow” finally making his departure, which places the visit to Etruria Woods at the very end of his convalescence and perhaps as late as early June. (1)

So all of these questions make me a little wary, re: Hampson’s dismissal of the place of the “girl clambering over a hedge” as now being under the A500 road. Could Hampson have been led astray by shaky local memories and a wish to please a researcher? Could Hampson himself have confused the matter by asking after “Etruria Woods”, assuming it must be the same place as the earlier encounter with the girl? Because of such questions, I’ve taken a close look at the 1889 map. Here it is, laid onto a Bing Maps satellite map with modern roads and features shown within ‘walking distance from 18 Victoria Street’…

We can see from the maps that Hampson and his informants were broadly correct as to the general location. But not correct that the wood in question had since been swept away by the A500, if the enfeebled Wells were walking along the lanes and footpaths of 1888. The terrain there is far too steep for the road to have swept away the woods on the valley side, which is why the fragment of wood there has persisted over time.

I know this particular area well, as it’s one I’ve spied out for myself and a few years ago I very closely documented in a walk booklet. Much of the most obvious circular route walk out from Victoria Street still exists, and can still be done, and is still a pleasant one even today. Until today, however, I had no idea that it was one that Wells would have walked as he convalesced.

Firstly, the quiet back-route from 18 Victoria Street down to Etruria train station must have been well known to Wells’s hosts, and as such it was surely one Wells would likewise have used to get to and from the local station. Then, once he had reached the foot of Basford Bank, instead of going on a few paces to the station, on that particular day he would have cut north along the valley side by going first along the old line of Garner Street (then a semi-rural lane). Then up through the woods to Wolstanton Marsh for a sit down on the benches, and then back to Victoria Street via the pleasant footpath which goes down the back of the allotments and then links with the back-way to Victoria Street. (The same route can still be done today and in much the same way, although one must now miss out Garner St. The new alternative route is indicated by my green arrows on the map above and is also documented in detail here).

In which case Wells’s fateful woods are still there (see the woods around the “.467” elevation mark, two-thirds of the way up the map), and his girl was likely straying over the hedge which even today separates the footpath from the woods on the steep valley side. I know the spot well. The alignment of the path has changed a little but the woods and hedge are still there (the brambles now grow over a municipal wooden fence) and have myself ventured some way onto those darkling wooded slopes. Interestingly, the presence of wood anemones is said to be an indicator of pre-1400 woodland.

So we can thank Wells, not only for birthing popular science-fiction with The Time Machine in 1894/95, but also for preserving the beautiful local Potteries folk-name for wood anemones — wind stars.

Wells’s book The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll (1895) briefly fictionalises this 1888 encounter in the chapter “Mr. Hoopdriver, Knight-Errant”. Mr. Hoopdriver’s encounter is with a girl called Jessie…

In … “the tranquillity of the summer evening … Mr. Hoopdriver had been learning [from Jessie] with great interest that mere roadside flowers have names — star flowers, wind-stars, St. John’s wort, willow herb, lords and ladies, bachelor’s buttons — most curious names, some of them. “The flowers are all different in South Africa, y’know,” he was explaining with a happy fluke of his imagination to account for his ignorance.”

Vastly more important, however, is another re-working of the girl of 1888 and her white flowers. The incident surely gives rise to the central emotional motif of The Time Machine, one of the most famous and important books of all time. One wonders if, in the years between 1888 and 1894, Wells had thought of this girl and perhaps wished he might go back in time to ‘save’ her from being dragged down from her high flowery woodland and into the city of industrial ‘Morlocks’ which lay below. Perhaps. But we can be far more certain that here is the origin of Weena’s large white far-future flowers, flowers which play a vital role in the novel — since they serve as proof of the survival of at least some aspect of the human spirit in the people of the far future. This vital knowledge provokes The Time Traveller’s final actions in the novel.

So far as I can tell from a search of Google, Google Books and Google Scholar, I am the first to suggest this very obvious link between the girl of 1888 and Weena. I will further suggest that Weena’s name may be derived, as a far-future variant, from Wind-star.

1. The Etruria Woods… “stood at Etruria on the hill leading up to Wolstanton” (James Denley, The History of Twyfords), part of a former royal hunting forest and one of the rare such parks which survived relatively intact and with boundaries documented as being maintained until the 15th century. The website also usefully gives (“Etruria – ‘a factory in a garden'”) the memories of a former resident of 130 Lord Street, Barbara Jolley, who was precise about the whereabouts of the remnant of the Woods…

“Our house was near the railway station [Etruria],” Barbara remembers. “Shelton Steel Works was at the back. Across the road was the marl hole of Wooliscroft Tiles. Next to that was the gasworks. There was a gas pipe right by our house and a man came every day to release the pressure. The smell was vile. But over the railway line we had Etruria Woods. We’d climb through the hawthorn lanes to picnics and pick blackberries. I remember there was a house whose occupier sold us homemade toffee apples.”

Lord Street later became Etruria Old Road, so Barbara Jolley’s “over the railway line [and] through the hawthorn lanes” to reach the Woods would place the Etruria Woods at the correct point re: the above map.

The Stoke poet Charles Tomlinson later recalled in Eden: Graphics and Poetry (1985) the famously sooty quality of the air in the city, and in doing so recalled what had become of the top flat part of the Etruria Woods…

“For all that, gardeners coaxed miracles out of the sooty allotments that crowned the slopes where Etruria Woods had once flourished.”

This points to the allotments at the end of the circular walk shown on the above map (see the .519 mark).

Picture: “Etruria Woods at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Showing the Ravine”, from Warrillow’s History of Etruria, Staffordshire, England, 1760-1951. This could be either of the two ravines (see above map, and photo below).

And here’s the best photo, from 1929, via Britain From Above. I’ve given it a quick colorisation. Looking south, rather than north toward the woods, it thus shows the approach Wells would have walked. Possibly many of the larger trees had been felled during the First World War, when demand for stout timber was voracious across England. The Basford Bank road is the road at the top of the photo, going down on the left to Etruria Station. Also on the left of the picture is the old line of Garner St, seen going past Etruria Tileries and then turning into a semi-rural hawthorn-flanked lane as it turns to run across the bottom of the picture. The lane then heads into the more northerly of the two wooded ravines, the bulk of which is just outside of the picture at the bottom-right. Judging by the lines of small haystacks it looks to be late summer, and harvesting is nearly complete in several of the large farm fields. The allotments, passed on the return loop of the circular walk, can be seen on the far side of the ravine at the top right.

This picture from circa 1840 (below) has the foot of the new Basford Bank in the centre of the picture, and is looking toward Etruria from Basford. One can see that the Etruria Woods (foreground) appear to be in the process of being partly felled along the wooded ridge, with the ground falling away on the left of the picture into what may be the more southerly of the two wooded ravines (Alamy picture from the public domain, though I’ve been unable to find the original as yet).