A Peep at the Potteries, 1839

An account of the Staffordshire Potteries, November 1839. Reprinted in the British Colonial Magazine. The anonymous author appears to be making a return visit after 20 years, and one suspects he was someone raised in the district and who left it circa 1819. This is because he walks the back-paths and by-ways, going thus from Longton to Burslem with some confidence.


… There are few that have any accurate or lively idea of that singular district which furnishes us with the earthenware we are daily using, from the common flower-pot to the most superb table service of porcelain, from the child’s plaything of a deer or a lamb resting under a highly verdurous crockery tree, to the richest ornaments for the mantlepiece, or chaste and beautiful copies of the Portland or Barberini vase. Who has a knowledge of this district? Who is aware that it covers with its houses and its factories a tract of ten miles in length, three or four in width, and that in it a population of upwards of 70,000 persons is totally engaged iu making pots, that cooks and scullions all over the world may enjoy the breaking of them? Such, however, is the reputed extent and population of the Staffordshire Potteries.

[…] to those who travel through it by night [by train], it presents a remarkable appearance. The whole region appears one of mingled light and darkness. Lights are seen scattered all over a great extent in every direction — some burning steadily, others huge flitting flames, as if vomited from the numerous mouths of furnaces or pits on fire. Some are far below you, some glare aloft as in mountainous holds. The darkness exaggerates the apparent heights and depths at which these flames appear, and you imagine yourself in a much more rugged and wild region than you really are.

Daylight undeceives you in this respect, but yet reveals scenery that to the greater number of passengers is strange and new. They see a country which in its natural features is pleasing, bold to a certain degree, and picturesque to a still greater. There is the infant Trent, a small stream winding down from its source in the moorlands towards the lovely grounds of Trentham, the seat of the Duke of Sutherland, through a fine expanded and winding valley, beyond which rises the heathy heads of moorland hills towards Leek. Among and between the pottery towns are scattered well-cultivated fields, and the houses of wealthy potters, in sweet situations, and enveloped in noble trees; but the towns themselves are strange enough.

[When walking …] In the outskirts, and particularly about Lane-End [Longton], you find an odd jumble of houses, gardens, yards, heaps of cinders and scoria from the works, clay-pits, clay-heaps, roads made of broken pots, blacking and soda-water bottles that perished prematurely, not being able to bear “the furnace of affliction,” and so are cast out “to be trodden under the foot of man;” garden walls partly raised of banks of black earth crumbling down again, partly an attempt at a post-and-rail, with some dead gorse thrust under it; but more especially by piles of seggars — that is, a yellowish sort of stone pot, having much the aspect of a bushel measure, in which they bake their pottery ware. Many of these seggars are piled up also into walls of sheds and pig-sties. The prospects which you get as you march along, particularly between one town and another, consists chiefly of coal-pits and huge steam engines to clear them of water, clay-pits, brick yards, ironstone mines, and new roads making and hollows levelling with the inexhaustible material of the place, fragments of stoneware.

As you proceed [through Longton], you find in the dirtiest places, troops of dirty children, and, if it be during working hours, you will see few people besides. You pass large factory after factory, which are general round a quadrangle with a great archway of approach for people and waggons. You see a chaos of crates and casks in the quadrangle ; and in the windows of the factory next the street earthenware of all sorts piled up, cups, saucers, mugs, jugs, teapots, mustard-pots, inkstands, pyramids and basins, painted dishes and beautifully enamelled china dishes and covers, and, ever and anon, a giant jug, filling half a window with its bulk, and fit only to hold the beer of a Brobdignag monarch [a giant]. In smaller factories, and house-windows, you see similar displays of wares of a common stamp ; copper-lustre jugs and tea-things, as they call them, of tawdry coloring and coarse quality, and heaps of figures of dogs, cats, mice, men, sheep, goats, horses, cows, &c.,&c, all painted in flaring tints laid plentifully on; painted pot marbles, and drinking-mugs for Anne, Charlotte and William, with their names upon them in letters of pink or purple, or, where the mugs are of porcelain, in letters of gold.

While you are thus advancing and making your observations, you will generally find your feet on a good footpath, paved with the flat side of a darkish sort of brick; but, ever and anon, you will also find your soles crunching and grinding on others, composed of the fragments of cockspurs, stilts and triangles, or, in other words, of little white sticks of pot, which they put between their wares in the furnace, to prevent them from running together. You pass the large and handsome mansions of master potters, standing amid the ocean of dwellings of their workmen. You meet huge barrels on wheels, white with the overflowing of their contents, which is ‘slip’, or the material for earthenware in a liquid state as it comes from the mills where it is ground; and at the hour of leaving the factories for meals, or for the night, out pour and swarm about you, men in long white aprons, all whitened themselves as if they had been working among pipe-clay, young women in troops, and boys without number. All this time imagine yourself walking beneath great clouds of smoke, and breathing various vapours of arsenic, muriatic acid, sulphur, and spirits of tar, and you will have some taste and smell, as well as view of the Potteries; and, notwithstanding all which, they are as healthy as any manufacturing district whatever.

Such is a tolerable picture of the external aspect of the Potteries, but it would be very imperfect still, if we did not point out all the large chapels that are scattered throughout the whole region, and the plastering of huge placard on placard on almost every blank wall, and at every street corner, giving you notice of plays and horse riders, and raffles! No: but of sermons upon sermons; sermons here, sermons there, sermons every where! There are sermons for the opening of schools and chapels, sermons for aiding the infirmary, for Sunday schools and infant schools, announcements of missionary meetings and temperance meetings, and perhaps, for political meetings also, for it is difficult to say whether the spirit of religion or politics flourishes most in the district.

The Potteries are, in fact, one stronghold of dissent and democracy. Nine-tenths of the population are dissenters. The towns have sprung up rapidly, and, comparatively, in a few years, and the inhabitants naturally associate themselves with popular opinions both in government and religion. They do not belong to the ancient times, nor therefore the ancient order of things. They seem to have as little natural alliance with aristocratic interest and establishments of religion as America itself.

“This people … seem to have sprung out of the ground on which they tread, and claim as much right to mould their own opinions as to mould their own pottery.”

This people, indeed, are a busy swarm, that seem to have sprung out of the ground on which they tread, and claim as much right to mould their own opinions as to mould their own pottery. The men have been always noted for the freedom of their opinions, as well as for the roughness of their manners. But in this latter respect they are daily improving, Nearly twenty years ago, we have seen some things there which made us stare. We have seen a whole mob, men, women and children, collect round a couple of young Quaker ladies, and follow them along the streets in perfect wonder at their costume; and we have seen a great potter walk through a group of ladies on the footpath, in his white apron and dusty clothes, instead of stepping off the path; and all that with the most perfect air of innocent simplicity, as if it were the most proper and polite thing in the world. We also remarked that scarcely a dog was kept by the workmen but it was a bull-dog; a pretty clear indication of their prevailing tastes. But their chapels and schools, temperance societies, and literary societies, and mechanics’ institutes, have produced their natural effects, and there is now reason to believe that the population of the Potteries is not behind the population of other manufacturing districts in manners or morals.

Were it otherwise, indeed, a world of social and religious exertion would have been made in vain. It is not to be supposed that such men as the Wedgwoods, the Spodes, the Ridgways, the Meighs, &c. &c, men who have not only acquired princely fortunes there, but have labored to diffuse the influence of their intelligence and good taste around them with indefatigable activity, should have worked to no purpose. Nay, the air of growing cleanliness and comfort, the increase of more elegant shops, of banks and covered markets, are of themselves evidence of increased refinement, and therefore of knowledge. One proof of the growth of knowledge we could not help smiling at the other day. We had noticed some years ago that a public-house with the sign of a leopard was always called the Spotted Cat; nobody knew it by any other name; but, now, such is the advance of natural history, that, as if to eradicate the name of Spotted Cat forever, the figure of the beast is dashed out by the painter’s brush, and the words, The Leopard, painted in large letters in its stead. [The Leopard, in Burslem? Most likely the destination of his walk from Longton to Burslem.]

[Details of the Methodists and their influence on local Biblical names] If the potters have been fond of ancient and patriarchal [personal] names, they have been equally fond of modern improvements and discoveries in their art; and when we recollect that little more than a century ago the Potteries were mere villages, their wares rude, their names almost unknown in the country, and now behold the beauty and variety of their articles, which they send to every part of the world, not excepting China itself; when we see the vast population here employed and maintained in comfort, the wealth which has been accumulated, and the noble warehouses full of earthenware of every description, we must feel that there is no part of England in which the spirit and enterprise of the nation have been more conspicuous.


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