Once the pride of Stoke-on-Trent’s ceramics industry, from the outside Josiah Spode’s factory buildings look ragged and run down, but in good enough functioning shape. Across the city a similar story is repeated across a citywide canvas; empty factories, warehouses, and other industrial buildings, which have gone south. Many are empty but in only low-grade disrepair. Others are too far gone, both urban wilderness sanctuaries and totems to the ravages of the long recession.
The Spode Factory site, dating from the 1780s, like so much of the pottery industry had been fighting a losing battle. After many years of trying to fend off competition from an increasingly globalised market place it finally closed its doors in 2008, another casualty of the economic crash taking its toll on Stoke.
Walk through those doors, though, and it’s a different story. Although demolition razed some of the historic buildings, much of the site narrowly avoided the bulldozers, before regional development funding helped give Spode a new lease of life. In 2009, the company was acquired by ceramic giant Portmeirion.
That same year, the city saw a major regeneration initiative, the first British Ceramics Biennial (BCB), held in various sites around the city. Two years later, the cavernous China Hall, with Arts Council support, was turned into the BCB’s centrepiece venue. It’s remained there ever since.
Now onto its fifth iteration, this year’s clay-fest took place between September and November. The huge space hosts leading British and international ceramicists, this year including multiple exhibitions, including FRESH, focused on the current crop of UK graduating ceramics students; Power is Knowledge: 6 Towns, where clay tablet versions of Stoke’s libraries favourite borrowed books are gradually being added; and a variety of further community oriented projects.
For its organisers The Clay Foundation, along with an increasing number of others – whether council and development officials, TV production companies, academics and ceramic artists – BCB is only the most visible face of a shift that some are saying is remaking the fortunes of a city that has long found it difficult to lay negative associations to rest.
A prototypical regeneration project, the Biennial spills over into and across the immediate Hanley neighbourhood – the default heart of a city that doesn’t, as a straggling polycentric composite of the six Potteries towns, claim an authentic single centre. Its venues include the main Potteries Museum and Gallery, the central Library, and Bethseda Chapel, a striking and atmospheric Methodist House of God slowly undergoing inch-by-inch restoration.
Hanley, sitting on higher ground, has been designated – as the surrounding road signage repeatedly reminds you – the Cultural Quarter. New landscaping, benches and new pavements have appeared around the museum and in streets leading into the nearby pedestrianised shopping centre – even if boarded up shop-fronts, and other signs of what the educationalist Lindon West terms “a distressed post-industrial city” are rarely far away.
At the crest of Hanley’s rolling hilltop, a new bus station by Grimshaws, the architects of Cornwall’s Eden Project, stands in the foreground, amidst a city-scape that mixes working offices, shops and other buildings with extensive patches of abandoned land and buildings. From there, buses journey towards the Pottery towns – Longton and Fenton in the south, Burslem and Tunstall to the north, and south-west, to the main rail station, in Stoke itself.
West, who grew up in the city, and whose recent book Distress in the City sensitively documents its recent post-recession years, is quick to note how the Potteries isn’t helped by its geography. Too far north and too far south, respectively, to fall within either the West Midlands or Manchester’s dynamic spheres of influence, Stoke’s linear twelve-mile urban corridor, has contributed to its lack of a proper centre, and a micro-Balkanisation around the inward looking towns.
Taken together, the population of the city – a status it was granted in 1925 – is today around 250,000. But each of the towns boast their own town halls and gravitational pull: “Six hearts,” West writes, “beating disharmoniously.”
The road network, particularly the A500 dual-carriage way, slicing its way down the corridor valley and separating once-connected communities, hasn’t helped. Apart from the factories, and the few remaining historic bottle kilns that dominated the Potteries, much of Stoke’s streetscape is dominated by row upon row of up-down, red-brick terraces, along with pockets of better-off areas.
Stoke itself is home to the North Staffs University, with its 15,000 students, standing close to the main rail station. A bus from the station to Hanley takes you past tree-lined streets and equally leafy parks, considered some of the best in the country.
It’s the social challenges, though, which get national attention. West returned to his home city after the National Front won nine council seats in 2009 (they lost them again in 2011). This felt like a political earthquake at the time, but has been overtaken by more recent events. During the referendum, Stoke became known as the Brexit Capital, with an overall leave vote of 69 per cent. Last May’s election also delivered a shock: Stoke South swung Tory, the first time any of the city’s three seats hadn’t returned Labour MPs in 80 years. The unitary authority is joint 13th – with Hastings – most deprived authority in England, with nearly a third of the city within the 10 per cent most deprived authorities.
Like other post-industrial cities, there’s a familiar landscape of communities living beside, rather than with each other. Bentilee – one of the largest estates in Europe – in Longport is overwhelmingly white working class, while Burslem, one of the original Pottery towns north of Hanley, is overwhelmingly Bangladeshi and Pakistani, accounting for around a third of Stoke’s 9000 ethnic minorities population.
Political extremism, whether from the far right or radical Islam, has also taken up column inches. West’s book references a string of an unenviable social indicators: the deprivation translating into long term unemployment, lower level academic attainment, and health challenges like obesity and long-term mental illness.
Like Doncaster, Sunderland, and this year’s City of Culture, Hull, Stoke is one of the northern cities that was overlooked during New Labour’s period of funnelling investment into the larger near-by metropoles, like Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield. The conviction that Stoke, like other smaller northern cities, has suffered negligence, if not total abandonment, by central Government, folds into broader arguments, and a sense that the city’s challenges reflect in microcosm broader global post-industrial trends. Unsurprisingly, the decline in the ceramics based industries and employment and the further outsourcing to the east that accompanied the recession, is at the heart of the Stoke’s recent history.
“The 2000s was the nadir,” BCB’s executive director, Iain Cartwright, says of the state of ceramics in the city. In its 1920s heyday, the local ceramic industry employed 100,000 people. By 2009, the hollowed out sector accounted for only 9000 jobs, with 20,000 jobs shed in the previous decade alone. At Spode, 80 per cent of production was moved to Indonesia. All this was part of the broader impact of globalisation.
Other industrial-scale companies, primarily serving catering and hospitality, followed suit. These included international names such as Wedgwood, along with Dudson, Churchill, and Royal Derby, all of which outsourced production to factories in the east. This came on the back of thirty years of decline through the 70’s and 80’s, brought on by the fact that the manufacturing industries which supported ceramics – notably steel and coal – had also disappeared. Changing tastes also meant that long fashionable traditional tableware simply stopped selling.
A child of regional regeneration partnerships, Stoke’s Biennial’s original focus was on creating a different, more positive, story to help counter the trail of negative associations that had stuck to the city. “We are still trying to ensure that there is a positive view of Stoke, and a viable future for the Potteries, continuing the association with ceramics,” says Barney Hare Duke, BCB’s artistic director states.
He recites the familiar ‘arts as catalyst for regeneration’ mantra’s: the first Biennial, he notes, got “the column inches”, helping to ensure that the BNP wasn’t the only story coming out of the Potteries at the time.
Eight years on, the Biennial, has become the main cultural event in the city’s calendar, with 40,000 plus expected to visit this year.
Initially, the lack of confidence was palpable, notes Cartwright. “We’ve missed so many opportunities. Other cities, Manchester, Leeds and many others, have spotted and went for them – but Stoke people and its culture are very self-effacing. They’re not good at shouting from the roof-tops.”
Over those eight years, this has been gradually changing. A clear sign of this shift in Stoke-on-Trent’s confidence is that it entered, and made the shortlist, for the 2021 City of Culture competition. Making the final five has been a blast of oxygen for the city, Hare Duke observes. “It’s accelerating. There’s a feeling of momentum, that’s different to even six months earlier.” The winner is to be announced in December.
Another timely factor has been the international wave of enthusiasm for crafts. After decades in the margins, pottery, like similar activities, is in the midst of a comeback. Helped significantly by the runaway television success of the Great Pottery Throwdown, filmed in Burslem’s Middleport Pottery heritage centre, ceramics has become far more visible in mainstream culture over the last five years.
A ceramics factory at Middleport, in February 2017. Image: Getty.
Clay and craft-informed fine and conceptual art, from Grayson Perry – who participated in the first Biennial – to Edmund de Waal, have also risen up the art-world agenda. During BCB’s first week London’s Tate Modern featured Clare Twomey’s participatory ceramics ‘Factory’, in collaboration with Dudsons.
This resurgence is mirrored in large-scale industry, where investment has been growing. Last year, Dudson committed £500,000 to production development. Companies have also been returning overseas production to the city, the result of increased labour costs in the east, plus problems with technology and quality control. While the connections between the large industrial and artisan scales of ceramic production are unclear, the words “turning point” and Stoke are today increasingly heard spoken in the same breath.
What’s been frustratingly evident to the Clay Foundation team and others – but only recently taken on board by local development agencies – Is the city’s singular opportunity as Britain’s only pottery city. The City of Culture bid now envisages link ups with one of the Chinese ceramics cities, and a string of signs pointing to the rebirth in ceramics culture have been increasingly visible over the last half dozen years.
These days the Spode Factory also now includes an Arts Council supported community development, with 45 artists’ studios, while Great Pottery Throwdown star Keith Brymer-Jones is opening a factory on another part of the site, reintroducing porcelain (bone china) back into the Potteries. A quiet trickle of small-scale and artisan potters have been returning to find cheap studios and workshops in Stoke. “That’s been driven by the South East over heating” says Cartwright. “There are lots, maybe 300 plus, little companies now, working with ceramics, in all its myriad forms, and with the larger companies.”
The influence of the very successful Emma Bridgewater ceramics factory, which Brigdewater and partner, Matthew Rice opened in 1985 – long predating the regeneration effort – has shown what can be done with imagination, while creating local jobs. Likewise, the more recent restoration of Stoke’s oldest purpose built ceramics factory, Middeport Pottery, funded by the Prince’s Regeneration Trust to the tune of £9m, have also helped the perception of this revival in Stoke’s ceramics fortunes.
Unsurprisingly, the BCB team’s main out focus between festivals is educational outreach. Clay School, the main initiative, is working with all 90 schools in Stoke, though this is relatively recent. Ceramics A-levels have been reintroduced into 12 schools, and North Staffordshire University is moving towards supporting the ceramics culture at a city community level, with the new management team “getting,” in Cartwright’s words “that ceramics has to be central to the vision of what Stoke is about”. At Middleport an independent Clay College, set up by Throwdown’s technical consultant, potter Kevin Millward, has taken over a part of the factory, and has just launched its first course, with all places taken.
How this cultural buzz plays out with Stoke’s own citizens is something of an open question. Despite bringing in over £1m to the local economy, the Biennial, I was told more than once, makes a limited impression on the vast majority of those living in the city. What is clear, though, is that ceramics employment numbers have improved since the worst of the recession, up to between 10,000 and 12,000 depending on where you look.
If Stoke does win the City of Culture competition award, the boost – Hare Duke’s ‘rocket-fuel’ - may prove combustible enough to help propel the city towards this new post-industrial ceramics chapter. In The Lost City of Stoke-On-Trent, Bridgewater’s Matthew Rice wrote of how Stoke is “a place that needs to reconcile itself with its past”. In the eye of the post-industrial storm, Stoke’s critical advantage as Britain’s undisputed ceramics city, something which long went unrecognised, is becoming visible once again. Whether this next chapter of its ceramic revival is enough to enable such reconciliation with its past will be a key influence on the city’s wider fortunes.
Oliver Lowenstein is the founder of Fourth Door Review.