The Great Pottery Throwdown and Stoke-on-Trent

Growing up in Stoke-on-Trent, my awareness of the pottery industry that once dominated the city was peripheral at best. If my parents had been local rather than setting up home there in their mid-twenties, or if I’d had family who worked in the industry in years past, it might have been more on my radar. Hell, it might be a geographical influence – Newcastle-under-Lyme (my hometown) has far less connection to ceramics than any of Stoke’s six towns proper. Perhaps if I’d grown up in Burslem it might have been different. Regardless, for me and my peers Stoke’s ceramic history was something we were aware of, but never really dwelt on.

I came to study Stoke-on-Trent through Linguistics, so first and foremost my interest was in the language and accent of the locals. My background work on Stoke was adequate, but not substantial – six towns, famous for pottery, bit run down these days, Charlie Brooker made a joke about it once*. It’s only since starting my PhD, which by its very nature (being a study of how the social structures of the city and the pottery industry have shaped the way people speak) required comprehensive historical knowledge, that I’ve really thrown myself into deep research about Stoke’s ceramics history.

And boy did I throw myself into it. I spent the majority of a year reading about Stoke-on-Trent’s geographical, social, cultural, economic, industrial, migratory and linguistic history, quickly exhausting the (minimal) work done on the dialect and branching out into texts about political economics, socio-spatial geography and architecture. I went on factory tours, watched documentaries and – most importantly – had the best resource of all: oral history recordings of people who worked in the industry. I quickly found myself becoming an amateur pottery fangirl, watching videos of master potters and aggressively telling friends and strangers about how incredible the pottery industry in Stoke was.

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The Great Pottery Throwdown. Back row L-R: Sandra, Jane, Rekha, James, Tom, Sally-Jo, Nigel, Joanna, Matthew and Jim. Front row: Kate, Sara, Keith.

When I saw that there was going to be a Bake-Off style show for ceramics I practically weed myself. And it was being filmed in Stoke? Glory be! The attention, potential increased tourism and revenue it could give the city would be invaluable, and at the show’s end, I only hope that will prove itself true**. The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Gladstone Pottery Museum, Etruria Industrial Museum, Middeport, Wedgewood, Emma Bridgewater – all brilliant places to visit for all ages full of creativity, history and (often my favourite things to see in museums) great big clunky industrial machines.

Having eagerly watched every episode of The Great Pottery Throwdown, I’m delighted with how it unfolded (if not necessarily with the result, #TeamJim). Each episode was fascinating, peppered with nods and references to Stoke and its history. The contestants were charming (if preposterously middle-class, as is often the way with Bake-Off style shows), and the 9pm slot invited a whiff of more intense competition (anyone think Tom might have cracked and smashed someone’s vase?!) and good old innuendo.

I think what I loved most about it was the way pottery was presented to this wide audience. Pottery is a craft that perfectly marries art with function; a good pot can be a beauty to behold, or it can hold your sugar lumps. Ceramics has one foot in high art and one on your dining table, and smashes the barrier between them. Rightly, in my eyes, because that barrier shouldn’t exist. (Art should be classless, but it’s often not.) I enjoyed the fact that some of the makes were about beauty and design, while some of them were about function and practically – it grounds something that can be quite alienating, being such a niche hobby.

At times, I can imagine audiences might have found judges Kate Malone and Keith Brymer-Jones’ descriptions of the makes a little jarring (I certainly did!). They spoke in very artistic and metaphorical ways about the movement, vibrancy and story of the designs, the spirit of the clay, etc. But as the weeks passed, I understood more. I started to see what they meant, to be incredibly taken in by the whole process. Let’s be real, turning a lump of clay into a pot or sculpture is pure magic.

I mean really. Actual magic.

Overall, I loved the show, and would happily watch several more series of Keith Brymer-Jones crying about beautiful plates. However, there was one thing that niggled me throughout. Stoke was once the world centre of pottery production, and the show reflected many aspects of that: Stoke had master potters, designers and modellers, incredible decorators and many of the same techniques that The Great Pottery Throwdown demonstrated.

But the pottery industry in Stoke wasn’t about taking five days to throw a tea set. Potters worked for hours and hours every day, churning out ware to export all over the world, from delicate figurines to plain, functional tableware for hotels. Potbanks in Stoke would make literally thousands of pieces a day, the labourers barely allowed to stop, often working into the night and on weekends. The conditions were often brutal and the work back-breaking. Nobody saw a piece from start to end – the job would be shared by designers, modellers, mould-makers, slip-makers, casters, placers, firemen, glazers and decorators to name just a few, dozens of people working in small spaces. Jobs were repetitive, more often than not poorly paid, and could result in a huge range of medical conditions in later life***.

The pottery industry that made Stoke famous looked very little like The Great Pottery Throwdown. In fact, it looked a lot like this.

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The Great Pottery Throwdown was a brilliant show and will – I very much hope – do amazing things for Stoke as a city and ceramics as an industry and art form. But the romanticisation of the industry does a disservice to the people who spent years working tirelessly to furnish the world with their tableware. It was the collapse of that industry (through a complex combination of deindustrialisation, outsourcing, politics and automation) that has lead to Stoke’s current economic difficulties – it’s a brilliant city that has struggled to reassert itself in a post-industrial country. If subsequent series could balance the incredible skills of the contestants with descriptions of the reality of the ceramics industry, how it operated in Stoke, and interviews with Stokie locals who worked in it, I’d be even happier with it.

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*Of a video game: “you have to spend a lot of time wandering around in between missions, endlessly retracing your steps in a depressing little town looking for jobs to do. It’s like living in Stoke.”
**It may well have done already!
***Until lead glazes were outlawed in 1948, lead poisoning was an inevitability for glazers.
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