Dutch housing executives saw and heard how we are aspire and its partners are restoring hope and vitality to Stoke-on-Trent after the rapid decline of its potteries industry. Built on clay, coal and canals, the city’s industrial heritage now plays a vital part in a very different future.
Ten bosses from woningstichtingen (housing associations) across the Netherlands joined their English counterparts for a study exchange to Staffordshire on 10-12 April 2019 organised by the Anglo Dutch Directors Club (ADDC). The long-running collaboration of chief executives, directors and chairs from housing providers throughout the UK and the Netherlands wanted to see what happens when industries and jobs disappear, and how it’s possible to reverse decades of decline.
The event came immediately in the wake of announcements about further job losses in local potteries, and coincided with the crucial EU Council meeting in Brussels about Britain’s future relationship with its European neighbours. So the timing was eerily appropriate.
Travel around the six previously separate towns that make up modern Stoke-on-Trent and you can still see some of the distinctive, brickbuilt bottle kiln chimneys that once dominated this part of the Midlands. Now mostly overgrown and decaying, these silent remnants are a poignant reminder of Stoke’s once proud pottery industry, which kickstarted and fuelled Britain’s wealth and empire for almost 300 years, then all but disappeared in less than 30 years at the end of the last century.
One of the few complete bottle kilns in near-original condition is at Middleport Pottery in Burslem, where the Anglo Dutch group met to get their hands dirty while learning how this part of England became ‘the Potteries’ and why its demise due to global competition was so sudden, dramatic and painful. The group threw and shaped some pots, then ventured inside the bottle kiln to connect with the experience of craftsmen and women of the past. Their skill and graft created huge wealth, but these riches were unequally distributed. So while the magnates built and occupied huge mansions, their employees worked and lived in miserable conditions.
Making pottery in the early industrial era was tough, hot, dangerous, repetitive and low-paid work, so people generally preferred to work in the local coal mines. But at its peak, there were more than 70 similar factories in Burslem alone, and many hundreds more in the neighbouring towns nestled around the then ‘super-highway’ of the Trent and Mersey Canal.
Directly opposite the Middleport Pottery are streets of the original workers’ cottages – tight, regular terraces originally with no proper kitchens or bathrooms. Many of these streets have since been redeveloped or improved, but a few of the properties now sit empty at the end of Harper Street outside the works entrance. But not for much longer…
In partnership with the UK Heritage Building Preservation Trust (UKHBT), Middleton Pottery is bringing the neglected homes back to life as workshops and display spaces for local artists and craftspeople, and a modern and welcoming community centre. There will also be a professional research centre housing a unique archive of documents and artefacts and an ‘immersive house’ recreating home life at the factory’s peak in the 1930s.
HRH The Prince of Wales founded UKHBPT 20 years ago to help save the UK’s historic buildings from destruction. Harper Street is the latest beneficiary of the Prince’s passion for heritage and his vision for enriching local communities by saving and reusing important local landmarks. Work on the Harper Street project is due to commence this year.
One of the ADDC event speakers, Professor Brendan Nevin from the University of Manchester, explained that without this sort of initiative, Stoke-on-Trent was threatened with becoming “a city full of holes”. When manufacturing industries decline and local markets collapse, it’s all too easy for the communities they leave behind to be pockmarked and blighted by contaminated former factory sites with nothing to replace them.
A visit to Middleport Pottery proves that it doesn’t have to be that way. Or take a seat to watch a football match at Stoke City’s bet365 Stadium and you’ll be perched on top of the old Hem Heath colliery, which closed in the early 1990s.
If you know where to look, heritage is all around you – part of the present and future as well as the past.