Frances Lincoln, £19.99, 152pp. £17.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Lost City of Stoke on Trent, By Matthew Rice
Friday 10 December 2010
When Emma Bridgewater first came to Stoke on Trent with a view to making ceramics, she was charmed by the "cheerful griminess" of the city and "fascinated and appalled by the chaos of roadworks... boarded-up shops and rundown terraces". In this book, her husband and business partner, Matthew Rice, a fine designer, sets out to explore the contradictory qualities and defects of this city founded on coal, steel and ceramics; to try to understand why Stoke on Trent and its industry grew, why it has declined and what its future might be.
In doing so he has written a hymn to manufacturing, and to the principles that underpin all successful manufacturing companies: good design, good materials and good marketing. Those principles served Wedgwood, Spode and Doulton well.
He tells in short chapters the history of the pottery industry and of the city, richly illustrated by his own drawings and coloured washes that are affectionate, humorous and well observed. He delights particularly in architectural drawings, in which he proves himself to be the heir of Osbert Lancaster, but is equally adept at tiles, maps, panels, Staffordshire figures, the details of windows, doorways and pediments, and the few remaining bottle kilns with their "decidedly female forms".
Here are elevations of all the city's finest buildings: Barlaston Hall, now restored; the "ebullient classicism" of Burslem Town Hall; Hanley Town Hall, an incongruous French hotel de ville; and St Joseph's RC Church, Burslem, with its "wonderfully idiosyncratic" campanile.
He relishes the otherness of Stoke, "so unlike the sophisticated, glossy south". With its boundaries constrained by the Trent Valley, the city has been shaped by its geology, and by the seam of beautiful coal beneath the valley. It was the coal that made the city, and so determined its shape - a linear, non-radial city, 13 miles long, with Six Towns and no centre.
Rice charts the decline in employment from 70,000 pottery workers in the 1950s to 6000 today, aggravated by the forced closure of the city's pits and of its steel works at Shelton Bar. And he regrets the thoughtless, incomplete "regeneration" that has seen communities uprooted.
Is Stoke on Trent a Lost City? Will it re-invent itself, or decline further and become a second-rate retail centre? Here the Emma Bridgewater pottery company offers a possible way forward. It has grown steadily for 25 years in a fine 19th-century potbank, and now employs more than 200. Rice and Bridgewater have repaid the loyalty of their workforce, the casters, spongers, fettlers, backstampers, by resisting all offers to relocate. Although clear-eyed about its imperfections, their love and respect for the city is palpable - the seam that runs beneath this book. They have shown that good design and hard work can still make a small manufacturing company successful. Will that be enough to re-find or re-found Stoke on Trent?
Mark Fisher was MP for Stoke on Trent Central from 1983 to 2010
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