Stoke-on-Trent: A potted history

This weekend, most of Stoke-on-Trent will decamp to Wembley for the FA Cup final. It's a boon for this once-great manufacturing city, says Matthew Rice
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The Independent Online

When I first came to Stoke, I was struck by how ramshackle and dirty the city looked. It was dotted with derelict factories and symmetrical houses. Coming up from London, it was quite a shock. But you soon realise that Stoke is very typical of a city in the Midlands or the North whose beauty comes from its sense of purpose.

The manufacturing industry in Stoke-on-Trent has dwindled over the past 30 years, which means the very nature of the city has changed; it's an area defined by its industry, and that industry has slowly been declining. It wasn't just pottery; Stoke had collieries and steelworks that have been gradually taken away, but the people here remain the same – sunny, welcoming and, most of all, skilled, which is why we established Emma Bridgewater here – to take advantage of 200 years of craftsmanship.

In 1985, Stoke was covered in dirt and blackened by the dust pouring from factory chimneys. These days, it's cleaner – there aren't half as many asthmatic old men wheezing as they walk around up 'Anley. But the other side of that is the industry which made the city great has moved away. Wedgwood and Doulton, the town's giants, have closed down the bulk of their operations and moved them to Indonesia. There are now people wandering around Stoke with nothing to do, people whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were extremely skilled potters. The people who work in our factory in Hanley are from the same lineage, but whether their children and grandchildren will be able to find jobs here remains to be seen.

As the pottery industry declined, so went the identity of the city and what it means to be from Stoke. But Stoke City's run to the final of the FA Cup has changed the town's disposition – you can see it on people's faces. Stoke has two teams (Stoke City and Port Vale) and six boroughs – people from Burslem and Hanley sometimes talk about each other as though they're on different sides of the Urals – but I suspect that even those in black-and-white shirts might be emitting a few cheers on Saturday. From our factory alone we've got about 40 people going down. We've made a special cup to commemorate the Cup final. When we mentioned to the Stoke City fans on the factory floor what we should do if they were to win on Saturday, we were told in no uncertain terms not to even think about it, not a sketch: "Put the pencil down!" I've never cared for football but for the first time in my life – I'm playing the organ at a wedding on Saturday – I'll be thinking to myself, gosh, I wonder what the football score is. It's such a boon.

Matthew Rice is a designer and illustrator whose 2010 book 'The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent' features sketches of the Midlands city. Rice first came to the Potteries in the mid-1980s when his wife, Emma, established the Emma Bridgewater ceramics company, which is now one of the city's biggest potters.

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