To quote a truism, Stoke-on-Trent is not what it was. In the 1960s it was one of the world’s major producers of ceramics, and was the UK’s single biggest manufacturers. Giants like Wedgwood, Spode and Worcester were unstoppable, secure in buoyant sales here and overseas. The old, smoky, inefficient but, to us, romantic bottle kilns were pulled down to be replaced by gas and oil-fired continuous tunnel kilns. The air cleared, order books were full, there was work aplenty. Workers were skilled, and much of the making was done by hand.
As Harold Macmillan remarked, the industry was overtaken by ‘events’. Overseas manufacturers, working with a vastly cheaper labour force, started to produce similar items at much lower cost. Few factories seriously researched the changing market as the traditional wedding present – the dinner service or teaset – went out of favour for something less formal. Like the redundant bottle kilns even many of the factories have now been reduced to rubble.
Now comes welcome news of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Later in 2009 a giant ceramics biennale is planned for Stoke that will look at the new while acknowledging the past. An inventive series of exhibitions, events, happening etc will occur throughout the city that will reenergise and transform the area. Maybe they will even fire one of the few surviving bottle kilns.
Watch this space.