The Clean Air Act of 1956 banned the use of coal firing and resulted in the destruction of bottle ovens in many industrial potteries and the conversion of kilns to gas firing. It meant the end to many pottery sites, especially in Stoke on Trent. Staffordshire is a coal rich region; it also has plenty of clay, but it was the coal that created a whole industry built around six towns, a river and a canal.
Five of the bottle ovens at the Gladstone pottery were saved, by local manufacturers, Spode and Johnson. The resulting preservation trust founded in 1971 was the beginnings of a cluster of museums centred around one industry: pot making.
These days Gladstone Pottery Museum is more than its preserved ovens. The visitor is given insights into the whole process from raw material to the finished product. You can learn all about the jobs: the throwers
casters, dippers, mould makers and saggar makers. You can discover the different glazes and dyes, and how they colour tiles from Spain, Italy and Delft. There is a sanitary ware exhibition with ceramic toilet bowls manufactured by Twyford, Bramah and Wedgewood. Yes, Wedgewood didn’t just make fine china, they made toilets.
Gladstone Pottery Museum, which features in the TV series the Great Pottery Throw Down, is one of several connected but largely unaffiliated museums. Some, like Etruria, are resurrected industrial works, others like Wedgewood, are working factories. The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery contains the greatest collection of Staffordshire Pottery in the world. Like Gladstone, it is run by the local authority. The museum opened in 1956, and as well as pottery, it contains the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo Saxon gold and silver work, including 3500 pieces of Jewellery. The treasure trove, discovered in a village field, was bought by the museum in 2010 for a few million. The original legal owners, farmer and metal detector, fell out over money but thankfully, the museum was able to raise the cash to buy it.
The Etruria Industrial Museum is a former bone and flint mill powered by a steam engine. Ground materials are used in the pottery industry – bone china is used in Worcester, Royal Doulton and Spode. The museum was opened in 1991 by Fred Dibnah, an aging steeplejack, and surprise TV celebrity, but unfortunately the museum is only occasionally opened.
The Spode Heritage Centre is all about Spode, and only displays part of the collection due to the closure of the factory.
One factory that is still open, is the World of Wedgewood. Not only can you tour the factory, walking the gantries, looking down and watching the kilns being loaded, the craftsmen decorate the dishware, you can see V&A’s Wedgewood collection in a museum that tells you all about the history of the Wedgewood family and how their distinct style developed.
The ambition of modern pottery production, traditional hand painted decorations, and the heritage behind the world famous brand, has successfully been brought together, new and old, in one location, and is unlike most traditional museums because of its modernised setting. It’s great to see at least one of Stoke’s once thriving potteries survive the modern world.