Pottery firms: Still innovating and still the key employers locally

Ceramics 2013 logo.

Some people would have you believe we don’t make stuff in this country anymore.

It’s certainly true that manufacturing in the UK has changed beyond all recognition in the past 30 years or so.

No-one views us as the ‘Workshop of the World’ anymore – that’s for sure.

Great industries like coal-mining and steel production have all but disappeared and my native North Staffordshire still bears the scars.

Shelton Bar, which once lit up the night sky and where my great-grandfather was a foreman, is no more.

The pits where other members of my family dug for black gold are now but a memory.

But what of the industry after which this area is named?

They still call us the Potteries but is it a fair reflection on the Stoke-on-Trent of 2013. Is it even applicable anymore?

In recent years some civic leaders have stated that we should drop the name altogether – arguing that the label is neither helpful nor relevant to our city today.

The problem is, of course, that they had no clue what to replace it with. There was no alternative: No big idea on which the city could hang its hat.

Perhaps that’s no bad thing because the reality is that the industry for which we are renowned is still very much alive and kicking – despite what some would have us think.

Here, in what is often described as the ‘world capital of ceramics’, you will – of course – find the derelicts, the ruined hulks and the former factories.

Drive around the city and you’ll see the former Spode site and the mess that is Nile Street in Burslem where the behemoth that was Royal Doulton’s premier factory used to stand – now sadly reduced to rubble.

Then there are the smaller potbanks – too numerous to mention here – which are boarded-up, roofless and weed-choked.

But that’s only half the story.

The pottery industry may have shrunk considerably since its hey-day but it remains THE key employer locally.

More to the point, whisper it quietly but many of our foremost ceramics firms are doing rather well, of late.

As well as still being home for long-established family names like Dudson and Wedgwood, our neck of the woods still boasts brands such as Johnson Tiles, Steelite International, Churchill, Wade Ceramics, Portmeirion as well as relative newcomer Emma Bridgewater who are all world and market leaders in their fields – still innovating, still producing millions of crocks and still proudly employing hundreds of people here in Stoke-on-Trent.

Add to these dozens of smaller pottery firms operating across The Sentinel’s patch and you start to build up a very different picture of the area and its core industry.

That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t challenges to be faced.

The global economic downturn has done manufacturing businesses no favours whatsoever – and suggestions of a recovery at this stage should be viewed with extreme caution.

As well as the continuing battle to underline the importance of the Made in England/UK backstamp, pottery firms are also wrestling with the problem of ensuring they have a plentiful supply of cheap energy – while trying to satisfy various green agendas.

So while there are many reasons for optimism surrounding the ceramics industry, challenges remain.

No doubt they will be discussed on Thursday at the Centre for Refurbishment Excellence (CoRE) in Longton when it hosts Ceramics 2013.

This event will bring together manufacturers large and small, as well as their suppliers, to showcase the very best this resurgent industry has to offer.

The fact that it is being held here in Stoke-on-Trent is no coincidence and the list of attendees and exhibitors is dominated by names we plate-turners know and love.

I’m chuffed to say that yours truly will be hosting a question and answer session with top industry names (at which all are welcome).

However, rest assured Thursday is far from a navel-gazing exercise on the part of pottery firms.

You’ll find students, artists, graphic designers and all manner of creative industries represented at this event – and members of the public are very welcome too.

With designer Wayne Hemingway MBE – founder of fashion brand Red or Dead – as its guest speaker, Ceramics 2013 is looking to the future and viewing our core local industry as a design-led, British success story.

It’s a story that I, for one, am only too happy to help tell.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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