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

Archive is a treasure trove which reminds us where we’ve come from and who has gone before

The Sentinel microfilm archive.

The Sentinel microfilm archive.

Myself and three colleagues have just completed what, for me, has been something of a labour of love.

In case you don’t know, in less than two weeks’ time The Sentinel will relocate from its home of more than a quarter of a century to new, or perhaps I should say ‘old’, premises in Hanley.

From September 16 our new home will be the Grade II-listed Bethesda Sunday School building.

It’s in a great location for a local newspaper: Opposite the library and Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, just down from the Victoria Hall, Regent Theatre and new bus station, and over the road from the police station and crown court.

An awful lot of money has been spent transforming the interior of this impressive, ocean liner of a two-storey building into a modern media hub.

But alongside the funky furniture, brightly-coloured feature walls and the hi-tech kit you’d expect to find in any newspaper HQ, there’s plenty to remind us of what’s gone before.

This is something I, personally, am very keen on as someone who grew up reading the paper, then delivering it and now having the privilege of writing for it.

As you can imagine, a newspaper accumulates quite a lot of stuff over 159 years and my office has, for several weeks now, resembled an antique shop.

By rummaging through the MD’s office, various locked cabinets and darkened storerooms I have unearthed all kinds of treasures.

Gems such as a former Editor’s dictionary from the 1930s and a solid gold Sentinel cricket competition medal from the same decade.

Then there’s the documents relating to the company being created back in 1854 or the grubby and soot-blackened Wedgwood white ware unearthed when the foundations were laid at our present site in Etruria back in 1986 (the site of old Josiah’s former factory, of course).

Or how about the dozen or so black and white photographs of our former offices in Trinity Street, Hanley, when it first opened its doors 80-odds years ago?

Or the Royal Doulton figurines of newspaper sellers, or detritus from the press from the days of hot metal, or copies of Sentinel football annuals dating back to the 1920s.

Or the copy of the programme from the provincial premiere of the the 1952 movie The Card, based on Arnold Bennett’s novel of the same name.

Or the 100-year-old poster promoting a boxing match between Newcastle’s Billy Gerkin and Hanley’s Jack Matthews.

Some of these items will go on display in cabinets for the benefit of visitors to our new offices.

Others will be safely stored in the new home of our archive which yours truly and friends have spent the past three months auditing and indexing.

It saddens me to think that some of my colleagues have never experienced the sheer frustration of trawling through cuttings, old prints or negatives to find information and the simple joy of a successful hunt.

Many among the Google and Wikipedia generation believe the world started in the mid-1990s and all useful data is freely available at the touch of a button. Rest assured that I do my best to dispel this myth at every opportunity.

I tell people that our microfilm archive, for example, dates to 1854 and runs until around the year 2000. That’s every page of every Sentinel edition – Weekly and Evening – for 140 odd years.

Then there’s the leather-bound copies of every Sentinel produced since the day we stopped archiving editions on microfilm.

Finally there’s our cuttings and prints archive – all 195 box files. This contains everything from historic editions of the paper through to royal visits, all our coverage of the notorious Black Panther murders, all the pit closures and pottery firm redundancies as well as black and white and colour prints of Stoke City, Port Vale and Crewe Alex players dating back to the 1930s.

The importance of a newspaper’s archive cannot, in my opinion, be overstated – especially when it is as old and extensive as The Sentinel’s.

It is little wonder that historians revel in it, our readers continue to call upon it and that local lads like me, and Abbo before me, enjoy bringing some of it to light.

Our archive is an acknowledgment of who and what has gone before and a reminder that we journalists are in an extremely privileged position – simply the latest caretakers of an enduring brand.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Lessons to be learned from topless royal pictures

As a former agency hack, a wry smile creases my face when I hear the editors of British national newspapers speaking of their disgust and dismay at a French magazine’s decision to run with topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Call me a cynic, but their stance couldn’t have anything to do with the imminent publication of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, could it?

The reaction reminds me of the BBC’s attempts to distance itself from those awful print journalists in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal and the demise of the News of the World.

It is hypocrisy of the highest order, in my book. As is the decision by Richard Desmond to try to close down the Irish Daily Star newspaper after its editor chose to publish the same images.

Another case of jobs and a news title being sacrificed, amid feigned outrage, to protect commercial interests.

Turn the clock back a few years, before the paranoia, and I dare say all the UK tabloids would have paid good money for said images of Kate Middleton.

What’s more, the British public would have bought the papers in their millions and poor Kate’s picture would have been adorning the walls of more than a few workshops and garages.

Let’s face it: for two decades or more, topless or scantily-clad women have been the staple currency of tabloid newsrooms – and members of the royal family haven’t been immune.

I was a cub reporter back in August 1992 when the Daily Mirror published topless images of the Duchess of York having her toes sucked by American businessman John Bryan while on holiday in a remote villa in the south of France.

Each to his or her own, I guess.
True, the episode did little for Fergie’s marriage to the Duke of York, but she recovered her reputation sufficiently to be flogging Wedgwood to the Yanks a few years later.

No matter how embarrassed or angry Prince William and the Duchess are right now, the truth is that this incident will blow over.

Their reputations are intact. Indeed, the French mag’s indiscretion seems to have simply served to endear the newlyweds even more to many people as they are, quite clearly, the victims.

There are understandable, continuous comparisons between the heir-to-the-throne’s wife and his late mother – Diana, Princess of Wales. There always will be.

The way in which the tabloid press dogged Diana throughout her marriage to prince Charles, and the involvement of the paparazzi in the tragic accident which led to her death, obviously means that Prince William’s relationship with the media will always be strained.

But we shouldn’t forget that the late Princess of Wales used and manipulated the media as and when it suited her, and so all is not as black and white as some would have us believe.

Let’s be clear: the photographer was wrong to take the pictures of William and Kate and the French magazine was wrong to publish them.

It is wrong now as it was wrong 20 years ago with Fergie.

What has happened in Aix-en-Provence was a gross invasion of privacy in a country which, ironically, is held up as a shining example because it has some of the world’s toughest privacy laws.

By the same token, the British press was right to refuse to publish the images of the topless Duchess.

You see, it’s one thing to justify printing images of a naked Prince Harry fooling about in a hotel room when they have already been seen by millions of people on the internet.

It is quite something else to expose the future Queen to such scrutiny when the images of her were taken by stealth in a private moment where she could have reasonably expected a degree of personal freedom.

There are several lessons to be learned here. Firstly, members of the royal family should not disrobe in public – and what I mean by that is basically: “Don’t take your kit off outside”. No matter where you are.

It may not seem fair and it may not be right, but the Duke and Duchess are – next to Brand Beckham – arguably THE most popular celebrities in Christendom and thus will spend the rest of their lives under the scrutiny of camera lenses – some of which will have a very long reach.

The second lesson to learn from this is that draconian privacy laws simply don’t work – as evidenced here. Those penning the final pages of the Leveson Inquiry report and recommendations would do well to take this onboard.

I’m all for the British national press cleaning up its act.

Indeed, I think it has and will further because the phone-hacking scandal is a genuine watershed moment.

However, we must be careful not to turn the pursuit of better standards into a witch hunt because a toothless, neutered press really would be neither use nor ornament.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Ray of sunshine has been on the buses for 44 years…

Thirty years ago if you wanted to get around the Six Towns then most people hopped on the tried and trusted buses mainly operated by Potteries Motor Traction (PMT).

In the early Eighties, there were nowhere near as many cars on the road and public transport was the lifeblood of the local economy.

Buses ferrying workers to major employers such as Shelton Bar, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and the pits were crammed from 7am.

Hanley bus station – that huge, dirty, decaying carbuncle which is set for demolition – was a hive of activity as the main terminus for the Potteries.

My nan wouldn’t buy her bloomer loaves from anywhere else other than the bakery in the underpass where other businesses such as a dry cleaners, chemist and bookies were thriving.

This was a place Ray Newton knew very well.

In August of 1980 he passed his driving test not in a little car like the rest of us – but behind the wheel of a PMT bus.

Ray had begun his career on the buses on May 6, 1968, when – as a 21-year-old – he had swapped his job as a stores clerk for a firm in Newcastle for the better paid job of a conductor PMT operating out of its Clough Street depot.

Ray, aged 64, of Bentilee, said: “I started on a basic wage of £13 nine shillings – which was a big jump for me. And we could work overtime to earn some more.

“It was a great job and I really enjoyed it. There was wonderful camaraderie on the buses and the drivers became good mates – a big part of your life. As well as collecting the fairs, the conductor was responsible for ensuring the buses stuck to the timetable and arrived on time. It was an important job.

“Back then people were more friendly, polite and courteous. Lads would give up their seats for a lady if the bus was full and the drivers and conductors were treated with respect by customers.”

Ray’s working life came to a crossroads in August 1980 as conductors were being phased out in favour of single-operative vehicles.

He opted to re-train as a driver and during the interview we worked out that he must have ferried yours truly to Sixth Form College, Fenton, and home again to Sneyd Green in the late Eighties.

Long before that, however, Ray had to pass his driving test.

He said: “It was terrifying, to be honest. My knees were knocking the first time I sat behind the wheel of a bus. I only had a provisional licence at the time and so I passed my test on a bus which I suppose is quite unusual.

“By the following year (1981) there were no conductors on PMT buses and the drivers were doing it all and so I had to learn to take the fares as well as getting my head around the mechanics of driving a big vehicle.”

Ray has no doubt why the number of people using the buses across North Staffordshire has fallen in recent years.

He said: “It’s the local economy. We just don’t have the companies and workplaces we had back then. Workers would fill our buses.

“It was standing room only at certain times of the day. They just aren’t there anymore.”

And the biggest change he has seen over the years?

Ray said: “Definitely the switch from a manual gearbox to an automatic. That was a really big deal for all of the drivers and totally changed the job.”

Of course, you can’t work on the buses with the public for forty-odd years and not have a few stories.

Ray has seen it all – including one elderly passenger he picked up near Cobridge Traffic Lights expiring in his seat.

But one story which still tickles Ray is from his time as a conductor in the seventies.

He laughed: “Our bus came to a stop in Highfield Road, Blurton, and I told one of our passengers – a blind man – I would get off and help him cross the road. Just as we got to the other side I heard the ‘ding-ding’ of the bell on the bus and off she went. The driver drove off without me.

“Some comedian had obviously seen what I was doing and pretended to be me, rung the bell, and left me stranded. To be fair, the driver did come back for me. Eventually.”

On May 5, Ray will finish his shift at First Bus, hand in his keys at the depot in Adderley Green, and head off to a well-deserved retirement – just one day shy of 44 years on the buses.

He’s had a long and distinguished career and admits he has enjoyed it.

So how will he fill his retirement?

Ray said: “I love making things. Doll’s house furniture and the like. That’ll keep me busy.”

With seven grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, three great grandchildren (and another on the way) he won’t be short of takers for those hand-made toys.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

The Eighties is the decade most of us remember fondly

The original Now That's What I Call Music album.

The original Now That’s What I Call Music album.

Sunday, December 25, 1983. Christmas Day. That’s when I officially fell in love with the Eighties.

I sat in my bedroom marvelling at my brand new copy of the original Now That’s What I Call Music album, my shiny new record player and the sturdy black singles box containing my first 45s.

I’ve still got that album and all the seven inches – Status Quo’s Margeurita Time, Paul Young’s Wherever I Lay My Hat, and Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl, among others.

That day I played them from the moment we’d finished the turkey until I was ordered to bed.

Suddenly, at the age of 11, I realised music wasn’t the sole preserve of my parents.

Apparently, there was more to life than Elvis and Roy Orbison – despite years of brainwashing by my mum.

Money saved from my Sentinel paper round was soon being spent on singles and albums.

I walked up to Hanley on Saturdays and bought everything from Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran to Bruce Springsteen and the mighty Bon Jovi.

Through music I discovered that girls weren’t just things to make you flush red if they looked at you in class or, heaven forbid, spoke to you at break time.

I took umbrage with Michael J Fox because a certain girl in the top class at Holden Lane High called him ‘dreamy’ after watching Back To The Future.

I was mesmerised when Kim Wilde or Belinda Carlisle came on the telly – and fell hopelessly in love with Susannah Hoffs from The Bangles.

I am delighted to say that while the Eighties may be the ‘decade that taste forgot’ it is also the decade that has stubbornly refused to go away.

Of course, it helps that my generation of 30 and 40-somethings are now in control of so many TV remotes and perhaps have the most disposable income.

But it is a fact that, for some time now, there has been a genuine appetite for 1980s nostalgia.
An internet campaign brought the Wispa chocolate bar back from the dead.

Monster Munch crisps have been relaunched.

Hit 80s TV shows like Starsky and Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard have, sadly, been turned into big-budget movies.

What’s more, you can’t move for Eighties bands and singers hitting the road again to relive past glories.

People like Rick Astley, Bananarama, Midge Ure and, er… Kim Wilde (blush), who all performed at Alton Towers’ 30th birthday party at the weekend.

We lap it up because of music’s wonderful talent for forcing us to don rose-tinted Ray-Bans and reminding us of a special time in our lives.

When my sister-in-law celebrated her 40th birthday earlier this year it has to be said that the highlight of her raucous party weekend was the 1980s music.

I danced – I use that term loosely – until 3am and, as I lay in bed that night it occurred to me that I couldn’t see children of the Nineties or Noughties yearning for their formative years with quite the same enthusiasm.

For some, the Eighties was a grim decade of industrial unrest, high unemployment, terrible hair and worse clothing.

But, to me, as a child growing up in the Potteries, it is a decade that will always be golden – a time of great certainties, household names and sunny optimism.

In the Eighties, our milk man delivered bottles of pop in a variety of radioactive colours and the ‘outdoor’ at the top of our road sold Black Jacks and Fruit Salad sweets for half a pence.

Royal Doulton and Wedgwood seemed like immortal employers and a job on ‘the Mich’ (Michelin) was a job for life.

It was a time when Hanley still had family businesses like Bratt and Dyke where I could spend hours just mooching around.

It was the decade when the Boothen End proper at the Old Victoria still roared its defiance and when a certain bloke with a flat cap took over the reins at Vale Park – promising nothing and delivering the best era in my football club’s history.

It was a time when this newspaper still produced the much-anticipated Football Final on Saturdays.

It was also the decade of the Garden Festival that transformed 180 acres of derelict land in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent into the thriving retail and business park we all now take for granted.

Yes, the Eighties may well be ‘the decade that taste forgot’.

It’s also the decade that I, and I suspect many others, are most happy remembering.

Blame directors who never understood what they had for Wedgwood’s sad demise

The remains of Royal Doulton's Nile Street headquarters in Burslem.

The remains of Royal Doulton’s Nile Street headquarters in Burslem.

When I started work as a cub reporter 20 years ago, the industrial landscape of the Potteries was unrecognisable to the panorama which greets our bleary eyes on a cold Tuesday in March 2009.

Trentham Superpit, or Hem Heath Colliery as was, still employed more than 2,000 miners.

More than 300 people worked at the rolling mill that was once the mighty, glowing Shelton Bar steelworks where my great-grandfather had been a foreman.

An estimated 18,000 workers were employed at potbanks in Burslem alone – including 2,500 at Royal Doulton.

And Wedgwood, nestling proudly amid the lush fields of Barlaston, was the jewel in the crown of the pottery industry.

I reported on the closure of Trentham Superpit in 1993. I talked to the families and businesses affected by the decision. I saw the tears and heard the fears.

Those interviews have stayed with me.

For the first time, I properly appreciated the enormity of the challenges facing North Staffordshire’s economy and the tragic human cost of the decline of our traditional industries.

Similarly, I well remember being on The Sentinel’s newsdesk in 2000 when Shelton Bar closed down – bringing to an end 159 years of steel production on the site.

Certainly, I recall the sadness I felt one day in April four years ago when workers at Royal Doulton’s Nile Street factory clocked off for the last time.

I had always had a soft spot for Doulton because it was where my mum served her apprenticeship as a lithographer in the ’60s.

Now I read of the creditors’ meetings involving former employees of Wedgwood. These were people I interviewed at Barlaston for the company’s own newsletter in the early ’90s. People who talked of their pride at working for a world-renowned brand and spoke fondly of the camaraderie they enjoyed on the factory floor.

While the friendships doubtless remain, there wasn’t much pride this week. There was bitterness and resentment – and justifiably so.

Former workers were leaving the creditors’ meetings in a state of shock. Many are set to be short-changed to the tune of several thousand pounds in terms of their redundancy packages.

Take Bob Wilshaw, aged 58, of Abbey Hulton, who had worked for the Wedgwood group for 42 years.

Let me repeat that: 42 years.

Mr Wilshaw had expected to receive around £23,000 in settlement – yet he is likely to end up with just £10,000. Not much to show for a lifetime of service.

Staggering, isn’t it, how the questionable management of a company, a sheer lack of foresight and rush to embrace outsourcing can bring a global name to its knees in a few, short years?

It wasn’t so long ago that Wedgwood, in comparison to the basket case that was Royal Doulton, was being held up as a model business – an innovator and a beacon of hope.

Who could forget the Duchess of York promoting her own ‘Sarah’s Garden’ range to the Americans.

Of course, she soon bailed out when the storm clouds began to gather. What a shame Wedgwood’s management couldn’t read the runes as well as Fergie, eh?

I’m not naïve. I know the pottery industry was haemorrhaging jobs left, right and centre long before I knocked out my first story on a PC.

But I can’t help but feel that senior managers could have – and should have – done more to stave off the complete disintegration of the industry which placed this city on the world map.

Now we have the comforting thought of new owners KPS, the American private equity firm, underlining the fact that it is 85 per cent cheaper to produce pottery ware in the Far East and reportedly planning to “aggressively grow the hell out of…” (the Wedgwood brand). Charming.

Do they know we make fine bone china round here? Do the new owners realise that buyers aren’t daft and that, sooner rather than later, they will realise that the quaint old English quality backstamp that was Wedgwood ain’t quite what it used to be?

Of course they do. The truth is, they don’t care so long as they squeeze the pips out of the brand for their shareholders.

As Wedgwood crumbles, I have listened to ex-potters who have spoken eloquently of their frustrations with the role their union has played in recent years which, in their opinion, was akin to Nero fiddling as Rome burned.

Whatever the truth, I doubt whether or not Doulton’s former chief executive Wayne Nutbeen or former Waterford Wedgwood majority stakeholder Sir Anthony O’Reilly are sitting there this evening worrying about how they will pay their mortgages or what employment options are open to a man in his late fifties like Bob Wilshaw.

More’s the pity.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday