From the 18th century to the 1960’s, Stoke-on-Trent’s landscape was dominated by thousands of bottle kilns. Today there remains 47, all of which are listed.
I was born in the heart of the Potteries so perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve worked in two of it’s potbanks. The first of which was one which made hotel-ware.
I turned up to my interview slightly overdressed in a pencil skirt, blouse and high heels. I was 16 years old and probably looked more confident than I felt as I click-clacked alongside the supervisor who was showing me around the factory. I couldn’t help but gawp at the pint-sized women who were balancing large wooden planks filled with teapots on their shoulders as if they weighed nothing at all. There was apparently a ‘knack’ to it which I never did master.
The interview was a formality. I turned up, got taken on and was trained up. It was that simple.
My job was Fettler/Sponger
FETTLER – Potting department. Clay end. Male or female who uses a variety of little tools to remove the rough seams and edges on the clay piece after it has been made by casting.
SPONGER Occupation. Potting department. Clay end. The person, male or female, employed specifically to remove seams and wet clay which had been created during the potting process.
I remember the noise and layer of dust that covered everything. The air was dry and cigarette smoke mingled with perfume and sweat – the kind that makes your eyes water.
Two weeks into the job I had the audacity to get sick and the management sacked me as I’d taken time off when I was still in my probation period. I appealed and won my case for unfair dismissal but I never went back.
Three years later I took a job as a ‘labourer’ on a twilight shift in another potbank which made tableware.
My job involved loading clay onto machinery which sliced it into pieces which would then drop onto moulds to be pressed to form a plate, bowl or saucer. These were then baked and stacked into piles which I would load onto trolleys while trying to maintain a steady flow of clay on about two other machines at the same time. Every so often (when I got talking) one of my makers would bellow out “OI, STOP GABBIN’ AND GET YER BACKSIDE BACK OVER ERE!!’ and that was just the women!
The factory was full of characters the likes of which you could write a book on. No airs and graces – just proud, hard working folk who knew how to have a laugh.
I loved every minute of it.
Working in a potbank was hard work and the conditions weren’t ideal despite vast improvements in health and safety compared to years ago…
In living memory, a pottery worker’s living came at the sacrifice of their health with lung diseases such as Pneumoconiosis which came from breathing in dust. I can only imagine how bad things were before health and safety laws forced companies to make improvements to working conditions.
No post about the Potteries would be complete without mentioning the dialect that is almost exclusive to Stoke.
Examples of Potteries dialect or Ar ter toke crate!
AY ~ Something I say about a 100 times a day since I’ve gone deaf.
ADAMANT ~ 80’s pop singer and brand name of a particular type of pottery made by Twyfords.
BOG ~ Common UK slang word for toilet extensively used in Stoke-on-Trent (and me)
CLACK ~ Potteries for the epiglottis. (“foone an ambulance duck, eets stuck in me clack!”)
DUCK ~ Term of endearment
OATCAKE ~ Local delicacy (also be found in random supermarkets in Bury)
FRITTENED DEATH~ Extremely frightened ‘E’s frittened death of having to get a round in!’
MARD ARSE ~ A spoilt person or man + flu = mard arse
NESH ~ Doesn’t withstand the cold too well. (like me)
PEE DEE ~ Pay Day
RITES SPIES ~ Wrights Pies (the ultimate in pie experience)
CHAYS ~ Nice on an oatcake with some bacon
SHAPE ~ Woolly things in fields that go well with mint sauce.
It was spoken broadly in my day (especially by the potters and miners) but seemingly people don’t use it as much in everyday conversation so it will inevitably die out, sadly.
When I started work at the potbank in 1989, it employed 500 people and was split into three divisions – hotel-ware, mugs and tableware. The hotel-ware was particularly profitable but table-ware (where I worked) was facing major problems.
Sir John Harvey-Jones was brought in and as part of BBC2’s Troubleshooter series, he sought to improve the factory’s fortunes. His findings showed that a substantial amount of money could be saved if they axed about 100 unskilled jobs and replaced them with a machine.
Mine was one of those jobs, as were the makers that I laboured for. Our roles were made redundant to make way for a dust pressing unit which would mechanically do our jobs more efficiently and without the need of a tea-break.
We had to work alongside it while the teething problems were sorted out and a huge cheer would go up whenever the sodding thing broke down. Regardless of our impending redundancies – morale remained high. That’s the spirit of the Potteries for you.
Clocking off for the last time was emotional. Some jobs I’ve been glad to leave but this wasn’t one of them.
Despite the introduction of more technology – the company now employs over 700 people and that’s not bad for an industry that is in decline – in the Potteries at any rate.
Despite swapping the kilns of the Potteries for Lancashire mills, I am, and always will be, a Potteries girl.
This post is in response to a request by theatre directer, Sarah, as part of an event at The Victoria and Albert museum in London at the end of this month. Maybe you have worked in the potbanks yourself and would like to share your memories?
You can get in touch with Sarah at: email@example.com by 16th October.
Bottle Kilns Image via Creative Commons by ‘Pessimist’