Once Upon A Time in a Potbank

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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.

Potbank 2

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: memoriesofpotbankworkers@gmail.com by 16th October.

Bottle Kilns Image via Creative Commons by ‘Pessimist’

mumturnedmom
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Spin The Black Circle

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The soundtrack to my childhood is on vinyl – somewhere.

A few years ago, having been seduced by the digital form of the CD, I decided to flog almost every record that I owned in a car boot sale – fifty pence for an album or a pound for a double. A moment of insanity that would come to haunt me.

You see, I’ve grown up with music. Dad was a ‘Hi-Fi buff’ who spent hours sat in front of his mammoth speakers in search of the ultimate ‘stereo experience’ which I found hilarious because he was deaf in one ear. Music was his passion and one of the last records he listened to was my Queen album – one of a few which I kept back from the blasted car boot sale.

The album contained The Show Must Go On. Written primarily by Brian May it’s a song about Freddie’s determination to carry on performing despite the fact that he was dying.

Inside my heart is breaking
My make-up may be flaking
But my smile still stays on

Apt lyrics for my Dad – a man who knew he was losing his battle with cancer.

My love of music starts way back in the decade of grim decor and fashion aka the 70’s. In 1978 I got my first record player along with the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever – a film that I wasn’t old enough to see. It would be a few more years before I got to see JT in his undies!

In 1979 I bought I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats with my pocket money and had no idea that the song was about a 16 year old girl who went on a shooting spree because she didn’t like Mondays!

Equipment itself has come a long way. Edison’s phonograph kicked it all off and has evolved into the tiniest of devices not much bigger than a stamp. (iPod). I wonder what Smack my Bitch Up would sound like on a phonograph? Edison would spin in his grave faster than Pete Burns… right round baby!

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One of Judge Jules’ early gigs ha ha – not really. Don’t sue me.

Music is much more than an art form. It connects people, or it used to.

Records were vitally important to the development of music and of all music cultures. With that being pushed by the wayside, I can’t see an iPod uniting us. In fact it separates us, the streets are full of people bumping into lamp posts, listening to their own little universe, and there’s no sharing in that. ~ John Lydon

It wasn’t always this way..

Music played a big part in boosting morale during world war two. It captured the spirit of a nation that refused to be broken by Hitler. Hearing Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade evokes feelings of nostalgia and gratitude. Nostalgia because despite the hardship of the war, my parents had fond memories of that time and gratitude because I owe my life to those who died for our freedom.

My taste is eclectic which means there is a genre to suit my every mood and there are a lot of em. Rock gets my heart pumping whereas classical relaxes me. I love Punk with it’s angst and nihilistic attitude that reflected a time of teenage rebellion with the Sex Pistols summing up the attitude of a generation with “No future”. Listening to the likes of the Sex Pistols and The Clash was part of my own teenage rebellion. The day I skimmed Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols across the kitchen worktop was a memorable one to say the least. my mother miss-lit her fag in shock at the word ‘bollocks‘.

I’ll give you bollocks, Madam!~ Mum circa 1984

Despite embracing the digital form, I’ve felt disenchanted with music for a while. Then one day I had an epiphany when I realised that what music was missing was soul. And I don’t mean the genre.

CD’s are almost clinical. They have a ‘clean’ sound and while that may suit the techno sound, I think it robs other genres of it’s soul. I also missed the tactile experience of placing a record on the deck and trying to keep a steady hand (a difficult task when pissed) as I placed the needle on the record waiting for the inevitable crackle and hiss. But that’s just me. Music and sound is subjective. Millions of people have never looked back and think of vinyl only in a historical or value sense. As technology surges forward, I find myself hankering for a time of simplicity.

I deeply regret flogging my collection but am in the process of creating another one and it’s not lost on me that I’m often paying double or treble what I paid for them originally. Lesson learned. No more boot sales. Unless it’s to buy. 😉

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Music evokes powerful emotions and listening to Ella Fitzgerald transports me to days of childhood watching my mother doing her thing in the kitchen and Frank Sinatra instantly makes me think of my dad crooning along to That’s Life, Jack Daniels in one hand, Marlboro in the other. Despite the secondary smoke inhalation, those were happy times with memories that have become so important to me now that they are both gone. Music takes me to a happy place and back to a time when life was simple and happiness was a book or a new record. Simple pleasures…

My parents may be gone but they live on in the music. A record is made of up of grooves and within those grooves are memories and a memory is something that can’t be taken from you.

End Note :

Dear Boys, please don’t flog my records in a car boot sale after I’ve gone.

I will haunt you.

Love, Mum.

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The song is ended but the melody lingers on.

mumturnedmom

Confessions of a School Caretaker

All I ever wanted to be was a wife and a mother. Call me old fashioned but I totally bought into the whole ‘homemaker’ vibe. However, fate had other ideas and when my then husband became ill. I had no choice but to work part-time to makes ends meet. One of my jobs was a school caretaker. Yes, school caretaker! Not all school caretakers look like Argus Filch!

Some are 5ft 1″, brunette and wear Reeboks innit?

The school was purpose built in 1939, just before the second world war broke out. The Anderson shelter wasn’t dismantled and filled in until the 1980’s. That’s one of the things I loved about the place, it’s history.

When I started working there in 1995, it had hardly changed at all since it was built. Part of my job was to maintain an ambient room temperature which is sort of impossible when you have menopausal staff who are shivering one minute and flinging off their cardies the next. Nightmare!

Although most of my work was mostly done around school hours, sometimes I’d nip down to do some gardening and it was a joy to listen to the children singing nursery rhymes. It was hard to believe that one day those little angels would become moody, acne-ridden, angst filled arse-holes, like I was.

The downside to the job was having to deal with vandalism..

Each Monday morning I’d apprehensively open the gate and hope that the local louts hadn’t been up to their usual tricks of kicking in fence panels, or worse, smashing in windows. Once, I found an old mattress and some used condoms behind the shed.

The. Dirty. Bastards.

Shagging someone on a stained mattress in the grounds of a nursery school?

Classy, no?

The empty cans of Tesco Value lager gave some clue as to the level of ‘chav’ I was dealing with. That said, at least they were using condoms so I suppose there was some degree of intelligence in there.. After a minute of intense effing, I snapped on several pairs of Marigolds, scooped up the offending ‘joy bags’ with a shovel and marched across the playground in the direction of the bins. As soon as I got home, I plunged my hands in disinfectant. The council came and carted away the mattress of shame and we planted the area with prickly shrubs as a shag deterrent. Only a complete idiot would risk puncturing his clackers on that lot!

My strangest find were some photographs of a lady that I found scattered over the grass one morning. I couldn’t go around the neighbouring houses knocking on doors asking who they belonged to cus, well, they were a bit saucy, innit! I decided to take advice from the head teacher, who almost choked on her Polo mint when she saw the lady resplendent in her suspenders and DD peep-hole bra. She concluded that it was best to deny all knowledge of them and fed them through the shredder.

Sorted.

One of the cutest moments was when I was changing the paper towels in the toilets and one cute little boy held out his painting to me and said. ‘Hold this, Mrs lady, I’m going for a poo!’

Just wonderful.

Originally, the school had three intakes of forty children a year but nursery classes being opened within nearby primary schools meant that numbers started to dwindle. The council took the decision to close the school when the intake dropped to 25 saying that it was no longer financially viable. Despite a petition put forward from thousands of people, many of whom had attended the school themselves, the council pressed ahead with it’s plans to close and on a summer’s day in July 2005, after 66 happy years, the nursery closed.

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Happy memories of the nursery at Christmas circa 1940’s

During the big ‘clear out’ the head called me into her office and showed me some of the log books she’d found from during the war. Everything was written down. The nit nurse was mentioned a LOT. But one entry stood out to me the most. It simply said, ‘The children had their tea in the air raid shelter’. Imagine that?

I felt emotional as I stood looking round the empty building on that last day. A building which for so many years had been full of life and laughter. The walls, once adorned with paint (and dried pasta), were now stripped bare and there was an echo to the room that only comes with emptiness.

As I walked through each room, I could hear children’s voices (not literally, I’m not that bonkers, yet) I could hear their squeals of joy as they sped around on the trikes and the ear-piercing shrieks as they shoved each other over on the playground. I heard the rumble of the prams and the shrill sound of the teacher’s whistle. I saw my eldest running with his egg and spoon on sports day looking as camp as a row of tents with his floppy wrist. I saw my middle son sat there with a tea-towel on his head – picking his nose through the ENTIRE nativity play!

Good memories..

I was a good caretaker. I was proud of what I’d achieved and having a touch of OCD came in especially handy when it came to locking up. There were no unlocked doors or windows on MY watch, ever! However, it did take me about an hour to do my checks and re-checks…

With a heavy heart, I closed the gate for the last time and I allowed myself one last look before another chapter in my life closed.

I doubt that I will ever find a job like that. I loved every second of it. Going to work in the morning was never a chore. I loved the building. I loved the people I worked with. I loved how I ended up on the annual school tea-towel, standing there with my tiny broom and enormous arms poking out of my head..

The building sat empty for quite a while. The privets became overgrown and the cherry blossom leaves blew around because I wasn’t there to pick them up. It was sad to see. Then one day I noticed that the privets had been cut and a shiny new sign was in place of our old one. It had been bought as a private day nursery! I TOTALLY love that the building still knows the sound of children’s laughter. A new chapter in it’s life and long may it continue…I am proud to be part of it’s history.

A pity they let the old punishments die. Was a time detention would find you hanging by your thumbs in the dungeons. God, I miss the screaming ~ Argus Filch ~ Miserable git caretaker in Harry Potter

mumturnedmom

C30, C60, C90, Go!

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Technology has come a long way since I was a child in the 70’s.

Today there are numerous devices to capture our special moments but in my day it was basically a camera, a Polaroid Instant camera (dodgy, Father…VERY dodgy!) and cassette tapes.

Cassettes were great because I could bung my favourite songs on a few tapes and sit in the garden – portable tape player turned up to the max thus inciting the wrath of the neighbours – and my mother, who removed my batteries on many an occasion.

She also confiscated the player a few times as well.

My family made tapes for one another as another way of keeping in touch and Mum gave me a load of these old tapes when my dad died. I guess some memories were simply too painful for her..

It’s been almost 18 years since I listened to them.

But they’ve re-surfaced, including a few that I didn’t get around to playing..

Seeing Nan’s handwriting on the tape was enough to start me blubbing.

I started with the B side because it was addressed to me and my brother. ( Nan spelt his name wrong)

I wasn’t sure what to expect so I rammed the cassette into the player – sat down in my easy chair and braced myself.

Silence.

Five minutes later – still silence.

I fast forwarded a bit – still nothing.

Basically the entire side had nothing on it!

I turned over..

Deck The Halls boomed out from the speakers but it was playing at 45rpm instead of 33rpm. (Google it, kids)

The next few songs were the same. I’m guessing it was Jim Reeves Christmas Hits but it sounded more like Pinky and Perky.

Nan must have realised her gaff and changed the speed mid-song.

Unfortunately the next record she put on was a single but she still had the record player set to 33rpm.

Again, she must have sussed it because it suddenly changed speed half way through.

By this point I was laughing so hard a bit of wee came out…

My pelvic floor couldn’t cope.

Oh my God, Nan!!

Not only that but she’d totally ignored the pause button because I could hear the change of the records and on one occasion, the needle slipped off. Perhaps Grandad ( who was a bit shaky) was in charge of putting the needle on the record?

Nan was a technophobe but I’m hazarding a guess she’d also been at the brandy.

But my laughter faded away as I heard the familiar sound of her voice.

It was a surreal moment.

I closed my eyes and she could have been in the room with me..

“Bye bye, cheerio for now – God Bless.” she said.

I could visualise her tiny frame, silky soft skin and salt and peppery hairdo – styled like the Queen’s.

She was well posh, my nan.

Then she said “See you all on Wednesday” and Grandad (deaf aid a-whistling) piped up “God willing!!”

She started to say something about making a cup of tea but the tape ran out mid sentence.

Before I played the tape – I knew I was going to cry but I had no idea it would mostly be with laughter.

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Nan & Grandad

The Sing-a-Long

On this tape – one side was labelled Sing-a-Long and I’d heard it before so I played the other side first.

There was no writing on this side so I just shoved it in the player (jammed it twice) and curled back up on my chair.

Imagine my surprise when The Stripper started to play!

Yes, THE STRIPPER!!

As in STRIPTEASE music!!!

I squirmed about uneasily for a few minutes waiting for it to finish but then it started again!

In fact…the ENTIRE side was full of it!!!!

I was like…WTF????

Suddenly the Polaroid camera made a LOT of sense.

God only knows what my mother was doing for that 30 minutes. The mind boggles.

It’s still boggling…

I dread to think what my parents were up to while I was slumbering away dreaming of sheep. And stuff.

I’m going to need lots of therapy – my childhood is ruined.

I downed a pint to ease the trauma and played the other side.

Basically it’s half an hour of me (aged about 8) Mum and Dad singing along to Max Bygraves. Why this is on the same tape as striptease music – I’ll never know.

Dad could croon with the best of em and he’d always sing when he’d had a few. He was a happy drinker. The more he drank – the happier he got and he sang like Frank Sinatra. Only Dad’s eyes were brown. Ol’ brown eyes.

Hearing my young self made me smile and cringe simultaneously.

I had a really annoying habit of saying “OH YEAH” or “Olé” at the end of each song. *cringe* *cringe*

Mum’s singing would intermittently break off and she could be heard rollocking someone in the background – most likely one of my brothers.

The last voice on the tape is my dad’s.

“Sock it to em baby!” he says Elvis stylee and then he laughs.

In this day and age it’s so easy to capture these moments – all it takes is a mobile phone. Little did I know in 1978 what this recording would mean to me 36 years later when both of them are gone. Gone but never forgotten and a part of them lives on within the spools of an old C60 cassette tape.

“The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they can add up to the story of a life.”~ Love is a Mix Tape – Rob Sheffield.

 Unravelled Cassette Image -Andrew Malone