Summer Geographies: Stoke Potters by Mason Gain
One day over the summer vacation I visited the Emma Bridgewater ceramics factory for a tour, which was originally intended to please my grandmother, a lover of the brand. However, upon arrival in Stoke-on-Trent it was striking how the pottery industry was so overwhelming, so much so that the nickname of the local football club has become “The Potters”. This began to make me think about how this could have occurred, which drove me to want to better understand how one single city has developed such growth in one industry that has led to the city itself being represented by such a nickname. After founding the company in Oxfordshire in 1985 Emma was later told that if her wish was to scale the business to a greater proportion and mass produce, then the only way this would be achievable was if she were to move to Stoke-on-Trent and set up production there. So, what is it about the city of Stoke-on-Trent that has made it such an ideal place to set up and succeed with ceramics production, and does this look set to continue into the future?
Located in the North of the county of Staffordshire, Stoke-on-Trent has historically had an ideal geographical location for the expansion of the pottery industry. Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent dates back to the 17th Century (Birks, 2008), due to the abundance of clay, salt (used for glazing) and coal (used in the kilns). Therefore, at first glance the city seems a perfect geographical location for the production of pottery. Not only was the geographical location ideal, but the socio-economic conditions were a great fit with the low wages and living costs of the local population meaning that it was very cheap to produce here for the industry owners (Visit Stoke, 2017).
In the mid-18th Century the red-burning clays that originate from nearby Stoke-on-Trent in fact became out of fashion against the preferred white-burning clays meaning that in the mid-18th Century ‘The Potters’ had to seek an alternative solution so that they were not destroyed by competitors. With cheap production costs and a city population of which half were skilled craftspeople in the industry, it was not a viable solution to move the industry to a location where geographical conditions were more suitable to sourcing white-burning clay. Instead, transporting raw materials from Devon and Dorset to Stoke-on-Trent seemed to be the best response to this problem (Visit Stoke, 2017). After a period of around 30 years of transporting the clay, the construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1777 meant that transportation was made cheaper and easier than ever before (Wikipedia, 2017; Visit Stoke, 2017). This led to the industry thriving more than ever before, with raw materials and finished products being able to be transported easier and more cost-efficiently, whilst fuel was still sourced locally.
However, this does not exactly hold true today. With the closure of many mines and factories in the recent decades due to foreign competition, ‘The Potters’ are not as strong as they used to be in the industry. Since 1970 there has been approximately 170 factories closing, leaving only 30 left today along with approximately 20,000 jobs being lost between 1998 and 2008 (Nicholls, 2011). Nicholls (2011) highlights that the foreign competition has been very harsh to many manufacturers, as manufacturing processes remain the same as they always have, which means that it is difficult for the industry in Stoke-on-Trent to compete with the relaxed regulations and lower production costs of their foreign competitors. This has meant that the industry in Stoke-on-Trent is now made up of only high-end producers who thrive more upon the quality of their produce and the reputation of their brand as it is impossible for them to compete on price. Therefore, Emma Bridgewater, who entered the industry in 1985 fought against all odds in what was a declining industry at the time of their founding. They have built a reputable brand that has been able to stand out against cheaper foreign goods.
In conclusion, the city of Stoke-on-Trent has historically been an ideal geographical location for the manufacturing of ceramics due to the raw materials present in the local surroundings as well as efficient transport mechanisms with the canal system, which has made for success in the city. However, in more modern times as the industry has faced difficult competition, the geographical location no longer benefits the industry but instead success in the city has depended on reputable brands and top-quality produce.
Birks, S. 2008. Stoke-on-Trent the world’s largest and most famous pottery producing city… [online] Available at: http://www.thepotteries.org/sot/five.htm [Accessed 3 October 2017]
Nicholls, D. 2011. All fired up: the future of pottery. [online] Available at: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/interiors/8281433/All-fired-up-the-future-of-pottery.html> [Accessed 3 October 2017]
Visit Stoke, 2017. 18th Century Ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent. [online] Available at: http://www.visitstoke.co.uk/ceramics-trail/history-18century.aspx [Accessed 3 October 2017]
Wikipedia, 2017. Stoke-on-Trent. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoke-on-Trent. [Accessed 3 October 2017]