The Potteries of Staffordshire

Nov 16, 2017 1 comments

The art of pottery making has been known since ancient times. However, the first true porcelain was made in China only during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). For more than a millennium the Chinese artisans managed to keep the recipe a secret, allowing expensive Chinese porcelain to be exported to Europe, until a breakthrough was made in a German factory in Dresden in the early 18th century. Within a few years, porcelain factories sprung up around Bavaria and in Naples and many other places. In Great Britain, North Staffordshire became the center of ceramic production.


The distinctively shaped bottle ovens at the Gladstone Pottery Museum. Photo credit: Andrew Stawarz/Flickr

Staffordshire’s pottery industry was centered around six towns—Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton, that now make up the city of Stoke-on-Trent. This region was known as The Potteries. Many of the world’s innovations in pottery production either happened here or were brought to general attention in the Potteries.

The West Midlands was uniquely suited for this industry. Clay was available in abundance, and so was coal necessary to fire ovens. Nearby counties provided lead, salt and fine sand. The construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1777 provided a further boost to the industry. Potters were now able to import the white china clay from Cornwall, Dorset and Devonshire facilitating the production of bone china and creamware—a cream-coloured, refined earthenware, invented by the potters of Staffordshire that became very popular in the early 19th century.

The potters of Staffordshire fired their wares in distinctively shaped bottle ovens with a fat round base and a tapering chimney. In the heyday, there were over 4,000 bottle kilns across the six towns and as many as 2,000 were still standing in the 1950's.

What you see of a bottle oven is the outer wall, or hovel, protecting the inner kiln from the weather. Inside this inner cavity thousands of pots were placed and the flames were drawn up through the wares by the chimney draught. To keep the wares clear of coal ash, the pots were put into fireclay boxes called saggars which were piled on top on one another in the kiln in tall columns.


Longton in the mid 1950s. Photo credit: Lee Haywood/Flickr

One of the less favourable jobs in the industry was that of the placer—the men who retrieved wares from the kiln. Usually, wares were allowed to cool for 48 hours after firing finished, but sometimes factory owners would want the wares urgently and force placers to enter the kilns while they were still glowing red. The men wore five layers of clothing and wet cloths over their heads to protect themselves.

Each firing required 14 tons of coal and more than half the heat generated would go up the bottle shaped chimney as smoke. The process was extremely inefficient and wasteful. The smoke would exit the chimney sixty feet up and then curl back down onto the buildings and street and hang in the air like fog. In Longton, the town with the greatest number of bottle ovens, locals use to say that “it was a fine day if you can see the other side of the road.” When the bottle ovens were firing it was almost impossible to see your hand held in front of your face.

Simeon Shaw, in his History of the North Staffordshire Potteries, written in 1829, described the filth produced by the bottle ovens:

"The vast volumes of smoke and vapours from the ovens, entering the atmosphere, produced that dense white cloud, which from about eight o'clock till twelve on the Saturday morning, (the time of firing-up, as it is called,) so completely enveloped the whole of the interior of the town, as to cause persons often to run against each other; travellers to mistake the road and strangers have mentioned it as extremely disagreeable, and not unlike the smoke of Etna and Vesuvius."

The end for the bottle oven came in the 1960s as society became more conscious of air pollution and the industry stopped using coal. Existing bottle ovens were demolished. Only 47 remain in Stoke-on-Trent today, preserved as listed buildings. One of the factories now houses the Gladstone Pottery Museum where you can step inside a bottle oven.


The skyline of Stoke-on-Trent when the industry was in full swing.


An old postcard of Stoke-on-Trent.


Photo credit: John Lord/Flickr


Photo credit: Ted and Jen/Flickr


The Gladstone museum, Stoke-on-Trent. Photo credit: Anna-Maria Oléhn/Flickr


Saggars stacked inside a kiln. Photo credit: Lee Haywood/Flickr


Sagger Workshop. Photo credit: Andrew Stawarz/Flickr


Bottle kilns in Burslem. Photo credit: Mike Rawlins/Flickr


Bottle kilns in Longton. Photo credit: John Lord/Flickr


Bottle kilns in Longton. Photo credit: John Lord/Flickr


Staffordshire pottery figurines of a fisherman (left) and Shakespeare (right) at the Leeds Museums and Galleries.


A salt-glazed stoneware produced in the potteries of Staffordshire, circa 1730.


Stoneware with metallic-oxide stain (caneware) produced in the potteries of Staffordshire, circa 1820.

Sources: / / Wikipedia / BBC /


  1. Very interesting and well illustrated! So much air pollution exchanged for the beauty of bone china ... much of which may be in shards in middens to the present day. When I saw the first picture, my mind jumped to the caves of Cappadocia, so organic is she shape of both the kiln houses and the caves. Thanks for this informative and beautiful treat!


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