The Lost City of Stoke on Trent, By Matthew Rice – A Review By Mark Fisher

The launch of a book entitled ‘The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent’ by one of the City’s leading entrepreneurial heavyweights Matthew Rice and his subsequent comments about the city’s regeneration [or lack of depending on your view point], caused a storm of controversy.

Much debate on the merits of his opinion was had on this site and other.

Rob Flello MP then wayed into the debate by criticising the author over his comments about regeneration in a radio interview and even suggested that Mr Rice ought to tell all his business friends to re-locate their businesses in Stoke-on-Trent.

The Stoke-on-Trent South MP’s accusation that the Managing Director of the Emma Bridgewater pottery [the only ceramic company that is bucking the trend of slipping into obscutity] was merely seeking to sell more copies of his book rather than offering the opinion that is held by the vast majority of people who live in our city.

Well, another well known political figure has entered the debate by giving a delightful review of Matthew Rice’s book.

Former Stoke-on-Trent Central MP Mark Fisher, who served our city for 27 years, gave the book a glowing report for the Independent newspaper.

When Emma Bridgewater first came to Stoke on Trent with a view to making ceramics, she was charmed by the “cheerful griminess” of the city and “fascinated and appalled by the chaos of roadworks… boarded-up shops and rundown terraces”. In this book, her husband and business partner, Matthew Rice, a fine designer, sets out to explore the contradictory qualities and defects of this city founded on coal, steel and ceramics; to try to understand why Stoke on Trent and its industry grew, why it has declined and what its future might be.

In doing so he has written a hymn to manufacturing, and to the principles that underpin all successful manufacturing companies: good design, good materials and good marketing. Those principles served Wedgwood, Spode and Doulton well.

He tells in short chapters the history of the pottery industry and of the city, richly illustrated by his own drawings and coloured washes that are affectionate, humorous and well observed. He delights particularly in architectural drawings, in which he proves himself to be the heir of Osbert Lancaster, but is equally adept at tiles, maps, panels, Staffordshire figures, the details of windows, doorways and pediments, and the few remaining bottle kilns with their “decidedly female forms”.

Here are elevations of all the city’s finest buildings: Barlaston Hall, now restored; the “ebullient classicism” of Burslem Town Hall; Hanley Town Hall, an incongruous French hotel de ville; and St Joseph’s RC Church, Burslem, with its “wonderfully idiosyncratic” campanile.

He relishes the otherness of Stoke, “so unlike the sophisticated, glossy south”. With its boundaries constrained by the Trent Valley, the city has been shaped by its geology, and by the seam of beautiful coal beneath the valley. It was the coal that made the city, and so determined its shape – a linear, non-radial city, 13 miles long, with Six Towns and no centre.

Rice charts the decline in employment from 70,000 pottery workers in the 1950s to 6000 today, aggravated by the forced closure of the city’s pits and of its steel works at Shelton Bar. And he regrets the thoughtless, incomplete “regeneration” that has seen communities uprooted.

Is Stoke on Trent a Lost City? Will it re-invent itself, or decline further and become a second-rate retail centre? Here the Emma Bridgewater pottery company offers a possible way forward. It has grown steadily for 25 years in a fine 19th-century potbank, and now employs more than 200. Rice and Bridgewater have repaid the loyalty of their workforce, the casters, spongers, fettlers, backstampers, by resisting all offers to relocate. Although clear-eyed about its imperfections, their love and respect for the city is palpable – the seam that runs beneath this book. They have shown that good design and hard work can still make a small manufacturing company successful. Will that be enough to re-find or re-found Stoke on Trent?

I think that you will agree that Mr Fisher echo’s the sentiments of the current MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central Tristram Hunt, all the people that I have spoken to about this issue and indeed my own views [for what they are worth], putting Mr Flello very much in the minority.