Thursday, 7 July 2011

My Lost City

I have a confession for you. I was born in a lost city. Not lost like the magical village of Brigadoon - vanishing and reappearing every few hundred years beautifully untouched by time. Not lost like mysterious Atlantis - speculated over and searched for continually. No, my lost city is still visible, still here, but lost nonetheless. It isn't romantic like Brigadoon, nor enigmatic like Atlantis. There are no musicals written about it and archaeologists do not scour for its whereabouts. One person has, however, written a book about it, and that book is The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent, by Matthew Rice.

Matthew Rice is a designer and writer, as well as being the husband of Emma Bridgewater - the Emma of the ceramics company Emma Bridgewater, whose iconic pottery designs (polka dots, Union Jacks, stars...) are sold around the world and are still made in Stoke-on-Trent today. It may seem strange to begin a book review with more information on the wife of the author than the author himself, but Emma Bridgewater is an instrumental and inspirational factor in this story.

Bucking the heartbreaking trend of decline, and of outsourcing pottery manufacture to the Far East, Emma Bridgewater began creating her own ceramic designs in Stoke in 1985. By 1994, she was able to expand and purchase her own premises, thus buying the decaying Eastwood Pottery Works of the company Johnson Brothers. The company have continued and flourished at Eastwood where they now employ approximately 150 people.

This background information is important because it is the reason for the writing of The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent. In buying the Victorian-built Eastwood Pottery Works, Emma Bridgewater and Matthew Rice essentially saved a desperate building from near certain demolition. Many buildings in Stoke-on-Trent will not share in this fortune and many, many buildings have long since crumbled under the wrecking ball. 

Gladstone-Rosslyn Works, now Gladstone Pottery Museum, Longton, by Matthew Rice

Frustrated by what he sees as poor organisation and lack of vision on the part of Stoke-on-Trent city council, Matthew Rice set himself the task of chronicling the city's beautiful, surprising, and sometimes ridiculous buildings. Pottery factories naturally feature heavily - either derelict like the old Enson Works in Longton or still operational, like Burgess, Dorling & Leigh in Middleport. As well as the factories, Rice details the myriad of public buildings (libraries, civic halls, colleges, fire stations), churches, pubs and houses. Making no secret of his love of Georgian and Victorian architecture, it is to these buildings Rice gives the most attention. Indeed, in a city whose heyday in terms of manufacturing and expansion was the latter half of the nineteenth century, the fruits of Victorian labour are not hard to find.

Perhaps the real stars-of-the-show are Rice's sensitive yet witty watercolours and sketches of the buildings themselves, annotated with architectural observations and opinions, and also noting whether or not the building is in use.

Matthew Rice's book is engaging and quirky; packed with interesting architectural notes and beautiful illustrations. However - and I have to mention this, because it's a huge however - there are a staggering number of typos and factual errors that left me shaking my head in disbelief. Exactly how they escaped the eye of the fact-checker and proof reader, I have no idea.

That said, I still liked this book very much. In writing about Stoke-on-Trent's buildings, Matthew Rice also addresses key points in the history of its pottery industry, from development and technology to design and decoration. While these chapters are informative, it is the author's obvious love of the city when writing of its uncertain future that rings the most true for me. Being born in Stoke does make me biased in this regard - I fully accept this - but I challenge anyone to tour the city, to take a look at the desperately sad state that large parts of it are in and not be moved to ask the question, "Why...what has happened here and what can be done about it?"

This book does inevitably beg this question of its reader, so what of my own opinion? Simply this: I don't want to sound like a loud-mouthed critic without a solution, but by the same token I accept that the challenge that faces Stoke-on-Trent is vast and complex. There is no neat, one sentence long answer to this infuriating puzzle. Stoke is a lost city because it no longer has the direction and the impetus of a vast, creative and skilled industry that it once had. Regeneration plans have waxed and waned over the years, and in this I do lay the blame at the feet of Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Are they poorly organised or are they simply overwhelmed by the scale of the task? As I write this, swathes of the city's Victorian terraces are being demolished. It has been happening for years off and on, and the land invariably sits empty and waiting for redevelopment.

House - c.1870-1880, Cemetery Road, Hanley, by Matthew Rice.

The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent is a lament for a once thriving city whose industry shaped the landscape and wove inextricably into the lives of everyone who lived there. Most of the iconic bottle ovens are now gone, together with many factories and original potters' housing. Matthew Rice argues that what remains must be protected in order to truly celebrate the outstanding cultural legacy of the city. I agree, but I also feel strongly that the mammoth task of revitalising the area lies not only with Stoke's politicians and town planners, but also with private enterprise. Companies like Emma Bridgewater, Burgess, Dorling & Leigh, Moorland Pottery, Caverswall China and Flux Stoke-on-Trent  (amongst others) are all producing ceramic products solely in Stoke. They are instrumental in bucking the business trend of outsourcing abroad, thus ensuring the wonderfully skilled, artisan spirit of Stoke does not die. If more businesses can be persuaded to do the same, my lost city may have a fighting chance.

All images by Matthew Rice. Cover image courtesy of Emma Bridgewater. Illustrations courtesy of Design Week.


  1. What an interesting post about your "lost" city. There is much debate in Toronto about the demolition of historic properties. It is much cheaper to pull out the wrecking ball than to restore but it seems that the city loses character and history when this happens.
    As for all the errors in the book, could it be that it was self-published? Or perhaps it is a reflection of the cost-cutting that is happening in the publishing business where authors are sometimes expected to foot the bill for editing and proofing.

  2. Thanks, Ingrid. It's a subject really close to my heart, so I hope I didn't go on too much! I know there are some really gorgeous old buildings in Toronto - one of my favourite areas is the Distillery District. I only hope that other areas of historical interest can be given the same treatment.

    As for the errors, all I can say is that it definitely wasn't self published. I know nothing about the actual publisher, but I was shocked to say the least. It may well be as you say. I loved the book, and it didn't spoil it, but every mistake I found knocked me off my stride.