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Bennett's Burslem


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Bursley - Bennett's Burslem

"In front, on a little hill in the vast valley, was spread out the Indian-red architecture of Bursley - tall chimneys and rounded ovens, schools, the new scarlet market, the grey tower of the old church, the high spire of the evangelical church, the low spire of the church of genuflexions, and the crimson chapels, and rows of little red with amber chimney-pots, and the gold angel of the blackened town hall topping the whole. The sedate reddish browns and reds of the composition, all netted in flowing scarves of smoke, harmonised exquisitely with the chill blues of the chequered sky. Beauty was achieved, and none saw it."

The pride of Burslem

Burslem lies at the intersection of three routes. The road from Newcastle; that from Leek; and the road running north - south through the Potteries.

It's bounded from the north by the town of Tunstall, and on the south by the town of Hanley. To the west of the hill top town is the parish of Wolstanton and to the east by the district of Smalthorne. Burslem is the Bursley in Bennett's novels and forms the epicentre of the author's observations of life in 19th century industrial Stoke on Trent.

The small town, known affectionately by locals as the 'Mother Town' of the Potteries, lies to the northern end of the snake like city that meanders along the Fowley Valley. Stoke on Trent, the Potteries, a conurbation that has a history of over a thousand years! Visit the Potteries town of Burslem as it starts the new millennium, and locating the steam printing works that occupied the life of the Clayhanger family or the drapery that was the proud institutions of the Bains clan, in Arnold Bennett's novels, is an effortless affair. You can still see and visualise the 'Duck Bank' and 'St. Luke's Square' as portrayed by Bennett a hundred years ago.

Bennett's "St. Luke's Square"
St. John's Square, Burslem in 1909
Bennett's "St. Luke's Square"

Burslem, often pronounced Bozley by the natives, is a small provincial town with pride; a small town that's watched over by a magnificent Victorian town hall with its famed golden angel. Isolated for a thousand years, cut off, lost in the centre of England. The Mother Town and its neighbours of Tunstall, Stoke, Hanley, Longton and Fenton, have developed with an uncompromising introspective view of their own self importance and a conceited assertion of their own standing in the world. Writing of Sophia and Constance Bains in The Old Wives Tale, Arnold Bennett captures the pride of Burslem's provincial attitude.

"The fact is, that whilst in the county they were also in the district; and no person who lives in the district, even if he should be old and have nothing to do but reflect upon things in general, ever thinks about the county. So far as the county goes, the district might almost as well be in the middle of the Sahara. It ignores the county, save that it uses it nonchantly sometimes as leg-stretcher on holiday afternoons, as a man may use his back garden. It has nothing in common with the county; it is richly self sufficient to itself. Nevertheless, its self-sufficiency and the true salt savour of its life can only be appreciated by picturing it hemmed in by the county.

It lies on the face of the county like an insignificant stain, like a dark Pleiades in a green and empty sky. And Handbridge has the shape of a horse and its rider, Bursley of a half donkey, Knype of a pair of trousers, Longshaw of an octopus, and little Tunrnhill of a beetle. The Five Towns seem to cling together for safety.

Yet the idea of clinging together for safety would make them laugh. They are unique and indispensable. From the north of the county right down to the south, they stand alone for civilization, applied science, organised manufacture, and the century - until you come to Wolverhampton.

They are unique and indispensable because you cannot drink tea out of a teacup without the aid of the five towns; because you cannot eat a meal in decency without the aid of the five towns. For this the architecture of the five towns is an architecture of ovens and chimneys; for this its atmosphere is as black as mud; for this it burns and smokes all night, so that Longshaw has been compared to hell; for this it is unlearned in the ways of agriculture, never having seen corn except as packing straw and in quarten loaves; for this, on the other hand, it comprehends the mysterious habits of fire and pure, sterile earth; for this it lives crammed together in slippery streets where the housewife must change the white window-curtains at least once a fortnight if she wishes to remain respectable; for this it gets up in the mass at six a.m., winter and summer, and goes to bed when the public houses close; for this it exists - that you may drink tea out of a tea cup and toy with a chop on a plate.

A district capable of such gigantic manufacture, of such a perfect monopoly - and which finds energy also to produce coal and iron and great men - may be an insignificant stain on the a county, considered geographically, but it is surely well justified in treating the county as its back garden once a week, and in blindly ignoring it the rest of the time."

The growth of Burslem

The village of Burslem grew up around the junction on the slope falling westwards to the Fowley Brook, northwards to the Scotia Brook and southwards to the Cobridge Brook. It had fewer than 70 houses in 1680 and in the mid-18th century was still an isolated Moorland settlement engaged in small-scale pot-making. Bennett used the period from the mid 18th Century to the beginning of the 19th Century in the Five Towns as the backdrop to his novels. He found romance in a district and people, scared by the worst ravages of industrialisation.

"It was astounding to Edwin how blind he had been to the romance of existence in the Five Towns" Arnold Bennett wrote of his fictional character, Edwin Clayhanger. In his first Staffordshire Five Town novel, Anna of the Five Towns, Bennett reaches into the cultural heritage of the potters from the hill top town of Burslem.

"Probably no one in the Five Towns takes a conscious pride in the antiquity of the potter's craft, nor in its unique and intimate relation to human life, alike civilized and uncivilized. Man hardened clay into a bowl before he spun flax and made a garment, and the last lone man will want an earthen vessel after he has abandoned his ruined house for a cave, and his woven rags for animal's skin.

This supremacy of the most ancient of crafts is in the secret nature of things, and cannot be explained. History begins long after the period when Bursley was first the central seat of that honoured manufacture : it is the central seat still - 'the mother of the Five Towns', in our local phrase - and though the townsmen, absorbed in a strenuous daily struggle, may forget their heirship to an unbroken tradition of countless centuries, the seal of their venerable calling is upon their foreheads. If no other relic of immemorial past is to be seen in these modernised sordid streets, there is at least the living legacy of that extraordinary kinship between workman and work, that instinctive mastery of clay which the past has bestowed upon the present. He exists in it and by it; it fills his lungs and blanches his cheek; it keeps him alive and it kills him. His fingers close round it, as round the hand of a friend. He knows all its tricks and aptitudes; when to coax and when to force it, when to rely on it and when to distrust it. A dozen decades of applied science have of course resulted in the interposition of elaborate machinery between the clay and the man; but no great vulgar handcraft has lost less of the human than potting. Clay is always clay."


The old town hall is architecturally somewhat curious. Completed in 1857, the design of Mr. G. T. Robinson of Wolverhampton, it's a squat building incorporating a mixture of architectural influences. Where else would you hope to find a Corinthian temple perched on top of a studiously rusticated railway bridge? The elaborate clock turret is supported by caryatid figures, the whole being crowned by a gilded angel so often referred to by Bennett in his writings on the town.

Burslem Town Hall
(by Sid Kirkham)

"dominated by the gold angel of the town hall spire"
"dominated by the gold angel of the town hall spire"


To the south of the old town hall are cottage buildings that pay no heed to the geometry of modern architecture. The houses, dating from the early 18th century, include the Leopard Hotel - known to Bennett readers as the Tiger. Above the assortment of shop fronts the buildings twist and turn, and slope forwards so the roofs look in imminent danger of sliding from their owners. Whilst the potteries folk of the town rush about their daily business, it only takes a moment, and a careful raising of the eye to imagine the town in centuries gone by.

"Beneath them, in front, stretched a maze of roofs, dominated by the gold angel of the town hall spire. Bursley, the ancient home of the potter, has an antiquity of a thousand years. It lies towards the north end of an extensive valley, which has been one of the fairest spots in Alfred's England, but which is now defaced by the activities of a quarter of a million of people.

Five contiguous towns - Turnhill, Bursley, Hanbridge, Knype, and Longshaw - united by a single winding thoroughfare some eighth miles in length, have inundated the valley like a succession of great lakes. Of these five Bursley, is the mother, but Hanbridge is the largest. They are mean and forbidding of aspect - sombre, hard-featured, uncouth; and the vaporous poison of their ovens and chimneys has soiled and shrivelled the surrounding country, till there is no village lane within a league, but what offers a gaunt and ludicrous travesty of rural charm.

Nothing could be more prosaic than the huddled, red brown streets; nothing more seemingly remote from romance. Yet be it said that romance is eve here - the romance which, for those who have an eye to perceive it, ever dwells amid the seats of industrial manufacture, softening the coarseness, transfiguring the squalor, of these mighty alchemic operations. Look down into the valley from this terrace-height where love is kindling, embrace the whole smoke-girt amphitheatre in  a glance, and it may be that you will suddenly comprehend the secret and suburb significance of the vast doing which goes forward below."


Burslem is home to Port Vale Football Club. Bennett recognised the importance of association football to the cultural traditions of the people from the Mother Town. In 1876 the club played on ground near Longport close to the Trent and Mersey canal.

Since then the club has moved onto ground now covered by Westport Lake; been resident in Cobridge and Hanley; before settling in 1950 to a plot of waste ground bought cheaply in Hamil Road. The club was associated in 1885 under the name Burslem Port Vale. In the 1911 novel The Card, Arnold Bennett makes great use of Burslem's abiding passion for the beautiful game.....

"There were two "great" football clubs in the Five Towns - Knype, one of the oldest clubs in England, and Bursley. Both were in the League, though Knype was in the first division while Bursley was only in the second both were, in fact, limited companies, engaged as much in the pursuit of dividends as in the practice of the one ancient and glorious sport which appeals to the reason and the heart of England.

Now, whereas the Knype Club was struggling along fairly well, the Bursley Club had come to the end of its resources. The great football public had practically deserted it. The explanation, of course, was that Bursley had been losing too many matches. The great football public had no use for anything but victories. It would treat its players like gods - so long as they won. But when they happened to lose, the great football public simply sulked. It did not kick a man that was down; it merely ignored him, well knowing that the man could not get up without help. It cared nothing whatever for fidelity, municipal patriotism, fair play, the chances of war, or dividends on capital, but it would not pay sixpence to assist at defeats."


Burslem sought an important role for itself in the proposed federation of the six towns that, in 1910, were to become the city of Stoke on Trent. Federation was an issue that gripped the region and was hotly debated in the pages of the local newspaper the Evening Sentinel - referred to as "The Signal" in Bennett's novels. Burslem was suspicious of the federation movement. It feared the commercial power of its southern neighbour Hanley. It failed to become either the commercial or administrative heart of the federated city, despite building a third town hall in the year of the federation. Hanley now stands as the proud commercial centre, whilst the town of Stoke holds the administrative keys to the city.

"Meanwhile, in the matter of Federation, preparations for the pitched battle had been going forward, especially in the columns of the signal, where the scribes of each one of the Five Towns had proved that all the other towns were in the clutch of unscrupulous gangs of self-seekers.

After months of arguments and recrimination, all the towns except Bursley were either favourable or indifferent to the prospect of becoming a part of the twelfth largest town in the United Kingdom. But in Bursley the opposition was strong, and the twelfth largest town in the United Kingdom could not spring into existence without the consent of Bursley.

The United Kingdom itself was languidly interested in the possibility of suddenly being endowed with a new town of a quarter of a million inhabitants. The Five Towns were frequently mentioned in the London dailies, and London journalists would write such sentences as: "The Five Towns, which are of course, as everybody knows, Hanbridge, Bursley, Knype, Longshaw and Turnhill" This was renown at last, for the most maligned district in the county! And then a Cabinet Minister had visited the Five Towns, and assisted at an official inquiry, and stated in his hammering style that he meant personally to do everything possible to accomplish the Federation of the Five Towns : an incautious remark, which infuriated, while it flattered, the opponents of Federation in Bursley."

more on federation

The buildings of Bennett's Burslem still stand. Thankfully, the grime of ages has gone and its citizens breathe clean air. A visitor to the scattered town on the hill top can stay in luxury at the George hotel which has stood in one form or another since the late 18th century. Visitor centres at a wide range of pottery factories have been opened to welcome guests who now travel from all over the globe to visit Bennett's Burslem.


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