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
The pride of
at the intersection of three routes. The road from Newcastle; that from Leek;
and the road running north - south through the Potteries.
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.
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.
St. John's Square, Burslem in 1909
Bennett's "St. Luke's Square"
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.
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.
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
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."
growth of Burslem
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.
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
"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."
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"
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.
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.
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."
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
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.....
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."
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.
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."
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