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Bournes Bank, Burslem

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Historian Fred Hughes writes....   

Bourne’s Bank looks as though a bomb has hit it. You certainly wouldn’t choose to walk through its abandoned dereliction unless you had to. It feels risky for there are no places to take comfort or respite and no fellow travellers to turn to for companionship. This deserted Burslem lane resembles a ruined war-zone from which all survivors have fled leaving its last few crumbling buildings as nests for rodents and dumps for fly-tippers.

And yet this was once one of Stoke on Trent’s most important roads,” says historian Steve Birks. “It began life as a gateway to a medieval settlement situated around St Johns Church, and was probably a single-track lane leading to the top of the hill where Burslem is today. By the early 1600’s the lane had become the principal approach as well as a distinct packhorse route through the new town centre. It also carried the main highway to Hanley until Waterloo Road was opened in 1817. The original name was Church Street until 1832 when it became Bourne’s Bank. In 1812 a more direct route to the church, called New Church Street, was built from St John’s Square. This is now William Clowes Street.”

Google map of Bournes Bank - April 2008
Google map of Bournes Bank - April 2008

Although it is a thoroughfare less than a quarter of a mile long, Bourne’s Bank was a recognized stagecoach route. An inn called the Royal Express, after a coach-service that stopped there, provided stabling and hospitality for London-bound travellers. In the 1940’s this pub was nicknamed the Jig Post. No one knows why, but it was popular with American servicemen who found some solace there in the company of what the Potteries’ artist Arthur Berry called Shilling Women.

Aside from these tentative pastimes Bourne’s Bank grew to become the Cultural Quarter of Burslem,” Steve assures me. “Shops and pubs and cinemas linked-up in abundance. The Burslem Picture Palace on the top corner was converted from a skating rink in 1911. According to the film historian Barry Blaize, it was the largest and most comfortable cinema in the Midlands accommodating 1,200 patrons on velvet tip-up seats. On the opposite corner was the Coliseum Music Hall which was also converted into a cinema during the 1920’s.”

The cinemas at the top of Bourne’s Bank also shared space with Burslem School of Art which opened in 1907. The centre’s assistant manager Peter Harrison, age 53, recalls being taken to the Coliseum by his elder sisters when he was five.

“I remember it clearly because it was a special occasion,” says Peter. “It was a Saturday morning sixpenny-show for kids and a very exciting western action film was playing. But oddly the most vivid image I have of that day was when we came out. Just down the bank from the cinema was a pottery colour works and the workmen were sitting outside on the pavement having a snapping break. I was puzzled when I saw their faces completely coloured by the paint they worked in. It was as though they were from another country or even another planet.”

Waterloo Road looking up to Swan Square
Waterloo Road looking up to Swan Square
to the left is a poster for the Palace Cinema
the street is Cleveland Street which leads into Bournes Bank

photo: Warrillow Collection


In the meantime the Jig Post had become a nightclub in the late 1960’s. There’s no doubt that Caribbean-influenced music was playing its part in local social cohesion.

“A growing black community wanted to exchange cultural recreations with white residents,” says Rupert Scott age 64, a former owner of the Unity Club later renamed Summerhouse. “We were looking for a place in the Potteries to swing easy with soul and reggae music when we came across the redundant Jig Post in Bourne’s Bank. There was already an established Burslem club scene, and the town was a base for Stoke on Trent’s first black publicans with Ozzie Clark at the Foaming Quart and Dave Moody at the American Hotel.”

Rupert’s former business partner Tom Distant also has personal recollections of Bourne’s Bank.

“They were happy times,” says Tom, also 64. “I played in a soul band called Frankie and the Countdowns promoted by Dave Daniels who ran Stoke’s Samantha’s Club. We were being compared to Hot Chocolate when Dave got us on TV’s Opportunity Knocks, but we didn’t win.”

The famous pottery of Johnson Matthey also had its home in Bourne’s Bank where gold-leaf was spun under royal patronage. The last pottery to be demolished was Acme Marls a company that produced essential refractory mixtures. All that is left of this notable company are three listed bottle-ovens.

“Bourne’s Bank for the moment can be classed as a lost lane,” continues Steve. “Everything that ever occupied its narrow undulating contours has gone. And yet there is strong evidence that the current regeneration policies are catching up. New work/live units have taken over the top corner and hopefully that will spread towards the church through a new housing project.”

Some of these Bourne’s Bank units have been extended into the perimeter of the School of Art finding a home for North Staffs Urban Vision as well as a hi-tech sound studio called Urban Lizard. The school also provides technical studios for the creative-vision company Junction15 owned by partners Andrew Rownall and Darren Teale, two 26 year-olds who met at Staffordshire University’s Media College.

“It’s been perfect for us to find such suitable accommodation in a location that is bringing together a new community of working artists and creative businesses,” says Andrew. “Although we are a national company this has been our base since 2005. It’s great working in Burslem. And we’ve even used Bourne’s Bank as a backdrop to a number of our productions. The road is sympathetic to the requirements of a film-maker observing the past as it merges with the present.”

Despite the dereliction Steve is as impressed as Andrew with the potential outcome.

“It is a shifting environment that has fallen into disuse caused by industrial closedown and people’s changing preferences in leisure and recreation. But who knows, one day soon Bourne’s Bank may be back on track.”

see more on Bournes Bank

5 May 2008

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