The BBC 4 documentary Ceramics: A Fragile History is a very interesting and nostalgic trip looking at the History of the China Pottery Industry in the UK.
With plenty of archive footage showing the rise and subsequent fall of the china industry focusing on it’s heartland in Stoke-on-Trent, England.
Josiah Wedgwood, Josiah Spode and Henry Doulton all featured as the godfathers of the industry. They were innovators and on the back of surging demand for china tea ware, grew brands which were at the fore front of the China and Glass Industry for over 200 Years.
It was very noticeable that 20th Century innovators and designers were featured too: Susie Cooper, Clarice Cliff and more recently Emma Bridgewater all of whom have made a significant impact on the Tableware Industry.
As one of the interviewees observed as soon as you entered a china factory you could smell the business! The potent aroma of china clay and paints, the same in which ever factory you went.
Havens have been selling China and Glass for over 100 years, so through the generations we visited the potteries. My first visit was in 1976 with my father shortly after leaving school. On the outside the Stoke area appeared smoggy and dark. Once in a factory everything was very grand, particularly in the Sales and Dining areas as you would expect.
Even in those days you could see potential issues though. There was a certain confidence bordering on arrogance – we are the brand and you will do it our way. Customers were made to wait for delivery, I remember a Minton range taking 2 Years from time of order. Ranges and assortments got larger and larger making stock manufacture and stock control ever tougher. Dinner and tea sets would be delivered to us in random deliveries, often with key components like tea cups missing. The practice of making saucers to achieve piece work targets on a Friday was legendary!
Essentially no real thought was given to what was being produced and whether the market wanted or needed it. The thinking was “it has our back stamp on it, it must sell.”
Ironically our tableware industry started by emulating product that was coming in from China along with tea imports back in the mid 1700′s. The foot is now on the other foot as China and Asian countries have greatly improved their production quality and are now producing tableware of a very decent quality at greater value prices, competing head on with the UK China factories.
Increasingly the UK China brands outsourced production to these countries, Doulton and Wedgwood almost totally, culminating in the closure of many factories in Stoke. Whole families made redundant and the devasting colllateral impact that mass unemployment have on an area.
Some factories like Portmeirion Pottery and Churchill China have managed and designed their way forward. Both have been clever enough to retain factories in Stoke whilst also embracing, selectively, overseas outsourcing. Emma Bridgwater has not only designed china product brilliantly but retained all production in the UK.
I cannot help but think that the emerging consumer markets of China, Russia, South America and in future Africa will care about the provenance of quality brands and buying Wedgwood made in Indonesia rings as true as a cracked cup!
It has not been just the influx of imports that sounded the death nell for Stoke. Poor leadership and management has also had an impact. The companies that have struggled are those that have lost or in some cases never had consumer and customer, as in the retailer, focus. Quite simply they have not listened to their customers comments or indeed to some of their very experienced, motivated and loyal staff.
The BBC programme was a sad reflection on our once great industry. Flitting from archive footage of fun filled, action packed Pot Banks to the sad and desperate state of the now defunct and derelict factories.
But we must not look back but look forward and support those China brands that are still going forward and as I have said before, those emerging markets will be hungry for product genuinely designed and made in Stoke-on-Trent which will always remain the spiritual home of quality tableware design and manufacture.