One of the most enjoyable aspects of working with historic buildings is the research that must be undertaken in order to fully understand the chronology of the surviving material, as well as the social, environmental and economic factors that conspired to influence its present condition. The Studio 8 team working on the conservation of Middleport Pottery have sought evidence from many of the usual avenues of investigation, as well as some slightly more unusual ones!
Archive photography, tithe maps and deeds of ownership all provide hard facts evidencing the development of our streets and neighbourhoods, but do little to instill a sense of the lives that illuminated these spaces, and of the humanity that ate, slept, loved, lost and called the place home. In 1902 Arnold Bennett wrote a novel about a Staffordshire girl who comes into an inheritance, and under the control of her oppressive father is directed into a business partnership with a local suitor, the owner of a revolutionary new pottery factory beside a canal in ‘Bursley’. The novel is called ‘Anna of the Five Towns’ and is considered one of his most famed successes.
Much of Bennett’s literary work is well known for its basis in his own life and experiences growing up in Burslem, and his relationship with the Burgess family, owners of Middleport Pottery, is widely documented in surviving correspondence. Although historians can only conjecture that the works in Bennett’s novel was inspired by visits to his friend’s factory at Middleport, the chapter in which Anna tours the pottery with Henry offers incredible clarity into what the daily lives of Middleport’s workers would have entailed at the turn of the Century.
As a piece of historical documentation, it may not be empirical and indisputable alongside the photograph, but it offers much more to us than the photograph ever can. The text resonates with the pride of an entire community established by ancient craft and united by future confidence, and eloquently captures the trailblazing synchrony of the light touch of man with the raw power of steam machine.
Although the names, dates and details have been distorted by the artistic license exercised by Bennett, the ideas that shimmer below the surface of the prose remain an indelible account of this exceptional building during this prodigious era; when Burslem lead the world in craft, innovation, engineering and ambition.
If the purpose of our analysis of historical record is to better understand the cultural as well as physical parameters of the buildings we are conserving, then those few pages by Bennett are worth more than any number of measured maps.