Josiah Spode l acquired the site in what is now Church Street, Stoke in 1776 and Spode wares were made there continuously until 2008. In the 19th Century it was one of the two largest potteries in Staffordshire, boasting some 22 bottle ovens and employing around a thousand people. Its story is in some ways typical of many factories in the Potteries – wealthy owners, successive generations of families working there, heavy pollution, child labour, industrial diseases, low life expectancy. Paradoxically, some of the most beautiful ceramic objects ever produced were made there, and were recognised as such throughout the world.
The historic Spode factory is, along with the Coalport works at Ironbridge and the Davenport Works at Longport, one of the last two remaining “great name” ceramics factories from the Industrial Revolution—Wedgwood’s Etruria is all but gone, Minton at Stoke was demolished in recent years and a super-market now stands on the site, the early Worcester and Derby factories are long gone.
The Spode site is also still rich in historic buildings from Josiah ll’s time (1797-1828), including the china terrace, the mould stores and the building which housed a Boulton and Watt beam engine from 1810. Many of these have changed little since they were built and features such as clay lifts, mould stores, china painters’ studios and the counting house can still be seen in more or less their original forms. The unaltered condition of the interiors of some of the buildings since the 19th century adds to the uniqueness of the site.
The site is likely to offer an archaeological feast. Various small excavations in past decades have unearthed thousands of shards and wasters from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but little from Josiah I’s time or earlier (the site had been a potworks since the 1740s). It is a paradox that although Josiah I died a very rich man after twenty years of production at his factory, to this day very little of what he produced has been positively identified – whatever shards might be found beneath the Spode site could provide the basis for identifying much more.
Despite its historic importance and its unique features, the site is in serious danger. With much unoccupied since 2008, the condition of the historic buildings is deteriorating. With very limited funds available at a time of severe Government cutback, its present owner, Stoke on Trent Council, has completed restoration work on the Church St. frontage, but much of the main part of the site is in a poor state and every year the situation continues, the more expensive conservation work will become.
The longer this situation continues, the listed historic buildings will become more vulnerable both to structural collapse and to unsympathetic change of use as the only perceived option for saving them (or perhaps only their frontages).
The town of Stoke was built around Spode. Many of its streets (which still survive in part) were built by Josiah II and the early Copelands to house their workers. The Spode site is not just of National historical importance, but the centrepiece of Stoke Town’s heritage.