Last month I lectured in Florida, and afterwards someone asked the question that I always want to be asked because the answer is so surprising. "Why was pottery made in Staffordshire?"
The seemingly obvious answer to this question is that Staffordshire had lots of clay. After all, isn't that the ingredient that potters need most? But strangely, clay had nothing much to do with the dominance of the Potteries. Instead, coal lay behind the district's success!
The Potteries' location on an outcropping of coal lay at the heart of its prosperity. By the early 1800s, earthenware increasingly comprised white clays from southern England. Yes, shipping clay to the Potteries was expensive, but shipping coal would have been far worse. Firing one ton of pottery required up to twelve tons of coal. So access to coal was critical to the industry's success.
Incidentally, the Potteries was not without clay--but most of it was the type of clay needed to withstand the high firing temperatures that kiln bricks and equipment endured. Another advantage! But access to coal was critical. To prove the point: the regions in the south of England that exported their clays to the Potteries never threatened the Potteries dominance because they lacked coal.
Incidentally, it seems that all coal is not created equal. Again, the Potteries was fortunate in having easily accessible long-flame coal, the very type needed for firing kilns. Clearly Staffordshire pottery was destined to be!
And how can a blog entry not have a picture? So I close with this figure of a girl holding fish in her skirt. She is emblematic of Water. Figures emblematic of the four elements--Air, Water, Fire, Earth--are among the plethora of wares that Staffordshire's potters wrought.