I am in Stoke and of Stoke. I was built of bricks made of the clay of the land we still stand on. Minton land it was. Our stone came down the hill from Mr. Bryan’s quarry. Sand came from the centre of the field. Only our ironwork came from outside: by canal from Ironbridge, forged by the Coalbrook Dale Company. Pottery money paid for us: profits made by the pot banks owned by Copeland, George Jones, Melli and the rest. But though we were, in a way, as much a Minton product as the tiles in our halls, no member of that family every lived in us.
On Sunday afternoons they would come to inspect the building site. Often they were four, headed by Colin Minton Campbell Esq. – boldly striding in check trousers and grey sack coat; top hat as black and glossy as his whiskers. He would frequently point with his gold-topped cane to anything that concerned him. Behind him, slowly walking, came the Reverend Thomas Webb Minton Esq. and Herbert Minton Esq., both dressed in black. Thomas wearing gaiters, a benign expression, humming softly to himself ‘Nearer My God to Thee’; Herbert in his frock coat with a fur lining and his homburg hat pushed back as he strained to understand his nephew’s concerns. They leant heavily on their sticks, pausing frequently for breath. Occasionally the three of them would turn to Mr. Josiah Stringer who would be walking ten paces behind, ready with his maroon Morocco leather notebook. Then, he would tell them of his problems with Bryan the builder; the difficulties caused by the contractor Durber’s brick making; the delays visited upon him by the Potteries Water Board and the Stoke Gas Company; and the legal niceties which lawyer Keary was always raising. Eventually, sighing deeply, he would lick his indelible pencil and jot down one or two of Master Colin’s more sensible instructions.
At the end of the visit Jos would put his notebook away in the inside pocket of his dusty overcoat, tuck his pencil into the band of his bowler hat, and, stealthily extracting a battered tin from a trouser pocket, would slip a strong peppermint surreptitiously into his mouth. The Secretary of the Stokeville Building Society (salaried) was a martyr to his dyspepsia.
When we were new it always seemed to be summer. Our gardens were planted with weeping ash, beech and sycamore trees; with scented yellow azaleas, rhododendrons and lilac; and in the more formal parts with roses and ferns, lilies and auriculas. The lilies and auriculas never did very well; though the roses thrived in the acid soil. The carbon and sulphur in the air from the local kilns and chimneys prevented black spot and mildew.
When M. and Mme Arnoux moved into No.9, they bought with them many of the old French roses; Souvenir de Malmaison, Madame Alfred Carriere, Cecile Brunner and Zephirine Drouhin. The scent of them filled the June evening air with intoxication and romance. The Desmoiselles Arnoux would flutter around like a cloud of butterflies, in sweet pea hued muslins and silks. Later, towards twilight, the thrushes and blackbirds refused to compete with the chorus of clear young voices singing ‘Oh for the Wings of a Dove’; though the fountain in their front garden valiantly fought an unequal duel with the piano.
For days, the air had been cloudy with dust thrown up by the constant stream of carriages, delivery carts and men on horseback driving briskly up the hill. When the wedding day arrived, the noise and bustle became intense.
The sun beamed down on the guests; on the men’s top hats, trilbies and bowlers, on the small fashionable veiled hats and large unfashionable rose-trimmed bonnets worn by the ladies. The horses, which had been groomed to perfection, pulled carriages heavy with festoons of white ribbons and floral swags carrying the many guests.
Then, after all the speeches, feasting, dancing and singing were over; when the last of the champagne corks had popped, the final glass of pale ale emptied, the last of the foie gras and pork pies consumed, the sugared almonds and sherry trifle all eaten, the accordion and violin finally put away in their cases, Louis-Marc Emmanuel Solon walked his bride Maria from her old home at No.13 to his house at No. 1 (where there was ample space for both nursery accommodation and a large studio). By now the ring-doves had long since fallen silent in their roosts and the pair moved in and out of pools of golden gaslight which gilded her veil of French lace and shone on his silk top hat. As they walked slowly down the hill, his arm over her shoulder, her arm around his waist, he stopped and without saying anything, gently pointed to the new moon shining over their new home.
Imperceptibly the warmth ebbed away. It gradually became darker and quieter. The air grew dirtier from the chimneys of the houses which had gradually been built around us. The wealthier families moved away to cleaner, greener places. There were fewer carriages and horses kept. It was quieter in the road because the tradesman’s deliveries became less frequent. Our paintwork peeled, our stucco crazed and our windows cracked. The number of servants dwindled leaving only a few faithful retainers or young girls.
One day they came for the horses and the coachmen. They never returned them. Ivy grew around the masonry of the coach houses which gradually crumbled and filled up with mildewing leather tackle, broken deckchairs, rusting croquet hoops and were rarely visited. The conservatories first began to leak, then their metal skeletons suffered so badly that they had to be demolished. As our gardens grew wilder, the rabbits, foxes, squirrels, hedgehogs and frogs who we had once dispossessed, crept quietly back.
But life went on. Cissie Bennett, daughter of a Burslem solicitor, eventually became Mrs. Frank Beardmore J.P. and lived with her family at No.17. She insisted on the highest possible standards in both private and public life. Her cook-general had strict instructions to scrub the front step twice a day in wet weather. In her household carpet, eggs and children were always beaten slightly harder than was strictly necessary. Her brother Arnold hardly ever visited her – even on the rare occasions he returned after moving South – but when news reached her that he was dying in a flat above Baker St. tube station, she put on her best black velvet overcoat and hat and, winding her feathered boa around her neck, hurried to the station with a portmanteau stuffed with patent medicines and biblical tracts. She took the next London train and stayed for several weeks ensuring that everything was done properly and to her satisfaction.
It was the darkest of days; the sky was covered with low steel grey clouds and there was an all-pervasive, damp penetrating cold when the lorries came for our ironwork. They took the entrance gates and arrow-head wrought iron palisades made for us by the Coalbrook Dale Company. No-one went out to witness it, but, however they tried, no-one could shut out the scream of the saws on the metal. Afterwards there was silence; no-one uttered a word of complaint. To complain would have been unpatriotic.
Arnold Machin was, under normal circumstances, the mildest tempered of men; but when he heard the news he became apoplectic with rage.
So on the day that had been appointed, he and Pat left the house early, carrying between them a wicker picnic hamper containing; sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper (which Pat had made the night before – egg and cress, cheese and tomato in Hovis), a large thermos flask of strong sweet tea, an old red and green tartan rug and a well-thumbed copy of Ruskin’s ‘Seven Lamps of Architecture’ bound in faded green cloth. Hooked over Arnold’s other arm was a large rusty black umbrella. They settled themselves on the rug under Arnold’s favourite lamp-post and sheltered by the umbrella, waited. They chatted companionably; ate sandwiches, drank tea from enameled tin mugs and Arnold occasionally read a chapter from Ruskin. When, eventually, the men from the Council arrived with their metal saws and lorry; Pat produced a pair of handcuffs from her coat pocket and triumphantly chained her husband to the lamp post.
It was a fine protest, as evidenced by the picture of Arnold and his lamp-post in ‘The Times’ the next morning. But it was, ultimately, futile. They took every single one of the lamp posts, though they did deliver Arnold’s favourite one to No. 15. It was said that he was going to put it in his back garden- as a souvenir- but it is no longer there.
Now, the glory is departed. The entrance gates are bound with metal chains at the Spode factory; the site is deserted, the weeds starting the creep into the cracks in the brickwork and paving stones and the paint peeling on the notices. Where the Minton factory once stood, shoppers park their cars. All that is left is the statue of Colin Minton Campbell standing proudly, his back to the Sainsbury’s building, looking over the road to the building which was once the School of Art but now houses the Health Authority.
But we still stand: relicts of a vanished prosperous, optimistic age; antiques that people live in. We still suffer the mud in the winter and in the summer the parked cars are always covered with a film of dust from the road. Some of our beeches, weeping ash and yews still shade us. New trees have been planted- magnolia, flowering cherry, sumachs and acers. Roses still thrive, though now that the air is cleaner they are more prone to disease.
Some of us now have new railings and gates and not long ago those concrete lamp posts which Arnold Machin so hated have been replaced by handsome cast iron ones and smartly painted in a dark green.
They are painting us in the colours of Italian icecream; pistachio and hazelnut, vanilla, butterscotch, apricot and caramel. We are looking…prettier.
Windows often reflect,
Eaves occasionally evesdrop,
Memory can be stored in solid state.