Upend ‘em

Barry Edge examines a tradition that may be unique to North Staffordshire folk – the upside down examination of crockery.

Barry Edge writes…

I was thinning out my email inbox when I came across a communication – dated June 2010 – from our very own Rob Fielding who, at that point in time, was spending three weeks working in Abu Dhabi. He said, in part, that is was a bonkers experience with temperatures reaching 40c at times. Also, in his hotel room was a ‘lovely china tea cup and saucer’ and that in true Stoke-on-Trent/Potteries fashion he upended ‘em to find – to his bitter disappointment – that they were made in Japan.

Rob’s email got me thinking of how my mum would upend crockery no matter where we were…

Rob’s email got me thinking of how my mum would upend crockery no matter where we were.

Like many of her generation age 13 signalled the end of schooling and the beginning of working life. Several of mum’s eldest sisters’ worked out Leek way in the silk industry with Wardle and Davenport. Each day they would travel from Smallthorne to Leek via Ford Green and Endon Roads, pass through Brown Edge, Endon and Longsdon then into Leek and the mill near the junction of Macclesfield and Cheddleton Roads. All up a round trip of approximately 20 miles. However, money being tight they would travel to work by bus but walk home after work.

With the onset of the WW1 women and girls were being employed to do the work of the men and boys sent off to fight in a war said to be the ‘War to end all wars’. When leaving for the Belgium battlefields mum’s favourite brother, James – along with a few other local lads – was working for Gibson’s in Moorland Road, Burslem. By the time James and the lucky few returned home in 1918 mum too was working for Gibson’s hand painting teapot lids.

Over the years from 1918 to 1960 mum worked variously in the pottery industry – her last employer being Johnson’s in Eastwood Road, Hanley. More about Johnson’s later.

With the outbreak of WWII mum, along with thousands of other women from the Potteries did a stint at the Royal Ordnance in Swynnerton. The delicate work manufacturing bone china and other tableware was now replaced with the dangerous function of filling shells and other similar armaments and it goes without saying that stress levels increased for all employees. Somehow though my mum’s recalling of it all was of a strong camaraderie that would last long after the war had ended.

For those employees not housed in and around Swynnerton travel to and from Royal Ordnance was by train free of charge with the Crewe-Stone line upgraded to include platform facilities at Coldmeece. How different was this from the days of a 13 year old and her sisters walking home after work from Leek to Smallthorne because they didn’t have the cost of a bus fare.

What’s that? What’s this got to do with Rob’s china cup and saucer made in Japan? Yes, of course.

Most times she could tell the origin of tableware without the need to upend…

Rob’s Abu Dhabi email begged the question whether upending tableware no matter the location is a trait found only in the good folk from the Potteries and greater Stoke-on-Trent? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But Rob’s moment of disappointment when ‘upending’ his cup and saucer reminded me of the many times my mum would do exactly that. Most times she could tell the origin of tableware without the need to upend. Sometimes she could name the person who had hand painted the designs. It didn’t matter where we were, seaside fish & chips to posh restaurants, if mum was unsure of the origin of the tableware she would satisfy her curiosity by ‘upending ‘em’.

Now fast forward to the late 1980s.

There we were, mum, Ann (Mrs AR) and yours truly ready to wine and dine in the Hilite 33 – a restaurant located in the top suite of what was then Western Australia’s tallest building situated in central St Georges Terrace, Perth, Western Australia.

True to form mum ‘upended’ a plate to carry out her usual inspection of the tableware. As she did so one of the restaurant staff came over to ask if everything was okay. In one concise sentence mum informed the young man of her Potteries background and that she once hand-painted such china.

Next to appear was the restaurant manager. When he heard mum’s story his eyes lit up and yes the tableware was made in Stoke-on-Trent. Then, to our delightful surprise, he told us he too once worked for Johnson’s before migrating to Australia.

Ann and yours truly listened intently as the newly made friendship spent some time talking about all things pottery and the Potteries.

That night the drinks were on the house, and we had the best of times.

See you later…

Barry Edge
Western Australia
September 27, 2016

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