Staffordshire’s ‘Hidden Gem’ at the Junction of Two Canals

An ‘in steam’ weekend takes place on 27th and 28th July at Etruria Industrial Museum, Staffordshire’s ‘hidden gem’ neatly tucked into a picturesque junction of the Trent & Mersey and Caldon canals in Stoke-on-Trent. On steaming weekends the 1820s beam engine ‘Princess’ can be seen driving the mill, which is the world’s only operational steam-powered potters’ mill and a scheduled monument.

Visitors to Stoke-on-Trent often head for surviving pottery-making sites such as Gladstone Pottery Museum and Middleport Pottery Museum or for the world-renowned ceramics collection at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, but just a stone’s throw away the Etruria Industrial Museum represents the grittier end of pottery-making. Without the ground raw materials produced by mills like these, there would have been no pottery industry at all – and such mills are, after all, the places that put the ‘bone’ in ‘bone china’.

Jesse Shirley’s Bone and Flint Mill at Etruria, opened in 1857, produced ground bone, flint and Cornish stone used by the pottery industry to make the world-famous English type of porcelain better known as ‘bone china’. Once tea and coffee drinking had become popular in Europe in the 17th century, the race was on to find a cheaper, home-grown version of the very expensive imported Chinese porcelain. Chinese wares were made from kaolin (China clay) and petunse (China stone), and because local brown clays were unable to reproduce the famously white and translucent effect of porcelain, white clay was brought up from Devon and Cornwall. Eventually manufacturers found a way of mixing kaolin and Cornish stone then firing it in kilns to produce English porcelain.

Wedgwood, a born innovator, used China clay mixed with flint from the Cornish coast to produce an improved domestic product called creamware. In an early stroke of marketing genius, Wedgwood gave a set to Queen Charlotte and was granted permission to called it ‘Queen’s Ware’. Entire Wedgwood services soon became the must-have tea accessory across Europe and beyond.

Later, calcined bone was added to improve the whiteness and translucency. For flint or bone to be ‘calcined’, it needs to be roasted with coal or wood at 1,000 degrees centigrade for eight to ten hours in a kiln, and then ground to a fine powder. The museum’s pan room houses ten pans where calcined material was loaded and water added, with runners pushed around by paddles to tumble the materials and produce a grinding action.

The boiler room at the museum houses a hand-stoked Cornish boiler built in 1903 – one of the very few boilers of its type still capable of being steamed, while ‘Princess’, the beloved 1820s beam engine, is a double-acting condensing rotative engine made to James Watt’s pattern.

At the museum the boiler room, engine room, pan room, crushing room and kilns are all open to the public, as are the visitor centre, tearoom, gift shop and outbuildings including a working blacksmith’s forge.

Local industrial heritage is, of course, inextricably linked to the history of canals. Adjacent to the site is a statue of James Brindley, the Buxton-born engineer and millwright who became synonymous with cutting-edge engineering across mills, collieries and of course canals, having designed and built the Bridgwater Canal as well as surveying and designing both the Trent & Mersey and the Caldon.

Etruria Industrial Museum, entirely volunteer-run, is proud to be called ‘Staffordshire’s hidden gem’, maintaining important industrial and canal heritage  for generations to come.

Outside of steaming weekends, the museum is open on Fridays from 11am to 3:30pm.



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