The Etruria Industrial Museum is a typical and well-preserved example of a nineteenth century British steam-powered potter's mill. During the first part of the 18th century the beneficial use of ground flint and bone was discovered. Flint (i.e. silica, up to 50% of the total) can be added to clay to produce earthenware products, it gives the ware strength, whiteness and prevents shrinkage during firing to make a hard cream product. The problem with grinding flint using the technology of the day was that it produced clouds of dust; the workers quickly died of “Potters Rot” (silicosis of the lungs) and would not undertake the work. Consequently, the wet pan grinding method was developed to reduce harmful dust; this is illustrated at Jesse Shirley’s Bone and Flint Mill. Cattle bones were found to be the most suitable for adding to clay (again up to 50% of the total) to produce bone china. It is the bone which gives the ware its characteristic translucent quality, it is whiter than other ware and its high strength allows it to be finer.
About 1747 it was discovered that Cornish stone (a partly weathered granite) mixed with china clay would form a porcelain body. Small quantities of Cornish stone were also processed on site. The two processes for bone and flint were similar and the ground products revolutionised the ceramics industry; existing water powered corn mills were converted and new water mills were built. Wind could not supply the continuous high power required, but steam power was an obvious application as steam engines became more powerful and reliable. Thus building of the steam powered Jesse Shirley’s Mill was commenced in 1856 at the Junction of the Trent and Mersey Canal and the Caldon Canal as canals offered cheap transport of these heavy raw materials. The road access to the site was poor but the location was chosen because of the proximity to the canals and the availability of a wharf so providing easy access to many local potteries and to all parts of the country. Bone, usually from cattle would originally have been sourced locally but as demand increased it was sourced from various parts of the country and latterly from overseas. Flint was from the south and east coasts of England and near continent. The kiln was used to calcine (roast) flints and bone to approximately 1000 degrees centigrade to change their nature and make them suitable for grinding to a fine powder. Flints are an unlikely raw material for pottery as they are hard and black in their natural state. If they are calcined above 1000 degrees centigrade crystalline water is driven off to leave a softer, lighter and whiter product. The calcining kiln consists of two chambers with a hovel built above them to create a draught to aid combustion. Filling the kiln was a very skilled job requiring layering of fuel and either bone or flint.
Power is transmitted via the flywheel axle of the engine through a ratchet which enables the engine to be barred backwards by hand if it has stopped on a dead centre without moving any of the machinery backwards. Rim gears transmit the power to long line shafts which run the length of the room, one shaft is currently driven. Along each line shaft are five bevel gears which drive vertical shafts taking the power to the pan room above. To separate coagulated particles in the ground mix it was run off from the pans in the upper room through wooden launders to one of three wash tubs where rotating paddles stir the mix and ‘blunge’ it through the vertical bars of the paddles. The mix was then run into one of two rectangular settling arks. Material to be ground was hoisted through a hatchway in the floor from the Gear Room below. The slack chain hoist was driven from the extended vertical shaft of the small end pan. The material was tipped into one of ten pans and water was added. The pan floor is composed of chert blocks with the gaps filled with 'pitcher’ (broken biscuit ware). Power from the floor below rotates sweep arms which push large chert blocks or ‘runners’ around the pan. The material is pushed and tumbled around the pan and is ground in the process.
The 18th century saw the region which was to become Stoke-on-Trent change from a small rural community to an industrial conurbation. With increased population density and industrialisation the health of the inhabitants was poor. The sick were treated at home using ‘old wives’ remedies, self help books, advice and prescribing of drugs by the local Apothecary or the intervention of a Surgeon – if one could be afforded. Industrial diseases such as ‘potters rot’ caused by inhaling silica dust mainly from the grinding of flints and the use of flint dust during the firing process and lead poisoning were common. Medical science was developing and it was apparent that improvements had to be made in health care, especially for the poor. In the field near to the lock is the site of the first public hospital in North Staffordshire opened in 1804. The inspiration to found a hospital came from local employers including Josiah Wedgwood II. The Dispensary is where patients came for diagnosis, treatment and inoculation against smallpox which had been recently been introduced following the pioneering work of Dr Edward Jenner. Medical science and the processes of life had been greatly advanced by the work, especially on gases, by such notables as Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly, Humphrey Davy and Antoine Lavoisier all known personally to the Wedgwood family.
The original forge stood on the site for over 150 years before being re-built in 1969. Many of the original bricks were reused but turned round so that the original interior paint can be seen on the outside. Originally there were stables attached. It was used commercially until the 1960s when it became derelict. Today it is used by an artistic blacksmith who gives demonstrations during special events including steaming weekends. In 1761, Josiah Wedgwood showed an interest in the construction of a canal through Stoke on Trent for the fast and safe transport of his pottery. Wedgwood’s plan was not to connect the two rivers by canal, but to connect the potteries to the River Mersey, and thereafter the port at Ellesmere. In 1771, Wedgwood built the factory village of Etruria on the outskirts of Stoke on Trent, close to the Caldon canal. The plan of a canal connection from the Mersey to the Trent was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1776 and the first sod was cut by Josiah Wedgwood in at Middleport. The engineer James Brindley completed the canal in 1777, including more than 70 locks and five tunnels. Up until 1777, pots had to be carried on the short journey from Etruria, over the top of Kidsgrove Hill, and to the other side, where the canal had been constructed to Ellesmere Port.
As well as Jesse Shirley’s Mill there is a working forge, canal warehouse and check office, the summit lock of the Trent and Mersey canal, the only staircase lock in Staffordshire and the site of the first public hospital in what was to become Stoke-on-Trent built in 1803 and called the Dispensary and House of Recovery. The site was later occupied by an early gas works. The visitor centre has a tea room, terrace and toilets, including disabled toilets. There is plenty of room by the canal for a picnic. Please note that the mill is a Victorian factory building scheduled as a monument and grade 2* listed. Unfortunatly there is limited access for those with mobility difficulties to enter the mill. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Kilndown Close, Etruria Vale Road, Etruria, Stoke-on-Trent ST1 4RB.
Transport: Stoke-on-Trent (National Rail) 20 minutes on tow path or bus. Bus Routes : 17,37, 79 and 101 stop nearby.
Opening Times : Weekends 12:30 to 16:30
Tickets Non-Steam : Adults £3.00; Tour £5.00; Under 15 (with adult) Free
Tickets Steam Day : Adults £4.00; Tour £6.00; Under 15 (with adult) Free
Tel: 07900 267711