Pottery queens making mementos fit for a king

Pottery queens making mementos fit for a king: Pamela Harper and Emma Bridgewater are breaking the mould

When Emma Bridgewater set up shop in Stoke-on-Trent in 1985 making mugs, plates and bowls, the status of The Potteries as the world capital of ceramics was in jeopardy.

Generations of expertise were at risk of disappearing as the north Staffordshire city was among the first to suffer the ravages of de-industrialisation in a wave of factory and pit closures.

Today, Stoke’s biggest private sector employer is Bet365, the gambling giant led by Denise Coates, Britain’s highest- paid boss.

But it is two other successful women entrepreneurs who are leading a remarkable rebirth of the industry for which Stoke is most famous – pottery.

Down the road from Bridgewater’s operation is The Caverswall English China Company, which is run by chief executive Pamela Harper.

Marking the occasion: The £350 ceramic crown from Emma Bridgewater

Marking the occasion: The £350 ceramic crown from Emma Bridgewater

Bridgewater and Harper are equally bullish about the Coronation, which they see as an opportunity to showcase their wares around the world.

Behind the sunlit brick walls of Bridgewater’s 140-year-old building, her 230 staff are hard at work putting the finishing touches to a wide range of commemorative kitchenware.

‘When I came here, I knew absolutely nothing about anything,’ 61-year-old Bridgewater recalls. ‘What I did not realise was that the industry was absolutely desperate and in its dying stages.’

Walking four decades later along the Caldon Canal as it snakes through Stoke, the loss of Britain’s industrial past can still be felt.

Four factories which once lined the waterway have closed down but one – Bridgewater’s, which has been visited by the King and Queen – remains bustling.

She and her colleagues have created a Coronation collection, which includes mugs, plates and an £80 teapot embellished with the words ‘three cheers for the King’ in hand-painted decoration.

Royal enthusiasts can even buy a ceramic crown – with a price tag of £350 – to mark the occasion.

Located nearby is The Caverswall English China Company, whose boss Harper says: ‘Big royal events like this are global and interest in them is phenomenal.

‘It is a huge boost to business.’

Harper, 66, says she is expecting turnover to grow ‘by at least 20 per cent’, although she declines to give further details. Her bestselling products include presentation plates – a 10 inch Coronation platter costs £325.

Other popular lines include ‘anything related to teaware’, she says. ‘People just like to have an English tea.’

Each item on average passes through 33 sets of hands during production. Automation is kept to an absolute minimum.

Harper, who has extensive experience in the luxury brands business, bought Caverswall seven years ago with her husband Peter. Together with its sister company Halcyon Days, they have had an impressive three Royal Warrants.

Harper recalls that at its peak there were about 100,000 people working in the pottery industry in Stoke, but all of that changed in the 1990s when local ‘big guns’ like Wedgwood and Royal Doulton moved offshore to cut costs.

Breaking the mould: Pamela Harper and Emma Bridgewater

Breaking the mould: Pamela Harper and Emma Bridgewater

‘We feel very strongly that manufacturing in your home market is really important,’ Harper says. ‘If you are marketing your brand for its Englishness, I like to think that’s authentic.’

Today she employs just over 100 people directly in Stoke and at the Halcyon Days enamel factory in Wolverhampton.

She also enlists the services of up to 150 local suppliers.

Harper’s next challenge after the Coronation is energy bills. Her kilns use huge amounts of power.

Meanwhile, she is looking forward to welcoming new apprentices to her factory via the Prince’s Trust.

‘The number of young people [the King] has helped through the Prince’s Trust is amazing,’ says Harper. ‘He’s done an incredible job. On sustainability and eco-issues… to have that vision some 35 years ago is extraordinary.’

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