Christmas is coming, the busiest time of the year for most places, as people gear up for the annual spending orgy and descend onto the streets of our towns and cities. It is probably not the best time of the year to dig up streets and pavements, given the upturn in trade and the usually foul weather, but there seems to be a different philosophy in the Potteries, as Hanley’s makeover continues, and highways engineers pour onto St John’s Square in the Mother Town.
St John’s Square has been at the heart of Burslem since medieval times. You can identify the square on maps dating back to 1720, and though it has seen many changes over an almost three hundred year period, the urban structure of the square has remained almost the same.
The square played a big role in Arnold Bennett’s Victorian novels, the thinly disguised St Luke’s Square, and many of the buildings and landmarks described by Bennett
The square retains many popular local landmarks, one of which is the Drinking
Fountain. The fountain was built for public use by potter Enoch Wood opposite his Fountain Place works, but was removed and housed in the City Museum. However, the fountain was eventually refurbished by the City Council and returned to its rightful place.
Enoch Wood's Drinking
Fountain - Autumn 2013
Enoch Wood's Drinking
Fountain - a postcard c.1905
Prominent on the eastern side of the of the square is a Victorian commercial building dating from 1889, which became popular as Denry’s Restaurant, and is now
Denry’s Music Bar, capitalising on the Mother Town’s growing evening economy.
At the square’s junction with Queen Street is one of its most prominent and historic buildings,
36-40 Queen Street. Built in 1868 to a Tudor Gothic design, the building became famous as “Daniel Povey’s Confectioners” in Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale.
36-40 Queen Street
The building is currently in a poor condition, and is – in the main – empty, mirroring the state of its neighbour, the Indoor Market.
plaque marking the location of Daniel Povey's shop
The view down the Square from the Drinking Fountain is a sad one these days, with two Bennett Buildings empty and falling down around our ears. First, at the junction of the Square and William Clowes Street is
“John Baines’ Shop” again, from Bennett’s novel The Old Wives’
Tale. The building has stood empty for many years, and is in a simply shocking condition.
Much public money is being spent on improving and enhancing the town’s historic buildings, and this is to be welcomed, but there are many buildings around the town – this one included – where more concerted action is needed.
The building clearly has structural problems, and God only knows what problems lay inside. And it would also be good to see the back of the abortion that acts as a shop front.
“John Baines’ Shop” in 2008; five years have passed, and things have gotten worse
“John Baines’ Shop”
and “Critchlow’s Chemist Shop”
in St. John's Square, Burslem, 28 December 2008
Next door to John Baines’ place stands what Bennett christened “Critchlow’s Chemist Shop”, and yet another Mother Town building that has fallen on hard times in recent years. For years, the building was occupied by Lovatt’s sprawling tailor and outfitter’s business.
Following a rebuild, it was eventually taken on by Woolworths who were there until their sad demise. Poundstretcher took the building on once Woolworths closed their doors, but incredibly, they have since moved on, which is a really sad indictment of the direction that the town’s economy is headed in.
Tacked on to the end of the row is a dispiriting little box, a really crap piece of design given its setting and location. It is operating currently as a junk shop, again reflecting the current state of the town’s economy, but probably a fitting use for such a terrible piece of architecture.
One of the Square’s more busier and vibrant locations, and a real Potteries success story is the
Bulls Head. The Bulls Head is owned by local ale entrepreneurs the Bott Brothers, and their Titanic Brewery, and hums with activity most nights of the week, and is one of the town’s better watering holes.
Prior to 1837, St John’s Square was the venue for bull and bear baiting contests, and it is thought that this may be where the pub got its name from.
Bulls Head Facebook page
It would appear that the Bulls Head will soon be getting a new next door neighbour, with work well underway to renovate
6 St John’s Square under the City Council’s latest grant programme. In February, the doors will open to a new Italian restaurant, a welcome new addition to Burslem’s thriving evening economy.
Another landmark on the Square is the Clock House which dates from a similar period as Denry’s. The building is currently awaiting a new use, and is in need of some attention.
However, it retains a very attractive façade and shop front, and given the increased interest in the Mother Town as a destination to spend an evening, and the availability of grant funding, it would be no surprise to see new life breathed into the Clock House.
The Clock House
St John’s Square’s most prominent building is the grand Duke William, with its mock Tudor timber cladding making it a local landmark. However, this is not an original feature, having been added during a twentieth century makeover.
During the noughties, the future seemed bleak for the Duke William, as it stood empty and silent for the best part of the decade. Today, the Duke William’s doors are open again, with its upper floors in use as a restaurant and for functions.
Duke William from outside
Google Street View
Duke William from
St John’s Square is an oddity. Lots of positives: the thriving Bulls Head, Duke William, and Denry’s, and a new Italian restaurant in the pipeline. Yet these positives are blighted by the state of the trio of Bennett Buildings, “John Baines’ Shop”, “Daniel Povey’s Confectioners”, and “Critchlow’s Chemist”.
The Square could be a fantastic asset for the Mother Town, but at the moment, it is only doing half of what it could do. It could be a fantastic urban space, but as with Tower Square in Tunstall, it is dominated by cars, the streetscape is poor, and some of the buildings that front the Square are empty, under-occupied, and are in need of a facelift.
Given the downward spiral that many of our town centres and High Streets are in the midst of, you may think that the future is bleak for St John’s Square.
However, the fundamental changes that town centres are undergoing presents a great opportunity to breathe new life into St John’s Square. We are going to have to rethink and reimagine the role that town centres play, and a big part of this will be to re-plan and bring new uses and people to streets and squares.
What could the future hold for St John’s Square? It certainly isn’t going to be a shopping destination. Could the Square become a place in which to dwell and spend time? Could it become a place to live, a high-quality town centre residential location?
Can St John’s Square become part of Burslem’s heart and soul once more?
Proudlove - December 2013