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Stoke-on-Trent Districts: Sytch


The Vanished Landscape

"My father also said, 'Now, Little Paul. I am going to show you the most remarkable view in the whole of the Potteries.' He took me up to the top of the Square, past the raggle-taggle shops and tiny, reeking pubs, on to the top of the ridge from which streets led down into the river valley beyond. When we got to this high vantage point, with the three Methodist chapels immediately below us, my father said, 'Behold, The Sytch!'

There stretched, down and before me, the most striking panorama I had yet seen. The Sytch was the dark heart of the Potteries, an immense stretch of ground composed in almost equal parts of bare clay earth, black water, mud, industrial detritus both active and abandoned, and fumigerous furnaces, belching forth fire, ashes and smoke. The words 'The Sytch' were spoken in undertones even by hardened Potteries patriots who proudly, as a rule, asserted, 'There's no wealth w'out muck' and, as one of them put it. 'All progress cums fro' sludge.' They knew it was a disgrace, even by Potteries standards. There were houses in it. but no one would admit their address was 'The Sytch'. That was not its official name anyway. There was a river, called the Scotia, which ran through it, probably the most polluted stream in Britain for a century or more, perhaps in the world. Locals called it The Sytch and the name stuck. By 1861 there was The Sytch Croft Coal and Ironstone Works, built by its slimy side. The Sytch was not so much a river as an industrial sewer into which am' manufacturer threw or poured or dumped all the waste materials from his establishment. Individuals followed suit: had done for a century.

 It was not the only cloaca. The Trent and Mersey canal, gouged out in the 1770's to link the prosperous new large-scale pot-banks of Wedgwood and others to the national communications system, went through the area and received its own contribution of filth. At one time or another a dozen collieries had been set up in The Sytch to mine seams close to the surface. When the easy seams were worked out, they had been abandoned, had flooded and often fallen in, leaving deep cavities which filled with stagnant black water. In addition to potteries, mines and iron furnaces, there were flint grinding mills, an important element in the production of low-cost pots. These filled the sluggish air with dust or covered the ground with muddy slime, according to the season. There was nothing in The Sytch which was not black, dark-grey, deep nigger-brown (as it was then called) or a combination of all three.

  The men (and women) who worked there were filthy by the end of the day. 'Poor souls,' my mother often said and sighed. They used to take their midday 'dinner' with them. It was called Lobby and was a thin stew, mainly of potatoes, poured into an ironstone bowl, with a cloth tightly tied round the top. It seemed to me a horrific kind of meal but it was no doubt nourishing and they liked it. All carried their supply of Lobby to work and never thought of eating anything else. There were no canteens. The master potters said, 'Can't afford 'em. Dust want to send us down Carey Street [bankruptcy]?' The colliers were only just getting pit baths by Act of Parliament. Profit margins in pot making were very slender, foreign competition was growing: this elementary economic fact explained all that was wrong with the district, from low wages to pollution.

  I don't know who owned The Sytch by the 1930's. The big grandee landlords in North Staffordshire had once been Earl Granville and the Duke of Sutherland (and others), who had dug canals, opened deep pits, founded ironworks and helped to push the railways through. But now the place was a patch-work of freeholds and leaseholds, going cheap. Low-cost firms had moved in, the sort that did not produce well-
designed, fine-quality chinaware but coarse dishes and bowls, knobs and weights, number plates and castors, tiles and every kind of china fittings for machines fuse handles, bits of barometers and thermometers, bathroom fittings. 'Likely us'll make urinals next' was a gloomy saying.
  The Sytch was desolation by day for, except when the wind was high, stagnant smoke clouds and a miasma of foetid mist which surged up from its black waters made sure that visibility was low and a semi-darkness prevailed. But at night it came into its own. When my father first showed me The Sytch, dusk was gathering and the place was lighting up. Some of its furnaces were never extinguished. They glowed ominously as the shadows fell and leapt into intense activity as fresh loads of slack coal were thrust through the oven doors. Sparks rocketed fifty feet into the air, huge puffs of livid orange smoke came shooting out of the banks and the countless chimneys, short and tall, which punctuated the horizon every few yards. In the light of the furnace glow, black figures could be seen in frenzied activity, feeding the gluttonous flames with long fire shovels, or raking out the grids beneath, which sent fresh fiery clouds of cinder on to the ground and into the air. Reflected from one cloud to another, the glow reached hundreds - perhaps thousands - of feet into the atmosphere and turned the buildings at the top of Tunstall Square into pink shapes. The dark waters of river, canal and pools doubled the illuminations, and gave to everything a glitter and a mirage of stern beauty. It was not fairyland but devil-land, a desperate romantic hell in which flibbertigibbets and other imps, demons and trolls could dwell In delight.

  'Well, and what do you think?' asked my father.
  'I love it,' I said. 'Its beautiful and - and - and wild.'
  'Right, Little Paul. People hate it and want to clean it all away, and they will one day - soon perhaps. But its the stuff of art and poetry, and we must feast our eyes on it while it lasts. But don't tell your mother what I've said.' "

"The Vanished Landscape", a 1930's Childhood in the Potteries.  by Paul Johnson


Comment from Dr John Whittow regarding a potential error in Paul Johnson's account...

"Having read Paul Johnson's book on he Potteries some months ago, I realised that he had made a grave error in his identification of the Sytch's location. The true Sytch lay in Burslem, as you know.
Yet it is quite clear (see page 82) that Johnson was reporting that he had been taken by his father to the top of Tunstall Square, not to Hill Top, Burslem. Thus he remembers looking down into Goldendale with its ironworks. These were the furnaces that he saw, lighting up the houses at the top of Tunstall Square. The Sytch never had ironworks nor the dozen collieries to which he refers.
His reference to the Scotia Brook (formerly the Sytch Brook) is also misplaced, since he could not have seen that from the top of Tunstall Square. Perhaps he is confusing it with the Fowlea Brook. My grandmother lived in an 18th century cottage at the bottom end of the Sytch just above the old Burslem Mill on the Scotia Brook. The front door was approached by a flight of steps made from abandoned millstones ...... and the cottage was reputed to be the Miller's house. The cottage has long since been demolished and built over but I still remember playing on those steps and walking up the derelict Back Sytch before the Second World War."

Dr John Whittow

NOTE: I am not sure who is correct, if Johnson has the location of his memories
wrong, the sentiments and observations are still equally valid.

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questions / comments / contributions? email: Steve Birks

updated Feb 2008