By MERVYN EDWARDS, Local Historian and Burslem History Club Speaker Secretary

In talking about the rise of Burslem during the Industrial Revolution, local historians have often had cause to reproduce a plate from John Ward’s book, The Borough of Stoke-upon-Trent (1843) that depicts one of the most important late 18th century buildings in the Mother Town.

Ward also describes the origins of a building that would ultimately become known as the first town hall in Burslem.

In 1760, the foremost inhabitants of the town petitioned Sir Nigel Gresley, Bart., and Ralph Sneyd, Esq., the Lords of the Manor, in regard to a plan to erect a public building on a piece of land “where the Maypole did formerly stand.”

The building that the inhabitants planned, according to the petition, was a school, and they stated that “there is but one Schoole in the Town and for want of an other two parts of the Children out of three are put to Work without any Learning by reason the other Schoole is not sufficient to instruct them.”  The petitioners to this “schoole for the education of poor children” promised that a management committee would appoint a school master.  The subscribers included three of the Wedgwood family, namely, Thomas, Josiah and Burslem Wedgwood.

However, the structure that was erected in Burslem never served as a school, and as Ward noted, “the object for which the grant was solicited, seems to have undergone some extension.”

The building was constructed by 1761, and as Ward conveys, a market commenced at roughly the same time, developing gradually.  Country butchers and others brought carcasses of meat and bags of meal and potatoes.
However, over the next thirty years, the market became very prosperous, and the trustees of the town hall provided tressels and boards for the marketeers, who paid a weekly sum as rent or toll.  The revenue helped to finance the maintenance of the town hall and market place.  A fresh appointment of trustees was made in 1816, and it was to these 30 respectable inhabitants that the lease of the town hall was assigned.

The Burslem Local Board of Health was set up in 1850, taking over the powers of the market trustees, the commissioners and the parochial highway surveyors.

In 1824, the town hall was thoroughly repaired and beautified from the receipts of the market tolls.  The town hall was again “newly coloured and beautified” in preparation for the Burslem Wakes celebrations of  1835.

By 1834, the town hall was a handsome oblong building of brick, stuccoed in imitation stone.  It had two stories, and open arches on the ground floor, and a large room with sash windows above.  The building also incorporated a balustraded parapet.  A central cupola-tower topped the whole, and this incorporated a clock with four dials, one of which was illuminated by gas.

The Hargreaves map of 1832 map shows how Burslem had developed around its 1761 Town Hall.  The Burslem section of the Victoria County History apprises us of the civic functions of the building.  It may be more interesting here to consider the value of the hall as a venue for meetings of the community.

When the Wedgwood family moved into their new home, Etruria Hall, on November 11th, 1769, they celebrated the occasion by entertaining 120 workpeople at Burslem town hall later that evening.

In 1830, a meeting took place there to discuss the corrupt system of paying workmen’s wages in truck (goods being received instead of money).

Popular entertainment was also staged at the town hall.  There was an evening of ventriloquialism held there in 1839, provided by a Mr Newman. According to an advertisement in the local press,“MR NEWMAN will give his imitation of a Gang of Smugglers landing their cargo; there will be eight or ten different voices heard at the distance of one hundred yards.  He will also give his imitation of a Gang of Thieves leaving a Wood; there will be eight or ten different voices heard at a distance of 100 yards, as if they were coming to the town.  He will also relate his travels in America, and different parts of the Globe.  He will also give his Imitation of Hornets, Bees and Wasps, which he performed with great satisfaction before his late Majesty, at Brighton.  With a great variety of other Performances during the Evening.Mrs. NEWMAN, during the Evening, will Sing several Spanish, Italian, and English songs, with guitar accompaniment.”
The Newmans certainly seem as if they were a talented couple.

In the 1840s, at a time when there was a great upsurge of interest in natural history due to the discoveries of so-called plant-hunters in exotic lands, the town hall staged the exhibitions of the Wolstanton and Pottery Horticultural Society, with various plants, fruit and vegetables being displayed.

In January, 1854, the building was taken down to create space for a new town hall.  One man narrowly escaped death.  He was in the act of removing the old weather vane from the cupola when he slipped and fell on to the roof of the building.  The later town hall was opened in 1857 and still stands today.  Just for the record, it is my favourite Potteries building.

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