Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Where my Drunken Uncles Lie

Berry's Burslem Remembered

When I was a child I thought Burslem Town Hall was built from black stone. As the Brown Edge bus crawled down Moorland Road I'd be looking for the angel perched above its great hulk. As Christmas approached I'd turn the other way transfixed by the magical  nativity scene illuminating the December gloom. But it was always there, dark and imposing, a vast slab of coal looming over the bustling rain slicked streets.

Arthur Berry fondly hoped the Potteries would always remain this way. He wanted the six towns to be known as the filthiest place on the planet and attract visitors from the world over who would marvel at the soot and smoke in the same way they marvel at the Sphinx and the Pyramids. It's not a view that would attract much sympathy today but it reflects a lifelong attachment to place and class - to a city and people that forged his character.

Berry - artist, playwright, broadcaster and author of an extraordinarily frank autobiography - was born in Smallthorne in 1925 in a street "where every house seemed to have an old woman, a drunken man, a gang of kids and a snarling dog." It was a world populated by people twisted into strange shapes by hard work and poverty but who, nevertheless, took pride in their homes and appearances. It's a world familiar to Eileen who recalls mothers in headscarves painting front steps and out of work miners with carnations in their lapels. "We had next to nowt" she says. "But what we did have we were proud of."

When his family moved to Biddulph Berry was struck by the differences he encountered but also by the similarities in the way the men dressed and gathered on street corners to pass the time. At school he met a boy who introduced him to the local picture palace and, for a while at least, he stopped visiting his old neighbourhood. It was painting that brought him back and it was through Burslem's famous school of art that his love affair with the Mother Town began.

"It was like Buckingham Palace" Berry wrote of his first impressions of the school. "I'd never seen such an important looking building before." Burslem School of Art had long enjoyed a reputation for producing the talented artists and designers required by the pottery industry. Past students include Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper. Initially however Berry's family couldn't understand how an education in art could benefit a working class lad whose future surely lay on the factory floor or the coal face. "Arthur don't talk so bloody daft," his father told him. "Folks dunner want art round here, it's for the toffs in London. Keep on with it and theyt be a three and sevenpence halfpenny man all thee life."

Eileen recalls girls she worked with being sent by their firms to study at the school. "They went at night" she says. "Them as had the skills. They'd always have work after that. And more money too. But the ones who were there full time weren't from the streets round us." Berry felt this too describing daughters of the wealthy treating it as a finishing school before they got married. "These creatures were like something from another world" he recalled. "They dressed in a provincial bohemian fashion and talked confidently and loudly in upper class accents." His time as a junior secured him a job at Doultons where he overcame the disability of having only one useful arm to become a figure painter. He didn't enjoy the experience and dreaded the thought of spending his working life stuck behind a bench.

For the majority, however, this wasn't a fate they fled from. Burslem was dominated by pot banks and tile works and it wasn't uncommon for entire families to find themselves working side by side. Eileen too worked at Doultons and had friends at Barretts, Woods, Maddox and Wades. "Most of them treated you well" she says. "But if they didn't you could jack it in and go somewhere else. It wasn't like today." Hearing about evening classes in drawing and painting Berry signed up and returned to Burslem School of Art three nights a week and it was here that got his first glimmerings of art history and discovered modern masters like Picasso, Kandinsky and De Chirico and, above all, his great  hero Rouault.

By now Europe was at war and Burslem wasn't untouched by the conflict. "I had six brother's" Eileen tells me. "All of 'em went to war. It was the most sons from any family in Staffordshire I think. By the Grace of God they all came back alive." Berry too, while describing himself as more afraid of spiders than German stormtroopers, was doing his bit for the war effort. Three or four nights a week he'd join the firewatchers on the art school roof chatting and sipping tea. It supplemented his income and gave him an excuse to spend even longer in the town.

To a young man who had begun to understand, or at least conceive an image, of what an artist was, the Potteries was like a metropolis and Burslem was its heart. "The evenings were a cinderous grey" he recalled. "Turning to purple and rust. The night sky was filled with a luminous beauty against which the great kilns were etched in blackness (...) No city in Europe could have produced a more dramatic background (for an artist) It was better than Paris or Barcelona."
The Potteries skyline
The places Berry frequented in this metropolis were cinemas like the Palace and the glamorous Coliseum where Eileen remembers courting couples paying a little extra for a box seat. But it was in Buslem's pubs with their tap rooms and smoke filled snugs that he felt most at home. "There were pubs on every corner back then" Eileen says. "And they were always full. Men liked a drink after a hard days work and there's plenty who went home drunk and penniless.  My mother had to drag my father out of the Star some nights." The Star was a favourite haunt of Berry's too 'the highest temple of booze in the town' from which 'only serious illness or death' could keep its customers out. Often following a night's drinking with labourers, rag and bone men and bar room singers he would wander around the town encountering even more unfortunate and yet fascinating characters.

Chief among these down and outs was a notorious public drunk who has become something of a Potteries legend. Vincent Riley was a First World War veteran who fell off the wagon so hard the wheels came off. Denied his favourite tipple of methylated spirit by Burslem chemists Riley would wander from town to town in search of drink frequently attracting the attention of the police along the way. Indeed throughout his life he received no fewer than 244 prison sentences from which he invariably emerged to end up in the gutter once again.

To Berry, however, who was increasingly drawn towards the grotesque, this ‘king of human derelicts’ was a figure from the imagination of Goya. Observing riff-raff and oddballs like Riley, Berry wanted to paint them from the inside out in the way Van Gogh had painted his peasants. Superficial representation, however accomplished, didn’t appeal to him and he railed against Augustus John and his long-legged gypsy girls with borrowed scarves round their heads.

“Oh he was a character” Eileen chuckles at the mention of Riley’s name. “All the kids in Burslem knew Vincent Riley. He used to sleep in a kiln you know.” Well not inside one perhaps, but tales like this still persist amongst the old folk who gather in the pubs he was no doubt barred from. In the not too distant future he will pass from living memory. Another unadulterated spirit from the 'wickedest drinking town' in the Potteries.

Berry's artistic endeavours would lead him to the Royal College of Art,  located in the Lake District during the war years, and later to London where he enjoyed the life of a South Kensington bohemian while never forgetting his roots. His account of his time in the capital is punctuated with passages of righteous indignation aimed at middle class Southerners living off the backs of the hard working North. And it was to the North  he would return not the first, and by no means the last, provincial artist to feel that the London art world had beaten him.

As Berry was only too well aware though the North with which he was familiar was rapidly disappearing. At the same time he felt a sense of estrangement from the world of international  modern art and wondered how an artist whose heritage was primative Methodism and the chip shop  could compete on such a universal scale. He was frequently plagued by self doubt and a fear of obsolescence. Even his beloved Burslem wasn’t immune to the quickening march of time.

One day coming down Moorland Road I saw the Town Hall (where in 1881 William Morris delivered his lecture on ‘Art and the Beauty of the Earth’) surrounded by scaffolding. From beneath years of soot and smoke the true colour of the building began to emerge. This was in the age of smokeless fuel and clean air acts but it wasn’t all good news. Blind urban planning and civic intransigence would result in the loss of many fine buildings. The Potteries skyline was changing and this was only the beginning. The loss of our pits and the wholesale export of the pottery industry would follow.
Burslem Town Hall
On the one hand Burslem suffered more than most under these blows. Eileen laments the passing of the factories and the bustling shops. “There was no need to leave Burslem” she says. “Everything was on the doorstep. You’d see crowds of workers in their aprons queuing up with money to spend. But when the pot banks closed everything went.” On the other hand it has retained more of its architectural character than any of the other Potteries towns. Alongside the Town Hall Burslem boasts a collection of notable buildings that stand comparison with those of any other town or city in the country. There’s the Venetian Gothic splendour of the Wedgwood Institute for example and, facing it, the School of Art itself which this year hosted an exhibition of rarely seen Berry paintings from private collections.

Wedgwood Institute (detail)
Wedgwood Institute (detail)

Given this, Burslem is perhaps uniquely placed to benefit in the current climate of regeneration. With the right investment and a little imagination the Mother Town could re-invent itself as the city’s true cultural quarter. Art can play an important role in this process. Already The Old Post Office Gallery and ArtWaves are breathing new life into empty buildings. Other art spaces are flourishing too. Providing they are not priced out of any future blue print, evidence from other areas suggests they can go a long way in forging vibrant, creative communities.

Arthur Berry died in 1994. If in his later years he raged against a world that had changed beyond his comprehension it was because he cared. He cared about Burslem and he cared about its people. He was, above all, a humanist and this is evident in all his work. Berry was laid to rest in the town that had nurtured and inspired him close to the remains of another chronicler of the Potteries and its folk Arnold Bennett. And not far from the king of human derelicts Vincent Riley.

Berry, Arthur. A Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man. Kermase Editions. 1986
Hughes, Fred. Mother Town. Burslem Community Development Trust. 2000


  1. I enjoyed this post very much, thanks you for writing and sharing it. Does anyone know where I can get a copy of Arthur Berry's book of poems "Dandelions"?

  2. Arthur Berry's work is uncannily like the paintings of Don Van Vliet (Cpt Beefheart) .Also ,Burslem Town Hall is the original Home of Slip Records ! check out

  3. I've just started, out of personal interest, a research about Stoke characters (my first one being Vincent Riley) and I came across your blog, which I found really interesting. Thank you.

  4. Thanks Eva, the background information on Riley came from the Fred Hughes book listed above.

  5. I encountered the Lament for the Lost Pubs of Burslem some years ago, I think in a freesheet available in pubs from the local CAMRA branch in Derby where I was at the time. I have long since lost it and would love to get hold of a copy of it or the radio broadcast it came from. Can anyone help? Cheers. ian (dot) burdon (at) gmail (dot) com

  6. Great read. Thanks!