Merv’s Sunday read: the Big House

THE BIG HOUSE AND WORKS IN BURSLEM

The Big House at the foot of Moorland Road is a splendid landmark, one of the jewels in Burslem’ s crown – but what do we know of its history?

Thomas Wedgwood (1703-1776) and John Wedgwood (1705-1780) were the fifth and sixth sons of Aaron Wedgwood (1666 – 1743). They were the older cousins of the great Josiah.

In 1743, Thomas and John took possession of their father’ s works, which adjoined the Red Lion Inn. They made a wide range of wares, but they
specialised in salt-glazed earthenware. Successful experiments allowed them to improve their pottery, which swiftly increased the demand for it.
They were subsequently able to expand the business and in doing so were the first master potters to make the manufacture of pottery a large-scale commercial enterprise rather than a domestic industry. This expansion was later described by Simeon Shaw in his History of the Staffordshire Potteries (1829).

Shaw wrote that their new manufactory incurred what was probably jealous criticism from competitors – it was large, and covered with tiles. Others in the town were covered with thatch. They erected three ovens, later increased to five. They also erected the Big House, a name which reflected the property’ s size and elegance. Thomas and John retired in 1763, having been very prosperous in Burslem.

The Big House Works was built in a location where Thomas and John could harness the elements. They had a good supply of water and
with the site being on an elevation – at the Jenkins – they also built a windmill, the architect being James Brindley, who had recently set up as
a millwright in Burslem. Here, flint stones were ground in tubs of water in order to create a fine powder. It had formerly been the case that men
would pound the flint by hand, and in a dry state. As a consequence, the flint would get into the lungs, causing coughs, consumption and sometimes death.

The Big House was built for the Wedgwood brothers in 1751. The date appears with the initials T I W on a rainwater head.

Designed in the Palladian style, it is a symmetrical, five-bay, three-story building with a projecting middle bay and a pediment topping the whole.
The window lintels are of rusticated stone whilst the central windows are given emphasis by stone architraves. There is a pedimented porch
incorporating Doric columns. At one time, there was a walled forecourt and entrance gates, removed in 1956.

The whole of the property in the north-east section of the town was owned by the Wedgwoods of the Big House or the Overhouse Estate.
Street names on the 1812 reservoirs plan underline the dominance of the Wedgwoods in this area. The area between the Overhouse and the Big
House Works was Wedgwood Square, whilst Wedgwood Street (now New Street) was built by the Wedgwood family.

Thomas Wedgwood died childless in 1776 and John in 1780, and their memorials are to be found in St John’ s churchyard. The Big House was
famously the Midland Bank for half a century, but it still stands today as a reminder of two of the most successful capitalists the town has ever
known.

by Mervyn Edwards

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