Burslem has been given the title of “Mother of the Potteries” and whilst this title is
justified by the fact that as early as the 17th century, this town was noted above all for
the production of the best classes of pottery made in this country, so also the Mother
Church of this town has a unique and very ancient history.
The Parish church, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, is made of brick and consists of a
chancel, Aisles, Nave and a massive embattled western tower in the perpendicular style.
The tower is the most ancient part of the structure and is believed to date back as far as 1450-1500. Charles Lynem in his book “Church bells of the county of Stafford” (1889) describes the tower as “an instance of the last phase of Gothic prior to Renaissance times.” The peal of six bells, which were cast in 1827, were tuned and re-hung in 1911.
The church was burned down to the ground on more than one occasion, as prior to the 1717 the nave was constructed of wood with a thatched roof but in 1717 it was rebuilt of brick and a slate roof. Later in 1788 the church was enlarged and re-roofed at a cost of 572.9s,3d., being lengthened 21 feet (when Enoch Wood, the well-known potter was one of the Churchwardens.
The Old clergy and Choir vestry
The old clergy vestry was built in 1794, and now is the new toilet block. The choir vestry became the new Kitchen area, which has been modernised to enable greater church and community use.
Between 1878 and 1800 the Nave underwent a substantial and thorough restoration, seats being provided for 850 people with the construction of galleries but these were taken out about 1930 because they became unsafe. In early times the choir was split, part sat in the gallery at the east end of the church (where the organ was then situated) and the remainder were in the western gallery. The partition at the back of the Nave was constructed in 1994 to give space for meeting rooms and community activities. There is a tile on the wall in the partitioned room between the toilets and the gallery steps dedicated to Bishop Selwyn.
The first organ was built in 1792 and was replaced at the East end of the church. In 1878, Stringers of Hanley leading organ builders of the day, installed the present organ in the west gallery. This was completely renovated in 1961 by Reeves and Merner who also built the new detached console, at a cost of £1560, contributed by church members, parishioners and local firms.
The East window
At the East end of the church is a fine stained glass window which was put in as a memorial by Henry Parker, Esq., to his first wife Emma Bradshaw, who died on 17th August 1897. The three parts of this window (from left to right) illustrate the texts (a) I3 was hungry and you gave me something to eat, (b) Blessed are the poor in heart and (c) Teach me your ways.
Mural, Tablets and Plaques
Considering the church is so old, there are very few mural tablets in the church, the ones that still exist are as follows:
• Tablet of creed and the Lord’s Prayer
• Crucifix made by Enoch wood
• The Addams Family plaque (the master potter of Tunstall). It is worthy of note that in the early days (after the church was re-built), as it was the only church anywhere near this area, it meant there were many people who came from Tunstall and other parts to join in the worship at this church.
• Dedication Plaque for the choir stalls (which were formerly pews in the church) were converted to their present use as a War Memorial to men from the Parish who laid down their lives in the Great War (1914-18)
• “Descent from the cross by Enoch Wood
• Exodus 20 – The Ten commandments
• Memorial Plaques to the Haywood Family, noted locally for the Haywood Hospital.
As to the history of the Font, evidence is not forthcoming as to when it came into the church or whether it was a gift of anyone or a memorial to anyone. Through the years, it has moved about to and fro from the several locations. At one time it stood almost in the centre of the church in front of a three decker pulpit, which is no longer in existence. The small font inside the larger one was the gift of Councillor N. Parkes, JP.
The registers of the church date back to 1578. The originals now reside in Stafford, though photocopies of some of the most interesting pages have been made for viewing in the church.
Famous people connected to St. John’s Church
One very interesting item of note is the record of Josiah Wedgwood’s (the great Master Potter) baptism in this church on 12th July, 1730. It seems curious that there is evidently as much doubt as to the date of his birth as there is about the exact spot where he was born and whilst the entry of his baptism in the registers of Burslem Parish Church is as stated above, yet in Stoke Parish Church there is a mural tablet on the North side of the chancel which states that Josiah was born in August 1730 about a month after his baptism! Apparently Thomas Wedgwood (the Grandfather of Josiah) was churchwarden and one of the accounts of the expenditure for that year can be seen in the Wedgwood Museum.
One family who had a great deal to do with the old parish church was the wood family and Enoch Wood, the famous Master Potter in particular. One of the register copies is of Enoch Wood’s baptism. There are several items about the place that were originally placed with other valuable ornaments in the Wood family vault. When necessity forced this vault to be opened, it was felt that it was wrong to allow such wonderful models to lie hidden from the public in a vault, so it was decided to take them out and place them within the Church.
In Shaw’s History, Enoch Wood has added this footnote concerning his father’s involvement with Burslem Parish Church:
“They year before my father, say 1716, the church was built of wood but in 1717, the church was rebuilt with bricks and in the year I was Churchwarden (Enoch Wood was Churchwarden on two separate occasions 1788 and 179o –Ed), I enlarged and raised it at a cost of 17 persons who joined me in bearing any loss I might sustain by the undertaking. It cost £700, so it cost the parish nothing –EW”
Amongst the items that were found in the family vault, there was an original BUST OF JOHN WESLEY, which Enoch Wood made on the occasion in 1781 when Wesley visited Burslem and sat for the modelling. From the original, many models have since been taken and copies have been reproduced by local potteries. This particular bust, modelled in a delicate cream biscuit ware, is dated 1791 and was on display in Ceramica until its closure.
In addition to this bust, there were two plaques, one being the original of “THE DESCENT FROM THE CROSS”, the other being a CRUCIFIX. These two plaques were placed in recesses on the North and south sides of the chancel. They spent a short spell in a local
bank whilst the church was being strengthened from subsidence, but were replaced in their Chancel positions when the church was deemed safe again. In a memorandum dated 13th February, 1814, Enoch Wood gives us the very interesting details about these
plaques. He says: “One of the busts of my son was placed about seven or eight feet under the churchyard wall at the head of the western part of my family vault. Within this vault is deposited a large basso relieve of the “descent from the cross” moulded by
myself, also a crucifix modelled at 14 years old by me, Enoch Wood, this is visible in the vault set in mortar and fixed in the East wall of the vault”.