When the Spode Works factory closed its doors for the final time after more than 200 years, question marks hung over the future of the site.
The operating company, Royal Worcester and Spode, had been hit by the global economic downturn, citing adverse trading conditions as one of the reasons behind its collapse, as it fell into administration. It left around 400 people out of work and the 10-acre site, an integral part of Stoke town centre for years, redundant and facing an uncertain future.
But 10 years after the event, Spode is coming back to life and is now home to almost 50 artists’ studios, a 26-room hotel that is fully occupied most nights, a popular café and a revamped and extended visitor centre. The China Halls, a vast space which acted as the factory’s main production area where 250 people would once work, is now being used as a unique venue for private events, the latest being the 38th Stoke-on-Trent Beer Festival which attracted thousands of visitors over three days. Other events hosted at Spode this year have included dance music nights, theatre productions, a custom motorcycle show, graduation ceremonies and a black-tie charity ball.
The transformation and ongoing regeneration of the site as a Creative Village, branded as Spode Works, has been led by Conservative/Independent run Stoke-on-Trent City Council. The site was bought in 2010 under Labour, but was left to rot with no plans and no funds in place. Since the Conservative’s have led the city’s regeneration efforts in the last three years, the council has invested more than £3 million in conversion works and the demolition of nine buildings that were in poor condition and had no historic value, to improve movement within the site and enhance the setting of the remaining listed buildings. External funding bodies have provided a further £1 million.
Conservative Cllr Daniel Jellyman, cabinet member for regeneration, transport and heritage, said the council’s drive to attract investors to the site was paying off. He said: “This is a site steeped in our city’s industrial heritage and past. One of our key priorities has been to invest time and money into bringing the site back to life with a modern day purpose, and we’re really pleased with the progress made over the last three years with the creative village concept.
“Obviously it was a big blow not just to Stoke but the city as a whole when the factory shut. There were generations of families who had worked at Spode and that was taken away overnight. Fast forward to the present day and our growth strategy is working – we have one of the fastest growing economies in the country outside of London, and manufacturing growth is higher than the national average. More new businesses perform well in their first year in Stoke-on-Trent than national averages, and ceramics companies are reporting major successes.”
The council worked with educational charity ACAVA (the Association for Cultural Advancement through Visual Art) to bring 46 artists’ studios to the site. The studios, which opened in 2016, are self-contained, with excellent natural light from large factory windows and overhead skylights, and are home to a range of artists and designers. Last year saw the opening of a hotel with café, conference and wedding facilities, and the extension of the Spode Museum to include retail and gallery space.
Cllr Jellyman added: “The focus of our work has been to establish Spode as a thriving centre for arts and culture in the city, building on the name and reputation it has built for itself since the late 18th century. Spode has so much potential to be a catalyst for regeneration – not just in Stoke but across the whole city – and we are starting to see that potential being realised. The owner of the hotel tells me they are pretty much at 100 per cent occupancy in the week with guests ranging from tourists to working professionals, and they are currently finishing off a room on the top floor which will give the hotel a honeymoon suite with views across the site and the city.
“We’re pleased with the success so far of the creative village concept, and that is something we will continue to push forward with. Long term, the site has to re-connect to the rest of the town centre, and that is something we are currently looking at. We want to make Spode a viable, sustainable asset for the future that supports jobs, the local community and economy and contributes to our cultural and visitor destination offer.”
In the last 12 months, the iconic China Halls has hosted three dance music nights, attracting thousands of revellers to the site. Potteries-born DJ and promoter Lee Fredericks, who has been involved in promoting the events, said: “Spode is such an incredible, atmospheric space for the type of event we put on and it’s great to see the site coming back to life.
“We’ve staged three dance events in the China Halls so far, which have been attended by more than 6,000 people in total, with interest from all over the country. Huge credit to the council for having the vision and appetite to use the venue in this way – the support we have received from them has been crucial in making the events possible.”