Joe Lane, "Networks, Innovation, and Knowledge: the North Staffordshire Potteries, 1750-1851" (U of London, 2023)


During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the industrial district of the North Staffordshire Potteries dominated the British earthenware industry, producing local goods that sold in global markets. Over this time the region experienced consistent growth in output, an extreme spatial concentration of physical and human capital, and became home to some of the most famous Master Potters in the world. The Potteries was also characterised by a growing body of useful and practical knowledge about the materials, processes and skills required to produce world-leading earthenware. This thesis exploits this striking example of a highly concentrated and highly skilled craft-based industry during a period of sustained growth and development which offers a rich opportunity to contribute to several strands of economic and business history. 

This thesis presents and analyses new empirical evidence based on trade directories to examine the organisational evolution of the district. It reconstructs the district at the firm level, showing that the region’s growth was incredibly dynamic. The spatial concentration of producers and the importance of social and business networks are also explored through a new map of the region in 1802 and social network analysis. As a study of a craft-based, highly skilled industry without a legacy of formal institutions such as guilds to govern and protect access to knowledge, this thesis also offers substantial empirical and historiographical contributions to the study of knowledge and innovation during the period of the Industrial Revolution. It presents a new database of pottery patents alongside a variety of qualitative evidence such as trade literature, exhibition catalogues, advertisements and sales catalogues. Quantitative and qualitative analysis reveals the low propensity to patent in the North Staffordshire pottery industry, and provides a new typology of knowledge used in the industry. It argues that the types of knowledge being created and disseminated influenced the behaviour of producers substantially, and this typology of knowledge is far more complex than those established tacit/explicit divisions favoured in historical study and the social sciences more broadly. The findings of this thesis allow us to answer numerous outstanding questions concerning the development of the North Staffordshire Potteries during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When brought together in such a way, the complementary strands of research and findings presented offer a coherent narrative of an extremely complex and dynamic cluster of production that both challenges and confirms traditional historiographical tradition concerning industrial districts.

This thesis is available open access here

Dr. Joe Lane is a business historian and lecturer in Strategy at Henley Business School at the University of Reading. He holds a PhD in Economic History from the London School of Economics, where he subsequently worked before joining Henley in 2019. He is co-director of the centre for economic institutions and international business history at the University of Reading and has two current streams of research, one into patents and innovation over the long run, and a second concerning how industrial clusters as sites of knowledge creation and dissemination.

Published as:

  • Lane, J. (2019). Secrets for Sale? Innovation and the Nature of Knowledge in an Early Industrial District: The Potteries, 1750–1851. Enterprise & Society, 20(4), 861-906. doi:10.1017/eso.2019.8
  • Lane, J. (2022b). Knowledge, identity and cooperation in an early industrial cluster: The Potteries in 1775. In: Wilson, J. F., Corker, C. and Lane, J. (eds.) Industrial Clusters Knowledge, Innovation Systems and Sustainability in the UK. Routledge. (Published July 1st 2022)
  • Lane, J. (2023). The Trees of the Forest: Uncovering Small-Scale Producers in an Industrial District, 1781–1851. Enterprise & Society, 24(3), 702-730. doi:10.1017/eso.2022.7

Other references made reference during the discussion are:

  • Moser, P., 2013. Patents and innovation: evidence from economic history. Journal of economic perspectives, 27(1), pp.23-44.
  • Storper, M. and Venables, A.J., 2004. Buzz: face-to-face contact and the urban economy. Journal of economic geography, 4(4), pp.351-370.
  • Bathelt, H., Malmberg, A. and Maskell, P., 2004. Clusters and knowledge: local buzz, global pipelines and the process of knowledge creation. Progress in human geography, 28(1), pp.31-56.

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