The traditional holiday of every community, whether village or town, was the annual wakes. These originated as religious festivals in which each community would celebrate the birthday of the saint that there particular church was dedicated to.
To this extent wakes were first held within the churchyard. Until the 16th or 17th centuries gravestones were usually only for the extremely wealthy who typically opted for internment within the church. The churchyard therefore offered a convenient open space for such festivities.
The early celebrations involved parishioners building tents or shelters with the boughs of trees adjoining the church. These were for the purpose of celebrating the feast with thanksgiving and prayer. Frivolity soon appears to have taken over and an order by King Edgar in the 10th century reminded those who participated that the purpose of the wakes was to ‘pray devoutly and not to betake themselves to drunkenness and debauchery.’ One contemporary chronicler lamented that ‘the people fell to lechery, and songs and dances with harping and piping, as well as gluttony and sin, and so turned the holiness to cursedness.’
By the Elizabethan period the wakes had lost much of their religious significance and became more of a secular holiday. Reports often stated that they were often ‘sources of gluttony and drunkenness.’
With the industrial revolution, and immigration from village to town, the inhabitants continued with their traditional holiday. This led to conflict with manufacturers as evidenced in a letter written by Josiah Wedgwood to his business partner Thomas Bentley in July 1776: ‘Our men have been at play four days this week, it being Burslem wakes. I have rough’d and smooth’d them over and promis’d them a long Christmas, but I know it is all in vain, for wakes’s must be observed though the world was to end with them.’ That Wedgwood was unable to influence his employees shows the importance people had for their traditional holidays, especially as these were unpaid. Paid holidays were not introduced until the 20th century.
A newspaper report of the Burslem wakes of 1820 stated ‘the weather when we entered the town, was exceedingly warm, which caused the windows of the public houses to be open. The rooms within were nearly filled, although it was only about 10 o’clock in the morning. In some, the fiddlers played to companies of dancers; in others the fumes of tobacco half concealed the interior. The town was evidentially in confusion, through the preparations that were making for that disorder which was expected. Shops were decorating, windows were cleaning, and carts, wheelbarrows, boards, hampers, and poles, crowded the streets. In every direction the sound of the hammer was heard. Awnings were erecting, limits were fixing, adverse parties were contending for their respective rights, and mutually reproaching each other with encroachments. In one department was an exhibition of wild beasts, and in another rope-dancing and feats of agility by a French Company of tame ones, invited the notice of the spectators. Almost every minute presented something new. Exhibition followed exhibition, and crows succeeded crowd. The children that were suffered to parade the streets were in full employ running from place to place, and in every corner discovering new objects of wonder and admiration.’
Amidst the joviality, however, accidents and injuries were no doubt commonplace. A report on the bull-baiting that traditionally took place in Swan Square appeared in The Staffordshire Gazette of July 5th 1814. ‘We lament to be informed that nearly a dozen persons at Burslem have been much injured by an infuriated bull, two or three of whom so serious that their lives are despaired of. An inhabitant of Burslem had his thigh lacerated several inches deep; a man from Chesterton had two ribs broken and his head cut in a dreadful manner; and a person from Longport so much hurt that their recovery is doubtful.’
During this period each of the six towns had their own individual wakes. Manufacturers were keen to have these amalgamated as the number of towns in close proximity meant that it was often too much of a temptation for some to bunk off work in order to attend the festivities of neighbouring towns. However, it was not until the 20th century that the traditional ‘Potter’s Fortnight’ was universally adopted throughout the district.