Bringing a little bit of La Dolce Vita to The Potteries…


Stoke-on-Trent’s Little Italy is to be found off London Road, below Penkhull village. A tad sequestered, it could easily be missed, but for those familiar with it, it is certainly a feast for the discerning eye.

The Villas – a centralisation of middle-class houses – was built by Stokeville Building Society (established in 1850) between 1851 and 1855.

The society embarked on a great social enterprise, guided by its founder member Herbert Minton, the eminent Stoke pottery manufacturer – though other industrialists and artists helped to shape the new project, too.

The society’s ambitious aim was to build new properties on copyhold land not too far from the centre of Stoke. The group of properties soon became known as Stokeville, and the principal architect was Charles Lynam (1829 – 1921), who was still only 21 when approached by the society. Lynam was a bustling, and at times colourful, figure in Stoke, to which he came as an infant, attending a dame school at Penkhull.

Such schools were kept by elderly ladies, with the one who taught Charles also being disabled. In his dotage, he was fond of telling the story that in order to avoid moving from her seat more than was necessary, ‘the dear old creature was wont to have within reach a long wand, with which she tickled up her young charges when they were inclined to be refractory.’



It is not stated whether or not young Lynam received the sharp end of the ‘wand’ but he was not a fellow to be held back. Among the notable structures designed by this prolific architect, were Stoke Market, Stoke Free Library and Baths, Hartshill Cemetery chapels and Christ Church in Fenton.

For the Stokeville Building Society commission, he favoured the Italianate style, embracing such architectural elements as short towers, pantiled, low roofs, graceful round-headed windows and stucco frontages.

The original houses were built in three separate classes – 10 in first-class, six in second and eight in third. All the properties offered accommodation for servants. That said, many of the owners chose not to live in the houses themselves, but to rent to tenants.

The 1898 Ordnance Survey map mentions one property at the top of the road, by name – ‘Rose Mount, the Villas’ – being advertised in 1914 as ‘a first-class family residence.’

Among the prominent figures who resided in this part of Stoke was Louis Marc Emmanuel Solon, the French-born pottery artist, who lived with his large family at number one, the Villas – where he died in 1913. Nineteenth century newspaper notices underline its status as a desirable residence. It was advertised in 1866 as containing a dining room and drawing rooms, a kitchen, scullery and four bedrooms – as well as an all-important water closet. There was an excellent lawn planted with shrubs at the front and a good kitchen garden to the rear.

Leon Arnoux (1816 – 1902), the art director at Minton’s and popularly known as ‘the man who made Minton’s’ lived at number 13, while solicitor William Keary, the first mayor of the borough of Stoke, was certainly living at number 15 by 1870 at latest.

Solon and Arnoux are both buried in Hartshill Cemetery but the addresses of several former residents of the Villas are mentioned on their memorials – for example, Sarah Wells, of 24, Stokeville died in 1872 and is buried in St Peter’s churchyard extension, Stoke, while Alexander Ewing Giffen of ‘Ascog’, the Villas, died in 1926 and was also buried in Hartshill Cemetery.

Many of the original properties, like so many surviving 19th century houses, came to be subdivided, clumsily altered and improperly maintained, though there has been some thoughtful restoration in recent years.

Speaking of protecting our heritage, the Villas are also remembered for a notable public protest in 1956.



Arnold and Pat Machin standing by a gas lamp at The Villas, Stoke-on-Trent. Arnold Machin tried to save the lamp from being replaced by the council in 1956.

Ceramic artist Arnold Machin OBE (1911-1999), was born at nearby Oakhill and enjoyed a glittering career that saw him become a full-time figure modeller at Wedgwood’s. Most famously of all, he designed the Queen’s portrait for the definitive postage stamps that appeared in 1967 – the most-reproduced image in history.

Machin was one of many people living in the mid-20th century who dearly wished to preserve our heritage. Take, for example, the poet and social commentator, Sir John Betjeman, whose radio talks gave him the platform to lambast insensitive new architecture. He favoured ‘well-designed Victorian lamp-posts, instead of these frightful new boa constrictors in concrete’ which he claimed leaned over ‘with corpse lights in their mouths.’

The sage Mr Betjeman would certainly have found an ally in Arnold Machin, who in 1956 was living at number 15, the Villas.

Machin chained himself to a Victorian gas lamppost at the Villas, thereby defying seven workmen who had arrived in order to uproot it. It was intended to be supplanted by a concrete electric lamp standard and the outraged Machin declared: “This is my protest against the destruction of beautiful things which is going on in this country.” He and his artist wife Pat attached themselves to their precious lamppost for six-and-a-half hours, shielding themselves from the blazing sunshine with an umbrella, before the police were called.

The concrete boa constrictor was duly installed, though Machin was given the old metal one – removed by a crane and carried to Machin’s own garden, 40 yards away.

Talking to the national press, he harrumphed at the timel: “I shall put a plaque on it recording the events of the today. It will be a memorial to the stupidity of the modern Subtopian age.”

Years later, the lamppost was returned to its original position.

Machin would have been delighted when the Villas were statutorily listed from the 1970s. The Conservation Area may boast of embracing the highest concentration of both statutorily and locally listed buildings in the city of Stoke-on-Trent.

This fascinating pocket of Stoke certainly has its own atmosphere, a point taken up by Mike Hollowell, when he spoke to The Sentinel on behalf of the residents in 2013:

“It’s the road itself that brings us together, really,” he said. “It’s a private road, not the council’s responsibility, and it’s basically made of clay so we have to work together to make sure that it doesn’t fall into complete disrepair.

“Most of the people living on the road will pitch in to help out.”



On the occasions I have ventured on to the site, I have felt a sense of invading the privacy of local residents, half-expecting to see curtains rustling and to be told to go away and mind my own business.

This being the case, when I last visited the location to take photographs for a book project, I ran up the road in my tracksuit, took my pictures and sped away as quickly as possible so as not to disturb the natives.

In admiring Herbert Minton’s achievement in bringing such beautiful Italianate houses to Stoke, we might add that upon leaving the area, he went to live in a similarly-designed property in Higher Woodfield Road, Torquay.

The beautiful Italianate house, built in 1835 and purchased by the master industrialist in 1856 – two years before he died – is a little difficult to locate, but I managed to trace it whilst on holiday in Torquay a few years ago. Formerly known as Belmont, the private property later became known as Minton’s and has been awarded a heritage plaque by Torbay Civic Society.

The group is evidently keen to promote their area’s connection with the revered master potter responsible for Stoke’s very own Italian Job.

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