MY ANCESTOR WAS A... POTTER
Anthony Burton looks at the lives of working potters from the early days of this vital industry
Pottery has been made in Britain since the Stone Age, but the modern industry has its origins in the early-18th century.
At one time, there were small potteries serving purely local needs all over Britain, producing everyday items such as cups and bowls. The larger industrial units developed where the basic commodities were readily available – good clay and coal to fire the kilns – such as South Wales, southern Scotland and north-east England. Many districts developed their own specialities; for example, the major manufacturers of porcelain were in Chelsea and Worcester, while north-east England – particularly Sunderland – became famous in the 19th century for lustreware. One area, however, became virtually synonymous with the industry and that was the six towns that make up modern Stoke-on-Trent. An 1842 survey listed 127 pot works in Staffordshire, of which 25 were modern works. employing more than 100 workers each, 64 employed 50 to 100 people, with the rest deemed small businesses. Wherever the major industrial pot works were situated, though, the methods of working were much the same. The processes are relatively simple to describe. Earthenware pot-making starts with the basic material: clay. Before anything can be made, the clay has to be mixed to ensure consistency and any extra ingredients added. Originally in Staffordshire, the local dark clay was used which, if a light
The modern pottery industry has its origins in the early-18th century
colour was needed in the finished product, the dark clay had to be disguised behind a heavy glaze.
In the 18th century, it was discovered that the colour could be improved by mixing in ground flint – and flint mills were built in the region. In addition, lighter clays could be imported from Devon and Cornwall. With the advent of mechanisation, the mixing was done in mills.
However, before the clay could be used it had to be ‘wedged’. This involved getting a large, heavy block of clay, cutting it in half, picking up one piece and slamming it down on top of the other half. This process was repeated over and over again, until the clay was the correct consistency and all the air bubbles had been removed. This would prevent a pot from cracking when heated in the kiln. This arduous job usually went to quite young boy apprentices in the early days of the industry.
The next stage would be to turn a pot on the familiar potter’s wheel. This was a highly skilled job, and in the earliest days of the industry every pot would have been made individually in this way. Later, the system was changed. An individual piece was still turned on the wheel, but was then used as the basis for creating a mould. The clay would no longer be left as a solid lump, but mixed with water to create a thick fluid, known as ‘slip’. This could then be poured into the mould to duplicate the original pot.
Different types of ware required slightly different treatments. If a cup was being made, for example, the main part would be moulded, but the handles would be added later, using stiff clay, by specialist workers known as ‘stoukers’.
Making a saucer was different again. The potter would take a pancake of clay in one hand. With his other hand he would set the mould spinning and press the damp clay into it.
The potter was helped by small boys, who took the formed saucers, known as muffins, and scurried off to the drying room to set them out on high shelves. The temperature in the room was high and the work exhausting.
After this stage, the pots would be ready for firing. The commonest form of kiln was known, due to its shape, as a bottle kiln. The ware could not be placed directly in the heat, but had to be stacked in ‘saggars’, open-topped boxes made of fireclay. These were generally made in the works by banging clay down into iron formers – a job that went to the nowlegendary saggar-maker’s bottom knocker. Once enough ware was ready, the filled saggars were stacked in the kiln and the firing began.
The temperature was raised
slowly and an even longer period was needed to allow everything to cool down again. Getting the temperature just right in the days before high-temperature thermometers depended on the skill of the fireman.
The ware that came out of the kiln was known as ‘ biscuit’, and it would now go off for decorating and glazing. The most common form of decoration was painting, which was highly skilled and often the work of women. It would then be covered in a suitable glaze. Many of the early glazes had a very high lead content and those who worked in the glazing department often suffered from lead poisoning.
Sometimes the decoration was added on top of the glaze by transfer printing – a process of adding an illustration from a thin sheet. The ware would then go for a second firing, which in larger works would be in a separate kiln.
The most expensive form of decoration was gilding, and this ware was fired in a special, smaller kiln.
A range of products
The bigger companies would often produce two very different types of ware.
Firstly, there was useful ware, the everyday objects that everyone needed in the home. Secondly, was artistic ware that could range from elaborate vases to delicate cameos.
The artists that were employed were the elite. When Minton brought over French artists, the firm built splendid Italianate houses for them in The Villas near the works. Therefore the workers in any one factory covered a huge range, from labourers to the very highly skilled art potters and decorators.
This was reflected in the pay. At the Wedgwood factory in the 1790s, pay ranged from apprentices who received a paltry shilling a week (5p) to an overseer on 21 shillings (£1.05).
But the master modeller had a handsome 42 shillings (£ 2.10), a sum that few industrial workers could have ever hoped to earn.
Major factories showed continuity in their workforce, with the same family names recurring through generations of workers. Sadly, many of the records for smaller companies have long since vanished.
The usual family history records will often show the occupation simply as “pottery worker” or something similar.
There were early attempts to form trade unions for the industry in the 1790s that failed quite quickly. The first partially successful union, The National Union of Operative Potters, lasted from 1827-37, but was revived under a new name as the United Branch of Operative Potters in the 1840s, eventually developing into the Ceramic and Allied Trade Union. Many of the records have survived, but in the early years the different unions rarely spread their membership much beyond Staffordshire itself.
Because the industry was so widely scattered, it is often difficult to track down the different companies, but there are major ceramic collections held in museums in England, Scotland and Wales that will help in finding where the pots were made as a starting point for local research.
A craft potter finishing a wheel-turned pot, c1910
The smoking bottle kilns of the Staffordshire potteries of Stoke- onTrent form a striking backdrop to this street scene from March 1946
Potters dry their wares at a pottery in Verwood, Dorset, in October 1924