An­thony Bur­ton looks at the lives of work­ing pot­ters from the early days of this vi­tal in­dus­try

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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.

Pro­duc­tion stages

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

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