Somewhere in the middle of Snowdon National ParkDuring the two weeks prior to our return to New Zealand we were lucky enough to be invited to stay with some relatives in Northern Wales, right on the southern edge of Snowdonia. Wonderful countryside. This was a great way to wind down after two and a half months on the road and we were really spoilt. We stayed in a converted nineteenth century stable and relished the comfort of proper beds. We did a lot of walking, pub visiting and socialising but not too much pottery research!
It wasn’t until we reluctantly headed back into England that we decided to fit in a couple more visits. We had to return the rental vehicle to Huddersfield and although a bit out of the way, it was considerably more economic than hiring in the south. (We were very happy with our van and the long term rental deal, so if you’re considering a trip, drop me a line and I’ll pass on the details). Our route took us through the north of Staffordshire towards Stoke-on-Trent. This region is considered to be the home of the pottery industry in England, and is commonly known as The Potteries. Described as a ‘conurbation’ this urban sprawl covers an area of some 93 sq km, and since the early twentieth century has grown to swallow up six separate towns and many villages. Since the 17th century, the area has become synonymous with large-scale pottery manufacturing. Companies such as Royal Doulton, Spode and perhaps most famously, Wedgwood, were established and based there. An abundance of coal and clay in the immediate area led to the early development of the local pottery industry, although this was initially on a comparatively small scale due to the nature of the local clay (earthenware) and relative geographical isolation.
It was not until the introduction of a reliable and cost effective transport system (particularly the Trent and Mersey canal system) that the industry as a whole flourished. This network of waterways and rail links allowed additional raw materials to be brought in, importantly high quality china clay and china stone from Cornwall. However, without the energy and determination of the local ‘captains of industry’ this would not have happened. Of these remarkable individuals, Josiah Wedgewood is justifiably the most famous. Whilst there were many other centres of fine pottery making throughout Europe, what distinguishes the Staffordshire potteries was an unusual commitment to research, development and design as a way of developing new products and establishing new markets. Consequently, over the years the Potteries became the leading centre for ceramic innovation across industrial, scientific and artistic fronts.
This seemed a fitting conclusion to our tour and given our limited time we had to make some hard choices. We finally settled on the Wedgewood Museum and the well-known Gladstone Museum.
The latter was first en route, and lived up to expectations. After a somewhat tortuous drive through the back streets of Stoke-on-Trent, we eventually found a parking lot at the rear of the museum. As was often the case in the UK, inner-city areas have their fair share of razor-wired business premises and lots of CCTV. Feeling slightly apprehensive about the well-being of the vehicle, we parked directly under the most obvious camera and made our way through a bricked tunnel into the museum.
The Gladstone Pottery Museum is housed in the former Gladstone Works, named for no particularly compelling reason after the Victorian Liberal Party Prime Minister. This collection of well-preserved buildings, the earliest dating from 1790, is typical of the hundreds of workshop clusters that were scattered throughout The Potteries district. Small by comparison to some, by the mid 1800’s it employed 41 adults and 26 children, and would have been busy producing good quality but unexceptional domestic ware.
Visitors are provided with plenty of background by way of an introductory film and strategically placed story boards. Whilst celebrating the achievements of the industry as a whole, the museum doesn’t pull its punches with regard to the working conditions of the time. These were pretty atrocious by any standards and men, women and children all lived and worked in fairly dire conditions. Apart from the usual poor housing, poor sanitation, overcrowding and inadequate diet, workers in The Potteries had to breathe an almost perpetually smoke laden atmosphere. The source of this contamination was the hundreds of huge, coal burning bottle kilns, and it wasn’t until the late 1950’s that the last of these were finally phased out; lung disease was endemic. Whilst producing some spectacularly beautiful ceramic ware, for the average worker, this nineteenth century city was not a healthy place to be.
The steam engineThe self-guided tour leads visitors through various workshops, following the manufacturing process. Although still relying largely on human muscle, a large steam engine provided power for the larger machines which were linked to it via ‘endless belts’. Fascinating to look at but a potential nightmare if you apply contemporary OSH standards! Right next door to the power house was the Slip House where the casting clay was mixed up in batches of 50% animal bone, 25% china stone (which is a partially decomposed form of granite) and 25% china clay (kaolinite). There were 5 stages to this process, starting with the ‘blunger’ where it was all mixed up and ending with the filter press where most of the water was squeezed out. In the early days the clay was then ‘wedged’ by hand by women and children. This exhausting work, not dissimilar to kneading dough, ensured the clay was an even consistency and free from pockets of air. From the 1840’s on, pugmills were used but not widely until the turn of the century. The prepared clay could then be used in different workshops spread around the central clay preparation areas and of course, the kilns. The manufacturing processes included slip casting, pressing, throwing and turning in various combinations. In particular two semi mechanised processes were used, named respectively ‘jiggering’ and ‘jolleying’, great names!
Jiggering was used to make saucers, plates and shallow dishes. A bat or flat disc of clay was placed on a patterned mould mounted to something similar to a potter’s wheel. As the mould spun a profiled arm was pulled down against the clay, forcing it over and against the top of the mould from which it picked up the pattern, and shaping and trimming it on the outside - what would become the underside of the plate.
Now, was that jollying or jiggering?Jolleying is almost the opposite of this. Clay was forced into a hollow mould by a profiling tool that pressed it against the in-sides of the rotating mould and formed it to the required thickness. You’d imagine that only round shapes could be made, but with typical Victorian ingenuity, machines were made where the mould revolved elliptically, allowing oval bowls to be shaped.
Although these machines were often powered by belts from the steam engine, it was not uncommon to find children providing the necessary energy to keep the wheels spinning…and I have trouble getting my teenager to even load the dishwasher.
Not everything was automated and some potteries had specialist staff who handmade clay flowers and other decorations. These delicate adornments were added to the cast or formed bowls or sold as jewellery, and were very popular during Victorian times. Several of the workshops had artisans busy at work, including a flower maker.
Inside a bottle kiln
One of the many bottle kilnsAnd looming over everything were the huge bee-hive shaped kilns. These were walk-in affairs; the outer shell like a huge chimney (the ‘hovel’), contained a cylindrical kiln into which the unfired clay items were stacked in protective ‘saggers’. These fire-clay containers were stacked on top of each other within the kiln, to separate and protect the pottery from the smoke. It took up to 14 tons of coal to fire a load, and one man had the unenviable job of continuously monitoring the process, from inside the ‘hovel’. His skill in controlling the temperature largely determined the success of the firing. No pressure there then! It could take as long as 48hours for a kiln to reach maximum temperature, between 1000C and 1250C after which the fires were allowed to go out and the whole lot left cool down. Such was the pace demanded by some owners, that unloading often started while the inner bricks were still red hot. Entering a bottle kiln must have been like entering the mouth of hell.
Moulds associated with modern toilet bowlsBy way of contrast to all this, the Gladstone museum also has the largest museum display entirely devoted to the history of the WC! Perhaps not something you’d imagine wanting to spend much time perusing, yet this was in fact quite fascinating! Toilets are of course nothing more than large, slip cast china bowls, but because of the way they are required to channel water and the ‘ergonomic’ factors, they are surprisingly complex in design…and to make.
Cisterns are equally well represented, and you’d be amazed at how much ingenuity
has been devoted to providing the ‘flush’!
And we also discovered the truth behind the origins of the word crap!
All in all this is one of the best open-air style museums I’ve visited, and well worth a look.
- Nick C
(Images taken on the museum grounds or copied from 'The Potteries', by David Sekers, the first Director of the Museum).