Review by Amy C. Earls
Potters: Oral History in the Staffordshire Ceramic Industry

Gordon Elliott. Potters: Oral History in the Staffordshire Ceramic Industry. Leek, Staffordshire, Eng.: Churnet Valley Books, 2004. £9.95 (softcover).

These twentieth-century oral histories about work in Staffordshire potteries and service trades reveal insights into how pots were made and decorated and offer remarkable glimpses of nineteenth-century material culture survivals. Pottery production practices are a long-standing research interest of the author, Gordon Elliott, former Keeper of Ceramics at the Stoke-on-Trent City Museum (now Potteries Museum and Art Gallery) and ceramics history lecturer at Staffordshire University.[1] This book presents Dr. Elliott’s interviews with residents who responded to his mid-1970s appeal in the Staffordshire Sentinel for oral histories originally intended to accompany displays in a planned museum extension.

At the time of the interviews the author was studying nineteenth-century child labor in the potteries and realized that the children described in those government reports were of the same generation as the grandparents of the people whom he was interviewing. Accounts such as Alice Morris’s memories as a thirteen year old of wedging clay and providing foot power for the turner’s lathe led the author to consider parallels between nineteenth- and twentieth-century conditions and to question whether worker welfare had improved in the intervening seventy years. Selections from the Samuel Scriven (1842) and Robert Baker (1865) government reports are included as appendix 1 so that readers can compare testimony between these different generations of pottery workers. Appendix 2 lists weekly wages in the ceramics industry from 1841 to 1938.

The nine interviews consist of five potters or assistants (all in clay-forming specialties), one laborer, one owner, and two artists and teachers. The tenth interview reveals glimpses of a flourishing pawnbroker trade often central to the gritty rhythm of the work week for potters whose jobs depended on foreign markets and who lived from one paycheck to the next.

Black-and-white photographs and drawings illustrate the workers, clay-forming processes, and individuals and ware types mentioned in the text. The potbank interior views are particularly well chosen and include a remarkable series of photographs from the early 1930s showing John Lockett’s factory, its management, and earthenware thrower George Myatt using one of the last of the great wheels, powered not by steam or electricity but by his assistant.

The use of hand (or foot) power well into the twentieth century is one of the revelations of this book. Thrower Myatt preferred the two-legged stance that was possible with an assistant to power the great wheel, which he used to throw druggist and medical wares at Lockett’s between 1919 and circa 1941. Lockett’s, “a remarkable example in the 1950s of a 19th century time capsule with its workshops converted from a row of cottages and a pub” (p. 11), probably was able to stay in business because of its specialized hospital and box (covered jars) wares market. When box ware production was lost to glassmakers during World War II and the passage of air pollution regulations in the 1950s required kilns to be upgraded, this small family firm with its outdated equipment and layout and long-term employees went out of business.

Great wheels also survived in some bone china factories. Alice Morris turned a great wheel for a jiggerman and was lathe treader on a great wheel for a turner. She liked being on her feet and compared the treading to dancing. When slip-casting machines were introduced in the 1950s, turners and their assistants had to train for other jobs, so in her fifties she learned scolloping (scalloping cups and sugars). Still working at age seventy-five, she said that the young people’s work “is rubbish. My scolloping is done twenty times slower but it’s really good work, not like theirs. I don’t know how the firm can sell most of it, I don’t” (p. 77). This pride in their craft is a recurring element in the potters’ accounts even as the difficulty in competing against more cheaply machine-produced wares is obvious.

Other material culture gems include information on potters’ tools. The loss of jobs during the Depression and the shrinking number of throwing jobs as the twentieth century progressed led thrower Myatt to branch out from medical wares to general earthenware production. The general earthenware production was easier, not so heavy as the fifty-six-pound mortars and three-gallon barrel jugs that he had made at Lockett’s, but he had to learn to throw a greater variety of shapes. Thrower’s ribs usually had to be custom-made by each worker to fit his own hand as well as the particular shape. When, during the Depression, Myatt worked at as many as five firms a week to make a living, he had to have hundreds of ribs, one for each vessel shape and size at the different factories. Many of the ribs were marked so that the owner could keep track of them.

Platemaker Leonard Potts describes making bone china plates at Spode using a different hand-held profile for each plate shape. “A ten inch [unscalloped] plate profile would not make a ten inch scalloped plate” (p. 84). Although Potts attributed the twentieth-century use of hand-held profiles at Spode to owner Gresham Copeland’s keenness “to keep everything that was old and good” and to a shortage of capital for buying jolly machines, the author points out that the bone china body was less plastic than the earthenware body and thus not as easily adapted to machine production.

Reginald Haggar, recently the subject of an affectionate Northern Ceramic Society centenary newsletter, was a key figure on the Staffordshire ceramics scene as founding tutor of the ceramics summer school at Keele University, founding president of the Northern Ceramics Society and artist, educator, designer, author, and collector.[2] Haggar vividly describes the art director’s studio at Minton’s, where he worked briefly at the beginning of the Depression:

It was exactly like it was in the time of Leon Arnoux [Minton’s art director from 1848 to 1892], whose portrait hung on the wall. . . . The water jars that were used were the same jars that were on the table in the portrait of Arnoux. . . . All the furnishings were exactly as they were in the 19th century. . . . The old traditions were upheld and maintained without alteration into the period when I came to the factory. (pp. 21–22)

Another picturesque scene from the Haggar interview is his description of Alfred Meigh of the Meigh potting family, “with his cape and his cap, his little carpet bag, his big boots and his knickerbockers. I remember that he had all the stories he liked to relate on his cuff so that he wouldn’t forget them” (p. 25). The author notes that it was Meigh’s collection of potters’ marks and backstamps that Geoffrey Godden used as the basis for his 1964 encyclopedia of marks. Haggar compared Staffordshire characters such as Meigh to the individualistic appearance of the potbanks and the potteries’ built environment.

Finally, as a white granite collector, I appreciated Haggar’s comment that “elaborately gilt patterns” such as those by Minton were the sort that covered up “a multitude of sins. The sorting you know for an expensive plate is not the kind of sorting that you need for a plain white plate[,] which is more difficult to make” (p. 21). Such insider quotes make it easy to see why Elliott felt that these histories deserved publication. This book is the equivalent of a good Eastfield Village (“dish camp”) lecture and demonstration or a Ceramics in America technology article, with working potters talking about how and sometimes why they did things the way they did and pictures illustrating the process.[3] The audience learns to recognize how the pot was made and the types of labor that went into it. As George Myatt explained:

there are a lot of alleged connoisseurs of pottery that can’t tell a cast or jollied article from something that has been thrown, whereas the thrower needs only to put his fingers inside an article and he can tell you the way it’s been made. In my own little tinpot way, only on making, I always look inside being a thrower, to see if it’s a good article because if it’s made poorly, it’s a poor article no matter what’s done to it afterwards. If it’s made wrong[,] it’s wrong right through. (p. 64)

It is this collective memory of pottery making that is being lost as factories and equipment are sold, potteries jobs are outsourced to foreign countries, and workers die. By publishing these interviews, Gordon Elliott has preserved some of those memories and paid tribute to the workers who make the pots that we study and love. Anyone with an interest in Staffordshire pottery making will find treasures in this book.

Amy C. Earls, Ceramics in America

Ceramics in America 2006

  • [1]

    Gordon Elliott is author of The Design Process in British Ceramic Manufacture, 1750–1850 ([Stoke-on-Trent]: Staffordshire University Press, [2002]), and John and David Elers and Their Contemporaries (London: Jonathan Horne, 1998), as well as compiler of Some Descriptions of Pottery Making and Working Conditions, 1557–1844 (Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire: Ivy House Publications, 1970). 

  • [2]

    Haggar shared with his contemporary, Paul Johnson’s headmaster father (see review in this issue, pp. 290–92), a love of painting and sketching crumbling old pottery buildings. 

  • [3]

    Dish camp is Joy Hanes’s term for Don Carpentier’s annual Eastfield Village summer ceramics workshop and seminar in the Albany, New York, area.