The Country Potteries: an historical outline

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The Country Potteries: an historical outline

Issac Button - Copy
Photograph: Issac Button, last of the Halifax potters, throwing cider jars at Soil Hill Pottery 1960

Pottery vessels have played a basic part in the needs of society and have reflected its change and development throughout the ages. Up to the final decline of the country potteries in the last century there had existed unbroken traditions in potting dating from medieval times: the results of this are wares which generally have marked qualities and characteristics in common. The most notable of these are simplicity and strength of form that directly reflect the method of production/the materials and a fitness for the intended function; unfussy and vigorous handling of the clay. A number of contemporary potters with experience of working in some of the last surviving potteries draw heavily on these strong traditions and by doing so keep something of the essence of this wonderful heritage alive.
Potteries grew up over past centuries, to serve their communities, on sites where there were accessible seams of usable clay, quantities of fuel (wood and coal) and supplies of water. The medieval potter made a limited number of wares mainly cooking pots, jugs and to a lesser degree, bowls. His clay was unprocessed often containing small stones, his wheel had no electricity to power it, he had to pot with an economy of effort and a generosity of proportion given to lip and handle that set the standards for the ‘coarse ware’ to follow in subsequent centuries.
During the late 1400’s to the end of the next century there was much socio/economic and political change. Immigrants from the continent brought new forms/techniques and ideas and this resulted in the English country potteries expanding their repertoire of forms. During this time they were still supplying their local markets but by the mid 1600’s, with the rise of the ‘potmonger’ or ‘cratemen’ (traders from the growing merchant classes) the potteries were able to sell their wares to these entrepreneurs who transported the goods and sold them on, further a field. It was this marketing development that resulted in the rapid expansion of the Staffordshire potteries at the expense of all other similar concerns in the Midlands: only the further flung potteries in the country survived. By the late 17th century, tea, coffee and oriental porcelain were being imported and the English began to demand finer ceramics for use. John Dwight in 1671 at Fulham, London was attempting to satisfy this growing demand. Later Wedgewood based in Staffordshire started refining earthenwares in imitation of the porcelain imports. It was at this point that the ‘craft’ of the potter in Staffordshire turned into an industrial process. Wedgewood’s ‘Queensware’ (1750-1775) was a commercial success and was widely exported, and copied! At home these finer white wares tended to replace the pewter that most better off people were using and so the country potteries continued to survive.
In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, with the onset of The Industrial Revolution, there occurred a mass movement in the population as people moved into the expanding industrial areas to find work. The pay was very poor and these labourers could afford only the coarsewares of the country potteries: Demand increased and new potteries sprang up to capture the trade appropriated by the Staffordshire potteries over a century before.
By 1850 the markets were changing once again and the workers were earning better wages. Habits changed: there was less home brewing and baking. At the same time the finer wares from Staffordshire became cheaper and more easily obtainable.
The country potteries were losing sales. Quite a number rose to the challenge once more, by moving into tile/brick/drain pipe production.
By 1950 only a handful of traditional potteries survived. Among them, Wetheriggs, near Penrith, Soil Hill, near Halifax and Wrecclesham Potteries, near Farnham. These potteries were kept going by a dwindling number of ageing unique craftsmen who, in the 20th century, had turned their hand to making more decorative pieces for a growing tourist trade or making items for niche markets like gardenware. With the death of these men an era had truly ended.

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