History explorer: Inside Britain’s ceramics revolution

Richard Smyth and Miranda Goodby explore Gladstone Pottery Museum, Staffordshire, home to some of the country’s last giant bottle ovens

The inner courtyard of the old pottery factory at Gladstone Pottery Museum, with its five towering bottle ovens. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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To stand inside a Staffordshire bottle oven is to find yourself at the heart of an industry that once totally dominated this corner of the country. “No one calls Northamptonshire ‘the shoes’ or Sheffield ‘the cutleries’,” a volunteer at the Gladstone Pottery Museum tells me proudly. “But this corner of north Staffordshire is ‘the Potteries’.”

The museum stands in Longton, one of the ‘six towns’ (with Stoke-on-Trent, Burslem, Hanley, Tunstall and Fenton) that since the 17th century have been the heartland of the UK’s pottery and ceramics industry. While the nearby Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley holds the world’s largest collection of Staffordshire ware – some 50,000 pieces, with around 5,000 on display – Gladstone was established to preserve something of the industry itself: the skills, technology and, of course, the iconic brick bottle ovens.

What was it about this string of towns that gave rise to a world-leading industry and immortalised the names of Wedgwood, Spode and Minton, among others?

“A lot of it’s down to the geology,” explains Miranda Goodby, senior curator of ceramics at the Potteries Museum. “Basically, Stoke-on-Trent is built on clay and coal. So you’ve got the two raw materials you need for making pottery. That’s absolutely key all the way through the 17th century.”

Jiggerers and jolleyers

These materials were used to create coarse Staffordshire ‘slipware’, which was characterised by the reds, yellows and browns of the local clay. The slipware would soon go out of style – but by then, the Staffordshire potters already had a head start. The emerging 18th-century fashion for ‘white ware’ required potters to source white clay from Dorset and Devon, 200 miles away, but the skills and infrastructure of the six towns meant that the area was nevertheless able to maintain its hold on the industry. Aside from anything else, the South West had almost no coal of its own. “To turn one tonne of clay into pottery you need between 14 and 20 tonnes of coal,” Goodby points out.

This was a monumental endeavour. The Potteries lie 30 miles from the navigable waters of the Trent, Mersey and Severn. Between the factories and the riverboats, the raw materials coming in and the finished products going out all had to be transported on horses, in laden panniers (containers). This all changed when a coalition of industrialists led by Josiah Wedgwood – in so many ways the founding father of industrialised pottery manufacture – pressed ahead with plans for a linking canal.

“The Trent and Mersey Canal opened in 1777 giving access by water to the east and west coasts,” Goodby explains. “It provided new opportunities to export to America and Europe. A horse pulling a canal boat can pull something like 40 times more weight than it can pulling a cart. And of course there’s less breakage. Canals made a huge difference: it was cheaper to get raw materials in and to get finished products out again.”

Pottery in the six towns – built on local resources, worked by generations of craftspeople, supported by a formidable infrastructure – dominated the district. In socio economic terms, it employed tens of thousands of local people, including children (in 1861, more than 4,000 children under 14 were at work in the Potteries). A factory, or ‘potbank’, would employ a bewildering array of specialists, from ‘mouldrunners’ (youngsters who carried moulds to and from the workshops) to ‘jiggerers’, ‘jolleyers’ (crafters who shaped the clay), ‘saggarmakers’ (who made the clay containers in which the ware was fired) and ‘stilt-makers’ (workers, usually women, who made the clay separators that supported the wares during firing). Add to these the thousands of jobs linked indirectly to the industry – in coal-mining, not least – and the enormous and enduring influence of pottery-making in these parts becomes clear.

Organic growth

The industry also came to define the urban landscape of the area. The bottle oven – a tall, tapered brick shell in which the oven was housed – was a familiar sight in the six towns for centuries.

“There were more than a thousand bottle ovens at the height of the industry,” says Miranda. “Like steam engines, each had its own personality, so it was important you had good fire-men who knew the peculiarities of their own ovens. Ovens tended to be clustered around the centres of towns. If you look at aerial views of the six towns in the 1950s, they’re thick with them.”

People lived cheek-by-jowl with the work shops and smoking ovens in which they made their livings. Says Goodby: “What you’ve got to remember with the pottery industry is that you don’t need a lot of heavy machinery – you certainly didn’t in the 18th and 19th centuries. When the textile industries took off in northern England, they needed steam engines and steam- driven machinery; the buildings used were often iron-framed and occupied large spaces to house this equipment. In Stoke, however, comparatively little machinery was needed. A series of workshops arranged around a courtyard were used instead, much like you can see at the Gladstone Museum today.”

Josiah Wedgwood, Goodby adds, did things a little differently. “Wedgwood was unusual. When he built his works at Etruria, he used a greenfield site just outside Burslem and built a model factory. This did also sometimes happen in the second half of the 19th century, but more often than not pottery-making sites grew organically.”

As is so often the case with industrial heritage, the bottle ovens of the six towns very nearly vanished without anyone really noticing. “The ovens were never built to last,” Goodby explains. “Invariably they’d be demolished and rebuilt after four or five years at most. They were constantly being heated up and cooled down, and if you look at their structure – a thin, domed form with a bottle-shaped chimney around the outside – it’s clear they could be rebuilt regularly.”

With fewer than 50 remaining in the whole area, the Gladstone bottle ovens are one of the things that make this site special. Visitors can take a walk around the hovel – the outer shell – and even step inside the oven. It’s a powerfully evocative insight into an icon of the region’s industrial history.

It was the Clean Air Act of 1956 that spelled the end for the bottle oven. Like most industrial districts in Britain, the Potteries had sweltered for many decades in an unhealthy stew of coal-smoke and other factory effluents. The act changed all that.

“The Potteries were given less than 10 years to comply with the Clean Air Act,” Goodby says, “and by the early 1960s increased use of gas and electric for firing had made bottle ovens redundant. People saw no reason to keep them and most were pulled down. It was really only in the late 60s and early 70s that people realised that all the bottle ovens were going, so a decision was made to preserve at least one factory as it had been in the 19th century.”

And so the Gladstone Working Pottery Museum was born. The museum helps to keep alive not only the historic buildings and hardware of the Potteries, but also the craftspeople’s skills – honed over generations, but now no longer in commercial demand. In the museum’s workshops, you can watch (and sometimes join in with) demonstrations of these skills; on my visit a flower-maker deftly shaped blobs of bone china clay into an immaculate ceramic flower in a matter of minutes, using only her hands and a few improvised tools.

Firing on all cylinders

Just as important as these live demos are the hundreds of hours of film held in the museum’s archives. Jobs from flower-making to kiln-firing have been preserved in this way. “We’ve filmed a lot of processes,” Goodby says. “It’s like the bottle ovens: if you’re not careful, you lose them without noticing.”

It would be a mistake, however, to think of the six towns pottery industry as nothing but a historical artefact. “We make more pots in Stoke-on-Trent today than we ever have done,” Goodby points out. “But we need fewer people to do it. In the 18th century, making pottery was very labour-intensive; there really was no machinery. But during the 20th century, the industry moved more and more towards mechanisation. In many ways that was a good thing, because hand labour (often child labour) had previously been used for processes like preparing the clay – literally kneading and hitting and knocking the air out of it. Meanwhile, carrying clay and ware around the factory and physically turning the wheel for the thrower were all heavy labour.

“Once you have a pug mill [a type of machine] to prepare the clay, or the thrower’s wheel is electricity-powered, or they’re using a jiggering machine, then instead of employing several people you only need to employ one. The people taken out of the process are the ones who were doing the heavy, dirty jobs.

“Factories like Emma Bridgewater’s [in Stoke-on-Trent] still employ many decorators, because a lot of their creative work – hand-painting, sponging, printed patterns – is still very much hand-work; but it’s at the clay end that all the heavy labour has largely been mechanised and done away with.”

Gladstone’s unique exhibitions, dedicated to the history of tiles and bathroom-ware (that is, toilets), are a reminder that ceramics have always been put to a wide variety of uses. That is still the case today when cutting-edge engineering relies on ceramics in applications as diverse as internal combustion engines, medical implants, watch casings and ‘bulletproof’ aircraft housings.

Staffordshire pottery is very much a living industry – but it’s an industry that can only be fully understood by taking into account the soot-stained heritage of the six towns – bottle ovens, saggar- makers and all.

Television: Made in Great Britain, a six-part series exploring British manufacturing history – including the Potteries – is now showing on BBC Two

Visit: Gladstone Pottery Museum, Uttoxeter Road, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent ST3 1PQ 0149 www.stokemuseums.org.uk

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Miranda Goodby is an expert in the history of ceramics. She is senior curator of ceramics at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. Words: Richard Smyth