The rise of the Staffordshire potteries

Bottiger’s reference to Wedgwood’s ‘assistants’ prompts the question, how much did the many workers in the British ceramics industry know about ancient art? The industry was always concentrated in the Staffordshire potteries. By the 1880s, more than 50,000 people were employed in or dependent on the manufacture of ceramics there.28 Women and girls had always worked in potteries, especially as printers who transferred the outline designs to the clay, but Wedgwood discovered that they were often talented painters who could acquire manual skills fast and proficiently while being paid much less than their male counterparts. By 1870, half the British pottery workforce was female,29 a situation which made artistic portrayals of women pottery workers mildly fashionable, either in contemporary garb within neoclassical friezes, or in scenes where ancient ‘Etruscan’ women are depicted painting or carrying vases known from collections in museums.30

In 1910, the six towns constituting the Potteries (Stoke, Hanley, Burslem, Tunstall, Longton and Fenton) were amalgamated into the conurbation ofStoke-upon-Trent. The three biggest firms were Copeland, Minton and Wedgwood, but there were hundreds of smaller potteries, some of which produced classically themed wares. The Hill Top Pottery in Burslem, owned successively by Ralph Wood and Samuel Alcock, made delicate creamware and Parian goods. In Fenton there was the Minerva Works.31 Tunstall had the Phoenix Works. In Hanley, the Old Hall Works produced Parian ware with elaborate classical mouldings,32 and the Hope Street Works of the Dudson family made jasperware with white classical draped figures in the Wedgwood style.33 Hanley was until 1880 also home to the Castle Field Pottery, which made black-ground and gold-printed imitation Athenian earthenware vases.34

In Stoke itself, the famous Spode Pottery was taken over by W.T. Copeland, which manufactured many neoclassical designs reproducing the shapes of and paintings on Athenian red-figure vases; for example, one showing three female figures on a vase displayed at the 1851 Exhibition;35 the detail on the central figure’s costume and head-dress is spectacular. Minton & Co. made colourful tiles with classical imagery and employed the doyen of pdte-sur-pate neoclassicism, Frenchman Marc Louis Solon, whose stunning vase portraying the romantic hero Paris with Erotes was displayed at the 1871 Exhibition.36 Similar neoclassical pdte-sur-pdte was made at the Trent Potteries, whereas the specialities at the Wharf Street Works were busts and figures tinted to resemble ivory, including ‘Clytie’, ‘Apollo’ and ‘Penelope’, which sold well in the USA.37

But the workers who made all these elegant products, and walked daily past municipal buildings designed in a variety of grand Doric and neoclassical idioms,38 did not live luxurious lives themselves. The culture surrounding the industry was idiosyncratic; accounts even as late as the Edwardian era speak of a strong dialect, vocabulary impenetrable to outsiders, endurance feats, distancewalking races, al-fresco swimming, outdoor games called ‘Prison Bar’ and ‘Burn Ball’ and strange songs that all locals knew off-by-heart.39 Drinking sprees, especially but not exclusively at fair-times, went on for three or more days. A journalist from Ireland who visited in 1809 reported that, on an ordinary summer Monday,

I was surprized to find such crowds of people in a state of idleness, men, women, and boys: many of whom, even boys not exceeding 15 or 16, in a state of gross intoxication ... I had formerly been a strong advocate for high wages to the working classes of the community, in hopes they might tend to increase their comforts and elevate their vices to some higher attainment of intellectual knowledge ... The instance mentioned in a late commercial report, of the work people employed at the cotton factory at Rothsay [sic] in the Isle of Bute, purchasing a library, and employing their leisure hours in reading, forms a pleasing contrast.40

Violent sports including boxing and the baiting of unfortunate animals were popular. The grim housing, squalor and pollution of the potteries was notorious, as documented not only in Charles Shaw’s memoir, and the fiction of local author Arnold Bennett,41 but also in numerous government and workers’ movement reports on the state of education, sanitation and healthcare from the late 18th century onwards.42 Until well into the 20th century there was a grave problem with contamination from the toxic materials and chemicals involved in the production of ceramics, leading to an abnormally high level of early death, especially from lead poisoning.43 The son of a Burslem potter born in 1915 recalls from his childhood the outside toilets of the pottery workers, and the impenetrable smoke that necessitated the far more frequent washing of curtains and interior upholstery than in the agricultural villages.44

The story of child labour in the industry is grim. At Etruria, children were treated better than anywhere else, but in 1816, nearly a third were under 18 and worked a 9- or 10-hour day. At other potteries they often did 13 hours. Even by the time of the 1840-1841 Report on the Employment and Education of Children, juveniles, often as young as 5, formed an eighth of the workforce.4’ Boys were usually employed as mould-runners, which meant dashing from one building to another, all day, in all weathers, to put newly made wares near a stove for hardening and then returning with an empty mould. Smaller children were put to being ‘jigger turners’, who worked raw clay to the necessary puttylike consistency. Girls were being used as ‘paintresses’ from the age of 8 even in 1862.46 And the plight of the child chimney-sweeps used in the maintenance of all those ovens was as acute as anywhere in Britain.47

The grievances of the pottery workers were that they were not paid unless the pieces they had made were taken ‘good from oven’ and that deep job insecurity resulted from the journeyman system, where skilled men were hired on a singleday basis, and from annual bouts of hiring and firing. The predicament of the pottery workers led to a high level of political consciousness and unrest even in the 18th century, but it was the aftermath of Peterloo in 1819 which gave the union movement its first impetus. The area between the Potteries and Manchester was known to house the early union organisation called the ‘Philanthropic Hercules’, taking its example from the symbolic uses of Hercules as a symbol of the labouring man amongst French revolutionaries.48 By 1818 this Hercules had issued a handbill in the last days of the Manchester spinners’ strike, calling for the formation of a Philanthropic Society to which all trades would affiliate. After the Peterloo massacre a mass meeting was held at Hanley, chaired by pottery owner William Ridgway, an example of the alliance between the industrial working and middle classes against the aristocracy.49

The Journeyman Potters’ Union was formed in 1824, with a smaller one for the pottery printers; the Potters Union, with 54 Lodges, had emerged by 1836, when there was a strike, lockout and widespread Chartist activism.’0 In the riots of 1842, miners and potters inspired by the ‘Chartist rhymer’ Thomas Cooper, also discussed in Chapters 13 and 20, took joint action.’1 Of the 20,000 participants nearly 700 prisoners, including 12-year-old boys and girls, were arrested and incarcerated in Stafford Gaols. The 1860s proved a turning-point, especially after the extension of the Factory Acts to cover potworks in 1864; regulation from central government agencies then began to change life in Staffordshire. A few measures were taken to reduce the effect of the black smoke.’2 Things improved again by 1921, when the bottle kilns had been replaced by cleaner gas-fired tunnel ovens.53

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