Andrew McGarva tells us in his read-me-again book, Country Pottery: Traditional Earthenware of Britain published a dozen years ago, that a boy (no girls allowed)* signing on for an eight to ten year apprenticeship had to agree to certain standards of behavior: no fornication but no marriage either; no card playing nor haunting of taverns or visiting playhouses. There was, however, a long workday, with little time for such temptations. At Ewenny in the south of Wales, the apprentice’s day began at eight in the morning and ended at seven in the evening on weekdays and at four on Saturdays. This was typical.
A potter himself, McGarva defines country pottery as that made in the rural areas of the UK from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. Sadly, by World War II, many of the potteries had been demolished or converted to other uses. A few persisted with a handful continuing to this day, though some that were in operation when he published the book in 2000, such as the steam-powered Wetheriggs at Clifton Dykes have since closed. Fortunately, Wetheriggs is now a museum.
He looks at the pots and the subtle difference between their shapes from one pottery to another. There are horticultural wares including flowerpots, strawberry pots, rhubarb forcers, seedpans and even pigeon nesting bowls and chimney pots. And there pots for domestic and dairy use: pancheons, wash tubs, mixing bowls, colanders, bread crocks, baking dishes, ham pans, salt pigs, poultry waterers, pipkins, bottles and more.
Reveling in the robust beauty of these old pots he writes, “… any potter can see that what these old potters made best, with skill and spontaneity, were the ‘ordinary” pots for everyday use. Through their simplicity and directness, they represent a honed tradition of functionalism: design of the kind where nothing superfluous exists. Plain pots have a tendency to be valued only when sufficiently distanced in time, place of origin or rarity. A continuation of tradition is less noticed than innovation or change.”
There are wonderful old photos of these potteries, clusters of brick buildings with tiles roofs, men stacking the huge round kilns or throwing on their wheels. One whole chapter is devoted to A. Harris & Sons, Farnham Potteries, Wrecclesham (now closed), which had the last bottle kiln to be fired in England. It was still in use in the late seventies. Another is devoted to Soil Hill and the legendary Isaac Button and includes a floor plan of his shop.
The last chapter is a hopeful “In the Footsteps of the Country Potters.” Happily, most of the potters listed are still making pots.
* Women in the family might deal with the business aspects of the shop, such as writing out invoices, especially if their husband was (not atypically) illiterate. On occasion, a woman took over the running of the shop after the death of her husband. This was true at Wetheriggs, which Margaret Thornburn ran after her husband died.