Romance and Reality

I know that pollution from the coal fires of the Potteries in the Six Towns of nineteenth and early twentieth century England sickened workers and residents, blackened the sky, and left an ugly residue on windowsills. I understand that children – 4,500 under the age of 13 in 1861 – worked long hours exposed to clay dust and lead. I realize that this bustling hive of Industrial Revolution factories replaced rural country potters and their wares.

Yet I can’t help but get dreamy when I see images of the Potteries in their heyday. Oh, the teams of women in their long dresses pouring slip into molds for teapots and plates, the children putting handles on cups, the men stoking the coal fires and throwing at belt-driven wheels. The cobble streets and brick warehouses and deep marl holes! The energy and enterprise! I especially love photos of the “forests” of bottle kilns towering over the potbanks and residences. Yes, I like the “ovens” best.

David Sekers gives us a good overview in The Potteries. He includes numerous old photos and etchings of the work processes, interiors and exteriors of the buildings, and of the wares themselves plus maps and diagrams. He clearly loves the bottle kilns too, but does not romanticize. “A partly seasonal, rural craft based skill such as pottery making became a notoriously unhealthy occupation only as industrialization progressed.” Tasks were now divided and mechanized. Productivity was measured. Fortunes were made and lost by the factory owners.

I don’t particularly like the work that was produced. To me it seems cold and overly decorated. I like the strongly thrown country pottery it replaced. But it intrigues me that so many people dedicated their lives to pot making at Spode, Wedgewood, Staffordshire and all the other factories of the Potteries. The innovations that were developed in them are an important piece of ceramic history some of which are still used today. It is also interesting that so many women (and children) did this work, as women had not been potting in Europe for centuries.

So, thank you David Sekers for transporting me back in time for a little while to the Potteries of the Six Towns. And  a special thanks for all the pictures of bottle kilns.