General State of Industry - Pottery

The earliest utensils in this country were made of wood, and it was not until the seventeenth century that there was any great demand for earthenware; a demand that at first was mainly supplied from abroad.

Delft, in Holland, was the great producer of earthenware, but the presence of good clay in Staffordshire had made it the home of pottery, and very early in the seventeenth century most of the varieties of earthenware in common use were made. The ware was of a very common description, mostly butter-pots, basins, jugs, porringers, and such like. However, the Staffordshire potters soon imitated the foreign ware and began to capture the home market. The industry centred in Burslem, with an offshoot in Hanley. In the parish of Burslem there settled about the year 1600 one Gilbert Wedgwood, and it is said that by the end of the seventeenth century one-third of the inhabitants bore this name.1 Gilbert became the ancestor of a long line of potters who, however, increased their resources by other means.2 In 1715, Thomas Wedgwood, the grandfather of Josiah, was a master potter, and a glance at the industry as it then stood is illuminating.

In a valuable document drawn up by Josiah in 1776 from original papers the following details are given:

" Men necessary to make an oven of black and mottled, per week, and other expenses:

3 men at 4S. per week and 3 at 6s1100
4 boys at. 1S. 3d.50
1 cwt. 2 qrs. Lead Ore at 8s120
Clay 2 cart loads at 2s40
Coals 48 Horse loads at 2d80
Carre of do at 11/2d60
Rent of works at £5 per annum20
Wear and Tear of ovens, utensils, etc. £10 per annum40
Straw for packing 3 Thraves of 24 sheaves to the thrave at 4d10
The Master's Profit besides 6s. for his labour100
At this time (1710-15) there were in Burslem forty-three pot works, the largest output of which was £6 per week, and the total weekly output £139 10s., making a yearly total of £6,417.4 Moreover Burslem was so much the centre of the pottery industry that there were few pot works elsewhere.5 Here then we have a small industry which, though it flourished on the Continent and was there organized as a craft gild,6 never seems to have reached that state here. The probable explanation of this is that wooden platters for the very poor, and metal utensils of baser or richer metal for the wealthier classes, sufficed in days when road transport was so bad as to endanger any frailer vessels.

This suggestion is supported by the fact that though the pewterers,7 silversmiths, and glassmakers 8 are mentioned in the Statute of Apprentices the potters are not included. Nevertheless, the trade seems to have imitated the organization of the rest of industry as a matter of convenience, for it was considered the normal thing to serve an apprenticeship of seven years as in other trades.9 No large capital was as yet embarked in this trade, but it was free of all restrictions and was capable of easy expansion.

The state of the roads made progress difficult in an industry whose product was so fragile. Wedgwood himself, describing the state of things in 1715, said " only one horse and one mule kept at Hanley. No carts scarcely in the Country. Coals carried on men's backs. Hanley Green like Wolstanton Marsh."

The general state of the pottery districts was bad; the houses of the workers were thatched hovels, sometimes covered with mud, everything was coarse and unwholesome. Ale-houses abounded, and it was the ale-houses that were the best customers for earthenware. Bull and bear- baiting continued right down to the opening of the nineteenth century.10 Wesley was stoned at Burslem when he preached in 1760.11

The usual pot work was carried on by a man and a labourer, or a man and his family. The son dug the clay, the man fashioned and fired the ware, mother and daughters filled the panniers on the horse's back. The potters themselves then travelled with their pack-horses through the country to fairs and markets to sell the products of their toil. The potfairs of to-day remind us of the infancy of this industry. It is easy to see that an industry of this type would naturally and easily increase in size with an improvement in transport and a development of demand.

In pottery, as in many other industries, we owe much to the immigration and knowledge of foreigners. The most momentous innovation of the seventeenth century was the introduction of the salt glaze by two brothers called Eler, who followed the Prince of Orange from Delft. They produced fine red and black ware, more delicate in execution and better in glaze than the native product. They conducted their works with great secrecy; idiots were employed at the thrower's wheel in preference to normal workmen. These precautions excited the curiosity of the Burslem potters. Anything was justifiable against foreigners, and a man called Astbury, pretending to be an idiot, obtained employment and worked with the Elers for two years, and discovered all their secrets. Another potter called Twyford also obtained the same knowledge. Both set up pot works of their own. Astbury was the more successful and made frequent journeys to London, where he sold his ware and obtained further orders. The Elers, disgusted with the treatment they had received, left Burslem for London, where they connected themselves with a firm of Venetian Glass Makers, and remained the best potters in England till Josiah Wedgwood displaced them. Astbury did much for the pottery industry, his inventions include the use of flint in white-ware and other improvements, while in enlarging the market he rendered yeomen service to the growing trade.

1 Smiles, Josiah Wedgwood, p. 7.

2 Dr. Thos. Wedgwood at the end of the seventeenth century combined farming with pot-making while his son was innkeeper.

3 E. Meteyard, Life of Wedgwood, Vol. 1, p. 190: Wedgwood adds that " the wear and tear, Master's Profits, and some other things are rated too high; £4 per oven-full is thought to be sufficient or more than sufficient for the black and mottled works of the largest kind, upon an average as the above was a large one for those times."

4 Forty-six weeks to the year. E. Meteyard, Wedgwood, p. 191.

5 Ib., p. 192. There were only seven potters at Hanley and two at Stoke.

6 Potters of Paris, 1456. Unwin Industrial Organisation, p. 46.

7 5 Eliz., Cap IV, 2.

8 5 Eliz., Cap IV, 5.

9 Aaron Wood was apprenticed to Dr. Thos. Wedgwood in 1731 for seven years. When his apprenticeship expired he was engaged for five years as a journeyman at five shillings a week.

10 Smiles, Wedgwood, p. 11, 12.

11 Wesley's Journal, March 9, 1760, Vol. 1V, p. 370.

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