Monday, August 31, 2009

The Gladstone Pottery Museum - Part One

The Gladstone Pottery Museum is in Longton and is the site of the former Gladstone China Works. It is also about 20 minutes walk away from where I live. I first visited it in the early 1980s when I was on an Open University summer school at Keele University and we were taken to the museum on a coach. I never imagined as I wandered around that I would one day live nearby and even, for a short while, work there.

I find it a fascinating place to visit and even more so now that lots of new features and exhibitions have been added to the tour. It isn't a famous pottery works like Spode or Wedgwood but like many other factories working at the same time it produced every day items for the mass market. Above you can see the main courtyard with the bottle kilns or 'pot banks' as they are called in Stoke in the back ground and foreground.

I took this photo inside one of the bottle ovens - you can walk between the outer and inner layer of the structure. The outer layer is called the 'hovel' and acts as a chimney taking the smoke away and protecting the inner layer or 'kiln proper' from the weather. This walkway is where the fireman would stoke the fires under the inner kiln where all the pottery had been stacked in the protective saggers to fire the clay.

This was hot, dirty and back-breaking work. Everything depended on the fireman doing his job properly if the firing was stopped too early or carried on to long the china would be ruined. The doorway through which the saggars were inserted and then collected after firing was called a 'clammins' or 'wicket'. This was bricked up during firing.

The workers were made to go into the really red hot atmosphere to remove the fired china as soon as possible. The kilns were fired once a week and were supposed to be left for 48 hours to cool but many would open them up after 24 hours. The men who did this job would suffer ill health including burned skin and eventually many would die of heart attacks because of the intenseness of the heat endured whilst doing the job.

There are many other original workshops in the factory including one for the making of the saggars, the fire clay boxes used to hold the wares whilst they were being fired in the kilns. The saggar maker was a skilled man using his thumbs to join the sides and base of the saggar. His assistant, usually a young boy, was the 'saggar maker's bottom knocker'. He made the base of the saggar by knocking the fire clay into shape with a wooden mallet or 'mawl'.

Above is the mould making workshop full of the moulds for forming the china wares. Young boys would be employed as ' mould- runners' and spent their day running backwards and forwards at great speed with new moulds and fresh clay. This was exhausting work.

This is the clay throwing workshop. Here visitors can make a pot on the potter's wheel and have it boxed to take home.

A new addition to the Museum over the last couple of years has been The Doctor's House where factory workers would visit if they became ill, which they often did. Disease was rife as the potters worked in such a hot, smoky atmosphere. Silicosis and plumbism were the most hazardous conditions suffered by the workers. Silicosis affected the lungs and was caused by the fine particles of dust or silica which came from the dried, fired clay, this disease was known locally as 'Potter's Rot' and the 'fettlers' and 'scourers' were most prone to this.

Plumbism was caused by the lead in the glaze given to the pottery after its firing so the 'dippers' who were most likely to contract this were the highest paid workers in the factory - their life-expectancy was no more than 40 years.

The dipper's would take Epsom salts and drink milk to line their stomachs. Also at risk were the decorators, mostly women, known as 'paintresses' and especially the ones who worked with majolica wares where the lead content was almost 60% , as they would lick their brushes to straighten and fine the bristles. Eventually, towards the end of the 19th century various Factory Acts were brought in to tackle some of these problems by raising the age at which children could be employed in some of the more dangerous areas of the factory and introducing ventilation and exhaust fans to the factories.

I think that is enough for one post so there is more to come in part two.


  1. Fascinating post Rosie. I never imagined that making pottery could be so hazardous.

  2. It's incredible what a hard work there's behind our beautiful pottery. Thank you for telling us about it!

  3. An interesting post Rosie, I've heard of a 'saggar makers bottom knocker' but have never known quite what the job description meant. So many of the jobs in the industrial revolution took a heavy toll on the workers' health and many thouands must have suffered horribly before finally succumbing to the diseases caused by their working conditions.

  4. What a great post Rosie. It sounds as bad as "working darn pit"!! I love the job title though!! I'm like you and love Industrial history - and the related architecture that goes with it.

  5. A lovely post, we were just talking about the Museum the other day. Its been a few years since we went so we might do the Victorian Christmas night again. I also think its very good value for money. looking forward to the next one.

  6. This lovely museum is a little gem.
    I love the shop also!

  7. Thanks for taking me around this museum. It looks very interesting. It really isnt that far from me either so I must go sometime. I would love to have a go on the potter's wheel.

  8. So interesting. The conditions that workers of that era labored under is appalling. Life was so difficult on so many levels back then. Makes me really appreciate our modern day working conditions.

  9. That was very interesting and I visited there many, many years ago in the early 1980's also.

  10. Hi Rosie, I find it such a pleasure to read and learn from your amazing post and I always enjoy your beautiful photos that show me what it is like to be there.
    Its sad to think of the people who gave their lives in the making of the pottery... thankfully we have learned over the years to do things differently.