A decorator's life

Margaret Harrison, May 2007

I started work at Mason’s, Broad Street in April 1960. The potbank, in Hanley, was demolished in about 1999. I started as a trainee paintress.  For a whole year I practised painting strokes. I worked on ornate handles, with applied colour. It was a three-year training, and ten percent of my wage was deducted to pay for it. I was a journeywoman, which meant I was paid per dozen. Every finished piece had to be marked with a decorator’s mark, so that if there were any problems the ware could be traced back to the person who painted it. Some items were more enjoyable to decorate than others. I didn’t like over-complex designs – it affected how much you were paid.

This is the first plate I decorated.

This one is on-glaze, but actually I was an under-glaze paintress. Under-glaze decoration is applied before the final firing in the kiln, and means the colour is not vulnerable to being rubbed off. It is more practical for items that are being used every day. By painting on top of the glaze, you can get vivid colours that might not survive the high temperature a glaze firing requires.

I stopped working as a paintress in 1992.  I stopped work to look after my mother, but the industry was closing all around me, so there wasn’t much to go back to.

Until Wedgwood took over I loved my time at Mason’s. It had been Mason and Ashworth, but Mason bought George Ashworth out.  Mason’s finally closed in 2003. Wedgwood’s had been running it for nine years and by then many of the patterns I had worked on were obsolete. Wedgwood did the lithography and the transfer printing -- in fact they did almost everything in-house. We stopped being specialists.

At Masons, the work had been divided into departments, each with its own specialism. There was the mould-making department, the clay-end, casting shop, saggar-makers, glost-warehouse, biscuit warehouse, transferring shop and three paint shops: on-glaze, under-glaze and line.

At the start of the day we got clean turps and fat oil, and put them into teacups. We had a little tile on which to mix our paints. There was a powder for each different colour. If you put a saucer over your paint, it could last for several days. Towards the end of my time there, the paints came ready-mixed.

We had an allowance of five paintbrushes per three months.  Of course we needed more, but we had to buy them for ourselves. The brushes were made from animal hair, and were known as tracers, shaders and leafers. We needed different sizes of the tracers for different strokes.

When I first went to Mason’s there were probably twenty-four different patterns, each with a different rate of pay attached.  You also earned according to the ‘counts’. This referred to how many of a particular size of item would be paid as a dozen. Big plates were eight to a dozen, eight inch plates were ten to a dozen, seven inch were twelve to a dozen, six inch were fourteen to a dozen, five inch sixteen to a dozen, tea saucers eighteen to a dozen, and eggcups were twenty to a dozen.

The patterns I remember were Paynsley, Regency – this had a duck on it --Strathmore, Blue Strathmore, Manchu and Friarswood. I liked Friarswood. There wasn’t too much decoration, so the money wasn’t too bad. When the plates had been painted, we put them into a rack. You had to do one colour at a time. We worked by the ‘share’ -- something like two-dozen ten-inch plates, and two-dozen cups. You were expected to complete about three shares a day. When Wedgwood took over we worked off a truck, rather than by the ‘share’. We worked a ‘last-minute’ system, rather than a ‘dozen’ system. Wedgwood was interested in quick production, whereas Mason’s were perfectionists.

There were two managers, Mr Godard and Mr Jim. Mr Jim used to call us ‘the peasants’. He would say  ‘I’m just going to walk down and see the peasants’. We weren’t allowed to leave the benches when we were working. We worked an eight-hour day, with a half-hour lunch break. Saturday mornings were compulsory, we worked from eight until twelve.

My ex-husband also worked at Mason’s. He was a mould maker, and worked there until it closed. My three daughters worked in the industry too, one in the Mason’s packing department, and two at Beswick’s, where I also worked for ten years. One of my daughters was a decorator like me, painting animals. I used to paint the Beatrix Potter figures. My other daughter applied the backstamps. I am sorry the industry has come to an end.