'You had your worries but you had your laughs'

Margaret Dean (as told to John Ross), April 2007

Margaret (Mary) Dean initially worked as a paintress and subsequently as a forewoman at W.H. Grindley’s Woodland Pottery in Tunstall – now the site of a new Asda super-market.

She worked there almost exclusively from 1928 until the mid eighties, and gives a vivid picture of the times.

‘I was born in the Potteries in 1914. As children we would play in the Goldenhill area of Stoke-on-Trent. There were broken pots in heaps all around us. We would make a ‘poppy show’ of colourful bits we found – piecing the bits together and polishing them.

My mother worked at Alfred Meakin in Tunstall, but stopped when she had children. My father was in the pits at Kidsgrove, until a blow to the eye accidentally blinded him.

Back in those days, it wasn’t uncommon for families to look forward to, or even depend on, the money their children could bring in once they left school. I started work at the Lingard and Webster pottery when I was fourteen years old

Jobs were hard to find in the late 1920s. If you had a seven-year apprenticeship as I did, you did not have much to take home. From every ten shillings you made, one shilling was deducted to pay for the apprenticeship.  After a year I moved from Lingard and Webster to W.H. Grindley, where I completed the term of the apprenticeship in 1935.  I wanted the job at Grindley’s, so I turned up one day in my smartest clothes and asked for an interview with the manager, which took a lot of confidence. Both my aunts worked there. After some discussion the General Manager asked for my father’s name and said he would contact him. I got the job.
Life in the decorating department was busy and enjoyable. Grindley’s made earthenware for export. Most of it went to Canada. Our job was to decorate tea-sets. Changes in the designs were mostly about the width of the applied lines. Sometimes a project would come in, a teapot for example, and I would work on it with another girl. We were paid piece-rates – per piece completed. Some worked more quickly than others but quality of workmanship was critical.  Designs and patterns changed frequently. This allowed us to re-negotiate a better piece-rate with the managers. The designs and pattern books were kept in a safe. I remember pattern 2671 -- Hudson and Lawrence -- named after Hudson Bay and the Lawrence River. These were destined for the Canadian market. We dreaded a big freeze in Canada, as it meant short time work for us.
When I became a Forewoman, I managed a team of 15 decorators. I always wanted to get on. I took pride in my work and when I was promoted in the early 1960s, I felt proud of myself.

I trained apprentices and supervised the banding department. After lunch I would oversee the quality of the finished product. Alongside the backstamp there would also be a number -- ‘v1’ for example.  Every painter was allocated a number, from 1 to 15. The number had to be put on the base of any plate, cup or piece of ware you decorated, so if there was a problem, it could be traced back. If the manager saw some shoddy work he would say,  ‘Fetch number 14 down - she must have done that with a poker!’ If a girl was called up, she was ashamed, bad quality was not tolerated.

Often the girls would talk to pass the time of day. Sometimes they sang. One girl – Elsie -- sang for a local chapel, and if we were in need of a pick-me-up we’d ask her to give us a song and we would all join in. Elsie was a lovely character. I had another friend -- Maud -- who used to tell us all about the struggles of her daily life.
The job changed over the years.  In the early days it was tough carrying ware to the kiln – it could weigh half a hundred-weight. We transported it on our shoulders on five-foot long boards. Women worked in the decorating departments, other departments were almost exclusively male. We bought our brushes and knives from a traveling man who visited the factory now and then. It wasn’t until after the war that we no longer had to buy them ourselves. They were made from camel hair and cost a lot of money.
We mixed our own paints. We ground the colour until it was smooth enough to use. It was hard work. We carried on grinding paints until the mid fifties, when we started to be supplied with ready-made ones. Some items were painted free-style, others were decorated by using a wheel, which was much easier. We had lots of visitors from other countries -- especially China and Japan. They wanted to learn our techniques.  We used to joke that they would use our designs when they got home.
I took only a couple of breaks from work – first during the war, and then when I had my family. As part of the war effort all childless women were called up to work at Radway Green in the ammunition-making factory. Thousands of potters were in the same boat. I didn’t like it much -- it was hard and heavy work.
The first time we had a paid holiday at Grindley’s was the Jubilee of Queen Mary in 1936 or 1937.  Women were paid five and men were paid seven shillings. I remember giving the money to my mum. I was courting my future husband, Joe at the time. He bought me a manicure set with his pay.
For short holidays everyone would go to Blackpool or Rhyll in North Wales for half a day. The train would be packed and we’d have to stand all the way.

At Christmas we were allowed to decorate our work-room. We would put up mistletoe to catch one of the male managers. It was all taken in good fun.


I have always had faith - as a Catholic amongst a majority of Methodists and
Wesleyans I sometimes had to tread carefully at work. Generally we all got
along well. The various churches’ charity processions were wonderful. (For more details on this, see the essay by Helen Holmes). Everyone trooped through the town in bright new clothes.

When I started in 1928 I was paid 5/9 per week -- five shillings and ninepence. Twopence was paid to charity. A penny went to Dr Barnados to help the orphans. I’m not sure where the other penny went. I had a rise in wages after the war and by 1948 I earned  £3.50 per week.
Sometimes we were loaned to other potters: I remember being loaned both to
Wedgwoods and Maddocks. (See Bob Clough’s biographical essay.) They were the main pottery companies of my day.

My Auntie Annie Doyle worked at Wilkinsons, Middleport. She made clay samples for Clarice Cliffe. This was around 1929. I worked there for a few weeks, helping my aunt in the clay end.

I was a member of the Potters Union - there was only one union. It wasn’t compulsory to join, but most people did when they were young. Later on, I think it was in the 1960s, the union offered all its members an opportunity to renew their membership. Only three people did. I was amongst them. I thought that was a shame.

I finally retired in the mid eighties.