Bob Clough, June 2007

My grandfather left the army and started selling pottery. He bought in ware and sold it ‘on the stones’. His suppliers were Alfred Meakin, J & G Meakin, W.H. Grindley and Johnson Bros. After a while he set up a decorator’s works in Longton – an outfit called ‘St Louis’, and became a wholesaler. He stopped going to the markets, and employed a number of boys to sell the ware on his behalf. His business really started to flourish in the depression. If a factory went into liquidation, he would buy it, set it up again and sell it as a going concern.

My father Alfred was one of five brothers. He was the eldest. Then there was Aubrey, who was in the pottery business all his life: Ashley – the black sheep of the family -- who moved to Devon to run a clay mine the family acquired: Astor, who like Aubrey and Alfred worked in the industry, and Albert, who qualified as a chartered accountant.

I was the first person in the family to study the subject formally. I went to Leeds University and took a degree in ceramics. After I graduated, I worked at W.H. Grindley. I had been in and out of the potbanks since I was about eight years old. After tea on a Sunday, my father and grandfather would go into the study and chat about the business, and I would listen.

I started as an assistant manager in the dipping house (the area of the factory where glaze is applied to the ware). I had a spell in a number of different departments, until I was made the assistant works manager.

During the war there was a shortage of coal. It was used not just to fire the ovens, but also to run the steam engines – the source of the power for the factory. The shortage meant there was often only enough coal to fire the boiler until lunchtime.

This had obvious production implications. The boiler didn’t just provide the heating -- it ran the steam engine, which by means of belts and ropes, powered the jiggers and jolleys. In most cases the rope drive ran the length of the building underneath the windows, where the making machines were positioned for the best light. The maker would engage the drive to his machine by means of a knee-pad lever which pushed a pulley onto the rope causing his jolley to rotate. If the rope was ever cut, everyone suffered the consequences.

In the war there was a spirit of cooperation in the potbanks. The manufacturers would borrow workers from one another. If one factory grew short of labour, someone would be sent to them. At the end of the war, people had been sent so much from pillar to post that some employers forgot who their employees really were.

The potteries were transformed by modern machinery. The first independent electric motors were available in 1946. This was a huge technological change. It meant you could build semi-automatic making machines. British manufacturers – William Boulton, Manor Engineering, Servis Engineers – limited themselves to stand-alone equipment. German manufacturers took a different approach, and made machines that produced multiple goods. When we put in a new plant at Cartwrights, our machine could produce cups, mugs and plates four or six at a time, rather than just singly.

Cartwright and Edwards was originally a china factory. Astor attended the auction, and bought the factory for £54,000. One of its principal assets was a good gas-fired tunnel kiln. In a coal-fired bottle oven the intensity of heat varied from the centre to the outside ring of saggars (ceramic containers for the ware during firing). This outer row was known as the ‘first ring’.  Plates, saucers and hollow ware were placed towards the centre. The ‘first ring’ was generally made up with cups. China factories were mostly involved in producing dinner services and tea sets.  Firing a half-full kiln was pointlessly expensive, so saggars in the ‘first ring’ were always filled with cups -- far more of them than the tea sets and dinner services required. Instead, these cups were sold as ‘odd cups’. When biscuit tunnel kilns were introduced after the war, there was no longer a need to produce space fillers for the oven.

Suddenly there was a lack of cheap cups on the market. This was an opportunity for anyone equipped to produce them. We capitalised on this at Cartwright’s, and so did Staffordshire Potteries -- our arch rivals.

As late as 1961 W.H. Grindley were still firing five bottle ovens. The losses were tremendous.  The kilns had to be turned round in seven days. In order to do it, they had to be drawn (the ware had to be unpacked) while still quite hot. The placers --who were also responsible for drawing the oven -- had to unstack the bungs of saggars using a wooden step-ladder, known as a ‘hoss’.

They couldn’t carry the saggars in their hands, so they placed them on their heads. They wore flat caps with a roll of old stocking rolled into the shape of a doughnut inside.

The saggars were put onto benches where the girls unloaded them, placing the ware into large wicker baskets. The ware was still too hot to handle comfortably and a lot of damage would occur and this last stage. Overall losses at that time were in excess of 30%. I understand that in recent years, losses have fallen to less than 10%.

The Grindley backstamp changed while I was there. It went from the old-fashioned ship mark, to the G mark. It looked more modern, less backward-looking.

Earthenware has to be responsive to fashion. It is aimed at a cheaper market. It is not collected ‘for best’ and no one really expects to be able to replace broken ware -- unlike china or porcelain. This allows the manufacturers to be more experimental, and to produce shorter runs. But as you look around, you will see that while hotel ware is still being made in Stoke-on-Trent, the earthenware industry has gone.