As a general introduction, and to examine the wider picture, we should perhaps be made aware of the day-to-day working of a pottery such as Carlton Ware. One of the best means of achieving this is to refer to the novels of the celebrated Arnold Bennett who himself was a son of The Potteries. Some of his descriptive passages set in Edwardian Times no doubt echo the processes being carried out at the fledging works in Copeland Street. Also providence has supplied us with a film made at the works in the early 1950’s entitled “Pottery for the Modern Age” which shows practices probably basically unchanged from half a century before.
These two sources complement one another, the one without graphic illustration, the other without a sound track. Reference must also be made to the excellent Gladstone Pottery Museum, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent.
By kind permission of Stratus Publishing, a passage in Arnold Bennett’s 1905 novel “Anna of the Five Towns” (sic) eloquently sets the scene. Although the potteries comprise the six towns, for some reason, Fenton was excluded from Mr Bennett’s thoughts.
The others, briefly disguised, he refers to as follows:-
Burslem – Bursley (The mother town)
Hanley – Hanbridge
Longton – Longshore
Stoke – Knype
Tunstall – Turnhill
Also:- Newcastle-under-Lyme – Oldcastle
Leek – Axe
Anna Tellwright’s late mother had a fortune and under the auspices of her father’s Trusteeship, she inherited £50,000 on coming of age at 21. The bounty was mainly in shares and property.
The pottery business of Henry Mynors flourished, his order books were filled but an insufficiency of capital was the soul peril. What he wanted was a capitalist that would have faith in him. In Anna’s father Ephraim Tellwright, he would find that man. The shrewd miser of Manor Terrace.
On the pretence that her Father ‘had no money by him’ Ephraim offered Henry Mynors £2000 of his daughter’s wealth in anticipated interest and dividends. In due course a legal agreement was drawn up and Anna became a partner in Henry’s pottery business. Following this Miss Tellwright’s future husband Henry Mynors, invited her to come and look over the works.
Henry took Anna to the canal-entrance, because the buildings looked best from that side.
‘Now how much is a crate worth?’ she asked, pointing to a crate which was being swung on the crane direct from the packing-house into a boat.
‘That?’ Mynors answered. ‘A crateful of ware may be worth anything. At Minton’s I have seen a crate worth three hundred pounds. But that one there is only worth eight or nine pounds. You see you and I make cheap stuff.’
‘But don’t you make any really goods pots – are they all cheap?’
‘All cheap,’ he said.
‘I suppose that’s business?’ He detected a note of regret in her voice.
‘I don’t know’ he said, with the slightest impatient warmth. ‘We make the stuff as good as we can for the money. We supply what everyone wants. Don’t you think it’s better to please a thousand folks than to please ten? I like to feel that my ware is used all over the country and the colonies. I would sooner do as I do than make swagger ware for a handful of rich people.’
‘Oh, yes’ she exclaimed, eagerly accepting the point of view, ‘I quite agree with you.’ She had never heard him in that vein before, and was struck by his enthusiasm. And Mynors was in fact always very enthusiastic concerning the virtues of the general markets. He had no sympathy with specialities, artistic or otherwise. He found his satisfaction in honestly meeting the public taste. He was born to be a manufacturer of cheap goods on a colossal scale. He could dream of fifty ovens, and his ambition blinded him to the present absurdity of talking about a three-oven bank spreading its productions all over the country and the colonies; it did not occur to him that there were yet scarcely enough plates to go round.
‘I suppose we had better start at the start,’ he said, leading the way to the slip-house. He did not need to be told that Anna was perfectly ignorant of the craft of pottery, and that every detail of it, so stale to him, would acquire freshness under her naïve and inquiring gaze.
In the slip-house begins the long manipulation which transforms raw porous friable clay into the moulded, decorated, and glazed vessel. The large whitewashed place was occupied by ungainly machines and receptacles through which the four sorts of clay used in the common ‘body’ – ball clay, China clay, flint clay, and stone clay – were compelled to pass before they became a white putty-like mixture meet for shaping by human hands. The blunger crushed the clay, the sifter extracted the iron from it by means of a magnet, the press expelled the water, and the pug-mill expelled the air. From the last reluctant mouth slowly emerged a solid stream nearly a foot in diameter, like a huge white snake. Already the clay had acquired the uniformity characteristic of a manufactured product.
Anna moved to touch the bolts of the enormous twenty-four-chambered press.
‘Don’t stand there,’ said Mynors. ‘The pressure is tremendous, and if the thing were to burst -‘
She fled hastily. ‘But isn’t it dangerous for the workmen?’ she asked.
Eli Machin, the engineman, the oldest employee on the works, a moneyed man, and the pattern of reliability, allowed a vague smile to flit across his face at this remark. He had ascended from the engine-house below in order to exhibit the tricks of the various machines, and that done he disappeared. Anna was awed by the sensation of being surrounded by terrific forces always straining for release and held in check by the power of a single wall.
‘Come and see a plate made: that is one of the simplest things, and the batting-machine is worth looking at,’ said Mynors, and they went into the nearest shop, a hot interior in the shape of four corridors round a solid square middle. Here men and women were working side by side, the women subordinate to the men. All were preoccupied, wrapped up in their respective operations, and there was the sound of irregular whirring movements from every part of the big room. The air was laden with whitish dust, and clay was omnipresent – on the floor, the walls, the benches, the windows, on clothes, hands, and faces. It was in this shop, where both hollow-ware pressers and flat pressers were busy as only craftsmen on piecework can be busy, that more than anywhere else clay was to be seen ‘in the hand of the potter’. Near the door a stout man with a good-humoured face flung some clay on to a revolving disc, and even as Anna passed a jar sprang into existence. One instant the clay was an amorphous mass, the next it was a vessel perfectly circular, of a prescribed width and a prescribed depth; the flat and apparently clumsy fingers of the craftsman had seemed to lose themselves in the clay for a fraction of time, and the miracle was accomplished. The man threw these vessels with the rapidity of a Roman candle throwing off coloured stars, and one woman was kept busy in supplying him with material and relieving his bench of the finished articles. Mynors drew Anna along to the batting-machines for plate makers, at that period rather a novelty and the latest invention of the dead genius whose brain has reconstituted a whole industry on new lines. Confronted with a piece of clay, the batting-machine descended upon it with the ferocity of a wild animal, worried it, stretched it, smoothed it into the width and thickness of a plate, and then desisted of itself and waited inactive for the flat presser to remove its victim to his more exact shaping machine. Several men were producing plates, but their rapid labours seemed less astonishing than the preliminary feat of the batting-machine. All the ware as it was moulded disappeared into the vast cupboards occupying the centre of the shop, where Mynors showed Anna innumerable rows of shelves full of pots in process of steam-drying. Neither time nor space nor material was wasted in this ant-heap of industry. In order to move to and fro, the women were compelled to insinuate themselves past the stationary bodies of the men. Anna marvelled at the careless accuracy with which they fed the batting-machines with lumps precisely calculated to form a plate of a given diameter. Everyone exerted himself as though the salvation of the world hung on the production of so much stuff by a certain hour; dust, heat, and the presence of a stranger were alike unheeded in the mad creative passion.
‘Now’, said Mynors the cicerone, opening another door which gave into the yard, ‘when all that stuff is dried and fettled – smoothed, you know – it goes into the biscuit oven: that,s the first firing. There’s the biscuit oven, but we can’t inspect it because it’s just being drawn.’
He pointed to the oven nearby, in whose dark interior the forms of men, naked to the waist, could dimly be seen struggling with the weight of saggars full of ware. It seemed like some release of martyrs, this unpacking of the immense oven, which, after being flooded with a sea of flame for fifty-four hours, had cooled for two days, and was yet hotter than the Equator. The inertness and pallor of the saggars seemed to be the physical result of their fiery trial and one wondered that they should have survived the trial. Mynors went into the place adjoining the oven, and brought back a plate out of an open saggar; it was still quite warm. It had the matt surface of a biscuit, and adhered slightly to the fingers: it was now a ‘crook’: it had exchanged malleability for brittleness, and nothing mortal could undo what the fire had done. Mynors took the plate with him to the biscuit-warehouse, a long room where one was forced to keep to narrow alleys amid parterres of pots. A solitary biscuit-warehouseman was examining the ware in order to determine the remuneration of the pressers.
They climbed a flight of steps to the printing-shop, where, by means of copper-plates, printing-presses, mineral colours, and transfer-papers, most of the decoration was done. The room was filled by a little crowd of people – oldish men, women, and girls, divided into printers, cutters, transferrers, and apprentices. Each interminably repeated some trifling process, and every article passed through a succession of hands until at length it was washed in a tank and rose dripping therefrom with its ornament of flowers and scrolls fully revealed. The room smelt of oil and flannel and humanity; the atmosphere was more languid, more like that of a family party, than in the pressers’ shop: the old women looked stern and shrewish, the pretty young women pert and defiant, the younger girls meek. The few men seemed out of place. By what trick had they crept into the very centre of that mass of femininity? It seemed wrong, scandalous that they should remain. Contiguous with the printing-shop was the painting-shop, in which the labours of the former were taken to a finish by the brush of the paintress, who filled in outlines with flat colour, and thus converted mechanical printing into handiwork. The paintresses form the noblesse of the banks. Their task is a light one, demanding deftness first of all; they have delicate fingers, and enjoy a general reputation for beauty: the wages they earn may be estimated from their finery on Sundays. They come to business in cloth jackets, carry dinner in little satchels; in the shop they wear white aprons, and look startlingly neat and tidy. Across the benches over which they bend their coquettish heads gossip flies and returns like a shuttle; they are the source of a thousand intrigues, and one or other of them is continually getting married or omitting to get married. On the bank they constitute ‘the sex’. An infinitesimal proportion of them, from among the branch known as ground-layers, die of lead-poisoning – a fact which adds pathos to their frivolous charm. In a subsidiary room off the painting-shop a single girl was seated at a revolving table actuated by a treadle. She was doing the ‘band-and-line’ on the rims of saucers. Mynors and Anna watched her as with her left hand she flicked saucer after saucer into the exact centre of the table, moved the treadle, and, holding a brush firmly against the rim of the piece, produced with infallible exactitude the band and the line. She was a brunette, about twenty-eight: she had a calm, vacuously contemplative face; but God alone knew whether she thought. Her work represented the summit of monotony; the regularity of it hypnotized the observer, and Mynors himself was impressed by this stupendous phenomenon of absolute sameness, involuntarily assuming towards it the attitude of a showman.
‘She earns as much as eighteen shillings a week sometimes,’ he whispered.
‘May I try?’ Anna timidly asked of a sudden, curious to experience what the trick was like.
‘Certainly,’ said Mynors, in eager assent. ‘Priscilla, let this lady have your seat a moment, please’. The girl got up, smiling politely. Anna took her place.
‘Here, try on this,’ said Mynors, putting on the table the plate which he still carried.
‘Take a full brush,’ the paintress suggested, not attempting to hide her amusement at Anna’s unaccustomed efforts. ‘Now push the treadle. There! It isn’t in the middle yet. Now!’. Anna produced a most creditable band, and a trembling but passable line, and rose flushed with the small triumph.
‘You have the gift,’ said Mynors; and the paintress respectfully applauded.
‘I felt I could do it,’ Anna responded. ‘My mother’s mother was a paintress, and it must be in the blood.’ Mynors smiled indulgently. They descended again to the ground floor, and following the course of manufacture came to the ‘hardening-on’ kiln, a minor oven where for twelve hours the oil is burnt out of the colour in decorated ware. A huge, jolly man in shirt and trousers, with an enormous apron, was in the act of drawing the kiln, assisted by two thin boys. He nodded a greeting to Mynors and exclaimed, ‘Warm!’ The kiln was nearly emptied. As Anna stopped at the door, the man addressed her.
‘Step inside miss and try it.’
‘No, thanks! She laughed.
‘Come now,’ he insisted, as if despising this hesitation. ‘An ounce of experience – ‘ the two boys grinned and wiped their foreheads with their bare skeleton-like arms. Anna, challenged by the man’s look, walked quickly into the kiln. A blasting heat seemed to assault her on every side, driving her back; it was incredible that any human being could support such a temperature.
‘There!’ said the jovial man, apparently summing her up with his bright, quizzical eyes. ‘You know summat as you didn’t know afore, miss. Come along, lads,’ he added with brisk heartiness to the boys, and the drawing of the kiln proceeded.
Next came the dipping-house, where a middle-aged woman, enveloped in a protective garment from head to foot, was dipping jugs into a vat of lead-glaze, a boy assisting her. The woman’s hands were covered with a grey, slimy glaze. She alone of all the employees appeared to be cool.
‘That is the last stage but one,’ said Mynors. ‘There is only the glost-firing,’ and they passed out into the yard once more. One of the glost-ovens was empty; they entered it and peered into the lofty inner chamber, which seemed like the cold crater of an exhausted volcano, or like a vault, or like the ruined seat of some forgotten activity. The other oven was firing, and Anna could only look at its exterior, catching glimpses of the red glow at its twelve mouths, and guess at the Tophet, within where the lead was being fused into glass.
‘Now for the glost-warehouse, and you will have seen all,’ said Mynors, ‘except the mould-shop, and that doesn’t matter.’
The warehouse was the largest place on the works, a room sixty feet long and twenty broad, low, whitewashed, bare, and clean. Piles of ware occupied the whole of the walls and of the immense floor-space, but there was no trace here of the soilure and untidiness incident to manufacture; all processes were at an end, clay had vanished into crock: and the calmness and the whiteness atoned for the disorder, noise, and squalor which had preceded. Here was a sample of the total and final achievement towards which the thousands of small, disjointed efforts that Anna had witnessed, were directed. And it seemed a miraculous, almost impossible, result; so definite, precise, and regular after a series of acts apparently variable, inexact, and casual; so inhuman after all that intensely inhuman labour; so vast in comparison with the minuteness of the separate endeavours. As Anna looked, for instance, at a pile of tea-sets, she found it difficult even to conceive that, a fortnight or so before, they had been nothing but lumps of dirty clay. No stage of the manufacture was incredible by itself, but the result was incredible. It was the result that appealed to the imagination, authenticating the adage that fools and children should never see anything till it is done.
Anna pondered over the organizing power, the forethought, the wide vision, and the sheer ingenuity and cleverness which were implied by the contents of this warehouse. ‘What brains!’ she thought of Mynors; ‘what quantities of all sorts of things he must know!’ It was a humble and deeply felt admiration.
Her spoken words gave no clue to her thoughts. ‘You seem to make a fine lot of tea-sets,’ she remarked.
‘Oh, no’ he said carelessly. ‘These few that you see here are a special order. I don’t go in much for tea-sets: they don’t pay; we lose fifteen per cent of the pieces in making. It’s toilet-ware that pays, and that is our leading line.’ He waved an arm vaguely towards rows and rows of ewers and basins in the distance. They walked to the end of the warehouse, glancing at everything.
‘See here,’ said Mynors, ‘isn’t that pretty?’ He pointed through the last window to a view of the canal, which could be seen thence in perspective, finishing in a curve. On one side, close to the water’s edge, was a ruined and fragmentary building, its rich browns reflected in the smooth surface of the canal. On the other side were a few grim, grey trees bordering the towpath. Down the vista moved a boat steered by a woman in a large mob-cap. ‘Isn’t that picturesque? He said.
‘Very, Anna assented willingly. ‘It’s really quite strange, such a scene right in the middle of Bursley.’
Next time – Did Carlton Ware have their very own Mary Beechinor?