Archive for November, 2011

Thrower, turner, fettler, dipper.
Pugman, jollyer, sponger, jigger.
Mouldrunner, cod placer, saggar maker’s bottom knocker.

The weather forecast said rain, rain and then more rain, it meant we needed to find something to entertain the kids. Somebody had told us about the Gladstone Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent so we decided to go there. We hoped it would fill a couple of  hours. We ended up staying all day.

The museum is the last untouched example of a North Staffordshire potbank – the small earthenware and china works which dominated the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent for more than two centuries. The six towns – Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton – grew up close to the outcrops of tarry coal that provided the fuel for the bottle ovens which loomed over their rooftops and choked them with ash and soot. Life in the shadow of the potbanks was hard, as was the work within them. Entire families would toil for long hours in dangerous conditions driving the many complex processes that were required to make the wares.

While we were there my kids threw pots and painted vases and roses but the thing that struck me was the poetry. Thrower, turner, fettler, dipper; the names of jobs in the potbank have an earthy resonance, displaying a grim humour in the face of hardship. My favourite; saggar maker’s bottom knocker is the name of the boy who bashed out lumps of coarse local clay inside an iron hoop to form the base of the saggar, a large clay vessel used to contain the ware when it was fired. It was the saggar maker himself who paid the bottom knocker a weekly wage of a pound a week out of his own pay which could be as much as six pounds but the bottom knocker had little hope of earning more for the only route to promotion was through a dead man’s shoes.

Not that he had long to wait, up until as late as 1900 the average age of an adult at death was 46. Thick choking smog, flint and clay dust, lead poisoning and extreme heat from the ovens all took their toll on the workers but life started to improve in the late nineteenth century as various pieces of legislation were brought in to protect the workers. Finally in 1952, the Clean Air Act  forced the smoky bottle ovens to close and changed the landscape around Stoke-on-Trent forever.

The one at the back is a one legged dancer

And if you are wondering why she is called a one legged dancer it is because when small girls worked the large wheel to keep the potter’s wheel turning they would have to stand up high on one leg to reach the top.