This is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared in the magazine Industrial History, Spring 1977, with no mention of the author’s name. If anyone knows contact details for the author or publisher will they please get in touch with me at the address on the homepage.
Click here to watch a YouTube video of the pottery at work.
A short history
Wetheriggs is one of the very few surviving country potteries still producing traditional earthenware pottery. It was scheduled in 1973 as an Ancient Monument. Many tile-works were built in the Lake District in the 19th century, to make pipes for land drainage, and Wetheriggs was one of these. It was developed in the middle of the century on part of Lord Brougham’s estate, where there was a seam of red clay and the Eden Valley railway could bring coal and take away the pottery’s products.
Wetheriggs made kneading bowls for dough, bread crocks, barm pots for yeast for baking and brewing, barley wine flagons, syrup jars, vinegar bottles, milk and cream bowls, butter churns and pots, baking dishes, starch pans, tea-bottles for railwaymen, chamber pots, hen-feeders, beetle-traps, flower pots, animals feed troughs, and bricks, tiles and drainpipes.
The decline of earthenware potteries began in the last (19th) century. With urbanisation, fewer people made their own bread and brewed their own beer. Moreover craftsmen found it hard to compete with factories; mass production brought the price of china down. At the beginning of the present (20th) century there were still over 100 earthenware potteries left in England. However by 1945 there were under a dozen left. Each of these served a rural area. But even farms gave up using earthenware when centralised dairies collected the milk, and farmers gave up making butter and cheese and curing meat.
In order to survive, Wetheriggs made an increasing amount of horticultural and decorated ware. Flower pots, crocus bowls, strawberry pots and decorated vases were popular, and wholesale orders were taken for these. Visitors were encouraged to look around the pottery, and the post-war growth in tourism kept the pottery going, through the sale of decorated mugs, jugs, vases, candlesticks and salt-pots.
Preparing the clay
Red clay was dug by two men, using picks and shovels, from behind the pottery and from nearby claypits. It was taken to the blunger by wheelbarrow, or horse and cart, and more recently in bogies on a small narrow gauge railway by a pulley system linked to the steam engine.
The Blunger was a steam-driven wash-mill to clean the clay of stones and sand. Blunging began in February so that the clay could dry in the settling pans in the summer. The tines on the rotating arms of the blunger broke down the lumps of clay into a liquid slurry with water from a reservoir behind the pottery. The cobbles, stones and sand in the clay sank to the bottom of the blunger pit, and the slurry was drained off into the settling pans via a long channel called the grip. The length and gradient of the grip allowed most of the remaining sand in the slurry to be deposited, and two screens sieved out floating matter such as grass and twigs. The sand and gravel were dug out and sold to builders.
The Settling Pans, or sun kilns, dried out the liquid clay until ready for use. As the clay particles settled, water was drained off, and the clay dried in the sun until the surface cracked but it was still damp underneath. A layer of sand on the bottom of the settling pan made cutting the clay out easier. The clay was chopped with a spade into pieces weighing 3 stones, called lifts, and these were barrowed to the claystore, or ‘dess’. The clay nearest the entrance to the pan was sandier, or coarser, and this was used for garden ware. A smaller settling pan was built in order to dry out the clay more quickly. Slurry was pumped from the corner of the main settling pan into this one, using s steam pump. Until the First World War there was also a boiling pan to dry the clay. This was a low-walled area of fireclay flags, approximately 60 feet by 8 feet, heated from below by a ducted coal fire. The slurry was barrowed up a ramp and tipped to a depth of six inches. Drying only took a day, and gave the best clay for use – it remained warm to the touch for several days.
The Pugmill. Clay was stored in the dess, where it would sour, or improve with keeping. Enough clay for a kiln-load of pottery – i.e. 350 lifts – would be pugged at a time. Pugging blends the clay into an even consistency and removes most of the air pockets. Inside the pugmill, the rectangular cast-iron box, a series of blades mounted along a revolving spindle compress the clay and force it out in a continuous length.
Wedging. One man’s job was to prepare the clay for the thrower on the wedging block, which has plaster surfaces to absorb excess moisture. Wedging is a rhythmical sequence of slicing a lift of clay, raising it above one’s head, and slapping it together. This is done until the clay has a fine, even consistency, and then it is cut into pieces with a wire and kneaded into balls for throwing, estimating the weight by eye.
The wheel was steam-driven. The speed-control pedal is based upon counter-balance, so it has a very light touch. A continuously moving fly-wheel transferred the power to the wheelhead by means of a leather-faced drive-wheel. Speed was achieved by pushing this to the edge of the fly-wheel.
The wheel was kept in use throughout the day; the thrower was supplied with balls of clay and he filled up 8 feet boards with pots of uniform size and shape. The clay was centred on the wheel and then drawn up into a pot, using the centrifugal pressure produced by the rotation of the wheel. The potter used his body weight to help shape the pot. The art was of minimum effort for maximum effect.
Before throwing big ware, a round bat would be stuck onto the wheelhead with a ring of clay, so that the finished pot could be lifted off the wheel on the bat. The 4 feet bread crocks were thrown in 2 sections and joined together afterwards.
Making a living out of pottery depended upon the speed of production, so designs were simple. A good thrower could make three 4-inch flower-pots a minute, and could throw a pot from 60 lbs of clay.
Most pottery was thrown on the wheel, but square and rectangular baking dishes were moulded. The clay was rolled out and either laid over a plaster mould, or placed in a hollow press-mould. The edges were scalloped with the thumb to leave gaps for the hot gases to escape when the dishes were fired face to face. For a short time tea-pots were made, using press-moulded handles and spouts, but it was difficult to compete with factory prices.
Until the First World War moulded flower pots were produced using a jigger and jolley. Balls of clay were placed into plaster moulds rotated by the jolley, and the jigger forced the clay into the right shape. This mechanical process allowed unskilled workers to produce large numbers of identical pots, which would nest inside each other.
The pottery was producing mainly pipes for land drainage, roofing tiles and bricks when it began, and continued to make these until this (20th) century. Clay from the settling pans was fed into extrusion machines near the pugmill, and in the gallery of the steam-shed. The clay was forced through dies into pipe, brick or tile shapes. These were cut off at the required length and dired outside in the drying sheds: open-sided buildings with racks. Firing was done in two Newcastle-style kilns which lay on the east side of the beehive kiln; this wall is particularly thick because it formed part of the brick kilns.
Fettling is the word used for the processes between throwing and firing the pottery. The day after throwing the pots are firm enough to be picked up, wiped free of any irregularities, and stamped with the pottery’s mark. Strap handles for big ware such as bread crocks were pulled from a lump of clay and attached with slurry. Handles for jugs and mugs were rolled out into sausage shapes.
Before firing, pottery has to be dried out. There are racks for drying above the heater benches which run the length of the pottery, and in the back of the kiln room. The boards of pots were moved around systematically to ensure drying at the right rate, and carried on the shoulder to the different areas for slipping, glazing and firing.
Decorating and glazing
Decorated slipware. Most farm crocks were not decorated, except perhaps for a few lines of white slip, blown out of an earthenware bottle through a goose quill, while the pot was still on the wheel. Salt-pots and pie-dishes were decorated with patterns, the slip being trailed onto the damp clay from a cow’s horn with a goose quill in the tip. Two designs were traditionally used at Wetheriggs – a feather, and a wavy line with fronds on it. Over the years these designs were simplified into a more abstract pattern.
White clay is less common than red clay, and was used to colour the pots where white was more practical, for example inside bowls and jugs. It was dried, powdered, and soaked with water in a barrel to make it a creamy liquid called slip. This was sieved, and ballclay was added so that the slip would shrink at the same rate as the red clay, and not peel off. pots were coated with slip when leather-hard.
As the sales of family pottery declined, more decorative coloured ware was made. The white slip was stained with copper oxide for green and cobalt for blue.
Feathering and marbling were two methods used to decorate pottery with slip. Pie-dishes were feathered by firstly coating the inside with slip, and then slip-trailing parallel lines across the dish in a different colour. Feather-like patterns were made by dragging a fine pen across the lines of slip-trailing. Marbling was done by dropping a pot into one slip and then flicking slip of another colour onto it with the finger tips. The slips could be made to run into each other to give a marbled effect by vigorously shaking the pot.
Glazing. Traditionally, clear glazes made from lead were used to seal earthenware and make it non-porous. Red lead was imported from Newcastle and mixed in a barrel with ball-clay, ground flint and water. The liquid glaze was used like a slip to coat the pots before they were dry. Lead glazes gave earthenware a rich, buttery colour on top of a white slip, and the iron in the clay body was drawn out to give a flecked appearance.
Beehive kilns are now rare. They are cone-shaped, like the old straw skeps for bees, with a 2 feet wide smoke outlet at the top, and a short chimney over this. The kiln was coal-fired: there were 8 fireboxes around the kiln. The arch bricks inside these fireboxes, the the throats – the narrow entrances from the fireboxes to the kilns – were replaced regularly. The bricks were cemented together with fireclay, using wooden arches for support. Long-flame coal was tipped from the railway wagons and piled in each corner of the kiln-room, ready for stoking.
The shelving and saggars in the kiln were made of a mixture of clay and fireclay, to withstand repeated firings. Saggars are boxes made by rolling out the clay and fireclay mixture, and forming shapes around wooden moulds. Glazed pots were placed inside the saggars during firing to protect them from the flames, and they were stacked up in the kiln.
Rings were made to prevent the glazed surfaces of stacks of bowls touching while firing. Fireclay was beaten into sanded ring-moulds with a saggar-maker’s hammer, and carefully levelled. Any uneveness in the rings would make it difficult to stack a pile of pancheons. Three-pointed stilts were used to life the bottoms of smaller glazed ware off the bottoms of the saggars so that they would not stick. Animals feed troughs were also made of fireclay, for extra strength.
The shelving in the kiln was filled with large pots such as bread crocks, egg-preserving jars, and large jugs. Smaller pots were placed in the saggars. As many as 60 pancheons were stacked on rings from the floor to the top of the kiln. Altogether it held 6000 to 7000 articles each firing, but it could hold as many as 20,000 plant pots when these were in demand in the spring.
The kiln was fired about 3 times a month, and big pots were stacked around it to dry out. The doorway was bricked up and the 8 fires were lit and stoked up gradually until they filled two-thirds of the fire-boxes. These were then bricked up, except for a gap at the top for stoking. The flames issued between the shelving in the kiln, and through a hole in the centre of the floor. Stoking was continuous, using about 6 tons of coal, until the kiln reached a temperature of over 1000 degs.C, in 30 to 36 hours. Draught holes between the firebox arch at the throat of the kiln were used during the later stages of firing to increase the length of flame in the chamber and to maintain an oxidised atmosphere.
In order to gauge the temperature, test rings were withdrawn from the kiln on rods, through spyholes. When the glaze on these rings fluxed, the kiln was ready to close down. Two spyholes were used; one in the doorway to test the temperature at floor level, and one at the back for the heat at the top.
The kiln had to cool slowly, over 3 days, or the glaze on the pots would crack. The fireboxes were bricked up to the top, and a heavy metal lid pulled over the top of the kiln to damp it down. After unpacking the kiln the cinders were raked from the fireboxes and sold to farmers for repairing farm roads. The pottery was stored in the warehouse, and packed for despatch in straw and hazel-wood crates.
Coal was used in the brick kilns, the beehive kiln, the steam engine, the boiling pan, and the drying flags in the pottery. It was also sold. There was a weighbridge for carts by the front gate. Coal was brought to the pottery up the siding between the kiln and the house until 1961, when the line was closed and the kiln ceased to be used.
The steam-shed housed an 8.5 h.p. steam engine which powered the blunger, clay bogies, pugmill, wheel and sawbench. It required constant stoking and was replaced by a diesel engine before the Second World War.
The blacksmith’s shop was used in the construction and maintenance of the machinery on the site, for repairing carts and shoeing horses.
The warehouse was on railway land, and rented for a nominal sum.
(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 05/04/20)