The Pottery Industry – A Brief History aimed at Key Stage 2

Pottery production throughout North Staffordshire began to develop as a cottage industry from around the early 1500s.



These early potters were really farmers, who, during less busy periods of the agricultural year began to make items for domestic use – serving dishes, plates, and drinking vessels, as well as items for use in dairies on their farms.


About 150 years later, around 1650, these potters, in particular those centred in and around Burslem, began making butter pots for the large dairy market at Uttoxeter. These were tall cylinders in which butter was packed at the market and then sent to other parts of the country. 


That is when pottery production changed from being a cottage craft into a more industrial activity – in other words when potters stopped making items purely for there own use in and around the home - and began making items that they could sell to others. These butter pots were the first items that were mass-produced.


These potters still divided their time between farming and making pots, what is known as ‘dual occupations.’ They would have been fully engaged in farming during the busier times of the agricultural year, such as sowing in springtime, and harvesting during July and August. At less busy periods they devoted more time to producing pottery. 


Before you read further what do you think this picture can tell you?


This picture dates from 1680 and shows a typical potworks of the time. It appears to have a combined living and working area, some of the buildings probably also being used to store farming equipment. In the centre is the oven in which the pottery ware was ‘fired’ to make it hard and less likely to break.


Those activities that could take place outside were done so, such as the weathering of raw materials, mixing the clay, and leaving it to reach as workable state, as well as allowing the finished pots to dry. It suggests a very small-scale, under-developed industry. The picture shows only one man mixing (also known as ‘blunging’) the clay, but the whole family would have been involved in the process. The father would have made the pots, his sons would have dug the clay, and his wife would have packed the finished items. The pots would have been sold to pack-horsemen who loaded the crates of finished items onto their packhorses to take to nearby markets.



Even during the 1700s farming still played a part in the life of the potter. The Churchyard Works, where Josiah Wedgwood was born in 1730, was a timber-framed building with two bottle ovens behind it. Behind these are haystacks, suggesting that a relationship between farming pottery production still exists. The picture also shows that both occupations took place in close proximity. Having a dual occupation was beneficial to the potter. If anything happened to his potworks, or if he was unable to sell his ware, perhaps if it came out of the oven cracked or broken, he still had his farming to support him and his family. This continuation of farming was still possible because of the layout of towns like Burslem, where there was still space available to continue farming, unlike in the larger cities that had become built up. Nothing can be seen of the work area itself except the two ‘bottle ovens.’ It’s not a factory, or ‘potbank’, in the true sense of the word as the pots would simply be made at a space at the rear of the house like in the previous picture.


The Ivy House Works, where Josiah Wedgwood first started out in business on his own, can be thought of as an early potbank. It stood in the centre of Burslem, between the road going to Tunstall and where the Town Hall would later be built. It consisted of one large two-storied range, the upper floor accessed by an external staircase. The six chimneys and three visible doorways on the ground floor suggest a number of internal divisions. At least one of the two bottle ovens in the illustration appears to belong to the works. When Josiah Wedgwood left the Ivy House Works he moved to….


…The Brickhouse Works which was a much larger complex.


Before you read further think what is different about this potworks and the Ivy House?


Here a number of buildings appear to form a courtyard. These, along with five bottle ovens were enclosed by a high wall. Potworks began to be built in this manner to form a courtyard so as to restrict access. This meant that it was possible to monitor movement to and from the premises. From the size of these works it is evident that the family craftsman stage had now been replaced by a master potter employing apprentices and other workers rather than relying just upon members of his own family.


The progression in size of the potbanks occupied by Josiah Wedgwood can be seen both as an example of the successful manufacturer and the growth of the pottery industry as a whole. The crude wares previously produced had by now evolved through experimentation into highly refined pieces using different methods, bodies and decoration. In addition to items used at the dinning table, ornamental pieces such as vases began to be produced. By the late 1760s Wedgwood had become so successful that he had outgrown the Brick House Works. He built a much larger factory at Etruria in which production could be maximised. 


The Etruria factory was built in open countryside just over a mile away from Burslem which by now had become built-up. It was positioned on the junction of the Leek to Newcastle Turnpike Road as well as the Trent and Mersey Canal. The canal was of vital importance for both importing raw materials and exporting finished goods. Six years earlier Wedgwood had complained about the local roads being in ‘a very bad condition, narrow in some parts, and in the winter season impassable in many places.’ The canal, in which Josiah Wedgwood played a part in having built, meant a safer and more cost-effective method of transportation. Remember, before the arrival of the canal finished goods used to be despatched on horseback.


High walls surrounded the factory at Etruria, except those parts that were bounded by the canal. At the entrance was a lodge so that movement to and from the premises could be monitored. The whole factory was designed to function as a co-ordinated production line. Raw materials were delivered to the rear so that goods slowly passed through the factory during their progressive stages of production until reaching their finished state at the front.


The potworks consisted of a number of different workshops that were each devoted to one specific task. Manufacturers, including Wedgwood, were keen to keep secret the whole process so as to prevent any workers learning the trade and starting competitive businesses. Restricting movement between the individual workshops, with the absence of internal doors, meant that a worker visiting another department would have to go straight to where he intended, rather than passing through a number of the different workshops. External staircases allowed people entry to upper floors with minimal access to internal areas, while also helping to lessen the spread of fire.


This division of the labour force led to the creation of many different jobs within the factories. The process began with raw materials being ground in the mill at the rear of the factory. Next they were mixed with water in the sliphouse to produce a liquid clay called slip which then passed through a series of sieves to remove any impurities. From here, still in its liquid form, the clay was pumped into a filter press where the water was squeezed out and the clay became a ‘doughy’ substance. It then passed through the pug mill where any air bubbles remaining in the clay were squeezed out, leaving the clay ready for use by the potter.


The clay could be made into pots in three traditional ways:

1) ‘Throwing’ on a revolving potters’ wheel in which the potter would ‘pull up’ a pot from a ball of clay;

2) ‘Jolleying’ where the clay was pressed onto a profile of the item it would become;

3) ‘Casting’ where a watery mixture of the clay, known as ‘slip’, was poured into a mould and used for items such as teapots and Jugs.


The next stage was the item would then be turned on a lathe to both remove any rough edges as well as applying certain types of ornamentation. Items such as teapots would have their spouts and handles added. Any other ornamentation was then added by hand. When the pot was complete it was placed in the oven or kiln to be ‘fired.’ This made the pot solid but very fragile and what was known as ‘biscuit ware.’ It was then dipped in glaze and then fired once more to achieve its final glossy finish and to strengthen the pot.


Each of these processes created different occupations – throwers, turners, jolleyers, casters, handle and spout-makers, kiln-placers and dippers. Decorated ware also created a variety of jobs including hand-paintresses, transferrers, lithographers and gilders. There were also a number of other jobs on potworks indirectly involved with the manufacturing process such as designers, modellers, engravers and printers. When an item had been checked to see that it was in perfect condition it would then be packed ready for dispatch. This again created a range of occupations including coopers, cratemakers and the packers themselves.


Workers were normally bound to an employer for a period of one year by a ‘hiring agreement’, issued annually each November 11th.  This too has an association with agriculture, being the feast day of St Martin, the traditional day that farm-workers would be hired from country fairs. To the potter, his hiring agreement meant that he could not leave his employment until the following November, although an employer could discharge his workers as and when he pleased. No other changes in conditions or wages could take place except at this day.


To help maximise efficiency Wedgwood enforced a set of rules and regulations at his works. Central to these was timekeeping. Punctuality and set hours would have been unusual to many potters, who had often worked whatever hours suited them, working longer between Tuesday and Friday so that an extended weekend incorporating ‘Saint Monday’ could be achieved. Wedgwood, however, would not tolerate such a casual approach. The bell that hung above the central façade of the factory was used to summon workers, as it had done at The Brickhouse Works.


Before you read any further do you know why a bell was rung to summon the workers?


Although clocks and watches were in existence they were still very expensive and beyond the means of most. The bell was rung at quarter to six each working day and chimed from six o’clock for ten minutes. Those that failed to arrive for work in that time were reprimanded, and anyone arriving later than 6-15 was locked out until the bell was next rung to signify the breakfast break at 8-30. This system was also employed at the dinner break at one o’clock, and for those working overtime when they returned from a break at 6-30.


Those who were regularly late were fined, as were those found climbing over the factory walls or gates after they had been shut. A similar system also regulated the behaviour in workshops with fines introduced for particular offences. Leaving waste in a room, bringing alcohol into the factory during working hours or playing ball games against any wall containing a window each attracted a fine of 2s. Writing on the walls, throwing in the yard or leaving a fire burning in a workshop overnight each attracted fines of 2s. 6d. More serious offences such as striking an overlooker or a manager resulted in instant dismissal. The Etruria factory was not unique. Virtually all other potworks were built around the enclosed courtyard plan and were governed by similar regulations.


Wages were usually paid in cash on a weekly basis. This was around 5 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon at the end of the working week. A lump sum payment would be given directly to the potter who was then responsible for paying his ancillary workers, such as mould-runners. These were young boys employed directly by the potter himself rather than the manufacturer to bring him clay to make his pots and then remove the finished pieces and take them to the drying room before being placed in the oven.


It became commonplace for manufactures to build pubs adjoining, or at least very near to their factories. Because of the system of payment the pub may have been the only place where a potter could obtain change with which to pay his ancillary workers. 

Other benefits of a manufacturer owning a pub were not only to satisfy the workers needs, but also those of visitors and travellers, many of whom would have delivered raw materials to the factory. If the factory was busy and people had to wait to unload goods then they would have taken refreshment at the pub. Many became hotels where salespeople and other travellers could find accommodation for the night, so like the factory itself, it’s a commercial investment and also part of the business. The Etruria Inn, built by Josiah WW, was also used by the firm for social functions such as the two half-yearly meetings of the factory’s fire brigade.


Why do you think a factory would want its own fire engine?


Less frequently some manufacturers paid their workers in tokens which were only redeemable at one specific shop, one normally in which the manufacturer had an interest. During the early 1800s there was a method of payment known as the ‘Truck’ system. This was payment in goods, rather than in cash, and could take the form of any goods that the manufacturer could obtain, usually from a bankruptcy stock, but was passed on to his workers at the proper value.


This was similar to what were known as the ‘Tommy Shops.’ These were provision shops owned by the manufactures, the more unscrupulous of which would inflate the actual value of the goods. Payment was then made in such provisions as flour, cheese, bacon, sugar and/or tea. The extremely unfortunate may have found themselves paid in only one commodity, such as flour or cloth. Another contention was the ‘good from oven’ system where potters were paid only for items that came out perfect after being fired in the biscuit oven. These methods of payment were considered extremely unfair and became the catalyst for a large strike in the pottery industry during the 1830s. By the beginning of the C20th these systems of payment had been abolished.


Due to the rapidly expanding population, and so as to have a workforce close at hand, many of the larger manufacturers began to build houses for their workers. Because the factory at Etruria was set in a rural location Wedgwood also provided homes for his workers. During the summer of 1770 103 houses were built along both sides of the main road at Etruria. The earliest surviving map of Etruria dates from 1796. The houses lie on both sides of the road with slightly more on the north despite not beginning for some distance from the factory. Also visible is the Etruria Inn, a group of dwelling houses that adjoined the works and various other buildings, including a farm behind the houses on the north side of the street. Another early map is an estate plan dating from 1826. All the houses with the exception of those that ran along the towpath of the canal and adjoined the factory had either a rear garden or yard, and the majority had their own individual outdoor privy. It also appeared that one of the fields had been divided into gardens and allotments for the residents. Gardening was not only a form of recreation but also a means of supplementing the diet. In periods of financial hardship the more laboured tenant would at least have had a supply of fresh vegetables.


Many manufactures realised that providing housing also acted as an incentive to lure those with the necessary skills. The rent was deducted directly from the workers wages, so these houses were also a commercial investment as well as an act of philanthropy. It also offered social control. The threat of eviction for an employee that neglected his duties or behaved badly out of work, therefore was not only confined this control to the factory premises.


The majority of the houses built by Josiah WW at Etruria originally had two downstairs rooms, a living room with a kitchen scullery behind, and two bedrooms above. They had earth floors, plain board doors, and windows of small panes of green leaded glass, some showing the bull’s eye formed when being made. The living room was the only room with a fireplace and therefore would have been the focal point of family life, with cooking, eating and entertaining all taking place in this room. The kitchen scullery would have been considerably smaller, housing a dogleg staircase to access the bedrooms above. Most of the dwellings opened out directly onto the street with a long yard at the rear.


These houses were by far a huge improvement on the homes of many. The original occupiers had probably moved from Burslem, where the majority of houses in the town during the middle of the 1700s would still have been of thatch and timber. However, not all houses occupied by pottery workers were of the same standard. During the middle of the 1800s the pottery workers houses at Cliff Bank Square in Stoke were described as being ‘very much crowded, the privies and middens are confined and dirty, and stand opposite the doors of the houses. Inside the square there are nineteen houses with only two connected privies and one ashpit common to the whole.’


At the same time in Longton ‘many houses were unevenly built. There were all sorts, sizes and shapes, and scarcely a dozen houses throughout the town were uniform in height, style and frontage. The closet, pigstye, coalhole and stable formed the foreground, along with a dunghill and ashpit. Many of the houses had ceilings so low that a 6ft man was unable to stand upright. Some cottages were built of mud and stone, had thatched roofs with primitive windows and doors. The bedroom and living room were one room, sometimes divided by a partion wall.’ This general lack of sanitation was not just confined to the homes. Sometimes a potworks might have only one toilet for all of its workers. This lack of sanitation contributed to diseases such as cholera and dysentery.


Meanwhile, the majority of the manufacturers, due to their newly acquired wealth, removed themselves from the squalor of the towns, either to the surrounding countryside or to one of the newly created suburbs. Blythe Bridge was one such example of one of these early commuter suburbs conveniently located to Longton by the railway. This was also echoed in the other pottery towns as well as other rapidly expanding centres of industry including Sheffield.



Many families lived on the breadline. Sickness and unemployment could have a serious effect on the family budget. Some potters were members of various sick clubs (there was no National Health). Health hazards at work were numerous: the hard work of shovelling the raw materials; the dust generated in the workshops which would contaminate the lungs; and the threat of poisoning from the lead used in the dipping process. Mould-runners would constantly have to go in and out of heated rooms, sometimes crossing a courtyard which in winter could be freezing cold, especially exposed to the elements like rain and snow.


During the 1800s children were a common sight of on the pottery factories. It wasn’t until 1864 that the first regulations were introduced to limit the age at which children could be employed. Before that there was no regulations over the ages of children, the hours they worked, or their conditions.


Growing from a cottage industry in which all the members of the family were involved, the arrangement was to some degree, automatically extended to the factory. Some families continued to work as a team. A list of workers at the Wedgwood factory from 1843 included a thrower called Pickering who was assisted by two females bearing the same surname.


Although this does not seem to apply to the Wedgwood factory, in some other factories it was not uncommon for children aged 7, and in some instances as young as 5 or 6, to be employed in the pottery industry. After the first regulations were introduced to limit the ages at which children could be employed it became the policy of the Wedgwood factory not to employ boys under the age of 11. However, if a parent wanted to find employment for their child to help with the family income they may have falsified the child’s age in order to obtain work. Also, through the system of sub-contracting, where a parent or other worker employed a child directly it may have been difficult to establish the true age of the child.


Children appear to have been treated more philanthropic at the Wedgwood factory. Rather than having to arrive before the other workers in order to heat the various departments, a large fire was already lit by one of the engine-men. This was intended for the use of the children to fetch a shovelful to start the fires in the various workshops.


Frederick Wright, aged 11; employed at William Adams, Stoke. “I can read and write. I went to school for 3 years before I came to work. I have been at work for Mr Adams 12 months as a carrier of moulds. I work for my father, George Wright. I come at six in the morning and leave at six at night. I get ½ hour for breakfast and one hour for dinner. I go home to dinner, get meat sometimes, sometimes taties. I like to come to work very well. All the boys here are well, I don’t know of any that are sick or ill.”


Susannah Wilcox, aged 10; employed at Allcock’s, Burslem. “I am an apprentice to Mr Allcock, as a burnisher. I have been bound for 12 months. There are 3 apprentices, and 30 or 40 young women working in the same room as me. There are 3 superintendents looking over us. They are very kind to me sometimes, but sometimes they give me slap on the back when I look off my work. That and a scolding is all the punishment I get. I never have to forfeit pay for breakages. I get rewarded sometimes when I’m a good girl with a penny, the burnishers give it to me not the master. I get 1s or 1s 6d a week and carry it home to my mother. She stays at home to look after the children. I can read and write a bit but not much. Before I came here I went to day school. I go to Sunday school now. I like my work very well and would not like to leave it.”


Before you read on examine the two statements. How old was Frederick when he started work?  How is he employed? How long does Frederick work each day? How is Susannah employed? What about her education?


Charles Shaw [Extracts from ‘When I was a Child’, 1903, in which he describes beginning work at the age of 7 as a mould-runner]. “My wage was to be a shilling per week. For this large sum I had to work from between 5 and 6 o’clock in the morning and work till 6, 7, or 8 o’clock at night, just as Jack [my master] pleased. The earlier hour only applied to Monday night as the potters had a devout regard for Saint Monday. This saint was the most beneficent patron the poor pottery children then knew. On the other nights of the week work was rarely given up till 8 o’clock, and it was followed until between 5 and 6 o’clock on Saturday. There was another part of a mould-runners business, not the pleasantest, which should be mentioned. The poor lad had to get a fire lighted in the iron stove so that work could begin by 6 o’clock in the morning. Woe to the poor wretch who had not got his stove well heated by that time. If this were not so, words and blows fell thick and fast, and rarely did any employer ever trouble himself about this matter…Every morning brought its peril for the poor mould-runner. I have seen sights of sickening brutality inflicted upon mere children.”


What is the difference between the descriptions by the first two children and those of Charles Shaw? Do all three of them like their work?


The first two accounts are taken from a government report into working conditions in the pottery industry in the middle of the 1800s by a man named Samuel Scriven. The manager would offer the use of his office to Scriven, and would have only have selected those children he thought would give a favourable impression. The manager may also have been in the room while Scriven interviewed the children and therefore they may have been afraid to say anything that would later get them into trouble. Some of the children interviewed by Scriven almost hint at enjoying working in the factories, which is the opposite of Charles Shaw. Scriven’s report is a contemporary account, while Shaw’s description is retrospective, written when he was an old man, although they both refer to the same time period. Always consider the nature of evidence.




Manufacturers, such as Wedgwood and Spode were not just interested in the business of production. In order to maximise efficiency raw materials had to be delivered economically and finished goods despatched safely. This necessitated their involvement in transport, such as investing money in the building of canals and improvements to roads. Many of the larger manufacturers provided homes for their workers.


They also needed to provide accommodation for visitors, travelling salesmen and other business associates which often resulted in building an inn or pub.

All of these were commercial investments, so when you think of the business of a potworks think beyond the factory itself. The factory was the place where the pottery was produced but the business itself could contain many other elements. In that way the factory had a direct relationship with the development and appearance of the town in which it was located.


The success of the pottery industry also acted as a stimulus for subsidiary industries. Without the potworks there would be no need for other business such as transfer printers, glaze manufacturers and brickmakers. Coal mining would not have been so excessive, being the major source of fuel for firing the ovens of the potworks.