Potteries in Potterspury

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Extracts from Potterspury - the story of a village and its people

The Potteries

Our village was known in Domesday as Perie, but by 1287 it had acquired the name Potterispirye, suggesting that pottery was then a local industry of some importance. Direct evidence is lacking for those early potteries, as the earliest kilns known in the village are of a later date. However, their presence is attested to by excavated pottery of Potterspury type known to date to the 13th century. The Furtho Charity Estate papers between 1393 - l438 record evidence for the family name Potter, although these people were apparently of high status and unlikely to have been potters themselves.

The earliest pottery kiln so far uncovered in the village lay within the grounds of 102 High Street. Excavated in 1949 by Professor Jope, it has been dated to the 14th century. The excavation also yielded evidence for 15th century pottery, suggesting the presence of more than one kiln. The remains uncovered by Professor Jope comprised one small oval shaped kiln with a single flue, along with a large quantity of 'wasters' - the pots which went wrong during firing.

Excavations during the construction of Milton Keynes identified Potterspury ware as a dominant part of the pottery assemblage. It ranged in date from early to mid 13th century, was common in the 14th century and reached the height of production in 15th and 16th centuries. The pottery took various forms, including cooking pots, bowls, jugs, pitchers, skillets, bottles, counters, curfews, fishdishes, lids, pipkins, costrels and drinking jugs. The majority of cooking pots were undecorated, some of the bowls were internally glazed. Jugs were the most elaborately decorated, generally having glazed upper halves and slashed handles. The fabric of the pot is described as sand tempered ware, sometime with a thick grey core and a reddish pink or buff brown surface. The glaze is olive green or clear. In addition many of the kilns were producing roof tiles such as those excavated at the The Coachyard and 21 Woods Lane. Much of the wares produced show a remarkable degree of standardization, with plain functional items dominating. On sites such as The Coachyard up to five kilns have been found, suggesting a thriving industry in a workshop arrangement, somewhat akin to a factory production line!

In May 2000 another centre of kilns to rival Woods Lane was discovered at the west end of the village to the rear of 28 High Street and the site of a former slaughterhouse, in a field about to become a housing development. Here, five kilns spanning the 14th to 17th centuries were identified amongst vast heaps of wasters.
The newly excavated mediaeval kilns (of the 14th to 15th centuries) produced a range of jugs, bowls, cooking pots and green-glazed roof tiles similar to those produced at other kilns in the village. A large late 17th century kiln and its associated waster heaps, however, yielded a wider range of glazed jugs, cups, mugs, flower pots including ornamental urns, and an enormous number of large bowls and platters which had frequently been decorated with different coloured clay slips forming elaborate and ornate patterns. One such bowl is shown in our colour section. Many of the 17th century finds had not been identified previously as products of the Potterspury kilns and included such unusual items as water pipes, perhaps for ornamental fountains, and a unique example of a pottery button bearing a decorative device thought to be the 'fair maiden' symbol of the Worshipful Company of Mercers.

Generally, kilns were semi-permanent structures, round or oval in shape. The walls of the kiln were constructed with coursed brick and/or stone, with one or more stoke-pits where the fire was produced. Most were single flue up-draught kilns, with some double, opposed flue kilns such as that found in the grounds of the new vicarage. Phillip Mayes, who excavated the site in the grounds of the vicarage, has suggested that the late 17th century kilns in Potterspury were remarkably unsophisticated for their time; more advanced kilns had already been in use in the Midlands and north of England by the 1500s. He suggests that this 'adherence to a traditional kiln plan may have been one reason for the collapse of the Potterspury industry'. In other words, the potters failed to keep up with the times.
Once the clay had been dug from the ground it would have to be prepared. This was done by purifying it in water-filled pits - a process known as levigation, which allowed coarser, heavier inclusions to settle out from the clay. The local stream would have ensured a good supply of water for this process. The clay may then have been further worked on flat dry surfaces, sometimes with the feet, to mix in tempering material such as sand. This reduced the shrinking of the clay and gave it stability; it also meant less clay was required, allowing thinner pots to be made, which required less firing time. By the 13th century pottery was wheel-thrown and, once thrown, the pots would have been left to dry until tough and aplastic. This drying period prevented water in the pot forming steam in the kiln, which would lead to pots shattering. The pots would be loaded inverted into the kiln where they sat on kiln bars supported on a central pedestal which ensured good circulation of air and heat. A vent in the roof of the kiln allowed the gases and smoke to escape. The kiln fuel would have been either wood or charcoal.

Experimental firings on similar kilns have shown that firings would take up to approximately 10 hours during which the temperature inside the kiln could reach 1000íC. Six hours after firing the kiln would be sufficiently cool to allow the pots to be emptied. During the craft's heyday one could imagine a considerable cloud of local pollution hanging over the village. During excavation of the kilns in Woods Lane it was possible to determine at least 20 disaster-free firings. These were intermingled with some not so successful firings attested to by the presence of considerable amounts of poorly fired pottery sherds. There was also evidence of relining of the kiln indicating a protracted period of usage.
A by-product of this industry may have been the production of soap. A standard 18th/19th century recipe for this required 20 lbs of ashes and 20 lbs of tallow (usually mutton fat). By leaching water through the wood ash a substance called lye was obtained, which was strongly alkaline. The lye and tallow were mixed together, boiled for one hour and strained into a receptacle; when cold, this was cut into blocks of soap.

Potterspury ware has been found throughout Buckingham-shire, Northamptonshire and as far as Bedford. Almost certainly the pottery was taken to Northampton market where it would have been sold, and undoubtedly the proximity of the A5 led to the successful distribution. Potters would not only have carted their wares to market but traders would also have bought wares wholesale direct from the workshops. In the mediaeval period there were times when transport costs were as much as 25% of the purchase price, which explains why pottery was generally distributed very much on a local and at best a regional basis.

The first documentary evidence for an actual potter does not appear until the 17th century. This occurs in the Calendar of Ancient Deeds 1646, naming a Leonard Benton as a potter. A family by the name of Benton is recorded a generation later as owning property in Blackwell End and somewhere near the Cock public house. A second potter called John Stowe lived close by (he died in 1694). It is possible he lived where today's Cock car park stands, as anecdotes refer to pottery having been found here when cottages adjoining the Cock were demolished to make way for the car park. The recent finds in the field adjacent may well include John Stowe's work. John Stowe's will indicates he combined potting with small-scale farming for a living. It has been suggested that the kilns found in Factory Row in the High Street may have belonged to either the Benton or Stowe families.

The first printed mention of the Potterspury industry was published in 1712 by John Morton in The Natural History of Northamptonshire. In it he says,
'The earth of the potteries is found in Cosgrove field nigh Goldsbury Mill (this location has not been discovered). In some places there it lies next under the soil and is sometimes turned up by the plough. The depth of the bed is uncertain; it is scarce above two feet at most. It is a yellowish clay, dense and firm and free from mixture. Yet, notwithstanding its density, ware made of it is brittler and of less enduring nature than that of Ticknall in Derbyshire; tho' equal care and skill have been used in managing it, an effect which we may reasonably suspect proceeds from some salt embody'd in the clay. The garden pots made of it tho' never so wellbaked are very apt to scale, and be broken in pieces by foul weather and frosts; but being sized, that is, laid in oil, will abide the weather as well as any whatsoever, as the sellers of them say, but others who made the experiment have found it fail them. Nevertheless, it is the largest as well as the oldest pottery in those parts. Were our materials never so good, it is never likely to flourish very much with us because the way of living here is more expensive than in Derbyshire and Staffordshire, and the potters of those two counties who bring hither their wares upon little horses and asses, usually begging their victuals, do on that account afford their wares at such under rates as our potters here cannot live so well upon the trade.'





(c) 2012 Mark Russell - www.potterspury.org.uk

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